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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.
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.”
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.”
Related: Google BERT Update – What it MeansHow 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 AlgorithmSuspect 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.”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 2023, 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.
Watch John Mueller answer the question:Citations
You're reading Google’s John Mueller On Bert And Rankings
In a Google Webmaster Hangout Google’s John Mueller was asked why content published on an established site tended to rank higher. The publisher asked why articles on this site consistently received “top Google rankings.”
There is no simple way to answer this question. Google’s John Mueller offered a nuanced explanation of why Google trusted some sites enough to consistently rank them at the top.
The question was asked if the success was due to a lack of competition or “is it somehow even though each individual site is a sub site of the main site, any blogging gets you ranked because” of the website itself.
John Mueller responded that it’s not directly related to the domain.
“It’s more a matter of your putting out new content… that’s relevant for people who are searching at the moment and that we’re ranking them based more on that.
That’s something that we often see from various sites like, should I be blogging, should I write… ten articles articles a day or five articles a day?
…from our point of view it’s not a matter of going out and blogging and creating so many articles a day… but more a matter of… you have some really fresh content here, some of this content is really relevant for some searchers at the moment so we’ll show that.
…it’s not that blogging itself is something that makes the site rank higher or makes the content rank higher. It’s just you happen to have some new content here that happens to be relevant so we’ll show that.”
There’s an approach to content that seems to focus on quantity and quality but leaves out the part about relevance. A common mistake I see in site audits is chatty and conversational content, like you might hear at the water cooler.
For certain situations, content that is focused on relevance to a person’s situation, their goals or aspirations are more appropriate. I believe that’s what John Mueller was getting at when he encouraged the publisher to create content that is relevant to the searchers at the moment they were searching.
I think it’s worth pointing out that he didn’t say to be relevant to the keywords. He encouraged the publisher to create content that is relevant to the searcher.
John Mueller went on to focus on the blogging part of the question, whether blogging was the secret behind the site’s top ranking.
But that answer might not have been what the questioner was hoping for. She appeared to be focused on whether the domain itself, perhaps some kind of authority, was powering the rankings.
Thus, the publisher asked again in an attempt to get John Mueller to focus on whether or not the domain itself was powering the rankings.
“…so it’s completely independent of the domain that I’m blogging on? There’s a lot going on on that website other that has no effect if I… start my own dot com it was blogging it would have the same effect?”
John Mueller responded,
“Pretty much… there are always some kind of supplemental effects with regard to us able to find the content quickly, us being able to understand that this website is generally creating high quality content. So there is some amount of… additional information that we collect for the website on a whole.”
This is interesting because it expands on his previous statement that you just can’t create content and expect it to rank. Here he adds that there is a process whereby Google gains an understanding that the site is a good resource to rank. He alludes to “additional information” that Google collects in order to make the determination that a site is creating high quality content.
What might he be referring to? Google’s algorithm has so many moving parts to it that it could be any number of things.
Just as an example of the complexity involved, there’s a patent filed in 2012 called, “Classifying Sites as Low Quality Sites” that discusses a number of factors that Google could use to create a “link quality score” that could be used to classify an entire site as low quality.
The patent classifies inbound links to a site as Vital, Good, and Bad.
According to the patent, Google could then use this link rating system to lower a website’s chance of ranking:
“The system decreases ranking scores of candidate search results identifying sites classified as low quality sites.”
The above is an example of a patent that may or may not be in use at Google. The point is that there are so many ways that a site can be ranked, from links to the content itself. The reference to “additional information” can be a reference to so many things including the plethora of ranking factors themselves.
Google’s John Mueller goes on to say,
“So it’s not that you could just create random URLs on the web and put your blog post up there and we would find them magically and rank them number one.
It kind of does require some amount of structure within that so that we can understand that over time actually this is pretty good content and we should check it regularly to make sure that we don’t miss any of the updates. “
At this point the publisher tried a third time to get Google’s Mueller to say that there is something about the domain that is helping posts published on that domain to rank better.
