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What is Google RankBrain and How Does it Work?

Google’s RankBrain has almost everyone in the digital world confused, curious and craving more knowledge. As with every other time that Google releases an algorithm update, the SEO industry momentarily loses the plot whilst they try to regain Google’s narrative. We all run around with furrowed eyebrows trying to figure out what is going on and what it will mean for our own digital endeavours.

Many false conclusions are drawn and accusations are made before, eventually, Google releases an official statement. Here they kindly let us all know what the changes are and what to expect moving forward. Unfortunately, at this present time, the only direct source of information we have is via a video and article released on Bloomberg. There are other credible sources available of course, such as this one from Moz, but they all largely reference the former.

The Rise of Machine Learning

From what we know so far, RankBrain is a form of artificial intelligence capable of machine learning. For the less tech savvy of you out there, machine learning is the process of a computer teaching itself how to do something. This is much different to the ordinary process of a human inputting information or programming a machine with sets of data.

Google confirmed the use of RankBrain back in October 2015 and said that it helps them to process search queries and provide more relevant results to users. Within the Bloomberg article mentioned above, a leading research scientist from Google states that “a very large fraction” of search queries have already been interpreted by RankBrain. So how does it work? This is where it becomes a little tricky…

Insane in the RankBrain

The process works by embedding huge amounts of written language into mathematical entities that Google calls ‘vectors’. The amount of data and language used within these vectors is astronomical – you would go insane trying to fathom it all yourself. So if RankBrain receives a phrase or term it is unfamiliar with, it can attempt a guess as to what they might mean by referencing other words and phrases that have similar meanings.

Results are then filtered accordingly and overtime will be suitably ranked depending on how many times a particular piece of web content acts as a positive result for unfamiliar phrases. This makes Google a lot more effective at handling search queries that have never been seen before.

A Lehman’s Explanation

To put it simply, Google will play a game of word association with the terms used in your search query. Based on the findings from this game, RankBrain will hazard a guess as to what your unfamiliar search query is looking for. If a particular web document or page is frequently selected by users as the answer to the query, RankBrain will learn over time that this is the best source of information for the query and will up-rank it. For this to be possible, RankBrain must have huge memory capabilities and must work out relevancy by itself; without human intervention.

Is it Really Artificial Intelligent?

No, it is not. Sorry to say Google, but this isn’t truly artificial intelligence; where the computer is as smart as a human being. AI does only exist in Hollywood and through popular films such as Terminator and I-Robot. So not to worry, your computer isn’t about to learn how to operate your electric carving knife and it certainly isn’t about to take over the world. In reality, AI refers to a computer system that is designed to learn and make connections to existing data – i.e. machine learning.

Assisting the Hummingbird’s Flight

So does this all represent Google’s new way of ranking search results? No, certainly not. RankBrain doesn’t handle all searches. Instead, it forms part of Google’s overall search algorithm – the one we know as Hummingbird. Rather than replace or overrule the hummingbird, it merely supports it.

Although it does seem to play a small factor in the rankings, RankBrain focuses more on sorting through billions of pages to find those deemed most relevant for particular queries. Therefore, RankBrain joins the elite team of other supporting updates; including the Panda, Penguin, Pigeon and Pirate.

What Does it Mean for Digital?

We do not think that this particular update will have as much as an impact on us digital marketers as, say for example, the panda or penguin update did. Nothing much will change in terms of how we produce and display content online. It’s not like we can try and ‘con’ this latest update or develop practices around it that will satisfy its algorithm.
In the past we have placed large importance on various input factors from human beings. For example, before now we have placed significance on factors such as:

  • H1 Tags
  • Alt text
  • Meta tags
  • Keyword placement

These were all elements that humans fed to a search engine in order for it to understand what a particular website is about. There will be no real need for this anymore as RankBrain effectively thinks for itself. Computers are being trained how to read (in a sense) and how to understand language and associated phrases much clearer than before. So Google can now tell if a piece of content is worth ranking, regardless of whether or not you have updated your alt text or H-tags.

Keep it Calm and Content

The best piece of advice we can give around this latest update is to keep calm and content. What we mean by that is to not panic and to keep releasing decent, honest and factual pieces of information relevant to whatever it is that you do, sell, promote or showcase. Of course there are many other factors that determine where a site ranks in search engine listings, but the relevancy of content is one of the highest priorities.

What is particularly exciting, especially to content marketers, is that an entire article or piece of content now becomes completely valuable. Beforehand, there have been rules regarding keyword placement, the choice of words around your keywords, the content in your alt text, etc. This meant only certain elements of content were picked up on. Now the whole piece is being analysed, learnt and processed by Google – further increasing the importance of great content.

Back in the days of black and white SEO we all knew there would come a time where effectively conning google into thinking a site is more powerful than it is would be impossible. The Panda, Penguin and overall Hummingbird updates were the start of this notion coming true. Now Google RankBrain has confirmed it. The search engine can now think for itself and it is learning new things by the second. What will your site teach it?

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