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SERP News: Google Introduces BERT for Human-Like Understanding

Another month... another series of changes to the SERP with far-reaching implications....but this month is special. This month Google says they've reached a breakthrough... and it's live on the SERP! On top of that, Google has dispensed a new set of enhancements aimed at making users salivate over Google Shopping. But wait, there's more! Google is giving you far more control over how your rich results appear on the SERP. And, of course, we'll get to a whole heap of changes to the SERP and its features!

This is the SERP News covering October 2019!

SERP News Nov. 2019 Banner

Say Hello to BERT - Google's New Algorithm for Human-Like Understanding!

Google has called it "the biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of search"... and it's called... BERT (because the biggest thing to hit Search should conjure up memories of Sesame Street.) On October 25th, Google let the world know that BERT is here (and in fact had been for the days leading up to the official announcement

So what is BERT? BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers.... Happy to have helped! 

In all seriousness, BERT helps Google understand language like a human would. Now, we've all heard Google say things like this before, so what exactly does BERT help with? 

BERT helps Google understand which part of a phrase should be emphasized. More specifically, BERT helps Google understand prepositions (either understanding the ones used or inserting those left out of the phrase). This might not sound like a big deal, but it very much is. Knowing what is meant by the query via the preposition allows Google to know the point of emphasis in a sentence and to even build understanding via sentence context (i.e., "content clues" as we called them when I taught 5th grade - so now Google is smarter than a 5th grader). 

Now, you might be thinking that everyone's rankings went nuts with the advent of BERT. However, the truth is that BERT only impacts about 10% of queries. (Though, Google initially said that RankBrain only impacted 15% of queries when it came out... so...). In any regard, I would not classify BERT as the sort of update that brings ranking havoc with it. BERT is a machine learning property, it will learn, grow, and recalibrate as time goes on, but isn't the sort of thing that completely alters the ranking dynamic in one fell swoop. That said, just like it was with the advent of the RankBrain era, rank overall could be more volatile with the welcoming of BERT as time goes on. 

To me, BERT's significance is not in its current abilities (not that they are not formidable) but in the potential it brings to Google's understanding of language as time goes on. 

Google Shopping Unveils New Look & New Features 


Just in case you were wondering if Google is still a bit tepid about the strength of its market position relative to Amazon's... feast your eyes on a serious set of changes to Google Shopping! Google has changed the look, the functionality, and the abilities shoppers have to hunt down the best deal in what is a major upgrade to the overall shopping experience. 

Hitting both desktop and mobile in the US (other markets to follow, I would assume), the changes offer a redesign that includes a new homepage that presents a personalized product offering as well as functionality that makes reordering products much easier. 

Other upgrades include: 

  • Price tracking with automated notifications when the price of a product falls (much like Google offers with Google Flights). 
  • The ability to see where you can buy a product in a local store (as well as if the product is in stock). 
  • Purchasing without ever leaving Google, which is being called 'Buy on Google'. (Meaning, in certain instances you can buy a product without having to visit the seller's site.) 

Google Shopping Price Tracking

The new price tracking functionality that has been added to Google Shopping 

Now, if you want my opinion (and even if you don't, here it is anyway)... I'm not entirely impressed. That's not to say I don't like the new features Google Shopping is offering. I love the ability to see if my local store has a product in stock since at times I still like to hold a product in my hands before buying it (I'm an old soul). A more personalized and streamlined shopping experience, who doesn't like that?! 

My contention is not with the new upgrades, I think they're wonderful. But let me ask you... does Amazon have to promote an easier purchasing experience where you don't have to visit the seller's site? No, because you intrinsically don't need to visit the seller's site when shopping on Amazon. More than that, when you search for a product on Google, what do you initially get? The traditional SERP... you have to move over to the Shopping tab if you're utilizing search as your starting point. When you search for a product on Amazon, do you know what you get? The product without having to move to a new interface. 

