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BERT, ELMo, and GPT: Understanding Language Models in SEO

This is an article ‘BERT, ELMo, and GPT: Understanding Language Models in SEO’ by Marc Primo Warren.


2017 was a big year in the development of language models tanks to the paper entitled ‘Attention is All You Need’ by deep learning models pioneers Ashish Vaswani and company. Soon after, the language model knows as BERT emerged with widespread hype. This language model heralded high proficiency in numerous natural language processing (NLP) tasks previously unimagined.


However, it fell in its place as a mere precursor to an array of subsequent models to come— each showcasing significant advancements towards the reign of today’s technology— artificial intelligence (AI), voice search, and even search engine optimization (SEO), among others.



A notable trajectory observed is the escalating complexity of these large language models (LLMs). As they evolved through the years, the volume of parameters and data for training continued to swell. This is, of course, substantiated by deep learning research that associates this enhancement with superior outcomes. Yet, this growth is not without challenges. Scalability, in particular, has become a pivotal concern in the effective deployment and utility of LLMs.


Smarter as Time Goes By


It’s not a stretch to say that we are already in the era of AI and machine learning (ML). Not long ago, advancements in these fields brought forth some game-changing tools for digital marketers and SEO practitioners in how they produce developed content. Among the most impactful of these are natural language processing models like BERT, ELMo, and GPT.


But what are these oddly named tools, and how are they revolutionizing the world of search engine optimization (SEO)?


At their core, BERT, ELMo, and GPT are models designed to understand and generate human-like text. They’ve been trained on vast amounts of data, allowing them to comprehend context, semantics, and even sentiment.


Remember the days when SEO was all about stuffing keywords into articles and hoping for the best? Those days are (thankfully) behind us. Today’s search engines are smart. They don’t just look for exact keyword matches; they strive to understand the user’s intent. Google, for instance, has made several updates, such as the BERT update in 2019, to make their search more contextually relevant.


BERT: Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers


Starting with BERT or Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, its main prowess lies in— you guessed it, its bidirectional approach. Traditional language models would either analyze text from left to right or right to left. BERT does both. This means it considers the full context of a word by looking at the words that come before and after it.


For marketers, this is somehow a dream come true as it means that Google can better understand the nuance of the content they produce. There’s no longer the chance to trick the system with misplaced and overstuffed keywords. Thanks to updated language models like BERT, today’s content is more genuinely valuable and contextually relevant to users.


Consider the search query "how to tie a tie." Earlier models might have just picked up "tie" and presented an array of results ranging from necktie shopping to shoelace techniques. But with BERT's context understanding, it's more likely to offer guidance specifically about the act on how to tie a bow tie or a half-Windsor.


ELMo: Embeddings from Language Models


Moving on to ELMo (and no, it’s not the popular furry red Sesame Street puppet, nor is BERT Ernie’s sidekick), this model focuses on word vectors. The acronym actually stands for Embeddings in Language Models but in simpler terms, it represents words as points in space. However, unlike previous models, where a word always had the same representation, ELMo offers dynamic word representations. That means depending on the sentence, the word's 'point in space' can change.


For example, in the world of cricket or baseball, the term “bat” refers to a piece of sports equipment. But in the realm of nocturnal creatures, it’s a flying mammal. ELMo can differentiate between these contexts, offering a more nuanced understanding of content.


GPT: Generative Pre-trained Transformer


Lastly, there’s GPT, or Generative Pre-trained Transformer. Developed by the good folks of OpenAI, GPT is not just about understanding language but also about generating it. In terms of SEO, GPT’s application is multifaceted. It can be used to generate content, answer questions, or even suggest content optimizations. But more than its generation capability, its power to understand context ensures that search engines equipped with such technologies can deeply analyze content quality.


However, despite all these language models, more AI tools are needed to efficiently conduct an SEO campaign. Tools like SEMRush or Ubersuggest are still needed to gain quality insights and high performance keywords you can fuse within your content. Combining these new trends and tools to push your SEO campaigns forward can definitely gain you higher site traffic and better ranking on Google. As long as you know the right crawling tactics and maintain a white hat approach, search engines can value your landing sites and content more for better online traction.

How Marketers Can Adapt


With all these advancements in language models, what's an SEO specialist to do?


First, you should focus on quality and context. As content remains king whether you’re into SEO or simply gaining an audience for your blog site, keyword stuffing will no longer work as it did before. With models like BERT and Elmo in play, you must ensure what you present to your site visitors genuinely addresses their interests, concerns, or pain point in a comprehensive manner. That adds to better user experience


This entails understanding every user’s search intent effectively. Dig deeper into analytics and user behavior with the right SEO tools in your arsenal that aligns with these modern language models. Pick up on not just what keywords are driving traffic, but more importantly, why they do. Is a user looking for a quick answer, a detailed guide, or a product to purchase?


Staying updated with trends in the world of SEO, helps you evolve along with updates that come at breakneck pace. As as you have your eye on the right ball when it comes to AI and language models, you can ensure you have a competitive edge in your marketing campaigns.


So, now that we’ve found that BERT, Elmo, and GPT are not your favorite Sesame Street characters or more than just fun acronyms, it’s high time you adapt such seismic shifts in the way search engines and users understand and engage with content. As digital marketers, embracing and understanding these models is not just recommended; it’s essential. The future of SEO is here, and it speaks the same language you would if you are selling that proverbial pen, face to face, to a potential customer.

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