Understanding How RankBrain Changes Search

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Craig Smith  |  Founder & CEO

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that a tool as massive as Google was created by humans, but until recently all the programming backing the search engine was man-made. The algorithm is almost unbelievably complex, but programmers created it by building “if-then” situations and rules over time. It was a human programmer who figured out how to teach the search engine to show Nike Running Shoes even if someone called them “fly kicks” or “sneakers.” They helped create a website that more people chose when they were looking for an answer to a question than anything else.

Google continues to develop their algorithm, but with millions of searches each day, the company has to find a way to answer questions it never saw before. In October, the company said that 15% of the questions consumers asked on any given day are completely new to the search engine. To help solve this, they needed to make their search engine smarter.

The result was a new machine learning program they called RankBrain.

How Google Channeled Machine Learning

Machine learning is the ability for computers to make decisions without being explicitly told how to do so. Another Google product, the self-driving car, is a perfect example of this. As the car experiences different challenges like speed bumps and potholes, it learns how to react to those situations.

When the car is faced with a new situation, the it looks at past experiences and makes a new decision. If the car experiences a stuck railroad level crossing, it decides the best course of action is to drive around it instead of ramming through it. This is machine learning at work. In the past, programmers had to try and think of every challenge and code it manually, or the program would return an error message whenever it encountered something it didn’t know how to handle.

Image By JeffeBot. Image Licensed under CC 2.0

It was only a matter of time before Google would use this concept on its search algorithm. Google wants to find a way to give you the best answer your question, even if it never heard it before. They spend a lot of money, and time, improving their algorithm so that it can find the right results, but even the best programmers in the world can’t anticipate every search.

By channeling machine learning, Rank Brain is able to assist Google in these searches by understanding what question you’re asking, and then telling the company’s algorithm what you’re looking for.

What is RankBrain?

RankBrain generated buzz immediately when Google announced it was one of the top three ranking factors (right behind content and links). However, unlike the first two, RankBrain isn’t meant to be the next SEO frontier where marketers scramble if they want to appease the algorithm. Instead, it acts as an interpreter between you and the search engine.

Essentially, RankBrain analyzes search queries to try and figure out what you’re really looking for, no matter how you ask it. It works to anticipate user intent and serve content that’s relevant to the user. Now you can write long, convoluted sentences into Google’s search bar and RankBrain will try to make sense of your query. It’s trying to get into the heads of its user-base to provide them exactly what they want.

Within the SEO field, some experts believe that Google could eventually do away with some of the spammy, or Black Hat, SEO tactics that make finding the right answers so difficult for users. Rank Brain is Google learning how we ask questions, which means it’s learning how we use language.

By applying the same machine learning to a website, the search engine might be able to eventually tell which ones are providing the useful information customers want, making it harder for webmasters to “trick” Google into ranking pages with low quality content. Rank Brain is one of the first experiments by the tech giant in applying machine learning to customer facing technology. If it goes well, it won’t be the last.

Who is Affected by RankBrain?

When Google first announced Rank Brain, they primarily only used it for searches that they never encountered before. More than six months later, the company is now confident enough to use it in every search. But because of how RankBrain works, no website is currently directly impacted by it. Users, however, are.

RankBrain provides context to searches. The program looks at what customers are entering into the search box and attempts to figure out what answer they’re looking for. This includes learning how to identify slang terms, common misspellings, or when the consumer isn’t exactly sure what they’re looking for.

Once Google thinks they know what the searcher is looking for, they try to find the pages that have the best possible answer. If your name or services is often confused with a different industry, then you might actually benefit from this new algorithm. Consider a professional training course that teaches managers how to delegate to employees.

RankBrain works to differentiate the search terms of users who are interested in their services versus those who are interested in delegates attending the Republican or Democrat National Convention. This clarity and context is why so many people use Google in the first place.

How Will RankBrain Affect Your SEO Strategy?

While RankBrain is a user-facing tool, websites could see changes in their traffic due to it. If the content on your site does not have the answers customers are searching for, you could see your organic reach start to drop. But, this doesn’t mean your business should look for ways to optimize for RankBrain. You can’t optimize for it, because machine learning is Google’s attempt to optimize for human beings.

If you’re current SEO strategy is not centered around answering your customer’s questions, you could see your web traffic decrease. Old tactics like keyword stuffing and optimization will become less valuable as Google gets better at identifying tactics it finds manipulative.

As RankBrain keeps growing, intent will become a major part of Google’s search criteria — which will make it a focus for marketers. If you’re already approaching your SEO and web strategy with intent-focused marketing practices, then you’re well on your way to staying on Google’s good side. Optimizing for Rank Brain means designing your website for people, not machines.

How Do Your Build a Strategy Around User Intent?

Most companies that already create quality content and informative product pages are keeping customer intent in mind, whether they realize it or not. This means there will be minimal changes to their content strategy, as SEOs simply need to make a more conscious effort to identify and optimize for intent throughout the creation process.

Before creating a product page, the development team should ask the following:

  • What problem will what I offer on this page solve?
  • What questions will it answer?
  • Does my content match the goals of the audience?
  • Where do I want the customer to go after they read this?
  • Is this a logical request based on the content?

A SaaS company’s blog can create an article called, “7 Ways to Stand Out When Applying for a Development Internship,” as long as they’re trying to attract interns who want a career in development. These college students don’t need a call to action to call a sales representative for a software quote. Keeping the audience intent in mind means tailoring the entire experience to the them, from the first click to their bounce off the page.

RankBrain won’t have a massive impact on how marketers create content and optimize their pages as long they’ve been listening to Google’s advice on quality content for the past five years. Creating content that helps the audience is nothing new, it’s just taken some time for marketers to jump on board.

Rank Brain is Google designing for humans. Companies that want to improve their organic presence should do the same.

To learn more about Trinity Insight SEO and our eCommerce consulting solutions, please contact us to schedule a consultation.

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