My point is, identity is important. Amazon's identity IS shopping... Google's identity is not, or at least not exclusively. For the most part... Google is known as a search engine, not a marketplace. That's not to say that Google can't change that. In some verticals it has... take Google Flights for example. Though I would argue the travel vertical is a bit different... but that's for another time. Either way, even with the upgrades, I think Google still has a steep mountain to climb here. 

Google Dispenses More Control Over Rich Results 


Structured data and the rich results they produce have always been an important part of the SEO equation. That said, over the past few months, I very much feel that Google has brought schema into renewed focus (more on that in a separate post in the weeks to come). To this, towards the end of September, Google said it would be giving sites more control over their rich result appearance.    

To this extent, Google said sites would be able to have control over things like how long a text snippet within a rich result would be, how long an animated video preview would be, and what the max size of an image preview would be. 

As of October 16th, Google announced that the new rich result controls would be rolling out in the coming days in the US with a worldwide rollout to follow. Meaning, by the time you read this, you should have the new controls at your disposal. 

Obviously, more control over your SERP appearance is good. You could make the case that if you're smart about your content length allowances you could avoid offering the user the full info they need, which would perhaps increase clicks to your site. That could be the case in certain limited instances (I guess). Of course, a lot of this has to do with the laws in France that are forcing Google to change its approach to snippets on the SERP in that market. You could also argue Google is trying to make sure the best and most fitting content appears on the SERP within rich results. It's basically Google saying, "You know your content best, let's work to make the SERP as efficient as it can be."

[Fun fact, you can generate schema code with ease by using Rank Ranger's free Schema Markup Generator.]

The SERP Roundup for October 2019

From a minor algorithm update to indexation bugs to tests from everything from Featured Snippets to the SERP itself... here's what Google changed to the SERP and its underbelly in October. 

October's Early Algorithm Update 

Just as October rolled in, Google pushed a moderately sized algorithm update. Starting on October 4th and lasting through the 6th, the update included one day of heavy rank fluctuations followed by two days of moderate to light levels of rank movement. 

Desktop Rank Fluctuations

The Rank Risk Index showing elevated levels of rank fluctuations on desktop

The update was a bit more moderate on mobile where the initial level of rank fluctuations was a bit less dramatic and where the update only lasted through October 5th. 

Mobile Rank Fluctuations

Rank fluctuation increases during the early October update were a bit milder on mobile per the Rank Risk Index

A Google Indexation and Local Panel Bug 


2019 has been chock full of all sorts of Google bugs as I've reported here many times. This trend continued in October with bugs impacting news publishers and local businesses. 

On October 16th, local SEOs began to notice the Q&A feature within the Local Panel vanishing from the face of the SERP. At the time of the bug, the Q&A feature, which lets both users and business owners ask and answer questions related to the business, would allow new content to be submitted but said content would not appear within the Local Panel. Shortly after the bug was reported it appears Google made a fix and the issue was resolved. 

By the way, this is not the first time in the recent past that the Q&A feature "broke." Back in July, a bug did not let businesses reply to questions asked within the Q&A element. 

For our second bug of the month, we return to the indexation of new content (which in the immediate sense impacts news publishers the most). I say return because in both July and April of 2019 there were similar bugs reported. In any event, the October indexation bug began on the morning of October 16th (the same day as the Q&A bug) and was over by that same evening. Though short-lived, the bug was universal, impacting both small and large news sites alike. 

Google Increases Its News Acceptance Barriers 


Speaking of news, let's jump over to the 'News SERP' for a moment. In early October, Google informed us that it will be harder to be accepted to the Google News program. Meaning, if you are a news site and want to be considered as a news source featured in either the Top Stories carousel or on the News SERP itself... that's going to be a bit harder going forward. There are not a lot of details on this one with John Mueller simply saying that the application process is "a little bit more strict." 

Format Changes to the SERP: Cities in Titles & Sidebar Filters/Related Searches

Two interesting changes to the look and feel of the SERP itself for you: 

1) In a test released to a small-batch of Google users, the search engine was seen tacking on the site's "city" onto the titles within the organic results. 