“Okay, so there is something to the domain itself and that it’s got your attention.”
He then suggested that it was her option to choose to build her own site but that it would take time for the site to get established. He positioned it as a choice between taking the time to establish something of her own for the long run or taking the easy route and using the established website to rank her articles on.
It’s not enough to just create content.
Content must be relevant to a user at the moment they are searching
Top rankings do not come right away
Watch the Webmaster Hangout here.More Resources
Links from Viral PR Campaigns
“I looked at dozens of examples of sites going viral, award winners, case studies, etc.
I thought for sure all those links from major news sites would help the sites rank better for other terms.
Spoiler alert: I was wrong.”
Patrick wrote that many SEOs contacted him privately to share case studies of their success PR news campaigns and how they worked for SEO.
But Patrick said that none of them showed clear evidence that the PR link campaign was responsible for any ranking improvements, stating that in some cases the ranking lifts intersected with a Google update.
He tweeted this observation:
“A lot of the studies are falling into similar patterns like they happen during core updates, major site changes like redesigns, they happen during seasonal adjustments, or there are other link building and content campaigns (usually unrelated) that they seem to take credit for.”
Patrick affirmed the value of PR news campaigns but said that indicated he had doubts about the impact on SEO.Viral PR Campaigns and SEO
I have noted for almost fifteen years that many liked to crow about all the links their campaigns created but consistently failed to mention any lift in keyword rankings.
It’s as if the link builders are focused exclusively on obtaining the promised amount of links and are completely disconnected from tracking the SEO effects of the links.
There are many problems with some viral campaigns, particularly the ones that are about something like a stunt or a contest.
The main problem is that they’ll rank for the stunt but all the links are about the stunt, not anything to do with their important keywords.
It’s just like pointing all links to the home page isn’t going to trickle down link joy to all the inner pages. If that were the case then the top ten for all keyword phrases would be dominated by pages with high home page PageRank scores. And that’s not the case.
So, what happens with viral PR News link campaigns is that there are lots of links but no keyword rankings lift.
I’ve had people at search conferences stand up during my presentation and relate how their campaigns resulted in hundreds of links but no uplift in sales.Twitter Discussion About Value of News Links
A lively discussion ensued with a lot of granular theorizing about how Google might handle links that come from a news site.
One person expressed that it would be nice if Google clarified how it handled links from news sites.
“But yes… it would be nice for some confirmation even along the lines of ‘we have systems that evaluate the context of links beyond PageRank, and some of that is applicable to links from news sites’ may help to clear things up! “John Mueller Comments on News Site Links
That’s when Google’s Mueller tweeted a response.
“Why would links from news sites be treated differently? The web is the web.”
John Mueller followed up with:
“Focusing on the type of site is a bit of a broad generalization though.
Certainly links are treated differently, but it’s more a matter of the type of the current page, and how it’s within the page.
It’s like saying ‘All Germans are …’ — that’s too broad.”
Mueller continued his thought with one more tweet:
“The other thing to keep in mind is that different kinds of sites have vastly different internal architectures.
A site constantly publishing new content is extremely different from a stable reference site.
Think about how pagerank works, if you want to be technical.”Are News Websites Authority Sites?
There tends to be a way of thinking that some sites are “authority sites” and that links from those sites provide more ranking power.
There was a time twenty years ago where that may have been true.
But that definitively ended many years ago, when high PageRank sites stopped correlating with high rankings.
John Mueller’s observation that the site architecture and rate of publishing are important things to consider with regard to PageRank.
The other interesting insight he shared is that sites are just sites and not treated differently.
This is, in my opinion, something to really think about.
Check out the Twitter discussion here:
— Patrick Stox (@patrickstox) April 10, 2023
Featured image by Shutterstock/Rudie Strummer
Google’s John Mueller had kind words for Digital PR in a Twitter discussion. He went so far as to say in many cases Digital PR is more critical than Technical SEO.What is Digital PR?
Digital PR is basically just building awareness and popularity.
The short description of the strategy could be framed as: Create something worth linking to and tell others about it.
