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How to Optimize Your SEO efforts for RankBrain

Google’s RankBrain has grown up and is involved in every single search query. What does it do and, more importantly, what can YOU do?

What is RankBrain?

RankBrain is a machine-learning AI system which helps Google process search results. It was added to the Google algorithm Hummingbird in 2015. Back then, it was improving the handling of previously unknown and of ambiguous search queries. Not very long after RankBrain was introduced as one of hundreds of signals that went into Hummingbird, it became the third-most important ranking signal. The first two of the top 3 ranking factors are Links and Content.

What does RankBrain do?

RankBrain sees patterns between complex search queries and understands how they correlate. It can for example differentiate between languages and ‘easily’ interpret multi-word queries. If RankBrain sees a keyword it isn’t familiar with, the machine guesses what word could have a similar meaning and presents the result accordingly.

And how does it do that? According to one of Google’s top engineers, Paul Haahr, the company doesn’t fully understand what RankBrain is doing. This underlines its artificial intelligence abilities. In RankBrain’s early days, it was already outperforming Google engineers when checking a handful of webpages and guess which they thought would rank on top of the search results pages. Where it was first used for 15% of queries, RankBrain is now active all the time and has a role in every single query.

How can you optimize your SEO for RankBrain?

With Google calling RankBrain being the third most important ranking signal, it has made it to all the SEO Lists for 2017.  This inevitably lead to a stir in the SEO community. When it comes to Content and Links, it’s not that hard to optimize. But can you optimize for RankBrain? No. At least, not according to Google. RankBrain is not a ranking factor that you can check off on a list. It is too dynamic for that.

This doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do. Imagine RankBrain being a human being. What does a human being want from the internet? Fresh, relevant content that is easily accessible. Search queries are ultimately looking for an answer. If you can provide the best answer for a specific search query, you might rank on top. Therefore, it is important to be aware of what users could want from you, and to write fresh, relevant content that is targeted to that intent.

John Mueller of Google Switzerland reminds us of how to make that content accessible. If we make great websites, RankBrain will have an easier time understanding our content. Optimize with the user in mind. Therefore, it is significant to not forget about technical aspects like a quick page speed, a clear page architecture and relevant keywords in page titles and meta descriptions.

Keywords in the RankBrain World

A common disbelief is that RankBrain is so clever, that you do not have to do keyword research anymore. Wrong. Research is more essential than ever, and the way it should be done speaks more to nature than it used to. If RankBrain knows that the keyword “Swiss Alps” should trigger the same results as “Swiss Mountains”, then you do not need to write two different landing pages for those two keywords. This would inevitably lead to keyword stuffing and marginal content. Again, think of RankBrain as a clever human being and use your keyword research to find out what the intent behind the search could be.

Possible user intents for the keyword “Swiss Alps” could be wanting to find out what the Swiss Alps are, what the highest peak in the Swiss Alps is and where to ski in the Swiss Alps. The first two intents can be quite easily grouped together and allow you to write a great informative article on the Swiss Alps and its highest peaks. Depending on the quality of the content, RankBrain could help present your article as an answer to the question “How high is the highest mountain in Switzerland?”  The same article could be on the search result pages when searching for Dufourspitze, the highest peak in the Swiss alps.

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