Posted by randfish
If you've been stressing over how to optimize your SEO for RankBrain, there's good news: you can't. Not in the traditional sense of the word, at least. Unlike the classic algorithms we're used to, RankBrain is a query interpretation model. It's a horse of a different color, and as such, it requires a different way of thinking than we've had to use in the past. In today's Whiteboard Friday, Rand tackles the question of what RankBrain actually is and whether SEOs should (or can) optimize for it.
Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we're going to chat about RankBrain SEO and RankBrain in general. So Google released this algorithm or component of their algorithm a while ago, but there have been questions for a long time about: Can people actually do RankBrain SEO? Is that even a thing? Is it possible to optimize specifically for this RankBrain algorithm?
What does RankBrain actually do?
So what is it that RankBrain actually does? A query comes in to Google. Historically, classically Google would use an algorithm, probably the same algorithm, at least they've said sort of the same algorithm across the board historically to figure out which pages and sites to show. There are a bunch of different ranking inputs, which we've talked about many times here on Whiteboard Friday.
So here's what that means. If you search today — I did this search on my mobile device, I did it on my desktop device — for "best Netflix shows" or "best shows on Netflix" or "What are good Netflix shows," "good Netflix shows," "what to watch on Netflix," notice a pattern here? All five of these searches are essentially asking for the very same thing. We might quibble and say "what to watch on Netflix" could be more movie-centric than shows, which could be more TV or episodic series-centric. That's okay. But these five are essentially, " What should I watch on Netflix?"
Now, RankBrain is going to help Google understand that each of these queries, despite the fact that they use slightly different words and phrasing or completely different words, with the exception of Netflix, that they should all be answered by the same content or same kinds of content. That's the part where Google, where RankBrain is determining the searcher intent. Then, Google is going to use RankBrain to basically say, "Now, what signals are right for me, Google, to enhance or to push down for these particular queries?"
So we're going to be super simplistic, hyper-simplistic and imagine that Google has this realm of just a few signals, and for this particular query or set of queries, any of these, that...
Why is freshness so important? Well, because Google has seen patterns before, and if you show shows from Netflix that were on the service a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, you are no longer relevant. It doesn't matter if you have lots of good links, lots of diversity, lots of anchor text, lots of great keyword matching. If you are not fresh, you are not showing searchers what they want, and therefore Google doesn't want to display you. In fact, the number one result for all of these was published, I think, six or seven days ago, as of the filming of this Whiteboard Friday. Not particularly surprising, right? Freshness is super important for this query.
This is a high-engagement query too. So on low-engagement queries, where people are looking for a very simple, quick answer, you expect engagement not to be that big. But for something in-depth, like "What should I watch on Netflix," you expect people are going to go, they're going to engage with that content significantly. Maybe they're going to watch a trailer or some videos. Maybe they're going to browse through a list of 50 things. High engagement, hopefully.
If you, for example, are talking about the best shows on Netflix and everyone is talking about how hot — I haven't actually seen it — "Stranger Things" is, which is a TV program on Netflix that is very much in the public eye right now, well, if you don't have that on your best show list, Google probably does not want to display you. So that's an important related topic or a concept or a word vector, whatever it is.
As a result of interpreting the query, using these signals in these proportions, these five were basically the top five or six for every single one of those queries. So Google is essentially saying, "Hey, it doesn't matter if you have perfect keyword targeting and tons of link diversity and anchor text. The signals that are more important here are these ones, and we can interpret that all of these queries essentially have the same intent behind them. Therefore, this is who we're going to rank."
So, in essence, RankBrain is helping Google determine what signals to use in the algorithm or how to weight those signals, because there's a ton of signals that they can choose from. RankBrain is helping them weight them, and they're helping them interpret the query and the searcher intent.
How should SEOs respond?
Does that actually change how we do SEO? A little bit. A little bit. What it doesn't do, though, is it does not say there is a specific way to do SEO for RankBrain itself. Because RankBrain is, yes, helping Google select signals and prioritize them, you can't actually optimize for RankBrain itself. You can optimize for these signals, and you might say, "Hey, I know that, in my world, these signals are much more important than these signals," or the reverse. For a lot of commercial, old-school queries, keyword matching and link diversity and anchor text are still very, very important. I'm not discounting those. What I'm saying is you can't do SEO for RankBrain specifically or not in the classic way that we've been trained to do SEO for a particular algorithm. This is kind of different.
That said, there are some ways SEOs should respond.
So RankBrain, yes, it might shift a little bit of our strategic focus, but no, it's not a classic algorithm that we do SEO against, like a Panda or a Penguin. How do I optimize to avoid Panda hitting me? How do I optimize to avoid Penguin hitting me? How do I optimize for Hummingbird so that my keywords match the query intent? Those are very different from RankBrain, which has this interpretation model.
So, with that, I look forward to hearing about your experiences with RankBrain. I look forward to hearing about what you might be changing since RankBrain came out a couple of years ago, and we'll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.
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