Google recently declared RankBrain the 3rd most important ranking signal contributing to search. Since we know there are over 200 signals, this got a lot of people’s attention.

But what exactly is RankBrain and how does it affect search results?

We’ve learned a lot since RankBrain was first announced in October 2015, and I hope today’s post will dispel some of the confusion surrounding this new technology, and help marketers and business owners make the most of a ground-breaking development.

What is RankBrain?

RankBrain is a machine learning artificial intelligence system (AI) that helps Google understand user queries and match ambiguous searches to the correct content.  It works alongside Hummingbird, Google’s overall ranking algorithm, to make sure users see the most relevant information.

Let’s break that down.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the development of computer systems that can perform tasks that usually require human intelligence. In science fiction this usually leads to scary sentient robots, but in real life AI is much less advanced.

Machine learning is a type of AI where the computer system teaches itself new ideas based on the information it processes. As an example, a different Google AI taught itself to recognize cats after watching 10 million YouTube videos.

Why Does Google Need RankBrain?

If you type “best pizza restaurant in Edmonton” into Google’s search box, your intention is clear and it’s easy for Google to offer relevant results.

But if you are lazy like me, and you just type “pizza Edmonton”, you will probably still get the results you are looking for. That’s because Google makes a best guess about your intentions and refines your query before searching.

The problem is that Google processes 3 billion searches per day, 15% of which are brand new queries never seen before, and refining all of the ambiguous or searches takes a huge amount of manpower. This is where RankBrain comes in.

What Does RankBrain Actually Do?

The RankBrain computer system is able to rapidly process huge numbers of historical searches and learn to make predictions about user intentions.

That way, when it sees a search query that it isn’t familiar with, it can make a very accurate guess about what words or phrase might have a similar meaning and modify the query accordingly.

This ability to learn from past searches makes RankBrain very effective at handling poorly worded or unusual search queries, saving human Google employees a lot of time and effort.

What is RankBrain’s Impact on Search Rankings?

When Googled called RankBrain the 3rd most important ranking factor (after links and content), the company unintentionally caused a lot of confusion.

RankBrain isn’t a signal like keywords or authority. You can’t add RankBrain to your website. However, according to Google’s Andrey Lipattsev, RankBrain is cited as such an important factor because it modifies a huge percentage of searches every day.

In simple terms, RankBrain provides a better understanding of user queries, allowing Google to apply the correct algorithms when it generates the search results page.

In the past, Google may have interpreted a query like “Trudeau panda” as a ‘basic information’ search, whereas RankBrain can now identify it as being ‘news’ orientated. The AI system modifies the query accordingly, and Google is able to apply algorithms that reward ‘freshness’ to the search, leading to more relevant results for the user.

There is a good travel-based example of this process in Stone Temple’s post on RankBrain.

How Can I Optimize My Marketing Strategy for RankBrain?

There are two ways the savvy marketer or business owner can make sure their website is optimized for RankBrain.

1. Use microdata to create context for your content.

As machine learning systems like RankBrain become more and more important for Search, making your websites easily understandable to search engines becomes even more valuable.

Microdata (also called schema or semantic mark-up), is a way of tagging your website with hidden information that tells search engines and AI systems exactly what your pages mean.
This not only helps RankBrain to correctly match your content with user queries, but it helps the system to learn about semantics and relationships on the web.

From star ratings to the Knowledge Graph, there are also a lot of other great benefits to using microdata, so it’s definitely something to check out if you haven’t already.

2. Have awesome, 10x content.

RankBrain is part of Google’s push to understand the context of user queries and search for ‘things not strings’. The bottom line is that Google is designing its search technology to weed out spam and point users to the best possible content.

As RankBrain gets smarter and artificial intelligence plays a larger role in search, tricks like stuffing a bad website full of keywords just won’t cut it anymore. On the other hand, if the content of your site is genuinely great, it is going to rank highly. And, you know, users like great content too!

The Bottom Line

RankBrain is leading us into a brave new world of AI search, and it is easy to make the most of this technology by aiming for 10x content and applying microdata to your site – two strategies that both come with multiple benefits.

Artificial intelligence has already had a huge positive impact on Google’s search results, so while we may not be feeling the effects just yet, this is definitely a space to watch for future developments.

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