What is RankBrain and How Can I Optimize For It?

Patrick Coyne
Patrick Coyne Director of Organic & Local Search

As SEOs, our responsibility is to understand the major search changes and interpret them in a way that makes them actionable – i.e. make sure our clients’ product or service is connecting with the right audience. With that in mind, we thought we’d dissect for you the details of Google’s latest monkeywrench in the works: Killer Robots!

Google's AI RankBrain

Ok, so not really. It’s actually Artificial Intelligence that has the ability to learn and understand colloquial human speech. Google is calling this new ranking factor Skynet RankBrain. Previously, AI struggled with being able to figure out the nuances of human language. But RankBrain is able to use context clues such as the user’s location to understand the searcher’s intent and deliver more relevant results. RankBrain is also adept at understanding complex, long-tail searches, and even searches that have never been entered into Google before, and connecting the dots between these unsearched with what should be more relevant results.
For all searches that utilize RankBrain, it will apparently act as the third most important ranking factor (Google refuses to identify the top two). And with so much weight associated with RankBrain, SEOs are clamoring for a way to use it to their advantage.

So how do we optimize for RankBrain?

Before we figure out how we should consider RankBrain in future SEO campaigns, it’s first important to understand that RankBrain is one of literally hundreds of ranking factors, or signals. Additionally, RankBrain is not used for every single search. It is simply a part of Google’s larger algorithm. So RankBrain isn’t going to drastically change how you write content. And a lot of what we recommend here should already be a part of your optimization process. However, if you haven’t already, there are certain steps you can take to ensure your website content is ready for Google’s AI.

Optimizing Content in a Post-RankBrain World

Less Exact Match Keywords. More Variations: SEO used to be as easy as dropping one-to-two exact match keywords into every paragraph, then playing the waiting game as you watch the rankings rise. But as RankBrain demonstrates, search engines are becoming more human. We’ve known for some time that Google understands synonyms, but RankBrain further deemphasizes the need for exact match keywords, and highlights the importance of using several variations of your target keywords. Doing so can also help with providing valuable context and enable your site to rank for long-tail searches you may not even be considering. Additionally, this will make writing content easier by eliminating the need to awkwardly jam the same exact phrase into a page multiple times – even though it’s being tracked by a robot, the key is to write for a human. You have to know your audience. As RankBrain gains more knowledge about how people search, it will be able to discern between different types of searchers and deliver results based on who they are, where they’re located, their search history, etc. For you, this means you need to have a thorough understanding of your audience:

• What they think of your product or service
• When they need it
• How they search for it

In this way, you’ll better understand how RankBrain is coming up with its results. This kind of research will usually lead to some surprises for you. We’ve frequently had clients who wanted to rank for a certain term, because they think it matters in their space, but but our research shows that no one actually searches for that term. We’ve also subsequently found that terms they wouldn’t immediately think of are already associated with their offerings by both Google and potential customers. RankBrain is like this but on a much grander scale and more in-depth. Understanding the process of how your audience searches will put you a step ahead of RankBrain.

Give RankBrain the Context It Desires: The AI is all about understanding the context of the search query and connecting it to the right content. Luckily, semantic markup gives us an easy way to provide the context that RankBrain is looking for. Semantic HTML markup will illustrate what your page is about by tagging the appropriate content, such as letting Google know what your main business phone number is. What type of markup you should use can vary based on your website, buttwo good places to get started are in Your Google Search Console account and Schema.org.

When it’s all said and done, RankBrain is simply creating a more human search engine. And in turn, SEO professionals need to act more human. As long as you focus on creating great content and writing for a flesh and blood audience (and not for the search spiders), your content should find its audience.

Just as long as the killer robots don’t get us first.