Google MUM: The Future of Search?

SEO, as an industry, is prone to breathless hyperbole every time Google makes an announcement. So when Google announced a new form of language processing technology, called MUM, which is going to be 1000x more powerful than BERT, the industry exploded with anxious chatter, panicked tweets, and alarmist blog posts.

First of all, the rumors of the death of SEO have been greatly exaggerated. MUM does not signal the end of SEO. In this article, I’ll be showing you what exactly is Google MUM, how MUM is expected to work, how it will shape search in the years to come, and what SEOs can do to begin preparing for Google MUM.

What is Google MUM: Multitask Unified Model?

The Multitask Unified Model, or MUM for short, is a new model being built by Google that can handle extremely complex searches. While it’s based on the same transformer system as BERT, Google MUM will be 1000x more powerful than BERT. Now, that’s a big claim, but it appears to hold up to scrutiny.

How Google MUM Works

The main reason why MUM will have an edge over BERT is that it can handle multiple problems simultaneously. A future Google search engine powered by MUM can understand written search queries, voice search, and even image search – and combine it all contextually to fully understand the meaning and intent behind the search query. But it doesn’t end there. MUM can then parse through trillions of pages of content from over 75 languages and, if need be, translate foreign language content into your language of choice to provide a comprehensive answer to a complex question.

Here’s how Pandu Nayak, Google Fellow and Vice President of Search, explained it on Google’s official blog.

“Take this scenario: You’ve hiked Mt. Adams. Now you want to hike Mt. Fuji next fall, and you want to know what to do differently to prepare. Today, Google could help you with this, but it would take many thoughtfully considered searches — you’d have to search for the elevation of each mountain, the average temperature in the fall, difficulty of the hiking trails, the right gear to use, and more. After a number of searches, you’d eventually be able to get the answer you need.

But if you were talking to a hiking expert; you could ask one question — “what should I do differently to prepare?” You’d get a thoughtful answer that takes into account the nuances of your task at hand and guides you through the many things to consider.” 

That’s what Google is aiming to do with MUM. Thanks to MUM, Google can tell you that while both mountains are roughly the same elevation, fall is the rainy season on Mt. Fuji so you might need a waterproof jacket. MUM could also surface helpful subtopics for deeper exploration — like the top-rated gear or best training exercises — with pointers to helpful articles, videos and images from across the web.

How Will MUM Affect Search?

It’s quite reasonable to say that MUM has the potential to transform search. Now, most of what I am about to discuss is simply an educated guess about how MUM will reshape search in the years to come. But here it goes.

A Shift In How We Form Search Queries

Firstly, MUM represents a paradigm shift in how people will interact with the search engine. You have to remember that we ask Google questions in a pretty specific way. Since the early 2000’s, people have learned how to use Google. In fact, we’ve been pretty darn good at recognizing Google’s limitations and learned how to form search queries that will generate useful search results.

search queries and keywords
People learned how to form search queries to generate relevant search results. The above example shows search queries for “skinny jeans.” Image source: Wordstream

 

Obviously that has evolved over the last 20 years, and with the advent of voice search, NLP, and BERT, our search queries have become more conversational. But Google can still only provide answers to a single problem or entity (more on that later). MUM seems to represent a shift from that, allowing users to ask extremely complex questions that encompass multiple problem spaces in a single search query. Google’s own blog announcement shows how that might happen, with the example of hiking Mt. Adams vs. Mt. Fuji being a perfect example.

Entities and Modalities

Secondly, the concept of entities becomes even more important with MUM. Google defines an entity as “a thing or concept that is singular, unique, well-defined and distinguishable.” Let’s break down the following example:

multimodal search using Google MUM
Source: Google

 

Google is dealing with multiple entities here: the boots, the concept of hiking, and Mt. Fuji. But it is also dealing with these multiple entities in a multimodal system, understanding the image of the boot, recognizing the voice search query and surfacing its extensive knowledge graph to understand how these boots relate to hiking Mt. Fuji. Such a complex search query, dealing with multiple entities in multiple modalities is not possible today, but may become possible with MUM. The days of the “10 blue links” have been over for some time, but this certainly represents a death blow to the traditional SERP layout and MUM may usher in a new way of experiencing search results.

Access To Multiple Languages

Thirdly, we’re going to see highly authoritative content in multiple languages being readily available for searchers in their preferred language. That’s going to be beneficial to the searchers, as they will have a more expansive and authoritative knowledge pool from which to get their answers. In announcing MUM, Google’s blog devoted a whole section to this by saying the following:

“Language can be a significant barrier to accessing information. MUM has the potential to break down these boundaries by transferring knowledge across languages. It can learn from sources that aren’t written in the language you wrote your search in, and help bring that information to you.

Say there’s really helpful information about Mt. Fuji written in Japanese; today, you probably won’t find it if you don’t search in Japanese. But MUM could transfer knowledge from sources across languages, and use those insights to find the most relevant results in your preferred language. So in the future, when you’re searching for information about visiting Mt. Fuji, you might see results like where to enjoy the best views of the mountain, onsen in the area and popular souvenir shops — all information more commonly found when searching in Japanese.”

Language translation using Google MUM
Source: Google

 

How can I prepare for Google MUM?

Apart from the traditional on-page and off-page SEO best practices, webmasters will need to focus on improving their EAT (expertise, authority, and trust) and also relearn how to do keyword research. Here’s why …

By opening up results from different languages, the concept of EAT becomes even more important. As I’ve already mentioned, MUM will enable Google to deliver results from other languages. And for extremely niche topics, it’s quite likely that the best answers will be in the local language. Roger Montti of Search Engine Journal shared an example of how, in the recipe niche, an article about making a paella that was written in Spanish by a Spanish chef might be considered more authoritative than an article written by a stay-at-home mom in California who has little to no actual experience with Spanish cooking. Montti asks who are we more likely to trust for an authentic Spanish recipe? In this specific case, the fourth-generation Spanish chef certainly has a higher EAT than the Californian stay-at-home mom.

Secondly, the current way of doing keyword research is pretty static. SEOs tend to treat different languages and regions separately. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It actually makes sense, considering how Google delivers search results today. But once MUM is fully integrated into Google Search, then keyword research will become much more dynamic, as the boundaries between languages and location differences between the searcher and the website providing the answer are slowly eliminated.

That is something that SEOs need to begin preparing for. In fact, SEO toolkits like Ahrefs, SEMrush, and Majestic should also start working on that because many SEOs use these tools to help their keyword research efforts.

We will get more clarity when Google MUM is officially rolled out, which is still several months away at the very least. And I’m sure that Google will provide useful guides along the way to help webmasters and SEOs adapt to the new search environment.

Finally, I’d like to remind SEOs that they don’t need to needlessly worry. MUM does not represent the end of SEO. Rather, it’s the next step. As Google’s John Mueller himself reminded us on a recent Reddit thread: SEO will always be needed.