Google's RankBrain Algorithm: Optimizing your Pages for a Good Spot on SERPsby@joshuaagaba
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Google's RankBrain Algorithm: Optimizing your Pages for a Good Spot on SERPs

by Joshua AgabaMay 31st, 2022
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Greg Corrado, a Google senior research scientist revealed, in an interview with Bloomberg, that RankBrain is the 3rd most important ranking factor. Since its inception, it has improved the quality of search results by displaying only well-optimized pages. In 2015, Eric Enge, from Stone Temple, shared with Fast Company, how Google improved in about 55% of those unknown queries in 2013. As Google RankBrain improves, more pages that don't deliver relevant results to search queries will be rolled out, eventually. But you can optimize your pages to meet the ranking criteria for the RankBrain algorithm. These optimization strategies would include,
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How do you make the algorithm choose your web pages amid the clutter? As the SERPs generate millions of results for each search query, on what page do you want to be?

Definitely, #1.

Sadly, you may not always have your desired spot here. But, a good understanding of how RankBrain works will guide your content strategy and help you fulfill any search intent, as well as, enhance your user experience.

Without this, you may have to put your SEO struggles into the dirty game of trial and error.

What is RankBrain?

RankBrain is an important component of Google's algorithm—Hummingbird—that uses machine learning (AI) to understand tons of search queries, processes them and uses the data to deliver the most relevant results on SERPs.

Here's a good example of how this works...

When you search for the keywords: "video recording software" and "tools for video recording," you'd get almost the same results.

Google understood this search query and has discovered over time, that people who entered these terms needed something in common.

This is only an insight into what RankBrain entails.

Has it always been like this?

No. Before now, Google would pick out those terms individually, crawl the web, and display only the sites that used the exact keywords. This encouraged keyword stuffing and didn't give room for maximizing LSI keywords.

You may end up optimizing too many pages for similar keywords—leading to keyword cannibalism in the long run.

Moving on, newer techniques have now helped more pages to create high-quality content which can cover several related keywords, enriching the page, and boosting its E-A-T.

Brief history: Was there a need for RankBrain?

Absolutely! The introduction of RankBrain has made the search easier and more accurate.

In 2013, Google announced that 15% of all searches it receives every day are new. The "related results" it delivered at that time, couldn't answer the search query—giving users a poor web experience.

Fortunately, Google, on the 26th of October, 2015, announced RankBrain. Since then, it has been processing millions of searches—new and old—and tweaking the algorithm to display only relevant results. It rolls out all results that don't satisfy user intent and keeps those that fulfill the intent.

For example, a user who wants to directly purchase a product would not need a "how-to" guide, rather content with transactional intent would suffice.

If it's not sure about a particular search query or it encounters a new query, it looks for similar words or phrases in pages that fit into the context and delivers the most appropriate answer. This way, it doesn't have to randomly pick a page that bears only the exact words, even when they lack quality.

How do you optimize your pages in line with Google's RankBrain algorithm?

Greg Corrado, a Google senior research scientist revealed, in an interview with Bloomberg, that RankBrain is the 3rd most important ranking factor. Since its inception, it has improved the quality of search results by displaying only well-optimized pages.

In 2015, Eric Enge, from Stone Temple, shared with Fast Company, how Google improved in about 55% of those unknown queries in 2013. As Google RankBrain improves, more pages that don't deliver relevant results to search queries will be rolled out, eventually.

But you can optimize your pages to meet the ranking criteria for the RankBrain algorithm. These optimization strategies would include,

  1. Using medium tail keywords
  2. Creating content with user intent
  3. Enhancing your UX signals

1. Using medium tail keywords

Medium tail keywords are the best of both worlds—long tail and short tail. They cover a broader topic, in a more specific way.

What are the differences?

a. Short tail keywords: They are mostly one or two words long. They can generate much traffic because they lack specificity. For example, if you search for "keyword research," you'd see approximately 485 million results.

But it's difficult to rank for this search query because you have no specific content idea; it could be tips, tools, definition, guide, or anything! It's vague. Besides, you may not have enough authority to beat the bigger sites that rank for such keywords.

b. Long-tail keywords: You can tweak the keyword, making it more specific—long-tails have about four or more words.

