Chances are that as you’ve searched Google for information regarding movies, TV shows, products, or general hunts for information, you’ve been surprised a time or two by how quickly Google seemed to “get” what you meant. Maybe you searched some loose terms, thinking you’d have to be more specific, but came away pleasantly surprised at the results. While you might believe this is simply the magic of Google, it’s actually a part of their search algorithm called RankBrain. In this article, dive more into what RankBrain is, what it does, and why it’s important for users, websites, and businesses across the web.
Introduced in October 2015, RankBrain is part of Google’s core algorithm, building off of their Hummingbird update and using machine learning and artificial intelligence to determine the most relevant results to search queries/keywords. It’s a lot like Netflix recommendations based on watch patterns, but with search results instead.
In a nutshell, the algorithm has two main jobs. It needs to understand your search queries (keywords), and it needs to measure how you and other users interact with the results from those searches. Before RankBrain came along, searches would have been filtered through Google’s basic algorithm, with results that were essentially based on Google trying to match those exact keywords to landing page data across the web. Behind the scenes, Google’s team of engineers and testers would create stemming and synonym lists, feeding this information to Google to associate certain keywords and phrases with certain pages and links. Sounds great, right? Well, things could have been better, at least according to Google.
As it turns out, this was a gargantuan amount of human effort, and Google engineers soon realized that 15% of the keywords people were searching were new, meaning they had never been seen by their search engine. While that might not seem like a lot, you have to keep in mind that this is Google we’re talking about, and that 15% was actually closer to 450 million searches per day that stumped the algorithm. To field what results it could, Google would try to match the words searched to words on a page, but it only had the information provided by those engineers and testers. In other words, because these keywords were new, Google had little to no clue as to what the searchers actually wanted. Therefore, they guessed.
To give an example, let’s suppose someone searched the term “pandemic” in early 2020. Pre-RankBrain, this search might have been limited to results defining what a pandemic was or case studies from past pandemics. Over the past year and a half, however, Google’s algorithm has “learned” or determined that searches containing the word “pandemic” likely also refer to users wanting more information on the COVID-19 virus. As a result, Google SERPs now showcase all three within the first page, as millions of users have interacted positively to links containing that information
Google’s algorithm is important because it measures user satisfaction. It turns keywords into concepts, actively “learning” and taking note of how users interact with the results provided after a search. To add another example, let’s say you have a person running a small eCommerce website for CBD products. They decide they’d like some extra help with their marketing, so they hop onto Google and type in variations of “CBD products marketing,” “CBD marketing,” and “CBD digital marketing.”
Right off the bat, they’re greeted with results ranging from specific blog links to websites for digital marketing agencies, and marketing software. What they don’t see, however, is that past users who searched these terms consistently reacted well to these particular results. Though these links might have been further down the list at some point, RankBrain took note of how often they were clicked following these searches, moving them higher and higher in Google SERPs as it learned to associate those keywords and those links with user satisfaction. In other words, it “learned” that the terms “CBD,” “digital,” and “marketing” most likely referred to users wanting access to marketing agencies, helpful blogs, or software to improve their CBD business.
Depending on your sophistication with modern SEO, the algorithm might represent a relatively small or even major change in your practices. In the older days of the internet, SEO writers focused mostly on link diversity, content depth, and keyword matching. Since the new algorithm, however, both Google and SEO specialists have shifted to a focus on user experience, with Google awarding higher ranking to websites and businesses who best optimize for it. That means that in the current digital jungle, a focus on user experience within your content is, in essence, a way to “optimize” for Google’s RankBrain algorithm. Is there more you can do? Absolutely.
When it comes down to it, Google’s algorithm is focused on ranking sites that match user queries and provide a positive user experience. Here are some ways you can better optimize your content for the algorithm.
Content creators love playing with tone, but the fact remains that natural is always better. In other words, use the tone you’d normally use when speaking. Read your content aloud after you’ve written it. Does it sound human? Conversational? If it does, there’s a good chance that Google’s algorithm will agree.
Do a test run of the keywords you’d like to rank for in Google. Review the top search results. Note that these pages are ranking well because Google has determined that users are reacting positively to these results.
Once you’ve gathered some data on the intent of the keywords, optimize your content to match that intent. Think of your landing pages as “topics” rather than keywords, making them as comprehensive as possible with natural, easy-to-understand language.
Focus less on creating individual pieces of content for each keyword, and more on creating content that maximizes how they all relate to one another. For example, while you might have multiple keywords for information related to website creation, it makes little sense to split them up into separate pieces of content. Instead, a single, step-by-step guide on how to launch a website provides a more thorough and user-friendly experience.
There are a lot of UX signals that go into how Google ranks pages, and a couple have to do with whether people stay on a page once they’ve clicked and for how long. For this reason, you want to make sure your content is engaging in its introduction, formulated with intent-friendly titles, supplemented with images, and filled with answers to questions relevant to the topic. As Google takes notice of users frequenting your site, so too does its algorithm associate your site as a knowledgeable “hub” for those keywords.
Chances are that if your website has been around for a while, you have some content that was written or optimized before RankBrain. Additionally, there’s a solid chance you have broken up content that can be combined into a more comprehensive, long-form post. If this is the case, it’s a good idea to run analytics on that content, finding out which post has the most traffic, backlinks, and rankings, then merge some content, set up a few 301 redirects, and make that your primary post. Not only do you give your website a UX boost, but you set yourself up for a ranking boost as well. It’s a win-win!
Though RankBrain is only one component of Google’s core algorithm, it remains an important part of every search that passes through the search engine. Should you find yourself wanting more information about how you can improve your website’s rankings with the algorithm, we’d love to help! From SEO best practices to paid search and reputation management, our search marketing experts work with a variety of clients to help them rise above the fold in organic search.
Contact VELOX Media to learn how we can help you align your content with current ranking signals today!