RankBrain SEO has become the newest big thing in the SEO industry and there are many professionals stating that there are certain actions you must undertake in order to make your SEO practice RankBrain compatible. However, before following any of these advices, take a minute to understand what RankBrain is, how it works, and – last but not least – what can really help you improve your SEO in 2017.
What Is RankBrain?
RankBrain is the closest we get to AI-application in search so far. It was introduced back in 2015 and is by many called an algorithm or referred to as a part of Google’s ranking algorithm. However, neither of these descriptions is precise, as the AI-core of RankBrain makes it much more complex and self-sustaining than what we’ve seen before. It does also result in a specific and somewhat unpredictable behavior due to constant and unsupervised deep machine learning, the mechanisms of which are not completely clear even to Google’s own engineers. Therefore, it would be more precise to refer to RankBrain as AI or at least as a complete entity and not an algorithm.
Unlike Google’s ranking algorithms, RankBrain does not target web pages in an effort to rank them according to a list of predefined criteria. Instead, it focuses on search queries. The idea is to not only interpret and understand the query itself but also the searcher’s intent behind it and thus deliver hyper-relevant results, where ranking criteria are not universal but specific to the particular search. This way Google introduces ranking flexibility, allowing for better match between queries and results based on intent.
Today, we can experience the effects of AI by, for example, getting our query corrected by Google or getting search results that are spot-on, even when the query isn’t precise or doesn’t use the correct keywords. Google is indeed capable of understanding, interpreting, figuring out misspells, acronyms, and synonyms, as well as recognizing keywords with the same/similar intended meaning, even when they aren’t synonyms.
In the beginning, Google experimented with RankBrain on a small portion of primarily new search queries. The idea was to improve the understanding of more complex queries in the era of voice and natural language search. As the experiment with introducing AI seems to have been a big success, Google rolled it out to general search and announced in 2016 that it is the third most important ranking factor.
Since, SEOs all over the world started speculations about how to optimize for RankBrain and many companies jumped right in buying RankBrain-SEO services. You might ask, why this is a problem? Here’s why.
Can You Optimize For RankBrain?
RankBrain-SEO is made difficult not only by the AI-factor but also by the fact that RankBrain targets searcher’s intent and not web pages. The AI-factor is problematic because, as mentioned above, nobody really knows how it works. As a result, optimization advice can only be based on observations and interpretation of what might have affected rankings in relation to specific queries in a particular environment at a specific moment in time. What’s worrying, is that you cannot be certain that what works today will work exactly the same way tomorrow – or for a different set of queries, in a different environment, or when affected by other external or internal factors, such as time, top stories, trends, fake news filters, credibility scores, etc.
The fact that RankBrain works by interpreting searcher’s intent and returning results perceived as best fitting the particular search query, makes it difficult to optimize a site, as it brings knowing your target group and working on offering personalized experiences to a completely new level. You must indeed make a shift in your SEO-strategy from the outdated keyword optimization to customer journey-based optimization. Even though this isn’t, per say, optimization for RankBrain – as such thing does not exist, it’ll certainly help to attract traffic by offering relevant responses to all queries valuable to your business, regardless of which stage in the decision making or purchase process a customer might be at.
Keep in mind that John Mueller from Google has been quoted to say that SEOs should stop optimizing for RankBrain as it isn’t a ranking factor. Gary Illyes has confirmed this by saying that there isn’t any RankBrain score that one can target. He has also explicitly said that it’s not possible to optimize for RankBrain. While you certainly should take this with a grain of salt – as Google has also announced that RankBrain is the third most important ranking factor, the takeout from these two statements is that you cannot rely on traditional SEO-tactics to improve rankings. The principles behind RankBrain, as much as we at all know something about them today, make it push some web pages up the rankings for certain queries, where the searcher’s intent is perceived to fit the combination of freshness, quality, credibility, depth of content, etc., and push them down the rankings in other cases.
This means in practice that SEO is undergoing massive change, where focus on industry-specific ranking factors, targeting the specter of consumer intents, and offering topic-centered content, answering a group of related questions instead of a single question, is the way ahead.
In addition, the deep machine learning has the potential to change the rules for ranking altogether, if data about user behavior is added to the equation, i.e. whether a user found the top-ranking page relevant and interacted with it or bounced and showed preference for a lower ranking page instead.
This being said, and keeping in mind Google’s scary message that a better site isn’t in itself a guarantee for better ranking, you shouldn’t give up on SEO just yet.
