A Google Update is Coming to Better Understand Speech. Here Are 3 Ways it Affects Your Practice

Google Update “One of the Biggest Leaps Forward in Search”

Late last week, Google announced upcoming changes to Google Search that will affect up to 10% of searches in the United States. 

The Google update is not an algorithm change per se, so businesses doing SEO shouldn’t be worried about a drop in their rankings – provided that they have been doing SEO the right way.

The change, which Google will begin rolling out to users in the United States in the coming weeks, is called BERT, which is short for “Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers.”

Sorry, we're not talking about Bert and Ernie (via GIPHY)

At its core, BERT is all about helping Google understand searches performed in natural language, rather than ones typed in using keywords that demonstrate the user’s intent, but wouldn’t sound natural if spoken out loud. 

The change is designed to allow people to search on Google just as they would ask a question in real life to a person, rather than typing a string of keywords that they think Google would be more likely to understand. 

In particular, BERT allows Google to understand search queries that are heavily reliant on context and inclined modifiers such as “to”, “from”, “for”, and others. We use such modifiers heavily in natural speech, but up until now, they haven’t translated well when it came to search intent on Google.

But with this upcoming Google update, all of that is about to change. 

So what does this Google update mean for small businesses that rely on Search Engine Optimization for new leads?

To understand why this change is so impactful, we have to understand what Natural Language Processing is, and what it allows Google to do.

What is Natural Language Processing?

Natural Language Processing, or NLP for short, is a part of Artificial Intelligence that deals with understanding, analyzing, and generating speech in the “natural language” that humans use in everyday conversation. NLP is particularly important not just to communicate information, but also to understand and convey context and meaning. 

The focus here is on using natural language to convey meaning rather than the highly structured syntax that computers are used to processing. 

After all, a human could structure a sentence ten different ways, using different grammar, sentence structure, and adjectives, and all of these sentences would convey (more or less) the same meaning.

You could look at a list of these ten sentences and understand that all of them are valid ways to communicate a thought – you would understand all of them.

But to a search engine without NLP capabilities, only the one sentence that was structured “correctly” (read: very rigidly) would make sense. The other nine wouldn’t return any result, because the search engine wouldn’t be able to understand the intent behind the query in the first place. 

Natural Language Processing changes that, as the search engine is much better suited to understand context, varying sentence structures, grammar, and the like. 

Natural Language Processing is present in a variety of places today, from Google Search to Siri on your iPhone, smart home devices like Amazon Echo, Apple’s HomePod, and hundreds of others. 

If you can speak to a device in 2019, chances are it has some form of Natural Language Processing enabled. 

So, NLP helps humans and computers understand each other to make the user experience better. But how does this apply to the forthcoming Google update?

What is Google Doing with this Update?

With the latest Google update, the company is focusing on applying Natural Language Processing to its search engine to better understand searches as users would normally ask a question or speak a sentence to another human.

Google VP Pandu Nanak notes that “We sometimes still don’t quite get it right, particularly with complex or conversational queries…that’s one of the reasons why people often use “keyword-ese,” typing strings of words that they think we’ll understand, but aren’t actually how they’d naturally ask a question.”

Google wants to improve the experience of Google Search and allow people to speak to Google just as they might speak to a friend. This Google update allows them to do so. 

According to Google, these Natural Language Processing models can “consider the full context of a word by looking at the words that come before and after it—particularly useful for understanding the intent behind search queries.”

In short, Google is becoming more human. This transformational change will allow users to search on Google just as they would speak to a friend – and there’s a big reason why the company is making this switch now. 

What Will Change: Examples

Let’s say you search for “2019 brazil traveler to usa need a visa”.

A Google Update is Coming to Better Understand Speech. Here Are 3 Ways it Affects Your PracticeBefore this Google update, the first result result would be how US citizens can travel to Brazil without a visa.

But if you look more closely at the query, it’s about a Brazilian traveler going to the US. It’s slight, but a big difference. BERT helps Google understand the intent behind the query and deliver better results.