I'm not sure if the test specifically targeted sites serving a specific area (like a home service company) or if the test was a bit more indiscriminate. Either way, it seems odd, almost like a bug. 

2) As the month just rolled in, Google was caught testing a downright bizarre format for the desktop SERP. The test had a series of related searches appearing to the right of the organic results while a filter helping you refine the content you wanted to access showed within the left sidebar. 

Side Filter SERP Design Test

The desktop SERP showing with Related searches within the right sidebar and a set of filters to the left of the organic results (Image Source: SERoundtable.com via Adarsh Verma) 

What's more interesting to me than the format of the SERP tested per se (which was ugly, over cramped, and has no shot of going live) was the depth of the filters shown to the left of the results. Some of the queries that brought the layout test up presented some incredibly in-depth filters that really showed Google's ability to dissect an entity! I do think that Google will bring filters that help qualify a query to the SERP, as I've discussed in the past.  

More Results Button within Featured Snippet Images 


In a most interesting test, Google was spotted running the "More results" button within each card of the image carousel that at times appears within a Featured Snippet. The button, much like the Featured Snippet bubble filters, presented users with an easy way to access new topics on new SERPs. The "More results" button is one of Google's favorite things to test in the context of Featured Snippets as there have been all sorts of tests involving it over the years. 

Featured Snippet More Result Images

A Featured Snippet showing a carousel of images with each image containing a 'More results' button (Image Source; SERoundtable.com via John Lincoln)

GIFs Come to the Local Panel

It appears you can now showcase a GIF in the business listing photos found in the Local Panel. Thus far, the Local Panel GIFs have only been spotted on mobile. Either way, having a GIF appear at the top of the Local Panel is a nice way to catch the user's eye! 

Shop by Photo Added to the SERP 

Google has added the ability to shop locally according to photos. That is, for local product and service queries, Google is showing an expandable carousel titled "Search by photos." Here, the business/service/product is represented in image form. I found the feature pretty easily, I'm just not sure of its relevance, at least as it's being used now. 

For example, I did a local search for electronic goods and was shown the image below: 

Google Search by Photos

Once expanded I was able to access the full series of photos: 

Search by Photos Expanded

Give a card a click and you get to the business's Local Panel. In my case here, I'm not sure what the images added. I could have been equally served by a carousel of stores at the top of the SERP. I imagine if you have a nice face and smile this feature could help a service business garner a few clicks:

Search by Photos Service Business

User Images Enter Product Reviews

Users can now upload their own images of your product into reviews. Meaning, if a user looks snazzy in a pair of jeans they bought from you, they can upload an image showing off their newest hip-huggers as part of their Google review. This, of course, works both ways. If you offer a great product that's entirely photogenic this new user ability is fantastic. On the other hand, if your product looks cheap and off-putting in pictures, that doesn't bode too well for you in this instance (or really any instance come to think of it)! 


Thematic Depth Continues on the SERP 

Into the Mind

As I write the SERP News each month this theme of Google making more and more "structural changes" keeps popping up. What I mean is, I used to find myself writing more about new updates to any given number of SERP features. While this series still includes many such examples of that, I find the topics I cover here to be a bit more related to Google's overall "SERP structure." It's apparent to me that the coverage here ends up talking more about far-reaching structural changes (such as BERT or more control over rich snippets) than just a heap of updates to SERP features. And I don't think it's me that's changed or how I go about covering the "monthly Google news." Rather, it seems to me that Google itself is more focused on deeper changes. It comes across as if the search engine has put aside tests and updates to a certain extent in favor of focusing on more foundational and widespread shifts on the SERP. 

What do you think? 

Thanks for joining me on my journey through the SERP. Don't forget to look for next month's edition of the SERP News right here on the Rank Ranger blog

About The Author
Mordy is the official liaison to the SEO community for Wix. Despite his numerous and far-reaching duties, Mordy still considers himself an SEO educator first and foremost. That's why you’ll find him regularly releasing all sorts of original SEO research and analysis!

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