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Google’s John Mueller on BERT and Rankings

Google discusses BERT algorithm and how that fits into ranking web pages.

Google’s John Mueller on BERT and Rankings

In a Google hangout, Google’s John Mueller answered a question about getting hit by the Google BERT update. Mueller discussed what BERT does and how that fits into ranking.

Hit by Google BERT Update

A publisher or SEO described a situation where they saw a number of sites get hit by an update. They said that it seemed like about more than intent.

Mueller didn’t comment on search intent. His answer focused on what BERT actually does and what BERT related ranking issues really are.

This is the question that was asked:

“We’ve seen some websites that were hit by Google BERT update and they still have not recovered. Was that update only about intent? Because it seems like it was about more.”

John Mueller responded that BERT is not an update that suddenly changes rankings.

“So, BERT is essentially a web of better understanding text. It’s not a ranking change in that sense.

It’s not an update… kind of an algorithm update that suddenly we rank things differently.”

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What Mueller appears to be communicating is that BERT is not a part of ranking.

Then he explains what BERT really is:

“But it’s really about understanding text.

So it means that we work hard to understand when people enter queries in the the search results. In particular when these are long queries where we need to understand what is the context here, what is something that people are actually searching for within this query.”

Mueller explained that BERT is particularly about making sense out of long search queries. People are increasingly speaking search queries and in some cases those are longer questions.

The role of BERT, which Mueller explained, is to help make sense out of those search queries.

Mueller continues, now explaining how BERT helps Google understand web pages:

“And when it comes to pages themselves we try to figure out what are those pages actually about and how do those pages map to those specific queries that we’ve got.”

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Related: Google BERT Update – What it Means

How to Understand Google BERT

A way to think about what’s happening with BERT is that it’s a way to better understand web pages and search queries.

Maybe a way to understand BERT is by an analogy.

I wear glasses because I can’t see objects that are far away. Without my glasses I am unable to read the freeway road signs. With my glasses I can read the signs and understand when I need to slow down and prepare to exit.

So, BERT can be thought of as playing the role of making search queries and web pages more understandable.

Being able to see does not play a role in my decision to take one exit over the other. I know which exit I’m looking for. My glasses only help me to see the exit.

Similarly, BERT doesn’t play a role in the ranking process. It’s just interpreting web pages and queries, like my glasses enable me to interpret the road signs.

This is what John Mueller said:

“So it’s not a ranking change per se. It’s really about understanding the text on the page and the text that people enter in the queries.

And from that point of view, it’s not that websites get hit by this update. It’s really that we’re trying to understand what these pages are about.

And if these pages are such that it’s really hard to understand what they’re about, then users will have trouble with them and our search engine will also have trouble with them.”

Related: BERT Explained: What You Need to Know About Google’s New Algorithm

Suspect You Are “Hit” By Google BERT Update?

Now Mueller explains that what publishers think of as being “hit” by a BERT update, it’s usually something else.

What John Mueller said:

“Usually in the cases I’ve looked at where people say they were hit by this kind of update, it’s more that there were just general changes in search over time that also took place, and we make changes in search all the time.

So it’s not necessarily the case that because Google understands the pages better we suddenly decided to kind of penalize a set of individual pages.

Because we’re trying to understand these pages better, not try to understand what things people are doing wrong.”

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Takeaways

According to Google’s John Mueller, BERT shouldn’t be thought of as a ranking algorithm. He encourages publishers to think of it as a way to better understand search queries and web pages.

According to the official BERT announcement in October 2019, BERT affected 10% of search queries, particularly conversational queries, as I mentioned above.

Here’s what the announcement said:

“Particularly for longer, more conversational queries, or searches where prepositions like “for” and “to” matter a lot to the meaning, Search will be able to understand the context of the words in your query. You can search in a way that feels natural for you.”

Mueller’s answer is helpful because it clarifies that BERT is something apart from the ranking part of the algorithm and that it doesn’t target web pages for things that they’re doing wrong.

His answer also encourages publishers to look to other reasons why a page might have lost rankings, reasons beyond BERT.

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Watch John Mueller answer the question:

Citations

Original BERT announcement
Understanding Searches Better than Ever Before

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