RankBrain brain picture

How to fine-tune your site content for RankBrain

6 min read
Anne Stefanyk

RankBrain. It sounds like it could be the name of a diabolic character from an early ’90s cartoon trying to outsmart humans and take over the planet.

In actuality, RankBrain is a machine learning software (artificial intelligence) created by Google to help process and rank websites in its search results. See? It’s much more exciting than evil cartoon characters!

Google formally announced the existence of RankBrain in October 2015 and considers it the third-most important signal to rank billions of web pages on a daily basis. The two signals ahead of it are site links and site content. It is believed that RankBrain is responsible for handling roughly 15 percent of the Google searches worldwide, across multiple languages.

How RankBrain works

Before you make any developmental or design updates to your website, it’s important to first understand how RankBrain works.

RankBrain’s mathematical algorithm teaches itself how to deliver the best search results based on the user’s input (your search query). It is just one out of the more than 200 different ranking factors Google uses to rank websites. It interprets your search keywords, guesses what it thinks you’re looking for, and turns up highly-optimized results that do not necessarily contain the exact keywords you used.

In an article for Bloomberg, Jack Clark described it best:

“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.”

As time goes on, the algorithm improves. It takes Google’s three billion daily searches and streamlines them for future results — making it an even better working machine. Needless to say, RankBrain’s robustness is of keen interest to web developers.

For example, let’s say you wanted to know where a movie was filmed, but couldn't recall the name. No problem for RankBrain. By analyzing your search query and using what it’s learned from other people’s similar queries, it knows you’re looking for Jurassic World when you search “where did they film the dinosaur movie Chris Pratt.”

RankBrain Search

When you indicate to Google that the search results were relevant by clicking on the links provided, RankBrain then stores your results in its “memory” — further growing and strengthening the software.

Content + content + content = context

The SEO game is constantly evolving, and the machines are only getting smarter. Google’s creation of RankBrain solidifies the right-hand turn SEO has taken in recent months, heading away from keyword density and straight toward topic modeling. For web developers, this means less SEO-related tactics are needed on the backend, as Google places more focus on content.

RankBrain symbolizes SEO’s foray into topic modeling.

If you currently employ SEO strategies on your website, you are most likely delivering the essentials that RankBrain needs to do its job: content + content + content = context.

From what (little) Google has shared to the general public about RankBrain, optimizing a website solely for RankBrain purposes is not a concrete task to add to your to-do list. The optimization is already being done in your day-to-day site maintenance, just by having content pumping throughout. Remember, RankBrain is focused on what the user searches and is not necessarily rewarding your site with a high rank because of something you’ve done to it.

Descriptors are key

Simply put, it is believed that RankBrain is Google’s way of handling overly wordy search queries. If you’re already including keywords that apply to your business on your website, as well as natural synonyms a person might use to search for your company’s goods and services, RankBrain has what it needs to proceed and can sort the rest out on its own.

Be as descriptive as possible with your site content, without going overboard.

To ensure you website is SEO-friendly for RankBrain in particular, the best approach is to be as descriptive on your website as possible, without being overbearing. It’s standard SEO procedure here: Be repetitive and descriptive enough for Google to pick up on what product, service or your company's competitive advantages are, yet creative enough that a site visitor won’t be put off by your message — simple, right?

Descriptive content examples

If you’re selling spoons, describe them as more than just spoons; talk about what they are used for, what they are made out of, and what shape they are so when someone searches “best utensil for eating soup,” your website offering spoons hits. You get the idea.

Let’s look at another example using a sporting goods store: One of the SKUs for sale on your website is a baseball glove. Are the words you use to describe your baseball gloves enough for RankBrain to sink its mathematical hooks into? Think of what a person would search for in Google if they didn't know the name “baseball glove.” Try to incorporate some of those words into your description of the product on your site.

Consider it a backwards game of Taboo. Your potential site visitor looking for a glove might type in something like this: “Looking to buy something to protect my hand when playing baseball.” The user is typing in every other word but “glove.” Therefore, your product description should include more words than just “glove,” albeit in a dressier way.

RankBrain Sample Search Query

In the search results here, you can see that Google not only named the item the person was really after (a glove), but it also provided helpful instructions on how to buy the right one. This is Google’s RankBrain system at work. The web user doesn’t know all the intricacies of what has happened behind the scenes to deliver their search result, nor do they need to. The job is done!

Knowing what you know now about RankBrain, you can take your existing SEO approach to a whole new level. And if you are already tackling Google’s other criteria for having an SEO-optimized site, you’re already playing ball!