NLP and Google’s BERT: A New Way with Words

welocalize May 12, 2020

Google’s recent BERT update is the most significant leap for search in five years.

Might the days of searching “Host party at Hilton Paris” on Google and receiving tabloid results about Paris Hilton’s most iconic party looks be gone? That may be a niche example, but it’s one that illustrates the potential power of BERT, nonetheless.

In October 2019, Google started rolling out what has been touted as the most significant leap in search since the introduction of RankBrain five years ago. Known as BERT – Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers – the new NLP framework is set to significantly enhance the performance of global search.

Understanding the Role of BERT in Global Content

What is Natural Language Processing (NLP)?

To truly understand BERT and how it impacts search, we first need to understand the wider discipline of Natural Language Processing (NLP). Melding elements of computer science, artificial intelligence, and linguistics, NLP is the field focusing on teaching machines how human language works, or training computers to understand and recognize the nuances of human language.

‘Deep’ NLP as we know it emerged in the early 2010s, and today we see it applied in many aspects of everyday life – from online chatbots, to predictive text messages, to trending topics on Twitter, to voice assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Assistant.

NLP goes beyond training machines to understand spelling and grammar, it also involves teaching machines to understand the definitions of a word in different contexts. For instance, the definition of the word ‘running’ differs in the phrases ‘running an event’, ‘running away’, and ‘running for president’; NLP is used to help computers recognize and distinguish between these definitions based on the context of the overall input. It’s also used to help computers recognize the tone or sentiment behind a piece of text or a word. A great example of this is how tools like Grammarly can identify whether the tone of a passage is optimistic, aggressive, formal, neutral, etc.

Many NLP models tend to utilize a recurrent neural network (RNN) system to solve the linguistic task. Recurrent neural networks allow a machine to retain the knowledge it has gained from earlier in a body of text and use it to predict what may come next. This helps the machine to recognize patterns and understand context as it scans the piece of text.

What is BERT then?

BERT is an NLP model, but it is unlike any other that has come before it. It is a contextual language model that greatly improves the way computers can understand language and its nuances. Click To Tweet

What BERT achieves is quite simple: it uses a number of innovative mechanisms and processes in order to understand human language better than any other NLP framework has ever been able to achieve.

BERT is taught a general understanding of how language works using a massive corpus of text data, and then this general knowledge can be fine-tuned for any specific language-related problem you might have.

Prior to being rolled out in search, BERT had already achieved state-of-the-art results for 11 different natural language processing tasks. If, for example, you wanted to create a chatbot for your business, you could take BERT’s pre-trained architecture and fine-tune it for this specific task and your specific products and customers. You could input a dataset containing thousands of product reviews, each tagged ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, and further train BERT in sentiment analysis to understand how to distinguish between future positive and negative reviews.

Sadrach Pierre, Ph.D. recently experimented with BERT’s ability to classify articles as Fake News.

Benefits of Recent BERT Updates

Google is now using BERT to improve search results. While BERT can be applied to several NLP tasks, this update specifically pertains to search queries, and to helping Google fully understand the true intent of a query.

Let’s go back to our example using the word “running”, or, in the following example, “run”:

“How to run a charity in New York”

“How to run for charity in New York”

In these two queries, the words ‘a’ and ‘for’ change the definition of the word ‘run’, and the word ‘charity’ is crucial in understanding the overall context.

Before BERT, Google’s search algorithm would likely recognize and group together “charity in New York” without considering the context provided earlier in the query – and would perhaps provide results about established charities in New York, or would provide a mixed set of results regardless of whether ‘a’ or ‘for’ are used. BERT can build a representation of the meaning for both the entire query and for each word simultaneously. The model is able to recognize all of the ways that each word may interact and, using bidirectional Transformers, can determine the true intent of the query, and subsequently provide the most relevant results.

Currently, 10% of Google searches in the U.S. use BERT to serve the most relevant results – typically on “longer, more conversational queries”. BERT is also currently only trained for the English language. While there is no defined timeline, Google are committed to expanding the update to both a larger percentage of queries and to more languages in the future.

What does BERT mean for users?

For users on Google, BERT means improved search query results, and therefore an enhanced user experience. As the BERT algorithm continues to develop and as Google continues to roll out the update, the search engine’s understanding of human language will continue to improve considerably. Search results will become more relevant and responsive, and better served for your specific needs. It will become easier and easier to find the information you need.

BERT is also used for Google’s featured snippets, again providing more relevant, accurate results. It is likely you’ll begin to notice these improvements in featured snippets like Answer Boxes and ‘People Also Ask’ lists.

What impact does BERT have on SEO?

You cannot optimize for BERT, so the only way for SEO to really leverage this update is to ensure that their content is always focused on the audience and their needs.

BERT is not a ranking tool, and it doesn’t assign values to pages; it is simply used so Google can better understand the intent of the user.

As search engines push towards a more human way of understanding queries, so too should the content people are searching for. The more focused your content is on the specific intent of the user, the more likely it is that BERT will recognize this connection. Understand your audience, what they search for and how they search for it; less keyword stuffing and more natural, human content is key.

How will BERT impact translation?

While current BERT models concentrate only on English, as it develops it will become hugely useful for machine translation (MT). If BERT can learn the nuances of English, then it can do so for any language, and in time we will very likely see BERT or new natural language processing models built upon BERT’s architecture greatly improve the accuracy and performance of MT.

A system like BERT is capable of learning from the English language and applying these learnings to other languages. Already, Google’s BERT algorithm is being used to improve featured snippets in 24 countries, and this has seen improvements in languages such as Korean, Portuguese, and Hindi.

Engaging with BERT as it continues to develop allows Welocalize Digital Marketing experts the opportunity to anticipate and subsequently capitalize upon these innovations for global brands driving multilingual SEO campaigns within the ever-evolving search environment.

Learn more about how you can increase the overall performance of digital marketing and SEO campaigns in multiple language markets in our expert-led webinar taking place Thursday, 14 May: Natural Language Processing in Digital Content. Who’s BERT? REGISTER NOW

For more information on Welocalize Digital Marketing services, connect with us here.

Author: Michael de Alwis, Content Specialist, Adapt Worldwide, a Welocalize digital marketing agency.This article is an abridged version of a longer article that appears in full on the Adapt Worldwide website here.