How will RankBrain impact SEO?


First things first, what is this RankBrain?

RankBrain is Google’s artificial intelligence tool that helps connect queries to the best results possible; specifically focusing on long tail search queries. Currently, RankBrain impacts 15% of search queries. This is big. To put it in perspective, the infamous Panda update affected 7.5% of searches and Penguin affected less than 1% of searches!

So, why long tail searches? The fact of the matter is, people are using Google more than ever to answer “how to…?” or “what is..?” questions. As you could imagine, there is an almost infinite number of questions that fall into these categories, and Google’s current algorithm doesn’t really cut it as it isn’t built for these more dynamic results. Unfortunately, we cannot clearly say exactly what makes RankBrain pinpoint a piece of content as worthy of ranking (because when has Google ever just come out and said that sort of stuff?), but we can dive into a few theories. We’ll address those in a bit.

As a side note, in a recent Bloomberg interview, Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist at Google, stated, “RankBrain has become the third-most important signal contributing to the result of a search query.” Now… what does THAT mean? Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land tried to discern what exactly #1 and #2 are, but in true Google fashion, they didn’t give an answer. Grumble, grumble.

How Can I Best Set Myself up for Success?

We don’t believe RankBrain will flip the SEO industry on its head. Quite the contrary! We feel that it’s yet another algorithm update to point us in the direction of a better holistic online experience. We’ve identified four main steps to improve your campaign and help ensure you’re future-proofing your site for this update and other updates to come.

1.   Use Schema markup and data highlighter

What we do know is Google is now able to better understand connections between entities or things. A great example of this is the search algorithm’s ability to connect capital cities to their countries by only looking at content across the internet. But these sorts of connections won’t necessarily be made for you and your product and/or solution as this content is not as prevalent as mentions of capital cities and countries. To help bridge this gap in understanding, Google has incorporated the use of something called Schema markup.

To define Schema simply, imagine Google’s crawlers crawling a page, specifically a product page. This crawler sees the words, pictures, numbers, a video, etc. all as stuff, but is not able to understand exactly what those things are in relation to each other. With Schema markup we’re able to tell crawlers “That image is of the product, those words are reviews, those numbers are prices or product reference numbers, and that video is about using the product.” This markup then allows Google (and other search engines) to pull out rich information and display it right in the search engine results pages (SERPs). Hence when you type in “how to make raspberry pie” you get this:


Pretty cool, eh?

Google has stated very clearly this past year that they want sites to be marking up their content with Schema to help them better understand the context of the content. We believe RankBrain also uses Schema to better understand the content as it allows for quick understanding of a page, rather than having to syphon through thousands of articles to understand a connection between two words.

So, now you’re probably thinking “Great Robyn, how do I get this on my site?” Awesome question! Here we go:

Google provides a tool to help markup your site. With this tool you can markup the following: articles, book reviews, events, local businesses, movies, products, restaurants, software apps, and TV episodes. To access this tool, go to Google’s Search Console and find the “data highlighter.”

The other way to implement Schema markup is to hard code it onto your pages, or within the template itself. This tends to be the favored method for those of us who have thousands of articles, or products, or reviews, etc. To get the right Schema markup, just go to Schema.org and search for what you want to markup. They give you the code and examples of how to implement.

To ensure the markup is done correctly, go ahead and use Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool.

2.   Have a concept-focused (not keyword-focused!) campaign

I see this way too frequently: People try until they’re blue in the face to rank a page on SERP #1 without success. Then they come to us. And, after comparing that page and the SERP, we almost always find the concept they’re trying to rank for doesn’t match with the search intent of the keyword. This issue most commonly arises when companies run a keyword-centric campaign.

A perfect example of this is the following:

My company sells cloud based security software and I’m trying to get my product page to rank for “cloud security” [MSV 2,900]. The problem, I soon realize, is that the SERP for “cloud security” is mostly dominated by information based pages, like Wikipedia, whereas my page focus is product driven. After some research I find that this page actually belongs in the SERP for the query “cloud security software” [MSV 50] as this “software” differentiator takes an information-focused keyword and turns it into a product-focused keyword. We re-adjust our campaign accordingly and within a few weeks rank on page 1 for “cloud security software”.

A keyword centric campaign usually arises when a team gets too focused on ranking for high monthly search volume (MSV) terms and loses site of the search intent behind those terms. The fact of the matter is, you can try and rank for a keyword with an MSV of 100,000, but if that search intent doesn’t match your page or, more importantly, your user base, what’s the point? It’s better to optimize for the concepts presented in your content. Granted your longer-tail keywords will be lower MSV than that main term, but isn’t it better to get 300 qualified users to a page than 1,000 non-qualified? From my experience the answer is always “yes.”

