Machine learning has truly entered the search market this year, with Google revealing that it has introduced a new facet to its integral algorithms called RankBrain. The implications for search engine optimisation are potentially huge, especially if this pseudo-AI (artificial intelligence) becomes more influential.
In fact, the power of this platform to impact a site’s ranking performance is already significant, since Google has said that it is now the third most important ranking signal used to determine the order in which search results should be presented to users. But why has its introduction caused so much fuss and how will it change SEO?
What is RankBrain?
Google’s Greg Corrado told Bloomberg quite a bit about RankBrain in a recent interview, providing details about when it was implemented, how it works and just how many queries fielded by Google it is influencing globally.
As with Google’s other search algorithm updates, it was built to make the search results more relevant based upon users’ queries whilst in parallel ensuring that higher quality pages rise to the top. But while previous rollouts such as Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird have all been designed and tweaked by human engineers, RankBrain is capable of thinking for itself and should improve over time without the need for direct intervention.
In essence, Google’s past updates have been reactive; the result of engineers creating and adjusting algorithms to meet the needs of users. This one will be proactive, automatically learning to get better at determining how to serve queries which have traditionally outfoxed Google.
What are its parameters?
The mention of AI can make this algorithm update sound as though it will be an all-powerful part of Google’s search arsenal and thus a key consideration for SEO, content marketing and CRO. But in reality it is just one of the hundreds of ranking signals that are used to rank pages. And when you dig deeper, it seems to have some fairly specific applications within the search engine ecosystem, mostly relating to semantics.
Firstly, it will be better equipped to deal with search queries which are rather more ambiguous than the concise phrases that Google is already so good at handling. And since around 15 per cent of the queries which Google receives each day have never been entered before, there is a significant need to improve its ability to handle unique, vaguely worded questions that its global audience generates. The new algorithm should be able to assimilate new, ambiguous queries, make a guess at what the user is really trying to find and assimilate this knowledge to make sure that it is better prepared to deal with similar queries in the future.
Another area in which it should enhance the user experience relates specifically to voice search. It is built to tackle conversational, long form search queries that are increasingly common thanks to the popularity of mobile devices and the personal assistant solutions they offer. This is interesting information in its own right, but Google remains tight lipped about the specific aspects of how this algorithm operates, which complicates the process of developing an SEO response to its rollout.
Will it impact content & copy?
For sites to be visible on Google, it is still necessary to ensure that the keywords for which customers are likely to search receive prominent inclusion in everything from URLs to on-page content. But with this algorithm essentially setting out to determine the intent of a search, not solely the specific wording used, there is an opportunity for the constraint of exact keyword matches to be loosened, if not altogether removed.
Instead it is likely that sites will need to retain their focus on the big hitting keywords, while also factoring in other words and phrases which may not have been used directly in a query, but which may ultimately be relevant to the user in question.
Whatever the impact of this update, it will almost certainly reinforce the idea that without optimised content, a site will fail to find its place high up in the SERPs. It will also mean that webmasters and businesses are more focused on making sure sites offer a better experience for human visitors, rather than merely cajoling them to adhere to robotic SEO principles of the past or rely upon link building campaigns to build authority. In essence, if people want to click on and share your content, then the machine learning brain housed at the heart of Google should also take notice and reward you appropriately.
How have experts responded?
Watching those involved in SEO respond following a new Google update can provide some insight into the future, since although insiders may not be privy to all of the search giant’s ranking signals and intentions, they can make fairly accurate guesses as to how the search market will change in the aftermath.
Industry expert Andrew Howlett made the interesting point that customer reviews may become more important now that this algorithm is in action, since they tend to contain the kind of longtail sentences that tie in nicely with ambiguous search queries, according to AdWeek. Meanwhile Elite SEM spokesperson Zach Morrison suggests that a more time-sensitive approach to search will emerge, meaning that users will receive results based upon the specific time of day at which they enter their query into Google, with machine learning becoming more attuned to their contextual interests.
Googlicious; "Google's 'RankBrain' artificial intelligence for search is better than humans"
It is important to remember that this algorithm is not taking over the world and that activities such as conversion rate optimisation, as well as responding to the on-going Mobilegeddon movement which you can find out about here, will remain a priority for SEO.
It is also worth noting that while Google claims that it has never used machine learning in its efforts to improve search in the past, this is an organisation which deliberately keeps its cards close to its chest to prevent people from exploiting its algorithms. So the whole world will be watching the development of RankBrain with interest.