The Real Impact of Google’s RankBrain on Search Traffic

The advances of new automation and artificial intelligence software algorithms, including those that learn predictive models from historical data, are making increasingly consequential predictive decisions.

Such decisions are having an impact on the lives of people in domains as diverse as digital media, advertising, finance, credit, employment, education and criminal sentencing.

A New Generation of Optimizing for Search Engines

Marketers and companies need to understand that we are entering into a new generation of optimizing websites for search engines.

While many principles and tactics stay the same in search engine optimization, we cannot deny the current path of technological breakthroughs, such as the introduction of complex machine learning algorithm systems like Google’s RankBrain.     

To the non-search engineer, CTO or data scientist, the concept of RankBrain may seem too technical and intimidating, but it is one that chief marketing officers for brands -- not just technically savvy search marketers -- will have to understand to be competitive in 2017 and beyond.  

In this post I will cover:

  • What is RankBrain, exactly?

  • How search results are being changed.

  • How a startup can evolve their digital marketing strategy for machine learning search algorithms.

  • Why using PPC advertising might be more important than ever.

An Intro to Google’s RankBrain

RankBrain is a machine learning artificial narrow intelligence system that was introduced to the public in 2015.  Bloomberg was the first news publication in mainstream media to break the news about Google’s newest search ranking factor in an interview with Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist at Google.

RankBrain is designed to better understand the meaning behind the words a person uses and types into his or her search engine because 15% of queries per day had never been seen by Google before.

This concept is explained in this article detailing their algorithm’s ability to better understand word relationships.

You will definitely want to learn more about this technology. 

The Rise of Mobile: a Primary Driver of RankBrain’s Existence?

Voice search has been on the rise for a while now. Mary Meeker, a partner at the VC firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, states in this presentation that voiced search is up 7 fold since 2010.

RankBrain deals well with the conversational long-tail queries that are common to voice search today. Mobile search behavior has been a game changer when it comes to queries with AI assistants: Siri, Google Now, Cortana as well as those coming from voice assistants such as Alexa and Google Home.   

A Rundown of What RankBrain Actually Does

RankBrain was designed to better analyze the ml-models.pnglanguage of websites in Google’s index in order to apply that analysis to a particular search query.

Because there are a number of core algorithms that exist to parse queries in Google’s search pages, it is RankBrain’s job to learn what mixture of these core algorithms can best be applied to each type of search result.

By better understanding, the search query, Google’s search has a more precise ability to match users with websites and pages.

Will Google Really Understand Your Query Better?

The purpose is to better understand the meaning of content and the intent behind a search query. Once it understands the intent, it can presumably apply appropriate Google algorithm signals that deserve the most weight to determine what results to show based on the search query.   

A search result will bring up websites that include a mixture of hundreds of algorithm ranking factors used to determine the relevance of the page in relation to the search query. Along with the ability to better understand concepts on a web page, RankBrain also allows for a better understanding of the association between multiple queries, such as:

“Where is the Eiffel Tower?”

Followed by:

“How tall is it?”      

How Does RankBrain Actually Learn?  Examples of RankBrain in Action.

During an SMX West Expo conference, speakers Marcus Tober, founder of Searchmetrics, and  Eric Enge, CEO of Stone Temple consulting, respectively, shared examples of RankBrain working in action. One of the studies showed how RankBrain better interpreted the relationships between words.

This can include the use of stop words in a search query (“the,” “and,” without,” etc) — words that were historically ignored previously by Google but are sometimes of a major importance to fully understanding the meaning or intent behind a person’s search query.   

Another source of RankBrain information is from statements by Gary Illyes in conversation with Eric Enge.

I mean, if you think about, for example, a query like, “Can you get a 100 percent score on Super Mario without a walk-through?” This could be an actual query that we receive. And there is a negative term there that is very hard to catch with the regular systems that we had, and in fact our old query parsers actually ignored the “without” part.  

It’s also able to parse patterns between searches that are seemingly unconnected, to understand how those searches are similar to each other.

Let’s say we use the example of the comedy TV series “The Office.”  This is an example of a search that would be taken out of context without reading and incorporating the all-important “the” word if it was indeed typed into to the search box.  

There are several theories on how RankBrain may use data to learn to show the best results for a query.

It is also completely possible that a person’s engagement with the search result might be a factor in how RankBrain determines the relevancy of a result, as Rand Fishkin founder of Moz, suggests in a keynote last July 2016.  

Here’s a visual of that concept from Rand Fishkin’s keynote presentation: 

How RankBrain Works with Other Google Algorithm Ranking Signals

In 2016, a Googler named Andrey Lipattsev confirmed that RankBrain was now among it’s top three ranking signals for search, along with links and content as the other two most influential factors. This is an important concept for marketers and business owners to understand.

Google clearly stated that the signals that the SEO marketing world believes to be important still matter quite a lot: quality content and authoritative links.    

While the content on a website and its links are both vital to determining meaning and relevance, RankBrain works in partnership by assisting the Google search engine to better determine if a website is the most relevant to the searchers implied intent–based on signals and algorithms.

According to Aleh Barysevich the CMO of, there are 7 ways Google rewrites search queries behind the scenes to produce better search results.     

The Impact RankBrain has for Big Brands     

With machine learning, RankBrain learns associations over time.

This means that if a brand becomes associated with a certain product, the queries about that product may lead to more branded search results.

