Google announced and unleashed RankBrain, their machine learning ranking program, in 2015 — and digital marketers have been watching carefully ever since. RankBrain was referred to as a “top ranking factor,” which led many to ask how to optimize for RankBrain. However, it’s not really a factor like links or mobile-friendliness.
You can’t optimize for RankBrain. RankBrain is a deep learning algorithm performing unsupervised learning. It’s creating its own rules.
Google’s own engineers tell me and others they don’t even really understand how it works. Ultimately, the best way to “rank” for RankBrain remains that same boring thing no one wants to hear despite it being true. Have really good, descriptive content.
There’s no question that good content is one of the most important aspects of SEO in general, or that RankBrain is amplifying the importance of quality content. And it’s true that RankBrain isn’t technically a ranking factor that marketers can check off on a list.
But the SEO community has had about a year with RankBrain now. We have learned and experienced a little more about the program since its launch, and some of the pros think they may have carved out some specific insights about how to work with Google’s new program — it takes a bit of a mindset shift.
(And who better to illustrate the power of a mindset shift than your favorite teen angst delinquents?)
Larry Kim, founder and CTO of WordStream, recommends improving organic click-through rates to increase your probability of success, because he suspects that RankBrain’s “Relevance Score” is the same as AdWords’ “Quality Score.”
RankBrain technology is eerily derived from earlier G-350 technology. You may know it better as Google AdWords’ Quality Score. This intelligent AdWords technology never needed external signals (e.g., links) to rank paid search ads for relevance. Soon it will be the same for organic search.
The future of SEO isn’t about beating another page based on content length, social metrics, keyword usage, or your number of backlinks. Better organic search visibility will come from beating your competitors with a higher than expected click-through rate.
If your click-through rates are less than impressive, focus on improving your SERP snippets. Make sure page titles and meta descriptions echo the user’s need, stand out on the search results page and entice the user to click for more. Simplify URLs so they reinforce value to Google and to users. And — when possible — craft content that targets featured snippet positions in search results. Make your snippet irresistible.
For instance, in the health industry, Google knows that a site like WebMD.com is a reputable site that they would like to have near the top of their searchable index. Anything that looks like the structure of WebMD’s site will be associated with the “good” camp. Similarly, any site that looks like the structure of a known spammy site in the health vertical will be associated with the “bad” camp.
Websites with a large number of different topics, like a how-to site, are more easily flagged as spam, simply because RankBrain can’t figure out who is looking for the content it offers. So, as in high school, copy the cool kids.
Keywords have been changing for years, so this is not new SEO advice — and RankBrain might be the last nail in the coffin of the old way of thinking about SEO keywords. If you haven’t done it yet, it’s seriously time. Yulia Khansvyarova, head of digital marketing at SEMrush, says one key to effective SEO in a RankBrain world is to change the way you look at keywords.
Stop creating pages or content tailored to only one keyword or keyword phrase. For maximum effect, try composing your semantic kernel of both your targeted keywords, as well as their variations and related keywords, and additional words that most commonly appear in the same context as your targeted keywords.
Dr. Pete Meyers of Moz notes that Google is now able to deliver results based not so much on specific keywords, but concepts. His advice for rethinking keywords comes down to three basic steps:
Gather keywords, group keywords into clusters, and generate exemplars — Another way to think of this process is that we’re grouping keywords into concepts, and then converting each concept back into a representative keyword/phrase: Keyword –> Concept –> Keyword. The result is a specific search phrase to target, but that phrase represents potentially dozens or hundreds of similar keywords.
Keywords have changed, and RankBrain is accelerating and sealing that change. If you haven’t been on board, it’s time.
While keywords are still something you need to take into account when optimizing, Yulia Khansvyarova stresses that you should optimize for people, not RankBrain.
[D]on’t try to please search algorithms and systems, focus your attention on providing a better user experience, analyzing your visitors’ behavior and making changes accordingly. If people appreciate your content and consider it relevant, the algorithms will start doing the same naturally.
Google’s own Gary Illyes agrees that the single most important factor in optimization when it comes to RankBrain is to create content that sounds human:
Try to write content that sounds human. If you try to write like a machine then RankBrain will just get confused and probably just pushes [sic] you back.
[I]f you have a content site, try to read out some of your articles or whatever you wrote, and ask people whether it sounds natural. If it sounds conversational, if it sounds like natural language that we would use in your day to day life [sic], then sure, you are optimized for RankBrain. If it doesn’t, then you are “un-optimized.”
To really be effective as SEOs, we still need to understand how this machine thinks, and where it falls short of human behavior. If you want to do truly next-level keyword research, your approach can be more human, but your process should replicate the machine’s understanding as much as possible.
Whether you design and create content primarily for your audience or for search engines, the fact remains that good UX is good SEO. The best answer is probably a realistic balance: understand how RankBrain works and create content that works within that framework — but never at the expense of a good user experience.
Rand Fishkin, the founder and former CEO of Moz, has noted that there is no one set of ranking factors anymore. Rand points out that RankBrain seems to be weighing various ranking factors differently, based on the industry, user intent and so on, implied by the query.
It’s no longer the case, as it was probably five, six years ago, that one set of fixed inputs … governs every single query. Because of this weighing system, some queries are going to demand signals in different proportion to other ones.
Sometimes you’re going to need fresh content. Sometimes you need very in-depth content. Sometimes you need high engagement. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you will need tons of links with anchor text. Sometimes you will not. Sometimes you need high authority to rank for something. Sometimes you don’t. So that’s a different model.
This means that it’s true that we can’t actually optimize for RankBrain, but we can optimize with RankBrain in mind. It adds a layer of research to our SEO processes: figuring out which signals RankBrain is prioritizing for our industry or keyword group.
Like a lot of good SEO research, that means spending more time on SERPs. You’re already Googling keywords to scope out the competition and determine user intent, so look at what else seems to be important:
If Fishkin is right, understanding SEO best practices for each content piece just got more complicated (and more interesting).
If there’s one thing top SEO experts agree on, it’s that RankBrain is making Google smarter and smarter every day. It’s not, strictly speaking, a ranking factor the way links and keywords are, but it is a central factor in how Google delivers organic search results, so it’s worth our time.
If you think the introduction of RankBrain has hurt your company’s organic search rankings, start by reviewing the content itself. Is it helpful and engaging? Is it targeting a topic, rather than one specific keyword? If so, take a look at which pages are ranking well, and see if you can decode which factors RankBrain is prioritizing.
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