A few years ago, search engine optimization, or SEO for short, was sort of an open secret — in the sense that the dynamics behind it hat yet to be completely discovered, but many internet-savvy individuals and organizations knew for a fact that it was the key to gaining an edge in the world wide web. A world wide web that was steadily becoming bigger, more complex, more profitable, and more competitive all at the same time.

Fast forward a few years later, SEO is the norm, the status quo. It’s a staple and a given in any company’s online growth strategy. But SEO has been undergoing a constant and complex change as well. Before, the SEO strategy was simple: “trick” the Google search engine into making your content seem extremely relevant by cramming as many keywords into a piece of content as humanly possible, in a practice called “keyword stuffing”. Other techniques included the use of long-tail keywords (the more specific the better), and other mechanical techniques that reduced many a content into a string of poorly strung-together set of keywords and key phrases, not necessarily with high-quality information, as quantity used to be more important back then. These methods were based on the way Google behaved, where its search engine depended on things like text data (hence the early success of the use of keyword stuffing, for example) and backlinks.

The constantly shifting sands of the search engine algorithm landscape

Today though, the landscape has changed significantly. The old way of doing things — we mean SEO — is vastly different, and what worked before is now mostly outdated and frowned upon. Google is now SMARTER and more complex, and continues to evolve as time passes. In the interest of keeping search results more aligned with users’ needs, preferences and behavior, Google changes its search algorithms a LOT of times. Moz.com reports that throughout a year, Google will do anywhere from around 500 to 600 changes to its search algorithms. And that’s beside the major updates that also cause dramatic changes to search algorithms.

Take Google Penguin, for example. It took effect on U.S. English results on July 24, 2014. The update’s aim was to make local search results more accurate, relevant, and useful. Among many, many other things, the updates improved distance and location ranking parameters, which obviously relate to the improvement of local search results. Local search results that were more closely and deeply tied to traditional web search ranking signals, as well as to Google’s web search capabilities.

The short of it is that SEO also needs to evolve along with search engine algorithm technology in order to continue to be effective. A major part of that is understanding Google RankBrain.

What is Google RankBrain, anyway?

In a nutshell, RankBrain is a machine learning algorithm that Google uses to sort search results. And since this is a machine learning technology, it doesn’t operate in the same way as Google’s old hand-coded search algorithms. In the same way Facebook employs artificial intelligence and machine learning to filter and decide what news feed to show each particular user or how Twitter and Instagram use the same tech to determine what tweets and what images to show users first, Google uses the same method to tailor search results to deliver what it thinks that a particular user is looking for.

RankBrain “understands” what a particular user is searching for based on a number of different factors. While Google’s engineers still have a hand in coding the algorithm, RankBrain does all the heavy lifting. This is opposed to the old method where everything was based on what Google’s engineers could code and what they could assess themselves. RankBrain can look and understand search results and user behavior on a much larger scale than before, allowing it to make adjustments to search results and algorithms as it deems fit. For example, things like backlinks, content freshness, content length, and domain authority can have varying degrees of importance — which RankBrain assigns — depending on the keyword. The next part is where machine learning comes in in a major way — Google looks at how a particular user interacts with a particular set of search results. If there is a more positive interaction, then RankBrain keeps the new algorithm in place (until a new and better one can be discovered). If not, it simply rolls back to the older, most effective algorithm. Compared to the old system of hand-coding, RankBrain has been proven to be much more accurate at predicting the best page for a particular search result.

Here’s another reason RankBrain should be understood by SEO practitioners — in a Bloomberg article, Google Senior Research Scientist Greg Corrado said that of the many “hundreds” of signals that go into a search algorithm, RankBrain is the THIRD most important one. Corrado adds in the article that turning off RankBrain “would be as damaging to users as forgetting to serve half the pages on Wikipedia.” Now that’s a testament not only to how essential RankBrain is, but also to how ingrained and embedded it is in the way Google tailors its search algorithms.

What makes RankBrain tick and how does it work?

When trying to understand RankBrain, it’s important to understand what Google’s goal is, and that is to deliver the best search engine experience and results that are as relevant and as accurate as possible to each individual user. Google WANTS to give us the data and the information we are looking for. Not something generic or general, but something tailored towards each of us.