Because Google tends to favor or give preference to bigger brands for a variety of reasons, with RankBrain metrics like a site’s engagement rate, mentions of the brand across multiple social media sites, and so on, may further enhance partiality.

This may also happen in spite of the fact that some larger brands may have a weaker link profile than some other competitor websites in their respective industry.

What RankBrain Means for Your SEO and Online Marketing Strategy

OK, now for some action items …

SEO and Your Content    

First, let’s discuss content.  

For many marketers, it’s actually just business as usual. You should examine your content to ensure it provides the best, most comprehensive answers to satisfy a particular query, whether you are trying to rank for an informational page or selling a product or service.

RankBrain is a machine learning system, but it still needs input from your site. It’s working better to understand and make connections about concepts.

For example, we can give RankBrain credit for understanding a page is about baseball even if the words, and only the words, “New York Yankees” and “Boston Red Sox” are present on a page.   

One of the goals of SEO is to better help search engines understand what your content is about.

It is still crucial that you make sure to include the keywords that are relevant and important to your company on your website’s pages. This includes “stemming” keywords (if you took the word “search” and made additional keywords from the word search such as “searcher,” “searches,” “searching,” “searched,” and “searchable.”) while using prefix, suffix, or pluralization, synonyms and natural word variations to help make connections between ideas.

Another example of this could be the word “mercury.” You could use this word “mercury” 12 times on a page, but if you forget to use the word “planet”, then the search engine may be confused about the subject of the page. Is it an element, a car, insurance or something else?   

This is when the time for exploring and implementing structured data markup, which helps search engines to better make connections as to what a page is about more easily, is essential.

Bruce Clay, a veteran SEO marketer, discusses how SEO professionals should approach RankBrain in this podcast.

Remember, the Little Things Matter as they Always Have in Search Engine Optimization      

You will want to continue to pay attention to make sure your search results listings stand out from the crowd if one of your marketing goals includes ranking on the first page.  That means ensuring each web page has unique metadata in addition to exploring other ways you can make your page stand out; using schema markup and useful, engaging content.

Another question to ask: once people land on your website, is it helping them move farther along in their journey by offering up related content that explores a topic/product/service or more?  

This can be done by siloing your content to create subject themes around the key terms that will help your website rank on search results pages for your business.  

RankBrain and Digital Marketing Strategies

I mentioned earlier that RankBrain will likely favor big brands.

So what happens if you are a startup or small business?

Now is the time to start thinking about improving your online marketing team and strategy, if you haven’t already. While it’s a great idea to have a robust and thorough SEO and content marketing strategy, it’s never a great idea to put all of your eggs or marketing budgets in one basket, so to speak.    

In the era of RankBrain, even though the basics of search engine optimization that marketers know and love are still crucial, it is suggested that you also think of creative ways to grab that SERP real estate.

That could mean if you are not in the upper echelon of well-known brands online, you could consider supplementing your search marketing strategy with PPC advertising.  

Also, Google is pushing organic results down even further in SERPs. When it took away the right rail of ads and added a 4th ad now being shown for commercial and transactional queries, we see this in action.

On December 15th, 2016, Google rolled out a new desktop search interface that mimics its modular mobile user interface. To those unfamiliar with the mobile design, the new desktop design actually looks like it and consists of a "tabular" design that highlights search features in boxes.

This is essentially imitating the desktop Knowledge Graph real estate, which appears in the right-hand rail of the search engine result page and allows for featured elements to frequently display Twitter carousels, People Also Search For, and Top Stories (vertical and horizontal design) modules.    

Critical Technical SEO Issues to Examine  

In the age of RankBrain, these foundational technical SEO issues still matter.

Prioritizing an SEO to do list is is important for business. Focus your resources on SEO work that is actually going to improve rankings, increase clicks and drive revenue.

Most companies should focus on engagement SEO work, but technical tasks can’t be ignored completely — especially if you have major problems.  Some issues you may want to tackle as soon as possible include blocked resources/crawl issues which will limit the amount of traffic coming into your website.

The site is not optimized for mobile, and its performance or the speed of your site on both desktop and mobile will limit the amount of people that stay on your website or visit more pages.

This, will, in turn, decrease the relevance on Google’s search engines.

RankBrain Is Not the End of SEO but it is Changing it.

If your company is worried about how RankBrain impacts SEO, there is quite possibly more to worry about than you may think.

RankBrain is search results relevance on steroids.  Simply put, you must improve your content relevancy to match the query intent. Yes, SEO best practices are crucial to traffic, and rankings are competitive than ever. 

But, it’s also important for startups to focus their content marketing strategies, from a macro and micro level, and how your website’s content (as a whole) helps to answer the questions your audience is looking for.  

And don’t forget to supplement your digital marketing strategy with things like paid search, remarketing social and other channels to keep your brand top of mind.

Technology is advancing rapidly, and buyer expectations and demands are evolving alongside these innovations. Today’s critical SEO priorities will be tomorrow’s outdated practices because search engines are designed to cater to people, and people change.  

A few SEO takeaways that John Rampton mentioned in Techcrunch article to keep in mind:

  • Each competitive keyword environment will need to be examined on its own.

  • Most sites will need to stay niche to avoid misclassification.

  • Each site should mimic the structure and composition of their respective top sites in that niche.

Do you have insights on the impact of RankBrain on search rankings?