Without knowing what “RankBrain” means, people new to SEO may assume it refers to a technology Google uses to rank search results.
That assumption isn’t far off, but not every component of Google’s search algorithm is a ranking factor in and of itself.
In this article, we’ll investigate the claims around RankBrain as a ranking factor and provide clarity on what RankBrain is and how it’s used in search results.
The Claim: RankBrain Is A Ranking Factor
RankBrain is a technology that’s said to impact how Google returns search results.
Due to its association with search, RankBrain is commonly referred to as a ranking factor.
If you’re new to SEO, you may hear that and start to think RankBrain is one more signal you have to optimize for.
But that’s exactly not how it works.
The next section goes over what RankBrain is designed to do, and when it’s called upon by Google to assist with answering queries.
The Evidence: Is RankBrain A Ranking Factor?
RankBrain is an artificial intelligence (AI) system introduced in 2015 to help Google with returning results for queries that have never been searched before.
That changed somewhere between the spring of 2015 and 2016 when an unannounced update was made to RankBrain which integrated the AI into all queries.
This information was revealed in a Wired article, which notes Google isn’t clear on how RankBrain improves all queries but it does affect rankings.
“Google is characteristically fuzzy on exactly how it improves search (something to do with the long tail? Better interpretation of ambiguous requests?) but [Google engineer Jeff Dean] says that RankBrain is “involved in every query,” and affects the actual rankings “probably not in every query but in a lot of queries.”
What differentiates RankBrain from other Google algorithms is its ability to learn how to answer more ambiguous queries.
As Google’s Gary Illyes explains, this is accomplished through making educated guesses at what a user would likely click on for a never-before-seen query.
“RankBrain is a PR-sexy machine learning ranking component that uses historical search data to predict what would a user most likely click on for a previously unseen query.”
RankBrain allows Google to solve problems it used to run into with traditional algorithms.
Contrary to popular theories about how RankBrain works, it does not use data gathered from users’ interactions with a web page.
RankBrain relies more on data gathered from users’ interactions with search results.
Illyes provides further clarity:
“It is a really cool piece of engineering that saved our butts countless times whenever traditional algos were like, e.g. “oh look a “not” in the query string! let’s ignore the hell out of it!”, but it’s generally just relying on (sometimes) months old data about what happened on the results page itself, not on the landing page.”
In short – RankBrain is a machine learning system that allows Google’s search algorithm to deliver more relevant results.
This is thought to be accomplished through an improved understanding of ambiguous queries and long-tail keywords.
RankBrain uses data gathered from users’ interactions with search results to predict which pages will likely get clicked on for a brand new search query.
RankBrain As A Ranking Factor: Our Verdict
Google has confirmed that RankBrain is used to rank search results and it is involved in all queries.
In 2016, Andrey Lipattsev, a Google Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google, said RankBrain was one of the three most important ranking signals (along with content and links).
RankBrain continues to play an important role in search results today.
RankBrain differs from traditional ranking factors in that there’s not an obvious way to actively optimize for it.
How do you optimize for ambiguous keywords or queries that no one’s ever entered into Google before?
The only option is to provide Google with as much information about a page as possible, which is something site owners should be doing anyway if they’re creating holistic content for users.
Illyes was asked this question once and replied with a similar sentiment:
“you optimize your content for users and thus for RankBrain. That hasn’t changed.”
Search Engine Journal VIP Contributor Dave Davies provides more advanced tips for communicating information to Google regarding different entities on a page in A Complete Guide to the Google RankBrain Algorithm.
Featured Image: Robin Biong/Search Engine Journal