Let's try "keyword research tips for product pages." This would give you approximately 9.15 million results making it easier to rank on SERPs. It is more specific and fewer websites will cover the topic—ignore the numbers, the competition is minimal.

However, the traffic is very low. You may need to create several pages and cover other similar keywords to retain your visitors. These pages may lack quality and depth because they're confined, reducing your site's E-A-T.

c. Medium tail keyword: Let's tweak the search query again—medium tails have about three to four words.

Using "keyword research tips" in our search, we have approximately 61.6 million results. So, instead of writing separate KW research tips for product pages, service pages, homepages, blogs, etc., you can simply create in-depth content that covers everything. The tips are likely the same, so you don't necessarily need to create different pages for different queries.

When you carefully cover topics like these, Google can spot the quality of your content and give you a rank boost. It can also increase your traffic since they aren't too confined.

You can find medium tail keywords with these tools:

2. Creating content with user intent

The search or user intent refers to what users are hoping to see whenever they enter a query. As RankBrain processes more results, they try to find out the pages that deliver accurate or related results to online visitors.

If you're looking for a guide on how to set up your video recording gadgets, you don't need results showing you the stores that sell them—you're not planning to buy anything. Every user expects the right results whenever they enter a query.

All search queries are grouped under four major categories. They include,

  1. Informational
  2. Navigational
  3. Commercial
  4. Transactional

  1. Informational

Users who need information, guides, tips, and tutorials on any subject matter will use a search query under this intent.

For example, the search query, "how to fix a broken pipe," requires a guide and not a landing page.

Optimizing your content for this intent will make RankBrain pick up and deliver it to the right audience. To match this user intent, these terms will help the algorithm spot and categorize your pages:

  • How to...
  • Top lists
  • Infographics
  • Ways to...
  • Checklists
  • Step-by-step guides
  • Easy guides
  • What is…?

All content with this intent is generally educational and aims to enlighten your readers.

  1. Navigational

Users with this intent are directly looking for brands, products, services, or locations. They’re already familiar with the terms but may not know how to access them.

For example, if you're searching for the SEMrush keyword research tool, you may not know the exact URL. But you can easily enter your search query and the results will pop up!

This will work effectively if you've optimized your brand for the search intent, otherwise, your competitors can easily show up, making you lose your customers. For example, if you have a brand with the name, “Norz” (it doesn’t exist), which is not optimized, a different brand—Moz—may appear.

The content and pages you should optimize for this intent are your brand's resources like,

  • Ebooks/white papers
  • Tools
  • Webinars
  • Service pages
  • Case studies
  • Product pages
  • Landing pages

  1. Commercial

Users with this intent are close to making purchases but are not fully ready, convinced, or sure of making the right decisions. They only enter these queries to make research before concluding.

To optimize for this intent, use the following key terms;

  • Reviews
  • Best of…
  • FAQs
  • Pros and cons
  • X vs. Y

Well-written content with this intent can hasten a customer's buying decision. It strengthens the conviction and may eventually lead to a purchase, especially if the product is listed on your site.

  1. Transactional

Users with this intent are ready to buy or take your offer.

If you search for "buy durable batteries," you won't see results that explain what it means to buy batteries or why you should buy them—these are informational.

Google, after processing millions of pages, concluded that people who used this search query are ready to buy new batteries. So, they crawled the web and displayed the right content that allowed the users to make easy purchases.

Some key terms for optimization include,

  • Buy
  • Discount
  • Submit
  • Download
  • Deals
  • For sale
  • Order
  • Purchase
  • Book appointment

Note that it doesn't always have to be a "sale." It's also a search intent that allows you to exchange relevant data with your audience e.g. “Download,” “Submit,” etc.

RankBrain sorts majority of the web results and displays the pages with the most relevant content—that satisfies the search intent. Are your pages optimized for the right search intent?

3. Enhancing your UX signals

As more visitors access your site, RankBrain also checks how they interact with it.

This is how they process search queries: they analyse how your pages display search results to different users. Using this data, they can choose the relevant answers that users will find valuable.

