What is RankBrain & How Can You Optimize your Content for it?

RankBrain is the name Google have given to a machine-learning artificial intelligence technology they’ve developed to helps them process Google search queries.  RankBrain is there to study and learn how people search, so that they can better understand the intent of the searcher.

A Note about Machine-Learning

Most computer programs are simply lines of code that are carried out in predefined order to complete a task.   Those lines of code come from a human.  When run, the computer program may be fed a number of different variables, but the programmer will have hard-coded the exact way to respond in every situation.

Machine-learning is different.  Here, the computer program teaches itself.  It learns without being told explicitly what to do by a human.  If you want to learn more about machine learning, there is a great article (albeit a little technical), here.   Machine-learning is very similar to what most of us think when we hear the term artificial intelligence.   When you read about RankBrain, you will hear these terms used together, or interchangeably.

How RankBrain Fits into Google’s Algorithm

The Google search algorithm is called Hummingbird, and there are various parts to the hummingbird algorithm.  RankBrain is one of the latest parts to be added.  You may be familiar with some of the other parts of the algorithm, like Panda and Penguin.  When someone searches at Google, the Hummingbird algorithm whizzes into action, using all of it’s parts, to determine what order to display the web pages in the results pages.

In all, Google probably uses hundreds of different signals to determine page relevance, quality and ultimately ranking position, but RankBrain is the third most important signal.  The two most important factors are links pointing to your site and your content.  This was confirmed by Google in a Q&A session.  You can watch the full Q&A in the video below:

So What Does RankBrain Do?

Simply put, RankBrain is a way of interpreting the searcher’s intent, especially longer complicated search terms that may not have an obvious meaning.   When someone types an ambiguous query into Google, what exactly are they looking for?  RankBrain will try to refine the query to match the user’s search intent.

Google are trying to make sure that the results page they serve up are the best fit for the searcher’s  “intent”.  Google needs to understand exactly what the searcher is looking for, and provide pages that satisfy that search.

How can we Optimize for RankBrain?

First and foremost, write for humans, NOT for algorithms.

The better a web page can match the intent, the more chance it will have of ranking for the search term.  Here is a quote from a website I was reading:


Source: https://www.searchenginejournal.com/google-rankbrain-affect-seo-2016/162153/

If you have been reading my newsletter for any length of time, that should sound familiar.  In fact, if you were a reader of my newsletter 10 years ago, you would have heard me say the same thing, yet only recently have we heard other SEOs offering the same advice.  10 years ago you could rank content by focusing on single keyword phrases, but I warned you against it.  I talked about “themes” and recommended my readers think about “theming content”.   By theming content, rather than optimizing a page around a single phrase, we can most easily create content that lazer-targets a specific searcher intent.

Let me give you an example searcher intent.

If someone typed in “diabetes” in Google, what are they looking for?

Obviously they want more information on diabetes, but Google would find it difficult to match the searcher’s intent because there are a number of different types of diabetes.  There is pre-diabetes, type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes & gestational diabetes.

Clearly Google needs more to predict the searchers intent.

If the searcher typed in “diabetes in pregnancy”, then Google would know that the searcher was asking about “gestational diabetes”.  It’s still not a very specific query though, since gestational diabetes is a big topic.  The searcher may be looking for symptoms & signs of gestational diabetes, tests for gestational diabetes or maybe the risks of gestational diabetes.  The more information they provide, the clearer their intent.

But think of this from a webmaster’s point of view.  If you had a health site, you would want to have a page that could capture this type of “gestational diabetes” traffic.  How would you make sure you could satisfy RankBrain and the rest of the algorithm, so that your page could rank in the top 10?

The answer is in the content you create.  Your content has to be a great match for the searcher’s intent.  If they want to know about the tests for gestational diabetes, then your webpage should be using words and phrases like:

gestational diabetes, glucose, pregnancy, glucose challenge test, glucose tolerance, drink glucose solution, measure blood glucose levels, one hour intervals

Those are just off the top of my head, but you get the idea.  Obviously if you could get a few backlinks to your article with link text like “test for gestational diabetes”, “glucose tolerance test”, etc, then that would be a massive boost in Google (since we’ve already stated that backlinks are in the top 2 important factors for ranking).

So let’s consider a second searcher.  They type “type 1 symptoms” into Google.  Would your page on gestational diabetes be relevant to this search?

Type 1 diabetes is a form of diabetes that people are usually born with, and usually means they are not producing insulin.

If you wanted to capture traffic for that search phrase, you would need a page on your site that talks about type 1 diabetes symptoms.    You might have a page containing theme words like:

insulin production, pancreas, thirsty, urinate frequently, hungry, tired, fatigues, dizziness, weight loss

While this page would satisfy the intent for someone searching for “type 1 symptoms”, it might not satisfy the intent of a searcher asking for “what is type 1 diabetes”.  In this case there would be a separate set of theme words that would all be related to defining the disease.

A few years ago I wrote an article called Niche Vocabulary – Why Poor Content Can’t Hide in Google.  The article explored this idea of themes.  Today, these ideas are more important than ever.  By thinking about the theme of your content, you can directly target your content to specific search queries.  You just need to work out the intent behind those search queries.    When you know that, write your content and let Google’s algorithm match up those search queries to your web page.

Summary of RankBrain Optimization

  1. Get to know your target audience, how they think and what they want.
  2. Create content that people want.
  3. Create content that is highly focused around a specific topic.  Make sure you include the theme words necessary so that Google is in no doubt what your page is about.
  4. Write naturally for humans, not for algorithms.

Ultimately, if you want to rank for a specific keyword phrase, don’t write content around that keyword phrase.  Write content around the searcher’s intent for that phrase.

How Widespread is RankBrain?

Initially RankBrain was only being used on a small number of queries, perhaps 15%.  However, in 2016, Search Engine Land reported that is was now being used on all searches at Google (although it may not be affecting search results for every query).

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3 thoughts on “What is RankBrain & How Can You Optimize your Content for it?”

  1. Glad to see you fully ensconced Dr. Andy.

    I learned a number of years ago (the hard way) that home is best when I fell in love with another country and made quite a biz of selling travel there. Came to the conclusion that the place was more of a “sailor’s paradise” than a place for gringos to go live. In other words a grand place for a vacation.

    Today I am launching my own move back home…of sorts. I have been doing everything from the house for years when I have my perfectly good Workshop in the back yard complete with computer, AC, and pot belly wood stove.

    I have over time become too complacent and distracted. So it’s back to the proven place where work takes precedence. it’s fully dusted, vacuumed and ready! I count myself darned lucky to have such a place. Even Mark Twain had a “writer’s house” down the path a bit and away from the main domicile.

    As for SEO. There is no finer explainer than Dr. Andy on earth. Of course, all your old fans know this.


    Your main fan in Alabam

  2. Frederick Winters

    Great info and follow thru links. Thanks for info as you always keep your subscribers updated, especially improving their sites.

  3. hi Andy, Appreciate you for positing this. Ranking Brain is a really interesting topic and my take away from your article is we need to focus on writing for humans and not algorithm. There is still a lot more we can learn about this top I guess.

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