Let’s look at another example: “do estheticians stand a lot at work”

A Google Update is Coming to Better Understand Speech. Here Are 3 Ways it Affects Your Practice

Previously, Google thought that the user was looking for job information. Using BERT, however, Google understands that “stand” is related to the physical demands of a job, so it displays a more useful result.

Why is this Google Update Happening Now?

In recent years, mobile traffic has eclipsed desktop traffic nearly everywhere online. This is especially true on Google. 

Recent numbers suggest that worldwide, mobile traffic accounts for 58% of all internet traffic, so making sure that mobile users found what they were looking for was especially important for the compan.

The rise of “near me” searches in the past 5 years led the company to invest heavily in its mobile experience. 

Google has made changes in recent years that have helped improve the mobile experience. In fact, mobile is so important to Google now, that Google is now indexing websites in its search results with a mobile crawler. If your website doesn’t look good on mobile devices, you might be in trouble. 

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But Google has gotten so good at understanding the intent behind these mobile queries that its Machine Learning algorithms displayed results that were relevant to mobile users (such as local business listings or directions to a location) – without the need for users to append “near me” at the end of their search.

As a result, “near me” and “closest” searches were actually down 23% between 2017 and 2019. 

Mobile is here to stay, and Google has gotten really good at displaying relevant results without the need for people to use “keyword-ese” to help Google understand what they’re saying. 

So what’s next in Google’s quest for internet domination? Voice.

Voice is on the Rise

A big reason behind this Google update is the rise of voice assistants, not least of which is Google Assistant. 

A Google Update is Coming to Better Understand Speech. Here Are 3 Ways it Affects Your PracticeTyping “keyword-ese” into Google.com is one thing, but humans would never actually speak that way out loud…and with millions of smart home devices being sold each year, understanding natural language will be a major key to success.

The rise of voice assistants is just part of what Google and others call “ambient computing” – it’s being able to perform searches and other common “computing” functions without needing to interact with a physical device, such as typing a keyword into Google on your laptop or phone.

The company wants to ensure that people have a great experience with its search product regardless of where they might be searching, and this Google update should do just that, especially for searches performed with voice.

SEO industry experts have predicted that voice searches would be the next big thing in search, and they’re right.

According to Google, up to 20% of all searches performed on Google are doing by voice, and by 2020, estimates suggest that voice will account for 50% of all searches worldwide. 31% of smartphone users worldwide use voice tech at least once a week.

Voice is clearly the future of SEO, and it’s why this change is so important. But what does it mean for businesses doing SEO?

What Does this Mean for Businesses Doing SEO?

Whenever Google announces a major change to their search product, many business owners who make SEO part of their marketing strategy get worried.

After all, we’re all at the mercy of Google, and any change on their end could deeply impact the results we get.

But what does this Google update really mean for business owners? There are three key takeaways from Google’s announcement:

  • Mobile matters. With the rise of mobile searches in recent years, mobile isn’t going anywhere. Before you attempt any other strategies to rank higher, make sure your website provides a good experience for mobile users.
  • Voice is here to stay. Voice-enabled devices and assistants aren’t going anywhere, either. If you want to be eligible for high rankings and high engagement with your marketing, keep voice in mind as you produce content. Remember, people aren’t only typing phrases into Google anymore – they’re increasingly speaking them out loud and getting an answer in response. Keep that in mind as you produce content and answer customers’ questions in your content.
  • Keep focusing on creating great quality content. Yes, it’s the typical advice you hear from Google all the time, but it still rings true. Keep creating great quality content that answers your customers’ questions and provides value at every turn, and you’ll be rewarded for it. The only thing that has changed now is that Google will be a little better at understanding how to reward you.

This Google update is actually good news for most business owners who have been doing SEO the right way – it’s going to make life easier for many businesses who are focused on creating good content for their visitors. 

This Google update means you won’t have to spend so much time optimizing your content for certain keywords anymore. You can just focus on creating good content that provides a great experience and answers the questions your customers are actually asking, and Google will do the rest. 

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