This is something I’ve been doing for fifteen years, way before the practice had a name.Why Digital PR?
I’ve used this strategy for fifteen years, out of necessity, for building links to corporate B2B sites.
Back in the day, one couldn’t engage in desperate low level link strategies like reciprocal linking with a B2B corporate site.
So I had to come up with popularity-building strategies that wouldn’t raise eyebrows at the corporate HQ.
It’s basically link building with one arm tied behind your back.
The 2023 edition of low level desperation link building is guest posting, which in general is off the table for B2B companies.
Link strategies that are good enough for an affiliate site are inappropriate for a corporate site.
What’s left is what some are calling Digital PR.
But there’s no clear definition of what Digital PR is. That’s why some definitions found online encompass everything an affiliate site would do to build links, including guest posting.
Clearly, some definitions of Digital PR are just a re-brand of low level link building.
But it’s not necessarily a re-brand of low-level link building, as John Mueller reflected on it in a discussion on Twitter.John Mueller on Digital PR
The discussion began with a tweet discussing how the difficulties in recruiting for digital PR.
“So digital PR/link building recruitment is kinda mad at the moment, but one good thing I think that will come of it is digital PR salaries rising. Tech SEO has traditionally been far better paid (still is) but it’s nice to see digital PR talent being valued.”
So digital PR/link building recruitment is kinda mad at the moment, but one good thing I think that will come of it is digital PR salaries rising. Tech SEO has traditionally been far better paid (still is) but it’s nice to see digital PR talent being valued.
— Louise Parker Peiris (@louisevparker) January 23, 2023
“I love some of the things I see from digital pr, it’s a shame it often gets bucketed with the spammy kind of link building. It’s just as critical as tech SEO, probably more so in many cases.”
I love some of the things I see from digital pr, it’s a shame it often gets bucketed with the spammy kind of link building. It’s just as critical as tech SEO, probably more so in many cases.
— johnmu likes 🥚 staplers 🥚 (@JohnMu) January 23, 2023
“Digital Pr and SEO together can work very well. I find myself puzzled by people who insist the digital PR is a thing to itself & SEO works by itself, because I know how effective they can be when used together.
A campaign that using both can be a very effective.”
One person in the discussion wondered if relevance should be considered. My thoughts are that in general only relevant sites are going to link to content that is useful to them.
Would love to hear more about how relevance should be considered within digital PR campaigns. Lots of debate about that.
— Mark Johnstone (@epicgraphic) January 23, 2023Is Digital PR Just a Buzzword?
A developer with Yoast was doubtful about the concept of Digital PR, remarking that it may be, in some instances, a term used for link buying.
He also suggested that a company spending money on PR might be able to unfairly influence Google.
And I think that glorifying digital PR, over doing the hard work of *being a good solution to the problems of an audience* is bad for brands, and the web. I want a search engine to return the best results, not the company which paid an agency the most to launch a fancy microsite.
— Jono Alderson (@jonoalderson) January 23, 2023
Nevertheless, it’s good to see some corners of the search marketing industry begin to open up to a way of marketing that isn’t directly tied to ranking but rather approaches growing a site through activities that help a site become popular.
It might seem odd to suggest that a way to rank better is to become popular. But Google tries to rank sites that people trust and enjoy, which is what that Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness (EAT) is partly about.
So why not get out of the SEO box for a moment and at least think of non-SEO ways to make a site popular?Citation
Twitter discussion here.
Google’s John Mueller was asked in a Webmaster Hangout what to do if a site is suffering a traffic loss due to Google’s June 2023 broad core algorithm update. John Mueller’s answer provided insights into understanding what is happening.
Then Mueller provided hope that Google may offer further guidance on what to do.Webmaster Asks If It’s a Content Issue?
The person making the question states they’re a news publisher. They ask that because they deal in content, that it may be that the core update issue for them is content related.
Here is the question:
“We’re a news publisher website, primarily focusing on the business finance vertical. we probably have been impacted by the June Core Update as we’ve seen a drastic traffic drop from the June 1st week.
