At ROI Revolution, we strive to stay ahead of trends in digital marketing. Because search engine optimization is an ever-changing world, our SEO team reads, listens to, and watches news related to how Google’s technology is advancing daily. These days, changes to the search engine results pages (SERPs) are coming fast and furious, and we want to know – are you prepared for what’s next?
What Are Natural Language Processing and AI?
The biggest factor in recent changes to Google’s SERP is its use of artificial intelligence (AI) in its core algorithm and models. AI is a type of computer science concerned with building machines or systems that can mimic human intelligence and perform tasks.
According to IBM, natural language processing (NLP) is a subcategory of AI focused on enabling “computers to process human language in the form of text or voice data and to ‘understand’ its full meaning, complete with the speaker or writer’s intent and sentiment.”
We interact with some form of NLP almost daily now – from voice-operated GPS systems to customer service chatbots on websites.
How Does Google Use AI?
Google uses AI in a variety of ways, but for this discussion, we’ll focus on how it uses NLP to improve the user’s experience related to search results. A February 2022 blog post by Google explains:
“Each algorithm and model has a specialized role, and they trigger at different times and in distinct combinations to help deliver the most helpful results.”
Two of Google’s most recent giant leaps in NLP are BERT and MUM, and they are changing search results in a big way.
In 2019, Google introduced BERT NLP. BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, and it was a huge step forward in allowing Google to understand how combinations of words express meaning and intent.
Now, instead of just looking for matching keywords on a web page, Google can better understand how each word on the page relates to the others. The “bidirectional” in BERT means it can look forward and backward on the page to put the phrase in context.
With this new intelligence, Google should be able to better match a user’s intent – for example, whether they are looking to make a purchase, learn more about a brand, or find out where a store is located. Making sure the most relevant keywords are on the page is still important because they help Google understand the focus of the page’s content.
BERT changed SEO in some subtle ways, too. For example, there used to be a list of “stop words” that we knew Google would ignore in a keyword phrase – small words like a, an, the, and many prepositions and possessives.
But now, BERT pays attention to those words and if the phrase has a different meaning when they are included.
In a popularly quoted example, before BERT, the query “can I pick up a prescription for someone?” might have resulted in a list of pharmacies because Google keyed in on “pick up a prescription.” Now, the results will actually answer the question as to whether you’re allowed to do it on behalf of someone else. It better understands the meaning, not just the individual words.
At ROI Revolution, we’ve noticed changes in the SERP that indicate that Google is getting better at understanding meaning. One example involves two featured snippets for a query. (A featured snippet is the longer answer to user questions that usually sits at the top of the results page and links to a site that Google thinks has the best answer.)
Even more impressive, one of those featured snippet results included a page that did not have the exact phrasing of the query anywhere on it. BERT understood the query’s meaning and found a page that answered the question without an exact match!
If BERT is impressive, MUM is exceptional.
MUM is short for Multitask Unified Model, and Google says it’s “a thousand times more powerful than BERT.” MUM can understand 75 languages and generate answers on its own. It’s also able to understand information across text, images, video, and audio.
This means that Google will not only be able to put words on a page in the context of the page, but it will understand the whole page and could summarize an answer for a user in another language.
When you think about it, that’s kind of mind-blowing!
While that’s the future of search, MUM is currently being used to surface the best answers to user queries about COVID-19 vaccinations by understanding the vast number of vaccine name variations around the world. It has also been incorporated into Google Lens to allow users to add text to image searches to refine their results. We have even seen evidence of MUM understanding the content of videos without closed captioning or subtitles within the video.
Expected Changes to Google Search Results Page Layout
These big advances in recent years are already starting to change the first page of Google’s search results, and we expect even more dramatic changes in the future.
In Google’s own example of how they expect MUM to work when it’s fully rolled out across Search, the description is almost like Wikipedia. One detailed question can be understood, including all the nuances of the user’s potential intent, and Google will be able to give a range of answers to that question and related questions.
There will even be options to refine or broaden the search to improve your results, and that’s already starting to show up in some searches now.
One area of concern, however, is that the more features Google adds to the search engine results pages, the fewer organic results will appear – the “ten blue links” on page one may no longer be the standard.
Right now, positions 1-10 are usually counted as page one, but we’re already seeing cases where only six or seven organic links appear because there are more SERP “features” on the page. These features include organic shopping, images, videos, local packs, “people also ask” questions, and more.
With the increase in the number of non-traditional organic links on page one, website owners need to optimize their content to appear in these features when relevant.
Helping Brands & Retailers Prepare for the Future of SEO
In addition to keeping up with the current best practices for organic search, ROI’s team of SEO experts is constantly developing new strategies to improve ranking and visibility for our clients. From performing technical optimizations to creating on-page content, our specialists put website quality first – which is what Google says will win in search. If you’d like to speak to our SEO team about how your brand can prepare for the future of Google search, reach out to an expert today.
- IBM Cloud Learn Hub. What is Artificial Intelligence (AI)?
- Google Blog, The Keyword. How AI powers great search results.