Not to throw the baby out with the bathwater here, but in the “cloud security” example above, we wouldn’t want to rank our product page for that general term. However, individuals searching that term would probably fall within our targeted user base. What we need to do is build out new content that aligns with the “cloud security” SERP, specifically an information focused piece like “12 Reasons Your Enterprise Needs Cloud Security Today.” You’d be amazed at how many new content opportunities arise when you audit your keyword list and find keywords mapped to pages that don’t match search intent.

3.   UX is more important than ever

Next, make sure your site user experience is prepped for RankBrain. Google takes how users interact with your site into consideration when ranking your site. We feel that RankBrain also emphasizes this, as content that tends to get a lot user engagement is probably more relevant than one that doesn’t.

We’ve personally seen success on a multitude of accounts that optimize their UX. When we optimize the navigation and UX, it results in higher ranks (as buried content becomes more visible and accessible), lower bounce rate, higher conversion rate. Every. Single. Time. It’s pretty amazing what shifting existing content on your site can do to your bottom line.

To dive into your UX, we highly recommend looking at the behavior flow metrics Google Analytics offers you. Figure out which pages users interact with based on which channel and ask yourself:

  • “How do new users engage vs. existing users?”
  • “Are there any pages that seem to have a high percentage of exits?”
  • “Do I have enough content that is solutions focused?”
  • “Where are my conversions occurring?”

We also recommend simply going to a whiteboard and mapping out your ideal navigation, keeping each persona that would use your site in mind. (If you haven’t built out personas, please put that as a top priority as there’s no way to improve your website if you haven’t defined who’s using it!) When you’re doing this, put yourself in their shoes and imagine what each user asks when visiting your site. If you haven’t done this activity before you’ll probably find you need to build out significantly more solutions-focused content to help new users understand the pain points your product solves.

Finally, define what pieces of content you want a user to see based on their positioning in the sales funnel. You want to make sure you have content that covers everything from “what does this product solve?” to “how much does it cost?”

4.   Content is (and probably will always) be king

To rank for non-branded terms you NEED more content. By going through the keyword audit and ideal navigation activity, you will easily find gaps in content and know which pieces to start building out. Now, in relation to RankBrain, start thinking about pieces of content that specifically answer the “What is”, “How to”, “How do I”, and “Where can I find” questions, as RankBrain is responsible for long tail searches.

Granted, this doesn’t mean go through and re-name all of your pages with questions as headers, as these pages probably rank for higher MSV keywords. What this does mean is do the legwork to understand exactly what longer tail searches your customer base is searching.

To find these keywords or keyword inspirations, start with Google’s Adwords, as it shows related searches. We also recommend looking at successful online competitors’ sites as well as checking out forums for the solution(s) you offer. You’d be surprised what topics you can find on Quora.com or in the subreddits of Reddit.com. Dive into what people are talking about, what issues they’re having, and what are they doing to solve it. You’d be amazed at the content ideas you’ll find.

A Sneak Peek of What’s Ahead

Remember project Brillo & Weave?

Project Brillo & Weave was done with the intent of better and more securely connecting the Internet of Things. As defined by Gartner, the Internet of Things is “the network of physical objects that contain embedded technology to communicate and sense or interact with their internal states or external environment.” By the end of 2020, Gartner expects 25 billion “things” to be connected to the internet. Woah.


So, how does this relate to us? Imagine you have a smart printer that when it runs out of ink it’s able to find and order its own ink because it will be connected to the internet, and because of RankBrain, it will easily find the nearest supply store that contains the exact product number it needs. Pretty crazy to think about, but it’s not that far off in the future.

As a supplier, you’d want to make sure your site is the site users (and devices) find first when they do this type of long tail search.

To Sum it All Up

As a side note: one of our favorite things to do in house is to TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) articles we each share with the team to help us regularly stay up to date on things happening in the digital marketing world without reading endlessly. So let’s do that now.


  • RankBrain will increase the importance of Schema markup (even more).
  • Focus your campaigns on concepts & search intent, not just high MSV keywords.
  • Optimize for long tail keywords.
  • Good UX means more visibility and Google’s better understanding of how pieces of content connect.
  • Content is king (and will always be).
  • Brillo + Weave + RankBrain = Super smart devices that connect users directly to what they need (like a stove giving a user recipes or a printer ordering its own toner).

Looking for even more RankBrain details? Watch our latest webinar, “Google RankBrain: Critical Search Updates Marketers Need to Know” on-demand, where we walk through the details of how RankBrain impacts SEO strategy and steps you can take to future-proof your search rankings.