Agreed that the update specifies that there are no fixes and no major changes that need to be made to lower the impact.
But for a publisher whose core area is content news, doesn’t it signal that it’s probably the content, the quality or the quantity which triggered Google’s algorithm to lower down the quality signal of the content being put up on the website which could have led to a drop of traffic? “
The questioner states that webmasters need more guidance:
Not site specific, but category or vertical specific at least on how to take corrective measures and actions to mitigate the impact of core updates.
It would go a long way in helping websites who are now clueless as to what impacted them.”Why Nothing to Fix
John Mueller did not suggest fixing anything specific. He explained that the reason there’s nothing specific to fix is because a core update encompasses a broader range of factors.
Google’s John Mueller explains:
“I think it’s a bit tricky because we’re not focusing on something very specific where we’d say like for example when we rolled out the speed update.
That was something where we could talk about specifically, this is how we’re using mobile speed and this is how it affects your website, therefore you should focus on speed as well.”Core Update, Relevance and Quality
John Mueller then discussed the core updates within the context of relevance and quality updates. He did not say that core algo updates were specifically just about relevance or just about quality. He seemed to mention those to aspects as a way to show how these kinds of updates do not have specific fixes.
Here is how John Mueller explained it:
“With a lot of the relevance updates, a lot of the kind of quality updates, the core updates that we make, there is no specific thing where we’d be able to say you did this and you should have done that and therefore we’re showing things differently.”
John Mueller then explained, as an example, of how changes that are external to a website could impact how Google ranks websites.
This is what he said:
“Sometimes the web just evolved. Sometimes what users expect evolves and similarly, sometimes our algorithms are, the way that we try to determine relevance, they evolve as well.”
That may be the most a Googler has said so far to explain about core algorithm updates.
John mentions quality, but he also mentioned how users and the web evolve. That’s not a quality issue. Those are factors that are external to a website that need to be considered.Nothing to Fix
John Mueller related that there aren’t specific things to fix. But he suggested that it may be useful to understand how users see your site, how useful your site is to users.
Here’s what John Mueller said:
“And with that, like you mentioned, you’ve probably seen the tweets from Search Liaison, there’s often nothing explicit that you can do to kind of change that.
What we do have is an older blog post from Amit Singhal which covers a lot of questions that you can ask yourself, about the quality of your website. That’s something I always recommend going through. , That’s something that I would also go through with people who are not associated with your website.”
John Mueller may have been citing a Webmaster Central blog post from 2011 titled, More Guidance on Building High-quality Sites
In it, the author provides a large number of questions a site owner should ask themselves about their content.
Here is a sample of the kinds of questions Google suggests you should ask yourself:
“Would you trust the information presented in this article?
Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?”Ask a Third Party For a Critique
John Mueller then suggested that a third party that is unfamiliar with your site may be able to see issues that are not apparent to you.
What John Mueller said:
“So, often you as a site owner you have an intimate relationship with your website you know exactly that it’s perfect. But someone who is not associated with your website might look at your website and compare it to other websites and say, well, I don’t know if I could really trust your website because it looks outdated or because I don’t know who these people are who are writing about things.
All of these things play a small role and it’s not so much that there’s any technical thing that you can change in your line of HTML or server setting.
It’s more about the overall picture where users nowadays would look at it and say, well I don’t know if this is as relevant as it used to be because these vague things that I might be thinking about.
So that’s where I’d really try to get people who are un-associated with your website to give you feedback on that.”
John Mueller suggested asking in web communities, including the Webmaster Help Forums, to see how others see your site, if they could spot problems.
One issue with that is that every community have specific points of views that sometimes don’t allow them to get past their biases to see what the real problem is. That’s not a criticism but an observation on the nature of opinions is that they tend to vary.
Here’s what he said:
“…you can talk with other people who’ve seen a lot of websites and who can look at your websites and say well, I don’t know the layout looks outdated or the authors are people that nobody knows or you have stock photos images of instead of author photos. It’s like, why do you have that?
