Google search on an iPad, with a keyboard
David Hyde

What is RankBrain? 

RankBrain is an artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning system which works alongside Google’s hand-coded algorithms. 

Google’s hand-coded algorithms match search queries with on-page SEO, taking into account factors such as backlinks, to decide what it will show in search results. Instead of matching queries with keywords, RankBrain uses AI to try to understand a searcher’s intent. 

In a test, which pitted Google engineers against RankBrain, RankBrain outperformed the engineers, displaying the most accurate results by more than 10%.

Currently, RankBrain is not used for every search, but as it becomes more sophisticated and reliable, it is likely to be used for a larger proportion of Google searches.

Why does Google use RankBrain? 

Around 15% of all Google searches have never been searched before. That’s an estimated 450 million search queries per day.

Before RankBrain was developed, Google would have to crawl pages to find results it could display. However, if a search query didn’t match the content it had crawled, Google would struggle to provide an accurate answer.

With RankBrain, Google can understand the intent of a search query, and can therefore provide more accurate results even if a page does not match the exact keywords searched. AI technology matches search queries to topics and concepts – to display results it thinks a searcher is looking for.  

How does RankBrain learn? 

RankBrain learns by examining how people react to the search results it shows. This helps it rank websites in an improved order the next time a similar topic is searched. It’s understood that RankBrain also uses SERP (search engine results pages) engagement to filter the results it shows – this may include factors such as:

  • Click-through-rate (CTR) 
  • Interaction with other SERP snippets and features
  • Rank order 

The above factors are understood to help RankBrain analyse if the SERPs it showed were right. 

How does this affect SEO? 

In the past, sites targeted long-tail keywords to try to rank for as many relevant search queries as possible. RankBrain can understand concepts and topic areas –  which means it can see sites trying to do this.

To show in RankBrain search results content needs to be optimised to a searcher’s intent, taking into account the different words or phrases they might use. 

How do I optimise my site for RankBrain? 

Click-through-rate (CTR) is very important to RankBrain. If an organic listing appears and is not clicked – its rank will likely decline. To make your website listing look as ‘clickable’ as possible, you need to make sure search snippets (meta tags) are engaging. 

Content is also very important to RankBrain. Instead of creating content which includes specific keywords, websites need to think about what target audiences are searching for. Content should include keywords relevant to the overall topic and answer, not just the keywords a site is trying to rank for.

In addition to content, RankBrain still takes into account other ranking factors – such as authority score and backlinks - link building is still essential to rank.

How do I optimise content, for RankBrain? 

User engagement is critical – and therefore, it’s essential content provides users with the answers they are looking for.A page with a high bounce rate is likely to rank in a low position. 

1. Long, in-depth content is better

Google likes long, in-depth content. Longer content pieces are more likely to answer a searcher’s query. As well as being the right answer, by creating long articles – you may provide other solutions a searcher may be looking for, meaning they don’t need to bounce back and go somewhere else.

2. Content above the fold

When someone clicks from SERPs to a website – they should see content straight away. If content appears below the fold, they are likely to bounce back and not read it – resulting in low engagement.

Make sure content shows to users when they land on a page, on all devices.

3. Make content easy to digest

Long articles need to be formatted, so they are easy to read. A wall of text in long paragraphs is likely to make a reader bounce off a page. Try to make sure content is formatted with sub-headings, bullet points and images – so it’s easy to digest.

4. Add introductions

Most people decide if they are going to stay on a page after reading the introduction. Introductions should include what an article is about and the answers it may provide. 

5. Natural language 

Make sure content is written with the user in mind. Use a tone of voice which is appropriate for the target audience and make sure content is not full of jargon and technical terms. 

What should I do now? 

RankBrain is here to stay and, as it becomes more accurate, it will likely be used for a larger proportion of searches. 

As a digital marketing agency, we monitor algorithm and other Google updates closely. We’re already optimising our clients’ sites and search engine optimisation strategies with RankBrain in mind.

RankBrain ranking factors are not dissimilar to what has always been best practice for search engine marketing. Making sure your site is the right and best answer for target audiences should be your ultimate goal – doing this improves organic search visibility. 

As RankBrain usage increases and search becomes more personalised, keep in mind that tracking the rank of websites will become even harder.