Google RankBrain was in the news quite a bit in 2017. Google announces algorithm changes only when they are significant, so the fact that they told Bloomberg about RankBrain told us that we should pay attention. Here are five things you need to know about it.
#1: RankBrain is a Component of Google’s Algorithm
One common misconception is that RankBrain is a new algorithm. It’s not. Rather, it’s an algorithm component. You might hear it referred to as an update, akin to these other updates from recent years:
Each one of these components plays a specific role. For example, Pirate’s job is to identify copyright infringement, and Pigeon prioritizes local searches.
#2: RankBrain Provides Context for New Searches
You know that RankBrain has a purpose, but what is it? Here again, there are a lot of misconceptions and false information floating around.
RankBrain’s job is to provide context to searches when necessary. Most searches are straightforward. According to Google, approximately 15% of searches are new, involving search terms that haven’t been used before. RankBrain was invented to help Google return relevant results for those searches.
The example Google provided is an odd search term, one that clearly needs context. It is:
What is the title of a consumer at the highest level of a food chain?
That’s an oddly worded sentence. The searcher appears to be looking for the term “apex predator,” but the word “consumer” usually refers to a purchase. You can see why Google might want some context to interpret this search.
Specifically, RankBrain creates vectors for search terms, using linguistics and other contextual clues to return the proper results.
#3: RankBrain Can Learn and Improve
RankBrain uses something called machine learning. This is not the same thing as artificial Intelligence. Machine learning can occur in two ways:
In supervised learning, the machine uses a classified set of data to learn. It can then apply what it learns to unknown sets of data it encounters.
In unsupervised learning, the machine uses unclassified data to learn.
We can illustrate how it works using a simple search term, red apple. Someone who uses this term might want information about fruit, but they might also be looking for a red Apple computer. On its first try, RankBrain might include a mix of links, some referring to fruit and others to computers.
Over time, if multiple searchers click links related to Apple computers, RankBrain will refine its results and provide fewer links related to fruit.
#4: RankBrain is the Third Most Important Element in Search
Just as it’s rare for Google to announce algorithm changes, it’s unusual for them to say anything definitive about which elements make the biggest impact on a website’s ranking. That said, they made an exception for RankBrain.
According to Google, RankBrain is the third most important element in search. The ranking, as we know it, goes like this:
The high importance given to RankBrain explains why it’s important to understand it.
#5: Your Site is Probably Optimized for RankBrain
By now, you’re probably wondering what you can do to optimize for RankBrain. The good news is, you’ve probably already done it.
Gary Illyes from Google gave an interview about RankBrain. He pointed out that although RankBrain runs in the background of every search, it only provides context when needed. There’s no point in trying to optimize for new searches, especially if they’re as awkward as the one listed above.
The best thing you can do to optimize for RankBrain is to write your content for people, not machines. If you try to game the system, you’re more likely to confuse RankBrain than to improve your rank.
Google RankBrain is important, but you don’t need to worry much about it. A site that’s relevant and has compelling content will earn a high rank from Google and won’t require the intervention of RankBrain to do it.