RankBrain, Google’s newest addition to its Hummingbird algorithm is an AI machine-learning tool that completely changes the SEO game. Here’s everything you need to know, and what to do about it.
SEO is a never-ending task. As Google continues to refine its algorithms, you need to continue refining the way you are delivering value to your readers.
Ultimately, that’s what SEO is measuring – it’s not a list of tricks to tick off. Essentially, being ranked well is about doing everything you can to make your user’s experience interesting, useful and easy. However, understanding a little about how search algorithms work (more specifically, the signals that Google uses to decided how to rank you) can help you in this.
Google’s newest release, RankBrain, isn’t another algorithm, but a clever addition to Hummingbird, its current one. Google often talks about the 200 main ranking signals it uses to evaluate a web page. Since its launch, RankBrain, a machine-learning artificial intelligence system, has become the third most important signal, just behind content and links. It’s clearly worth taking note of.
RankBrain – AI learning, better results
RankBrain works by sorting search results – it’s clever because it looks at how people interact with a search and then tweaks the algorithms to suit. It will shuffle around important signals like backlinks, content freshness or length, and domain authority, then look at whether this change delivered a better result. If it did, that tweak stays. RankBrain decides whether the result is ‘better’, based on the user behaviour. For example, if lots of people click on and spend time on a page from their results, that page gets a boost. And the opposite is true. Pages people open, and then bounce back to the search results, will get dropped in the rankings next time.
RankBrain also does a better job of understanding unusual searches. 15% of the keywords typed into Google are totally new – no one had ever typed that search before. That amounts to about 450 million keywords every day that Google didn’t really know how to process. So it would look through pages to find exact search terms, and would guess at what the searcher was trying to find.
For example, someone might search ‘Elon Musk’s solar panels’. Google would look for pages that contained each of those words – you might end up with blogs about solar panels that also mention Musk. RankBrain is smarter and can figure out what you’re actually looking for, rather than just looking for words on the page – you’ll be delivered results about Tesla’s Solar Roof.
RankBrain works by using its human-like understanding to match these new searches to ones that have been searched before. For example, the system may have spotted that other searchers who type ‘Elon Musk’s electric car’ ultimately landed on pages about Tesla cars. So it reasons that people who type ‘Elon Musk’s solar panels’ are probably looking for Tesla’s Solar Roof. It therefore will prioritise pages about the roofing over ones that simply have all those individual search words.
Basically, RankBrain goes beyond matching search terms to keywords in a webpage. It can understand your search terms on a conceptual level, and finds results that best fit that.
So does this all sounds a bit terrifying? It’s not really. The truth is, the more sophisticated the algorithms become, the less you need to worry about them. It means you can get back to the marketing basics and focus on understanding your readers and delivering value to them, without worrying about shoe-horning in keywords.
Here are some SEO habits you can get into, to better serve your readers (and work well with RankBrain).
5 tips to get more clicks (so RankBrain loves you)
Use long-tail keywords wisely - While long-tail keywords still have their place, they’re much less important than they were. Before RankBrain, it made sense to build hundreds of pages on your site, each built around slightly different key words, eg ‘Best Auckland digital marketing agency’ and ‘Best digital marketing agency in Auckland’. RankBrain now knows that these terms are basically the same and will deliver almost identical search results. It means your hundreds of pages are now in competition with one another – you might as well shut all but one down, and focus your attention on making that one as useful and compelling as possible. That makes sense to the readers too – hundreds of almost identical pages won’t make their lives easier – and at worst it makes things extremely confusing.
Focus on medium-tail keywords - A medium tail keyword has more specifics than a single keyword – eg ‘white leather sneaker’ vs ‘sneaker’, or ‘top ten takeaways Auckland’ vs ‘takeaways Auckland’. It’s also not getting into the now-pointless domain of the long tail keyword. That means if you choose medium-tail keywords that work for your readers, RankBrain won’t just rank you for that term, but also for terms that mean the same thing. ‘Top ten takeaways Auckland’ will also be ranked for things like ‘best cheap eats Auckland’.
Write headlines that connect with the reader - Creating headlines and content that really connect with your reader is one of the keys to ranking well. That means understanding your audience – their thoughts, feelings, fears and motivations – and creating content that delivers to that. Highly emotional headlines are shared more too – but the content needs to deliver on that emotion, otherwise you’ve become click bait. Your articles’ headlines (and the title tags that get seen in a search result), need to speak to your reader on an emotional level.
Here are some examples:
SEO Copywriting – A Totally Useful How-to Guide
While this at least accurately describes the content, it lacks emotional punch.
Here are some ways you could boost the emotion, so that the line speaks directly the audience (while still keeping the keywords in there). Choosing between them depends on your audience – are they worried about potential knowledge gaps or excited by the opportunities to know more?
Are You Doing SEO Copywriting Wrong? Here’s Your Guide.
Crush The Competition With This SEO Copywriting Guide.
A clever hack: use brackets in headlines - A tip from this study found that titles with brackets outperformed ones without, by 33%. Why? It doesn’t say – it might be that brackets allow you to say the same thing in different language, add humour or emotion to an otherwise keyword-dense and straight-talking headline, or give weight to an important extra fact.
Here are some examples:
Google RankBrain guide (tl:dr you don’t need to freak out) - adds humour to straight headline
Google RankBrain guide (three proven tips) - says same thing in different words
Google RankBrain guide [infographic] - gives weight to important keyword
Include data in your headline - Most studies suggest that using numbers in your posts improves click-through rates – and remember, clicks are RankBrain gold. That could be as simple as a headline like, ‘5 tips to making RankBrain love you’. Even better is if you have real data to share, like: 23% traffic boost in 2 weeks with these Google RankBrain tips
Keep people on your site longer (two key steps)
Tell people they’re in the right place. When someone clicks on your site, they want info fast – don’t make them scroll or work hard to figure out they’re in the right place.
- Keep your content above the fold.
- Write a short intro that sells the article, rather than introducing the topic.
Write in-depth content
There’s a myth that people don’t like reading long articles online. People DO read online, they just won’t wade through a long, long wall of text.
Writing longer articles doesn’t just keep people on your site longer. It also reduces the chance that they’ll bounce off your page and onto another from their search result – a sure sign to RankBrain that your content didn’t do the trick for the reader.
So go for longer, meatier articles that give comprehensive information. Your content should deliver everything to readers so they won’t go looking for more.
Break things up
Your long article needs to be broken up into chunks – add compelling subheads, infographics, bullet lists, images and call-out boxes. These signpost the information so readers can find exactly what they’re looking for fast. It also removes that text wall, making the content feel instantly easier to read.
A game changer that takes it back to basics
While Google’s algorithms become ever more complex, the good news is your marketing job is getting simpler. You can see that RankBrain and the rest of Hummingbird are designed to spot useful and entertaining information. That’s what you’re hoping to create too.
The to-do list for creating pages that work best with RankBrain could be taken directly from any page of a Marketing 101 book – produce unique, comprehensive, interesting content, break it up with subheads and graphics, and attract people to it with compelling, descriptive headlines and title tags. The outtake here is actually simple: focus less on what Google is doing, and more on how you can best deliver to your audiences. RankBrain will do the rest.
If you'd like to know more, get in touch with Emma Clarke at The Selective.