How to Prepare your SEO for Machine Learning, Synonyms and Intent

If you’re a marketer who has an eye on constant improvement to keep up with SEO, you have most likely come to accept two facts:

  1. Google changes. A lot.
  2. People search. A lot.

In 2018 alone, a data scientist from Moz cataloged more than 3,000 algorithm changes. Before you freak out, know that most of these changes aren’t going to impact your site noticeably. They’re a blip on the radar in the world of Google’s daily search volume of 3.5 billion (yes that’s a “b”) searches a day. We live in a world where search has become a way of life, and our search habits are not slowing down any time soon.

However, there are occasionally more significant updates that come down the line, and you want to sit up and pay attention. Including the newest Google recently announced.

Say Hello to BERT

In late October, BERT began rolling out. BERT (short for the mouthful “Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers”) is the name for Google’s neural matching technique, which is the AI method to better connecting words to concepts.

BERT kicks in when searchers are typing in typically longer conversational queries. It’s designed to “help machines better understand the nuances of natural language.”

Google’s Shift to Understanding Synonyms and Intent

In 2016, Google confirmed its use of RankBrain, which is a machine learning component of its core algorithm.  RankBrain was designed to better help sort through search results, understand synonyms and surface more relevant content. It began Google’s evolution from a search engine to an answer engine.

BERT does not replace RankBrain. It’s another additive into the overall ranking system.

BERT is designed to significantly improve Google’s understanding of language, interpreting queries, and surfacing more relevant content. BERT is powered by machine learning and supported by new hardware that helps Google delivers results lightning fast.

Let’s take a look at this “before and after” BERT example Google provided:

Bert google search before and after

Google explained that before, they missed the mark of what the searcher wanted to know and instead provided general results about filling a prescription. Post-BERT, they were able to interpret the vaguely-stated question.

How Do You Need to Adjust Your SEO? 5 Recommendations

Really, Google is just getting better. Iterating. Its foundation hasn’t changed. Every time you search, the algorithms are:

  • Analyzing the meaning of the words in your search…
  • Matching your query to the content on the web (understanding what content is most likely to be helpful or reliable)…
  • In as many microseconds as possible

Google has said that there is nothing you can to do “optimize” for BERT. But there are things we marketers need to know to “adjust” to BERT and to continue optimizing our site and content to stay relevant:

  • Comprehensive Content Coverage Is a Must: I previously wrote how “vague and broad” just won’t cut it. Years ago when Google started changing, advice was given to “create quality content” and “write for users.” But what does that mean? I think a better way to look at it is to identify a topic/keyword/need and to cover it comprehensively. Get specific and get clear. One thing to note: “comprehensive” does not mean “lengthy” just for the sake of word count. The best, or most valuable result to a user, might not be a 5,000-word article. Google doesn’t care about content length. It cares about making users happy (and measuring those signals that demonstrate that content has satisfied that user).
  • Content Creation Has to be Part of Your Culture: It’s an SEO fact of life – it’s extremely difficult to rank a stagnant website belonging to a business that doesn’t have change, improvement, and growth built-in. I’m not saying you have to crank out 5 blog posts a week, but I am saying that the more competitive of a niche you’re in—and the more competitive the keywords you’re targeting are—you’re going to need content to help gain momentum and traction with longer-tail queries before you can rank for more competitive, head terms. The more content, the more keyword ranking and traffic potential you have.
  • Google is Getting Better, Faster—Are You. Is your site fast? Does your content load quickly? If you’re not aligned with Google’s obsession with speed, you’re going to get left behind. Whenever I begin working with an organization, I tell them to get their content writers ready, and to get their web developers ready, because it’s a given that we’ll be addressing site speed. Remember, Google doesn’t measure seconds. It measures micro-seconds. I suggest you make site speed part of your monthly conversations with your technical team and ask them to bring you recommendations. We need to be as obsessed with performance as Google is if we want to stay relevant and stay ranked.
  • Go Beyond the On-Page Optimization Checklist. Google still needs to look at specific parts of a webpage to pick up on what your content is about and to serve the correct keywords for the page. Continue to do your on-page SEO. But you must evolve from the complete dependence of on-page SEO (inserting your keyword into the right places) to prioritizing focus on the intent behind the keyword and meeting that intent and question with the most comprehensive and valuable copy and media possible. You have to do the best job – better than competitors – at providing the most helpful and useful information. When you do, your visitor will stay on the page longer, share your content on social media, and others who find it valuable will link to it. And that is how you win at SEO.
  • Got Schema? If you’ve been avoiding “schema markup” or “structured data” terminology because you’re not technical or you don’t quite understand how it works, I feel your pain. But it’s time to move forward and embrace these important concepts for your SEO strategy. Adding structured data to the back end of your pages helps Google understand your content. And anything we can do to make it as easy as possible for Google is a good thing. While there’s no direct ranking correlation, the benefits and association of structured data are valuable enough to make sure you’re having conversations with your technical team, and adding these implementations to your short-term SEO plans.

So what do you think? Were you affected by BERT? Do you even care? (If not I have failed as a writer/SEO.)

As always, iteration is the name of the game. Note the updates, adjust by adding new ideas/tactics into your monthly plan, and get back to your regularly scheduled marketing routine.

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Jenny Munn

Jenny is an independent Digital Marketer and SEO Consultant with more than 10 years of experience helping companies and content creators generate brand awareness, traffic, and conversions with SEO. She is a frequent speaker and is on the faculty for the AMA (American Marketing Association) and has taught SEO to thousands of marketers over the past 10 years.

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