Since the end of 2015, Google has been using an artificial intelligence system called RankBrain to process search results and inform its core algorithm to deliver more relevant organic search results. But, we still don’t know much about how Google RankBrain works, and according to Google itself, they don’t really know either.
What we have ascertained so far about how RankBrain impacts SEO is pivotal, and it means we need to start taking an even more human-first approach to search engine optimization.
Google RankBrain is Not Itself an Algorithm, but it is Integral to One
Google describes RankBrain as a key “signal” within its core search algorithm. Essentially, RankBrain is the part of the algorithm that is used to “understand” the meaning of billions of web pages and help Google’s algorithm return the ones that users will find the most relevant to their search queries.
While there are potentially hundreds of (or more) ranking signals and sub-signals within Google’s algorithm, Google has confirmed that RankBrain is one of the three top signals that inform search results, along with links and content. It’s kind of like the Holy Trinity of Google, with RankBrain becoming the biggest and most influential of the three.
That’s because for the queries it is responding to, RankBrain is informing Google’s algorithm not just about which links and content are best, but how it should interpret these types of signals in the future. This is incredibly important, because Google no longer has to make guesses about what it believes something means based on disparate factors like keywords and links, but is instead beginning to interpret data much like a person would.
What this means: Although Google talks about RankBrain, content, and links as they are three parts of the same pie, rather, they all work together and inform one another. These signals (and their sub-signals) don’t each operate in a silo, so you shouldn’t treat them as such when it comes to your SEO strategy.
In the same way, there are many parts — like your website’s technical structure, content, offsite presence, and more — that work together to determine your site’s performance for specific searches. So, make sure you are not just executing all the necessary tactics, but that all the pieces of your website and web presence are consistent and connected, and relevant to the actual users of your content.
RankBrain is Learning How People Search (and What They Want)
Unlike relying on simple connections between words or concepts, Google RankBrain uses mathematical processes and language semantics (understanding what something means rather than simply the words that are used) to understand complex search queries. RankBrain’s unique combination of machine learning and artificial intelligence allows it to look beyond basic language markers like “stemming” (variations of a word, like “searching” for “search”), synonyms, (like “company” and “business”), and basic conceptual understanding, (like knowing you’re searching for Michelangelo the artist and not Michelangelo the Ninja Turtle) that previously limited search engine capabilities.
In the below example, you can see that Google relates “water heaters for sale” and “water heater repair” to the search term “who replaces water heaters.” While this is not a stretch, over time, Google RankBrain will learn even more about how people search (such as by asking questions) and the results they engage with, and apply those behaviors to inform future search results.
Essentially, RankBrain is allowing Google to leverage human-like understanding and interpretation as a more effective way to identify content that people will respond to most in search results. This is, after all, what its algorithm has always been trying to achieve. But, thanks to advancements in machine learning and AI, Google is closer than ever to accomplishing this.
What this means: This represents a critical shift in how we think about SEO long term. No longer is simply gaming the math of an algorithm a way to find yourself at the top of search results. Google continues to make enhancements that reward content and experiences that people use and find valuable.
RankBrain is an integral way it’s able to do this more effectively than ever before. As people evolve in the ways they search and the phrases they use, Google’s algorithm is quickly adapting. We’ve already seen updates that positively reward sites that are mobile-friendly that contain high-quality content, and provide locally-relevant information in the search results – all factors that human users value highly. As RankBrain learns what makes searchers respond to certain pages in the search results over others, it will continue to change how Google’s algorithm interprets websites and determines a site’s search rank for each query – and reward the factors that actual people are responding to best.
RankBrain Further Restricts Exact-Match Approaches to SEO
Because it is helping Google’s algorithm look more holistically at the complexity of factors involved in the way people search, RankBrain represents a huge shift away from a time when the algorithm focused more on factors like keyword match.
In fact, Google RankBrain interprets search queries and helps find web pages that enable Google to return higher quality results for complex or long-tail search queries – not necessarily those which contain an exact keyword or phrase match. RankBrain is especially useful because it applies meaning to searches for terms or concepts that Google doesn’t already have context for. Because it understands the semantics of a user’s search query, like in the above example “Who replaces water heaters in Seattle?” RankBrain is continuing Google’s path to deemphasizing the importance of exact keyword matches and relying on natural language when determining SEO rank and results.
What this means: The content on your website and the way users engage with it is critical to your SEO strategy and how Google displays your site in search results. Although RankBrain isn’t the end-all-be-all of Google’s search algorithm, Google’s goal continues to provide the most relevant and useful results possible to searchers. So, it’s important that your website content is easy to understand, clearly formatted, and helpful for your target audience. Because soon, there won’t be much difference between how people read your site and how Google does.
SEO has always been an ongoing process that requires continual attention to search engine changes to get traffic from search results. With Google RankBrain, it’s even more important for businesses and website owners to understand the reasons behind search engine updates and recommendations, and to respond to them swiftly and with expertise to stay relevant in organic search.
In fact, Google is taking even greater steps to shift away from a system that can be gamed through outdated tactics such as keyword-stuffing and paving the way for a more human-like approach to delivering great content and experiences to users via its search results. By making sure your website is designed and written for real people and the way they like to consume your content— and not for gaming search engines — your site will be more prepared for any changes Google throws your way.