Artificial Intelligence and the Rise of Google RankBrain in Search

AI or Artificial Intelligence recently made global news when an AI program beat a human opponent at GO (a Chinese board game). This win underscores the significant progress made in machine learning and the ability of a computer to model human logic. The game is so complex that up until this point experts had thought that it would take ten more years before a computer could beat humans at GO. Unbeknownst to many, Google is behind DeepMind, the company which built the AlphaGo computer program that won the game.

Google is very public about their devotion to using machine learning in their products and services. With access to vast resources of data to draw upon, Google has become one of the biggest corporate sponsors of AI, investing heavily in it for videos, speech, translation and search.

Most recently, Google announced the launch of a new machine learning platform for developers, “Google’s Cloud Machine Learning platform.” Spokespeople from Google stated that machine learning is “what’s next” and highlighted that “Cloud Machine Learning will take care of everything from data ingestion through to prediction,” and “now any application can take advantage of the same deep learning techniques that power many of Google’s services.” Earlier this year Google also made worldwide headlines for developing the first self-driving car system to be officially recognized as a driver in the US.

What has not made as much noise in the headlines is the role that AI plays in Googles’ ranking algorithms. Unless you follow SEO, it’s unlikely that you heard the news last fall when Google announced they have been using a machine learning technology called RankBrain to help deliver its search results or more recently when they announced that RankBrain is one of the top 3 search ranking factors in Google.

This leaves many questions for those in the world of SEO. While the technology and its impacts are very new, there can be concerns in relation to SEO and how Rankbrain can impact your search rankings.

What is RankBrain?

In a nutshell, RankBrain is an artificial intelligence system that is designed to understand how people search and why they’re searching (or their intent when searching). It does this through a mathematical process and advanced (and evolving) understanding of written language semantics that’s intended to help RankBrain ultimately “understand” searchers on a deeper level than simply matching keywords. This should produce search results that more accurately match what the user is looking for.

As the AI continues to run, it will “learn” new patterns and develop a deeper level of semantic understanding, allowing it to refine results, which will effect SERPs (search engine results pages).

How does RankBrain affect Search?

The RankBrain AI converts written searches into mathematical vectors that can be understood and analyzed by computers. Using these vectors, the computer is able to make guesses as to what words and phrases mean and deliver appropriate results, even if the exact phrase is one which has never before been entered into the search engine. This is important because 15% of queries entered into Google are original phrases which the system is seeing for the first time. RankBrain allows the search engine to interpret those queries based on similar queries the system previous encountered and learned. It also takes into account factors such as the location of the searcher; the query “How many tablespoons in a cup?” will return different results in the United States than from Australia because the two countries use differently sized measurements despite calling them by the same names.

What does RankBrain mean for SEO?

Google has stated that, of the hundreds of factors they used to rank websites on SERPs, RankBrain is now the third most important (the top two are links and content). Since RankBrain is intended to improve the quality of the results delivered to searchers, ranking well on the SERPs requires quality content. Since RankBrain focuses on the meanings of phrases rather than matching specific words, using exact-match keywords in content is no longer as important as it once was. Rather, marketing teams should focus on producing in-depth content that relates to the topic they’d like to rank for. The better RankBrain is able to understand the topic of a page, the better it is able to direct relevant searches to that page, even if the queries describe the topic using entirely different keywords. The big takeaway is that high quality and topically relevant content will continue to be favored in Google search.

In general, however, RankBrain does not require a massive shift in SEO strategy. It is not a penalty algorithm like Panda or Penguin, capable of decimating a website’s traffic overnight if it falls afoul of RankBrain’s standards; but rather, one additional ranking factor which is weighed alongside other important measurements such as the quality of inbound links or a site’s mobile-friendliness. In fact, RankBrain was used as a weighting factor in Google’s results for several months before it was officially announced, and no one noticed a cataclysmic shift in site rankings. Google’s ultimate goal is to deliver useful and high-quality results in response to queries, and RankBrain is just the latest tool they’ve deployed in pursuit of that goal. As always, the best SEO practice lies not in chasing the latest trends or buzzwords, but in creating the most useful and valuable content for your visitors.

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Jeff Williams

Jeff Williams is a SEO Project Manager at Fruition based in Denver, Colorado. Jeff uses his deep understanding of SEO and internet marketing to guide clients, optimize websites and ultimately improve search rankings.

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