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“When people like you or I come to Search, we aren’t always quite sure about the best way to formulate a query,” writes Google’s Vice President of Search, Pandu Nayak. “We might not know the right words to use, or how to spell something, because often times, we come to Search looking to learn–we don’t necessarily have the knowledge to begin with.”

What Nayak writes in his recent Google blog post is true for most of us — including your law firm’s potential clients. Sometimes we use Google to find something that we already know. However, we often use Google as an educational machine that spits out answers. That includes your potential clients who use Google to learn more about their case, matter, or problem.

Nayak notes that search is fundamentally about understanding language — and while Google has made improvements to its search features over time, the algorithms don’t always get it right.

Now, through BERT models, Google is making new improvements to how search understands queries. Nayak says, “[It’s] the biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of Search.”

Here’s what you need to know about BERT and how this improvement is likely to affect your law firm’s website.

What is Google’s BERT?

BERT is an acronym for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. It’s Google’s neural network-based technique for natural language processing pre-training. 

But in layman’s terms, what is BERT? According to Google, BERT technology was the result of Google research on transformers, which are models that “process words in relation to all the other words in a sentence, rather than one-by-one in order.” BERT can consider language’s nuance and context more like people do, and that will help it understand the intent of a search query more like humans.

According to Google, Search will now be able to better understand “longer, conversational queries” and searches “where prepositions like ‘for’ and ‘to’ matter a lot to the meaning.”

An example of the difference that BERT makes in search

According to Nayak, BERT will help Google Search with improved understanding to 1 in 10 US-based English searches. (Google plans to apply BERT to more languages and geographic regions in the future.)

Before they released BERT in October, Google did several tests to examine the improvements that it hypothesized the model would make.

One example of BERT’s improvement to search involves the following query: 

“2019 brazil traveler to usa need a visa.” 

This query is basically “keyword-ese” — instead of a proper sentence, we sometimes search using strings of words because we sometimes believe that’s what search engines understand.

However, note that the word “to” and its relationship to the other words is essential to the actual query meaning. Google gave readers a look at the results its search engine provided for this query before and after BERT.

Before BERT, Google’s algorithms overlooked the nuance in this search and responded with a news article about US citizens traveling to Brazil. After Google implemented Bert, the result is significantly more relevant: A link about tourism and visitors that comes from an authoritative source.

What could BERT mean for attorneys and law firm websites?

Nayak notes that “[B]y applying BERT models to both ranking and featured snippets in Search, we’re able to do a much better job helping you find useful information.”

Potential clients often find attorney websites through “longtail” searches — the highly specific searches that are related to their case or problem. 

When attorneys focus on creating content around longtail phrases, they’re much more likely to engage with more (and better quality) potential clients. Longtail phrases often mimic the way that people — including your potential clients — search.

With the use of BERT in search results, attorneys who are creating high-quality content and content around longtail searches are likely to be rewarded with better placement in search results for relevant queries. BERT will likely be able to understand those complex, longer, conversational queries and return better results to users who ask them.

The development of BERT is a win for both attorneys and potential clients. Attorneys who are focused on developing high-quality content for their law firms are likely to be found more easily by potential clients who come to search to research their case or their matter. Potential clients are now likely to get better answers to their queries because search now has a better understanding of the user’s intent.

Google wants to give users the best answers to their queries. Now that Google will be better equipped to understand complex questions, the search engine will provide an even better user experience that gives potential clients the information that they’re looking for. It’s just one more reason why it’s so important for attorneys to focus on content development. Since its inception, Google’s primary focus has been providing the best content to users — and BERT is a continued step in that direction.

Learn more about Google & longtail searches for law firm websites

If you haven’t focused on high-quality content creation for your law firm’s website, now is the time to start. To learn more about Google and how your potential clients use longtail searches, see: