How the Google MUM Update is Shaking Up SEO in 2023

The Google MUM update, which was announced in May of 2021, is likely to shape SEO strategy in 2022 and beyond. The update, focused on search intent and providing users with the best results through the use of AI, has replaced BERT to further improve Google search results.

If you’re wondering who BERT is, you’re not alone – but you may want to read on.

In 2022, how you appear online is one of your greatest assets. As more and more people go online, and use search engines to learn more about…everything, staying up-to-date on Google updates, particularly major updates like MUM, will help inform your SEO strategy and establish a strong online presence.

In this post we will go over the basics of Google algorithm updates, why we’re saying goodbye to BERT, and all we know about MUM to make sure your SEO strategy is ready for 2022.

What is a Google update?

When Google updates its algorithms, it’s changing how the search engine processes and ranks websites in results. Google rolls out algorithm updates several times a year to address bugs, improve user experience, and continue to improve the quality and relevance of the results that populate for a particular search query – or, the phrase you plug into Google.

The MUM update is a bit different. Unlike most of Google’s other updates, the introduction of MUM in May 2021 was the introduction of a whole new algorithm that unseated BERT, an algorithm update that changed the SEO game back in 2019.

Why do Google updates matter?

Google currently leads as the world’s most popular search engine with a nearly 90% market share reported as of December 2021 and billions of searches conducted every day.

With nearly 70% of user experiences online starting with a search engine, and over 50% of website traffic coming from organic search, where you show up in Google search results can have a significant impact on your growth, audience reach, and reputation.

You read it right: it’s not just about showing up in results, but where you show up. The top three results in Google earn over 75% of clicks, and less than 1% of users go past the first page of results. If you aren’t in the top 10 results for a keyword – or, really, the top 5 – it’s likely you’ll miss out on the users searching for that keyword.

What does this have to do with Google updates? Google has over 200 ranking factors that determine where certain pages and websites rank in search results for a particular keyword or search query. These factors evolve and change over time thanks to (you’ve got it): algorithm updates. As Google updates its algorithm, what it takes to rank well in search results changes, meaning SEO best practices – or, the strategies that will be effective in helping your website rank better in search results – change as well.

In the world of SEO, not all strategies are created equal, and one Google update can shift the entire landscape of search results. Strategies that were once foundational to SEO may be tossed aside as Google continues to refine and improve its search engine for users.

Though this may seem hectic, it can work to your advantage: keeping up with Google’s updates and ranking factors can not only ensure that you have an effective SEO strategy, but will give users that interact with your website and content a more positive experience and higher value, informative content for their search queries.

Before We Get into MUM

It may seem like I’m holding off on getting to the good stuff, but before we dig deeper into Google’s latest – or at least most talked about – algorithm update, we need to understand what’s behind it. In this case, that means BERT.

So…who is BERT?

Over the last few years, Google’s updates have maintained a strong focus on improving user experience by changing how the search engine interpreted user search queries. Kicking off with the Hummingbird update in 2015, Google began focusing on not simply keyword matching when showing users results, but trying to understand the intention behind queries to give users the best match for their search intent – or, what they meant when they searched a particular word or phrase. Later that same year, Google rolled out RankBrain, another search intent-focused update that took user history into account when populating results, again to help improve the relevance of results.

In 2019, Google released BERT (which stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers). BERT was designed to better interpret certain nuances in language and incorporate context to further improve the relevance and helpfulness of results for queries. Although BERT was not extremely hard-hitting at the time – meaning that the introduction of this update did not significantly and immediately shift results – the update had a huge and lasting impact on online content, particularly when it came to best practices, as content written with users in mind is prioritized over content written for search engines.

Though BERT was a significant and game-changing update, it has been unseated only two years since its introduction by MUM (or Multitask Unified Model), which uses T5 text-to-text framework and is “1,000 times more powerful than BERT.”

Bye bye, BERT-ie!

The Google MUM Update

Finally, we’re here. As long as it took, part of understanding the significance of MUM is knowing the background – the algorithms that took us to this point, why Google wants to refine its search engine to be more sensitive to search intent, and what is different about the introduction of the MUM update.

