Since its arrival on the SEO scene in 2015, Google RankBrain has been the talk of the town. As well as looking to understand what it does and how it works, marketers have been keen to find out how they can make it work for them. While RankBrain is primarily a user experience tool, it’s definitely a development that SEO marketers need to take note of. I’ve put together a back-to-basics guide to help you understand RankBrain and tailor your SEO strategy to make the most of it.
Introduction to SEO
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation. It refers to all the major search engines – Bing, Yahoo and Google and others – but is primarily used in reference to Google, since that is the best-known and most popular option internationally. When you optimise your content for a search engine, you find ways to make its topic more easily recognisable and to support that it is high quality rather than spam or duplicate content.
When you type a query into Google’s search bar, you’re presented with a list of results that match what you’re looking for. As a marketer, your job is to make sure your company’s content comes up in these listings, and comes up as high as possible. That means figuring out what your audience is searching for and how to match up your answer.
While SEO can be a complicated a process, it starts with a few basic focuses. First of all, you need to think about your keywords. Once you know the area you’ll be writing about, you can use tools such as the Keyword Planner on Google Adwords to give you inspiration. Search for related keywords and perhaps even more popular terms that will help strengthen your article. You then need to think about where you place them in your article. You should always ensure its included in your title, and where possible in high ranking subtitles. It’s not just the article itself you need to think about – image alt tags also play a key role in SEO results.
Another key factor to consider when working on your SEO strategy is link building. These come in two main varieties: inbound and outbound. An inbound link is placed on another website and leads to your page; the number and quality of your inbound links is one of Google’s most important determining factors when deciding where your page will appear in the search listings. An outbound link is placed on your website and leads to other, related websites. You should make sure to link to sites with a high domain authority and relevant information.
Of course, much of SEO best practice has developed through trial-and-error and is constantly changing, because it is dependent on Google’s algorithms. These algorithms have undergone a number of transformations over the recent years.
Introduction to Algorithms
Algorithms are essentially rules laid out by Google – and other major search engines – that determine the value of webpages. When you type a query into the engine’s search bar, the Google “spiders”, as they’re known, set out to scour the web for matching terms. They’ll check whether the pages they find match up to the conditions laid out in the algorithm, and how they compare to other sites. This process determines which pages appear in your results listings.
Google’s algorithm is complex, with an estimated 200 factors taken into consideration. It’s also constantly changing, with its many updates often making marketing news. One of the most talked-about updates was known as Google Panda. Activated in 2011, Panda was designed to weed out low-quality content on the web. It targeted duplicate content and what’s known as black-hat SEO in particular, penalising the sites that used these techniques in an attempt to boost their rankings. Panda is still in operation today, although it’s seen a number of updates since its launch.
Another update that sparked much discussion amongst marketers was Google Penguin. This specifically spoke to SEO techniques – penalising the use of “black-hat SEO” and rewarding “white-hat SEO”. This update targeted manipulated and paid-for links, as well as pages that showed obvious keyword stuffing.
In 2013, another new update was rolled out – Google Hummingbird. This update is said to be the most sophisticated yet, as it introduces the idea of context. While Google has historically relied on synonyms to find relevant search results, Hummingbird operates what’s known as a semantic search, where it considers not just the word, but its place within a sentence. Steve described it as thinking “about why people are looking for something rather than what they are looking for”. One of the key components of this update is known as RankBrain.
What is RankBrain?
RankBrain is part of the Hummingbird update, and relies on the latter’s context-driven search. It’s a machine-learning artificial intelligence system. Machine-learning means that the computer can teach itself based on information it intakes, rather than needing a programmer to put in commands.
When most of us hear “artificial intelligence”, the film The Terminator springs to mind. Unfortunately, (or should that be fortunately?) RankBrain is not quite that sophisticated. It has been characterised as artificial narrow intelligence – or ANI – which occurs when a machine is able to develop intelligence that is equal to or beyond that of a human in one specific area. In other words, while RankBrain might be able to decode context, it won’t be leading an electronics uprising any time soon.
RankBrain provides a new way for Google to categorise the pages it scans beyond looking for keywords. By understanding what the consumer is looking for, Google is able to match pages that might not have the exact terms typed in, but have relevant or related content.We know that in the past Google has been able to do this through synonym searches. But those techniques typically required a human somewhere along the way, to enter synonym lists and update commands. RankBrain, on the other hand, is able to identify patterns between words and grow its own understanding to use for future reference. It’s become much less like inputting information into a calculator and more like taking a query to a librarian.
How Should That Affect Your SEO Strategy?
The Hummingbird update has largely focused on User Experience, so won’t have the same impact on SEO strategy as Panda and Penguin before it. However, because the algorithm is now looking at more than just keywords, the quality of your content has become increasingly more important.
The Google spiders are now looking for much more than matching terms. They’re looking at context, to see whether your information will be interesting and relevant to the search user. That means that as well as thinking about related terms and phrases, you need to ensure that your keywords are properly placed in a sentence and are used to their truest meaning. Often, SEO marketers fall into the temptation of cramming their buzzwords into sentences that don’t quite fit – or where another word would make more sense. Now that RankBrain has a more understanding eye, this could hurt your SEO score.
It’s also worth noting that RankBrain’s learning capacity also means that it comes with a more sophisticated idea of memory. As well as retaining information that it finds on webpages, it is now able to add a positive or negative association. This means that high authority webpages are likely to leave a good impression – and so are the sites that resemble them. It’s worth having a look at your top-ranking competitors to see what key elements Google might be favouring.
RankBrain has made a serious impact on Google’s algorithm; since its recent release, Google itself has already ranked it as the third most important factor. Since there are more than 200 to consider, that’s a serious achievement. It is worth remembering, however, that there are still two that rank above it. Those remain the obvious suspects: content and links. That means that while the new developments look to be great news for marketers who are producing high-quality content, it’s important not to forget about traditional techniques.
What Can We Expect in the Future?
There’s a lot of buzz about RankBrain, perhaps because it signifies a new era in artificial intelligence. The capacity to teach itself feels, to many, like the first step towards creating computers that can replicate the human brain. For SEO marketers, that suggests that content marketing could soon become less of a numbers game and much more dependent on quality. When algorithms read in the same way humans do, there will be no shortcut to good content.
One of the most important objectives that RankBrain is designed to meet is delivering the best possible user experience. To do this, it takes into account a number of factors – including accessibility on different platforms (exemplified by the infamous Mobilegeddon) and location. We can only expect further developments in this field as Google continues to search for what users want – which means that SEO and content marketers will need to do the same.
What do you think of Google’s RankBrain update? Has it affected the way you go about content marketing and SEO? Let me know in the comments below.
(As appeared earlier on Huffingtonpost: https://bit.ly/2OhT4Mn)
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