December 19th, 2019

How Google’s BERT Update Will Impact Clinical Trial Recruitment

google bert

Google is updating its search algorithm in a big way. What does this mean for sponsors and CROs?

As the gateway to an enormous pool of interested, engaged, and health-conscious users, Google is the backbone of many clinical trial outreach initiatives. In fact, the gold standard of search engines fields over 1 billion health-related questions a day. 

Now, in order to make results more nuanced and accurate, Google is updating its search algorithm. This change is likely to have wide-reaching implications for sponsors and CROs when it comes to clinical trial recruitment. Here’s what we know.   

Google’s BERT Update Explained

Google has updated its existing search algorithm to include the BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) algorithm. BERT is a natural learning processing algorithm designed to pick up finer nuances and contexts in search queries, thus providing searchers with more accurate results. 

In the past, Search would skip over prepositions like “for” or “to” in order to focus on operative terms in the query. BERT, however, recognizes that all words in a query are important and uses all of them to produce more search results that are holistically relevant instead of tangentially related. Now that Google is more attuned to the nuances of human speech, searchers can use terms that are more natural to them and not worry about Google understanding them.    

How Will BERT Affect Patient Outreach Campaigns?

Suppose you googled “how to test your own blood sugar.” A pre-BERT search might focus on “test” and “blood sugar” in that query, and generate results that are about testing your blood sugar at the doctor’s office. A post-BERT would consider the same words but also emphasize “your” and “own,” thereby generating results that are specific to testing your own blood sugar at home. This might seem like a small distinction, but nuance makes all the difference when it comes to user experience.     

Google’s BERT update will likely shake up paid search campaigns for sponsors and CROs. Now that search engines are better at separating the wheat from the chaff, PPC ads will need to become more targeted in order to be found relevant enough to include alongside organic search results. Since BERT is more likely to downplay results that don’t strongly align with user intent, sponsors and CROs might also have to spend more on premium positioning to maintain competitive rankings.   

Using PPC for Patient Recruitment

PPC campaigns are an important part of clinical trial recruitment. Paid search targets users who are already looking for relevant healthcare or clinical trial information that sponsors and CROs can provide. Each click is more likely to lead to actual participation in a clinical trial, and since nearly 40 percent of clinical trials fail due to low enrollment – leading to millions of dollars in lost revenue – it really does pay to use PPC. 

Keeping BERT in mind, here are some ways sponsors and CROs can improve their approach to PPC:

  • Adopt an intent-based PPC strategy that gives users more of what they’re looking for  
  • Stay up-to-date on new keywords and create broader ad groups around them
  • Don’t forget about non-branded keywords
  • Experiment with more long tail phrases
  • Invest in ad solutions that match high potential ads with user intent    

All in all, Google’s BERT update provides an opportunity for sponsors and CROs to take their patient outreach strategies to the next level. Knowing that Google Search is going to be more selective about what it recommends to its users should inspire sponsors and CROs to curate more unique content and look at clinical trial recruitment with fresh eyes.