MUM was announced by Google in May 2021, and though it has moved to replace BERT, the goals are similar: to correctly interpret user search queries to fulfill their request as efficiently as possible.

What is MUM?

Put simply, MUM is a new algorithm that uses AI to help users find content relevant to their search intent across different languages and kinds of media. The ultimate goal of the update is to provide users with a more comprehensive and nuanced response to searches, eliminating the need for multiple searches or refining your search while giving you all the information you need in the context that you need it for whatever you may look up online, almost mimicking how a person may interpret a particular question.

What search features are accompanying MUM?

When MUM was announced in 2021, three key features were highlighted:

  1. Things to Know: showing users logical pathways related to the intent behind their search. For example, if a user was to search for “good recipes for the winter,” they may see pathways for “best winter soups,” “one-pot winter recipes,” and other relevant pathways related to their initial search.
  2. Topic Zooming: allowing users to broaden or narrow the scope of their search. This feature will allow users to start with a simple search and scale the specificity of their search based on their needs. For example, if a user was searching for “best sneakers,” they could limit this search to their area, or best sneakers specifically for running or tennis.
  3. Visual Search: increase in the presence of images in normal search results, particularly for queries that intuitively bring up images (such as “prettiest hiking trails in Austin”). This will also apply to other forms of media, such as videos.

How is MUM different from BERT?

Though the “1,000 times more powerful” comment can be a bit difficult to understand, Google has outlined a couple key ways that MUM outperforms BERT:

  • MUM has a more comprehensive understanding of information and different forms of media, and is multimodal, meaning it can pull from different kinds of sources.
  • MUM is multilingual (currently it can process up to 75 languages), and can overcome language barriers when giving you results for your search.

In practice, MUM will be able to understand not only what you would like more information about, but will better understand the context, search intent, and long-tail search queries to give users the best possible results.

Why does it matter that MUM is multilingual?

With the ability to move through language barriers, MUM will provide users with more comprehensive results by virtue of not being limited to the language of the user. Additionally, being able to do so could reduce the importance of language as a ranking factor, regardless of where you are searching from or what language you use for your queries.

How will MUM affect content online?

The more things change, the more they stay the same. As we’ve said, prior to the MUM update Google had already released several updates to reward content that was informative, relevant, and valuable to users (or, not written for search engines). With the MUM update, understanding the intention behind search queries will be more important than ever, both to provide users with the content they are looking for and to rank well in search results.

To keep it simple, approaches to content will have to be creative, and focused on search intent as opposed to keyword matching (though optimizing for keywords will likely never fully disappear). As opposed to targeting a specific word or phrase, looking at content as a net that can cover several different but related queries, and be able to answer the question: what is the user really looking for, and do I give them that information?

Remember that designing with the user in mind does not only mean the, well, content of the content, but the way the information is organized, how it is formatted on a page, and how that page performs. Many major updates in recent years have focused on the entirety of user experience, so remember page performance, mobile users, website design, and other relevant factors when creating content that will perform well with the new MUM update.

How will MUM change SEO?

For some, MUM seems to mark a sort of end to SEO. While that may be a little dramatic, MUM may indicate a new era for SEO. With new features such as topic zooming and visual search and the ability to read through different forms of media and languages – not to mention the increased understanding of search intent – MUM will change how people search for and interact with information online.

Similar to BERT, it’s likely that MUM will result in few immediate changes, but larger changes over time. High-quality, unique content written with the user in mind has been the best for SEO strategies for years – this will still be true with MUM, but the importance may be increased.

Additionally, MUM may help people understand their audiences better. Over time MUM will help give further insights into what users are looking for, what topics are connected, how people look for information, and what information may be difficult to find. In working to bring users what they need more quickly and comprehensively, MUM will also help provide insight into what gaps there are for different users.

No More BERT Puns

While the retirement of BERT feels like the end of an era, it’s important to remember how quickly the online world can change. As MUM beckons us into a new age of SEO, consider how that will factor into your own strategy and stay up-to-date on the changes that will inevitably follow. As more and more people join the online world, it isn’t only about what information is out there, but how we find it, interact with it and what we do with it.

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