What Google’s RankBrain Means to Content Marketers

Even squeaky clean white-hat SEOs shudder when Google announces algorithm changes. Months of work can suddenly be washed away overnight, leaving fearless content marketers picking up the pieces and building back our once-great ranking empires. We tend to forget that Google isn’t out to get us; it just has two main objectives that it’s always chasing:

  • Develop search results to better give the customers what they want right away
  • Make the systems and algorithms smarter to reduce the effort on Google developers

Google isn’t trying to punish us with RankBrain; they’re just doing what every other business in America has been doing for centuries — reducing production cost while improving customer experience. Any ranking hits are really just collateral damage. With that, here is what you need to know about RankBrain to calm down your staff and make sure your content plan is still on the right track.

BrainRank Is only One Percent of the Whole Algorithm, but It’s THE One Percent

Image via Flickr by Zoekmachine Marketing Bureau

Before we get into machine learning and overhauling your content marketing strategy, let’s be clear about the scope of BrainRank. Search Engine Land explains that this new update isn’t a complete overhaul of the current Hummingbird algorithm, but rather an additional tool to make it better. It’s not a new car, just a small part of the whole machine.

The good news is that there are hundreds of different parts within Hummingbird that rank the various parts of your website. Are you mobile friendly? Do you have too many pop-up ads? How’s your content? The crazy news is that RankBrain has become the third-most important signal in the few months since its launch. It might be small, but it’s still mighty.

Rise of the Machine (Learning)

As much as we all treat Google as an all-knowing being, building out the algorithm is actually pretty manual. Computers are idiots that are only capable of following our orders, which is why developers across the world view machine learning as the next frontier. Instead of a human creating an endless set of “if-then” rules, they would create a small set of rules and the computer would use them to create its own and make decisions without the human telling it to.

NPR ran a segment showcasing a lab at Berkeley that created “apprentice robots” that analyze situations and make decisions about them. One of the biggest challenges they faced was asking the robot to fold a basket of laundry. Through viewing photographs and videos of humans folding socks, it learned to determine which was the long end and the open end of the sock and fold it correctly. It taught itself what to do what in a specific situation and then moved on to learn something else.

Put Down Your Tin-Foil Hat — This is Good News

The SEO industry can get pretty doom and gloom sometimes, but Venturebeat explained that machine learning could take a lot of the panic out of Google algorithm changes. Historically, humans would have to manually develop an update, release it all at once, and then watch the world burn as most the Internet was affected. With machine learning, there will be fewer algorithm updates because it takes the power out of human hands, and new algorithm updates won’t be as dramatic as what we’ve seen historically.

To Go Boldly Where No One has Searched Before

Another key point that Search Engine Land and Bloomberg said after they spoke with Google is that RankBrain isn’t going to be triggered for every search and page. It’s meant to help the 15 percent of searches daily that Google has never seen before. This means that it will become more adroit at responding to ambiguous long-tail keywords, while quickly learning what results to serve when the Kardashians tweet out a brand new slang term that goes viral.

RankBrain should also help Google better understand synonyms and industry jargon. For example, a “CPA marketing agency” should trigger results that feature marketing vendors that perform on a cost-per-acquisition basis, instead of marketing agencies that specialize in promoting certified public accountants. Google created RankBrain to better determine what your search intent is and serve you correct results on the first try.

How Do You Think About Customer Intent?

Many SEOs are still trying to understand the full impact that RankBrain will have on our industry, but the preliminary results are in: not much. To be clear, not much as long as you already create quality content with customer intent in mind. In the meantime, here are two things you can do today  to create your best RankBrain first impression.

1. Evaluate Your Website for Usability

If the last time you did a health-check on your website was during Mobilegeddon, then it’s probably time to step back and review how usable your site is. We all seem to have an insatiable thirst for new technology and come back from conferences with a list of new widgets and beta tools to better understand our customers. How have these new tags affected your site speed? Are your three different survey pop-ups to better understand your customer actually driving them away? Grab someone unfamiliar with your brand and see if your new gadgets are getting in the way of best practices.

2. Make Sure Your Content Has Customer Intent in Mind

Audit your landing pages and make sure your links are going to where the customer would want to go, even if it’s not directly deep into the funnel. Is your content based entirely around driving customers to product pages, or are you creating a helpful experience that answers their questions thoroughly? Moving forward, create content with user intent in mind, and ask yourself and your team if what you’re putting out is actually helpful to your visitors, or if it’s just a slick move for linking purposes.

RankBrain is going to be getting smarter, which means SEOs will need to be smarter and better at what they do. Previously, humans have been able to look at a bad link and say, “I see what you did there, and that’s not helpful,” while it might have slid past the algorithm. Those days are numbered. The algorithm is going to be getting a more human touch, and a better understanding of our behavior — even as fewer actual Google engineers and people teach it and tell it what to do. Yes, the machine is learning, and it’s learning about us.

Of course, we’re all squeaky clean white hat SEOs who have never tried to slide one past Google before, right? We all have high-quality content and a wonderful user experience with traffic growing daily. If you don’t, you might want to call us. We can help your content get on the right track so it impresses even a well-educated Google robot.

About the author

Amanda Dodge