What is Google’s RankBrain and why should you care?

 Google RankBrain first rolled out in 2015. Unlike Google’s many previous updates it uses machine-learning and AI for the first time, in order to help better refine search results, especially in cases of rare, ambiguous or one-of-a-kind queries.

Understanding more about Rankbrain can help your website succeed, so we asked digital marketing expert, Paul Morris of Superb Digital, to explain what Google’s RankBrain is, how it works, where it’s going and why, as a small business owner, you should care.

How RankBrain Works

Short of actually being able to read a website’s content, RankBrain is able to identify the context of keywords in a webpage or website.

By doing this it is able to provide search results based on a user’s ‘true’ intent (as opposed to blindly matching those websites that just contain the words that you typed).

It interprets your language and queries – whether you use formal or colloquial terms – then relates them to other similar searches based on previous intent and results. This will then give you the closest results to what you meant by your query.

Borrowing Google’s own example, the query “what is the label of a consumer at the highest level of a food chain?” sounds gibberish to anyone but the user.

With RankBrain, however, Google can make a guess as to what these unfamiliar words mean.

This then allows Google to interpret the query that matched the user’s intent, providing results that detail, in this instance, where a consumer fits in the food chain.

RankBrain In 2018

Before RankBrain, Google’s algorithm was hand-coded by engineers. RankBrain, today, works in the background, with only minimal input from the search giant’s engineers, when it comes to defining its parameters.

RankBrain’s use of Machine Learning allows it to tweak its own algorithm by improving on its previous results, based on which ones gave the better user satisfaction. It has become so effective, in fact, that it outperformed Google’s engineers by 10% back in 2015.

RankBrain has continued to thrive in the three years since its release. These are what we know of the update in 2018:

  • RankBrain is one of the hundreds of signals that Google uses to determine which results appear on the SERPs, ranking alongside Panda and Penguin updates.
  • It is now part of the overall Hummingbird algorithm which, since 2013, is the name of Google’s main algorithm.
  • It is now considered as the third most important ranking factor, next to links and content.
  • It’s speculated to identify the relevance of content/topics to queries, as well as what was inferred by the search query (e.g. searching for “Benedict” would give you Doctor Strange or Sherlock based on your previous searches, as opposed to giving you results on American hero Benedict Arnold for example)
  • It can rule out poor user experience (UX)
  • It measures click-through rates (CTR), bounce rates, and the dwell time of a user on a page before going back to search results and looking for a better website

Optimising Your Website for RankBrain in 2018

Of course this is all very well and good but to the average UK SME, it may seem way beyond their control. But there are steps that any small business with a web presence can take in order to make the most of the growing dominance of RankBrain;

1. Use medium-tail keywords

Optimising around long-tail keywords used to be the norm. With RankBrain, however, you should shift your focus to medium-tail keywords, since “the best recipes for chicken out there” and “chicken recipes” now produces almost identical results.

Medium-tail keywords are not too competitive but still get plenty of search volume, so optimise your page around one of them. RankBrain will then be able to rank you for other similar keywords.

2. Optimise titles and description tags

Since RankBrain measures CTR, you need to find ways to make users actually click on your page. This is where title and description tags come in:

Title tags

Add emotions to your titles, especially since a 2015 study by CoSchedule found that emotional titles have more social shares than generic ones.

You should also add brackets/parentheses, as this can significantly boost clickthroughs compared to titles without. Lastly, use numbers and power words to be more eye-catching.

Description tags

Similar to title tags, add emotion to your descriptions. Include why they should click on your page (e.g. benefits, how their lives would improve).

As for keywords, include those that paid ads use and your own target keyword.

3. Optimise content

Regardless of keyword and tag optimisation, if your content does not deliver, your site visitors would quickly leave. Keep in mind that the longer your users stay, the more Google sees your site as valuable and relevant. To further hook them with your content, do the following:

  • Place your content above the fold and use shorter intros. This way, users will be able to get their answers immediately without boring them with a wall-of-text intro.
  • Publish in-depth content based on your keywords, but make sure you format them in a way that’s easy on the eyes. This means subheads, bullet points, and numerical lists. It will be easier to read, thereby increasing dwell times.
  • Embed videos or podcasts. This has a two-pronged benefit: your dwell time increases as users watch/listen to embedded content, and it helps break up long in-depth articles.
  • Long form content tends to rank better than shorter content but content quality and demonstrable expertise are the signals that Google RankBrain is looking for. You should therefore look to improve older content by making sure it’s up to date and covers the subject matter properly. If it’s too short, then think about beefing it up.
  • Use a more natural language when you write. Don’t make your content sound stiff for the sake of inserting keywords every few sentences. Remember: RankBrain can now decipher context, so write in the language that your audience will relate to; the days of keyword stuffing are well and truly gone so don’t get tempted.

Keep Testing

Since it’s a machine-learning AI, RankBrain can now teach itself how to do something and then improve on its own. It’s constantly learning. This means that sites with low-value content will be pushed further down and those who game the system will be less effective.

As with any optimisation efforts, make sure that you keep running tests. Don’t just stop at publishing new in-depth posts. Use heatmap tools to find out whether your users found what they were looking for on your page, how long they stayed, and where they click/don’t click.

As a small business owner, invest time in staying updated with current trends and algorithm changes. This will help you come up with a solid search strategy and compete against major industry players.

This guide has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Paul Morris is the founder and director of Bristol based digital marketing agency Superb Digital. He has worked in the web industry since 2002 in many roles, including web design and development, SEO and business development.

Last updated: 22nd February, 2021

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