So the way Google worked pre-RankBrain was it thought that the occurrence of a certain word or search phrase in an article made that specific content the most relevant — hence the proliferation of keyword stuffing. So pages that had more of a particular keyword, especially the most popular ones, would be ranked higher in the search results because Google thought they were the most relevant pages. That is no longer the case, fortunately. RankBrain helps Google understand CONTEXT. It tries to ask “why” a particular user is searching for a particular thing, and then delivers results that it feels are the most reasonable. RankBrain does this by looking a search history and by connecting and correlating them to other searches, making the system effective and accurate both for old and new search terms. For example, a hot Google search right now would be something like the “new royal baby”. Basing itself on what people are looking at, Google would assume that more often than not, people would want to know the baby’s name and see pictures of the last born royal baby.

Another important aspect of how RankBrain works is its capability to measure how users respond to the search results they receive for a particular query. For every search query a user types in, RankBrain interprets that into a set of concepts that are then manifested in the pages it shows the user. Pages that satisfy a user are then ranked higher, and pages that don’t are ranked lower. RankBrain looks at the way users interact with results and makes its decisions based on factors like how long a user stays on a page, how a user moves from page to page, as well as organic click-through rates. Let’s say that for that earlier search term, “new royal baby,” a user is presented with the three top links being a tabloid article about the birth, verified pictures of the baby, and a news story on the royal family’s reaction to the new addition to their ranks. If a user stays five minutes on the last story and ten on the second result and totally skips the first, RankBrain downgrades the ranking for the first link for that user.

4 effective SEO techniques that work with RankBrain

All that being said, SEO remains more important than ever. Of course, not the old SEO, but one that considers how RankBrain works. So here are a few key SEO pointers that will help you work WITH Google RankBrain and help keep your content relevant.

1. Assess the current state of your SEO

You really can’t begin any endeavor (an effective one, at least) to enhance your SEO without knowing how you currently stand. Do a systematic assessment of how your site/s are performing overall, looking at strengths and weaknesses, and setting new (or adjusting) goals based on what you discover. Check for things like having complete titles and descriptions for web pages, formatting, the presence of keywords in images’ ALT tags, link usage, and the level of in-content optimization for SEO of your content and your URL. Particularly for that last bit, it’s important to have URLs that are short and sweet. Something that captures the gist of the page’s content.

2. Content is important

Content is important for obvious reasons, but in terms of SEO, good content also plays an important role. The quality of your content has a direct effect on your click-through-rate (CTR), which is one very important factor Google looks at when determining search rankings. When before spammy-type (read: keyword-stuffed) content was king, today, content like that is bound for oblivion. Having better content than your competitors mean a better click-through-rate and that also means having a good edge in terms of search engine visibility. RankBrain looks at what people click, so engaging content is bound to catch its attention. In the same way, your headlines and descriptions also need to be catchy and attention-grabbing in order to generate better click-through-rates. Especially when combined with the right keywords, excellently constructed titles and descriptions can do all sorts of wonders for CTR.

3. Internal deep linking is key

Make your pages interconnected. Utilize anchor text to link to other parts and pages of your website. This tells Google that your site has more to offer, which encourages the search engine to index those pages. This results in increasing the SEO value for those pages since they’re more visible to Google because of all that interlinking. Also, in the same manner, linking to legitimate pages (ones that are highly ranked) means that their legitimacy rubs off on your own page as well. And, don’t just pay attention to new content — even old posts have value so do your best to link everything together in a nice and organized way.

4. Utilize LSI keywords

LSI stands for latent semantic indexing, but don’t let that complex term intimidate you. LSI keywords are considered to be keywords that are the most related to the search term/s and are often highlighted in search results. So that means both in your content and in your titles and description, try to incorporate not only the main keyword, but also related terms and/or phrases and Google will rank you higher. But remember to use them in moderation — too much and Google will think you’re keyword stuffing and relegate your page to the bottom of the heap. You can also use this technique to breathe in some new life into old content and images and keep them in circulation.

Other on-page technical procedures are still relevant for SEO, and so is the usage of keywords to position your content, as well as giving it a focus. What has changed is HOW you should prioritize and use them. Understanding Google’s new behavior and its RankBrain algorithm will help you become more effective with your SEO, having in mind that the QUALITY of the content you produce is way more important than the QUANTITY of content you produce.

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