December 1, 2015: Rankbrain is Google’s latest major algorithm designed to improve the quality of it results across all device types. Much has been made of its self-learning capabilities, but it’s best understood in context with a related Google algorithm released in 2013 known as Hummingbird, because Rankbrain and Hummingbird work closely together.
Rankbrain: Hummingbird on Steroids
RankBrain is designed to handle ambiguous and/or obscure search queries that have not yet been seen by Google’s search engine. Such queries constitute up to 15 percent of queries made to Google each day. According to Google engineer G. Coraddo, who is familiar with the system, “if RankBrain sees a word or phrase it isn’t familiar with, the machine can make a guess as to what words or phrases might have a similar meaning and filter the result accordingly, making it more effective at handling never-before-seen search queries.”
Although Rankbrain’s patent isn’t yet public, it’s likely that when Rankbrain “makes a guess,” it consults a set of “substitution” variables used for the generation of substitute queries. This process has been documented well by Bill Slawski. Query substitutions may arise from substitution rules, query logs (i.e. if the user has made repeated queries for the same conceptual entity using slightly different query language), or a library of conceptual entities.
While all of this might seem abstract to those who don’t spend their lives reading patent applications, the implications for marketers — especially content marketers — couldn’t be clearer. So here are some tips for keeping your content relevant (and visible) in the Rankbrain/Hummingbird era:
1. Think beyond the Keyword. Yes, exact match keywords and keyword phrases in your content still matter, and nobody’s telling you to scrap them. But you need to think more deeply about the actual concepts to which these keywords apply. You also may have to look beyond the ordinary keyword-centric SEO tools you’re using to structure your content. These tools are very good at telling you about current query usage using known keywords, but are ill-suited to discovering synonyms used to refer to the concepts that your firm is relevant to. What language are users, consumers, prospects actually using “in the field” when referring to products and services for which you are relevant? You may need to refer to QA-oriented forum areas (e.g. Quora), service and support discussions carried on with your support team, product FAQs, and technical literature to find the answers.
2. Examine all the signals that contextualize your content. Rankbrain and Hummingbird are brilliant pieces of software but they’re not omniscient. Make sure that any new content you create (or old content you revise) sends the right contextual signals out. Such signals may exist in embedded links (inbound our outbound), standard meta information (H1, H2, etc.), schema information, authorship, and social signals (links to and from relevant groups). And as we know from Humminbird, anything you can do to proclaim your organizational bona fides is likely to contribute to enhanced search cred, so make sure you have established (and approved) Google accounts in place (GWT, GA, Adwords, etc.).
3. Think long-form content. Rankbrain isn’t going to banish the Listicle to the dustbin of history as a form of SEO content, but it’s certainly going to do its part to deprecate it. Why? Because Rankbrain and Hummingbird both use co-occurence as a powerful relevancy indicator. (Co-occurence means the existence of words and phrases in query results not in the query executed by the user, but in related queries logged by the algorithm and mapped via word vectors). When Rankbrain sees a query that it’s never seen before, it looks at co-occurrence in similar queries (along with other variables) before making its decision. Such co-occuring terms are more likely to appear in longer, more discursive articles than in short-form, surface-level “listicle” style articles.
Stay Calm and Optimize On
SEOs tend to freak out whenever Google announces any new algorithm, but few marketers have any reason to panic because of Rankbrain, provided, of course, that they’ve been applied SEO best practices to their content marketing efforts for the past 24 months. Think of Rankbrain as a new development that reinforces the mission that Google has been trumpeting, very publically, for nearly a decade: to organize the world’s information for human beings. If you write naturally, truthfully, cite your sources, and pay attention to standard document tagging conventions, Rankbrain will be a great friend, both in terms of making your own content more visible and making the lower-quality content of your competitors harder to find.