All of these things are not explicit elements that our algorithms would be trying to pinpoint but rather things that kind of combine to create a bigger picture.”
I know from experience that it’s not uncommon for a site owner who comes to me for help with their site is sometimes surprised that their site contains problems with their content, is outdated in some way or has room for improvement in the way the content is written.
Sometimes they intuit that something is wrong but they can’t see it. I once had a site owner come to me with a negative SEO problem but the feedback I received directly from Google was that they were suffering from content issues related to Google’s Panda algorithm.
It was a shock for them to hear that their content was bad. But having it confirmed by Google made them better able to see that yes, there were problems with the content.Google May Provide Additional Official Guidance
Mueller then offered hope by suggesting he would inquire about providing additional guidance for web publishers.Takeaway: See the Big Picture
The important takeaways are to be able to step back and see the big picture, which means:
Some issues are external to the website. For example, many fashion brands no longer publish blogs. An SEO recently attributed that to a failure in the content strategy. But that’s missing the big picture. The reason many fashion brands no longer publish blog posts is because users don’t consume that kind of content. They consume content on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other social media websites.
That’s an example of how users evolve and how it’s not a problem with your site, but rather a change in user habits that may be reflected in the kinds of pages that Google shows in the search results.Takeaway: Algorithms Evolve
Google’s algorithm does not really match keywords to web pages. It’s about solving problems for users. Google’s increasingly updating how it understands what users want when they type a query. Google is also updating how it understands the problems that a web page solves.
A website that focuses too much on keywords and not enough on providing quick information to users who need it quickly and deep information to users who need depth, may find that Google’s algorithms no longer favor them. Not because your site is broken and needs fixing. But because it does not solve the problem for the user in the way Google has determined users want them solved.Takeaway: Have a Third Party Review Your Site
Lastly, it may be helpful to have a fresh set of eyes review your website. If that doesn’t provide insights, then someone with experience diagnosing relevance issues may be useful.
Read: June 2023 Broad Core Algo Update: It’s More than E-A-T
Read: What is a Broad Core Algorithm Update?
Watch: Webmaster Hangout
Screenshots by Author, Modified by Author
In the latest instalment of the #AskGoogleWebmasters video series, John Mueller tackles the topic of how Google chooses canonical URLs.
Here is the specific question that was submitted:
“You can indicate your preference to Google using these techniques, but Google may choose a different page as canonical than you do, for various reasons. So, what are the reasons? Thanks!”
In response, Mueller says its common for websites to have multiple, unique URLs that lead to the same content. For example, there’s WWW and non-WWW versions of a URL.
Another common configuration is when the homepage is accessible as index.html, or when upper and lowercase characters in URLs lead to the same pages.
Ideally there should not be any alternate versions of URLs, but that rarely happens. So Google chooses canonical URLs to display in search results based on two general guidelines:
Which URL does it look like the site wants Google to use?
Which version of the URL would be most useful to searchers?
Site owners can indicate their preferred canonical URLs to Google by following the guidelines in the next section.How to Tell Google Which Canonical URL You Prefer
Site owners can send signals telling Google which URL they prefer. The more consistent the signals are, the more likely Google will choose the site’s preferred URL.
Those signals are as follows:
Link rel canonical annotation that matches throughout the site
Internal linking using the preferred URL format
Preferred URLs in the sitemap file
Mueller adds that Google has a preference for HTTPS URLs over HTTP URLs, and also tends to choose “nicer-looking” URLs as canonical.
The key takeaway here is, if you have a strong preference regarding which version of a URL gets chosen in search results then make sure to use it consistently.
The more consistent the site is, the more likely Google will use the site’s preferred canonical URL.What Happens if Google Chooses a Different URL?
A preferred URL is just that – a preference. Mueller says there is no negative impact on rankings if Google chooses a different canonical URL than what you would prefer to have chosen. It’s also fine to have no preference at all.
When it comes to canonical URLs, consistency is key. But don’t lose sleep if you put all the right signals in place and Google still chooses a different version of the URL as canonical.
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