Not RankBrain-SEO, Optimization In The Era Of RankBrain
To keep up with the development, you must take into account three very important factors: use of mobile, use of voice search, and RankBrain. While neither of these is something you can incorporate in a stiff SEO strategy, as they are all constantly changing, there’s a lot you can do to maintain or upgrade the value offering of your pages.
MOZ points out that you should research your branch and figure out, which ranking signals are most important. This is necessary because, as mentioned above, in the era of RankBrain ranking signals become heavily dependent on a searcher’s intent. As a result, for some industries it might be credibility (backlinks, depth of content, engagement, etc.) that weighs most, while for other industries it could be freshness, engagement or type of content (text, video, audio, interactive, etc.).
In addition to optimizing depending on industry, web pages should be enhanced individually and not on copy-paste principle to match searchers’ intent at every stage of the customer journey. Content should be topic-centered and offering answers to all questions, related to that particular topic. Optimally, you should offer different types of content on the same topic to match all users’ preferences.
By doing so, you’ll be able to optimize your content for the new trends within search, including grouping of similar topics to provide in-depth answers to different related questions instead of to a single keyword-matched query; and voice search, characterized by the use of random synonymous words and descriptive, natural language queries.
Besides the classic advice to provide quality content and not obsess about length, the only RankBrain-related tip from Google is to use natural language. While this, once again, isn’t an optimization tactic that guarantees high ranking, it is a necessary condition to avoid your content being pushed back. The reason is that RankBrain is programmed to understand and use natural language. If you write as a machine or continue using keyword stuffing or other practices that make text difficult to read, you risk to confuse RankBrain and make it reject your pages.
The advice to use natural language is just as important in relation to user experience and optimization for voice search. It is therefore a good idea to try and read some of your content out loud to someone and ask their opinion regarding text quality. Is it easy to understand? Is it meaningful? Does it answer all related questions one might have about the topic? Is the language proper? Then it’s optimized.
If you have hoped for more, like clear optimization guidelines, I won’t disappoint you. None of them can guarantee you a first position in search but they are all a prerequisite for better ranking. Here they come:
- Keep content fresh. Because none of us is interested in old advice, we look for fresh news. Google reacts to this by delivering fresh results, all else equal.
- Mimic the pros. Do the top-ranking pages have a particular look or is their offering shaped in a specific way? Google perceives these pages as quality results. It is therefore likely that your SEO score might get a boost, if your website starts looking more like these quality pages. Be though careful to not mix mimicking with direct theft of design or content! That won’t end good.
- Having a lot of backlinks, even from low ranking domains, is still good. Work therefore on providing quality content people can link to. Just remember to avoid link schemes.
- Stop optimizing pages for individual keywords. When I was at an online marketing course not so long ago (2013), we were presented with an example of optimized website of a travel agency, where the same destinations were promoted on several pages optimized for different keywords, for example “Trips to Bali”, “Visit Indonesia”, “Holiday in Asia”, etc. Today, this strategy can still work. However, Google’s move to understanding a searcher’s intent makes the use of specific keywords unnecessary. Instead, the focus should be on offering engaging content on the topic, where important keywords are used properly to highlight the subject and make it easy for both search engines and site visitors to navigate through the content and find answers to their questions.
- Optimize for voice search. To do that, you should consider fragmenting the content on every page to target searcher’s intent. For example, if you offer pizzas for delivery, you should optimize a part of your content to answer questions about delivery, such as area or price, and in the other sections focus on types of pizzas you offer, whether people can eat in, etc. This way you know that people are able to find what they are looking for on your pages.
- Make your business visible by employing tools as Google MyBusiness, Merchant Center, and advertising. This is crucial, if you want to be found by potential customers. This is only relevant for businesses offering services or products though.
- Optimize sites for mobile use. Even though the mobile-first index is still in the experiment phase, it will likely be launched before the end of 2017. When this happens, you’ll have to be prepared to offer quality mobile content and fast loading pages on mobile. In addition, you must make sure that your mobile site uses structured data as well as rel annotations.
- Use data. Research what users are looking for, what types of content and which topics they engage the most with, and give them what they demand.
- Offer free knowledge, help, and tools as a sample. This is a great way to increase web traffic, brand recognition, and customer loyalty. Just remember that such knowledge samples shouldn’t be limited in their free version. Offer all you know and can in blog posts or support forums. As a professional you are always developing, so you shouldn’t worry that people won’t need you, if they get a lot for free. Tomorrow, when they come back as paying customers – and they will as they’ll trust you enough to do it, you should be able to give them even more.