If you're looking for a web design guide and you spot a page on birthday designs, you'd ignore it. When you see another page on web design, you'd likely click on it. But you'd run out immediately and head to the next if you didn't find your answer.

Web crawlers spot these pages and use the data to categorize the results on SERP. There are various signals search engines use to analyze users' experience on your site and how they interact with it. They are,

  1. Dwell time
  2. Bounce rate
  3. Pogo sticking
  4. Organic CTR
  5. The core web vitals

  1. Dwell time

This is the total time you spend on a page. It is the period that begins from clicking a search result to going back to the SERP. Naturally, good content should have a longer dwell time, indicating that users like it and wish to read further.

Duane Forester, the ex-senior project manager at Bing first mentioned dwell time on the Bing webmasters blog. He said,

"[…] The time between when a user clicks on our search result and when they come back from your website tells a potential story. A minute or two is good as it can easily indicate the visitor consumed your content. Less than a couple of seconds can be viewed as a poor result."

If your readers like your content, they'd spend more time on it, otherwise, they'd pick an alternative. Although this may not affect your rankings, it can reduce your E-A-T.

You can increase your dwell time by doing the following,

  • Creating high-quality content—they have to be engaging, attractive, and compelling.
  • Fixing your internal linking where and when necessary—using the right anchor texts
  • Improving readability
  • Adding attractive visuals
  • Leaving more white spaces

  1. Bounce rate

Google defines bounce rate as, "single-page sessions divided by all sessions, or the percentage of all sessions on your site in which users viewed only a single page and triggered only a single request to the Analytics server."

A "bounce" on your site is simply a single-page session, irrespective of the time spent on it.

Although, your bounce rate can either be normal or bad, depending on the page. For example, not every user would want to spend much time on a page. If they’re looking for a quick answer, they can click on your page, get their results, and go back to the SERP—this is a good bounce.

But if more users visit your product page, for instance, and leave without taking action or accessing any other page, you may end up having a high bounce rate—which indicates a poor user experience.

On the other hand, a low bounce rate indicates that your page is easily accessible and readable. Also, you have clear CTAs and links that direct your visitors to other relevant pages.

You can reduce your bounce rate by carrying out these steps,

  • Creating clear CTAs
  • Improving your readability
  • Removing unnecessary details
  • Improving your web design and responsiveness
  • Adding a table of content
  • Adding "related posts"

  1. Pogo-sticking

This is the term used when users randomly enter and leave several pages in search of the right results.

For example, when you search for "TV installation guide," different results will show on SERPs.

Assuming you click on the first result and you see "Get 20% discount on..." Nope! That's not what you're looking for—you hit the back button.

Clicking the next result, you see "Why you need a..." No, again—back button!

Now, you click on the next result and see "these tips will help you install..." Yes, that's it!

The algorithm can spot the pages that match this intent and those that don’t. Even if the non-matching pages have high-quality content or great offers, they'd be rolled out of the SERPs eventually (for that specific search query).

To avoid pogo-sticking, do the following,

  • Optimize your content for the right user intent
  • Improve your readability
  • Add a table of content
  • Update old content
  • Add FAQs

  1. Organic CTR

The organic click-through rate is the percentage of clicks you have on your page as it appears on SERPs. A high percentage of organic CTR shows that you have something valuable to offer. Search engines can spot pages with high-quality content and they reward these pages by giving them a rank boost.

Larry Kim, in an experiment on Moz, explained the importance of increasing your organic CTR

"The more your pages beat the expected organic CTR for a given position, the more likely you are to appear in prominent organic positions."

On the hand, it would be wise to also state that CTR isn’t really a ranking factor. Mirander Miller, the managing editor at Search Engine Journal, explained this in a 2021 article. Also, Gary Illyes, from Google made it clear at Pubcon Las Vegas, 2016:

“People do weird things on the search results pages. They click around like crazy, and in general, it’s really, really hard to clean up that data”

Nonetheless, your organic CTR is one metric you should look out for, if you love your pages. To boost your CTR, try the following,

  • Use short URLs
  • Use brackets in your title tags
  • Include numbers in your title
  • Optimize your meta descriptions with strong verbs that compel your readers to click (avoid click baits)
  • Test your titles and descriptions with paid search ads

  1. The core web vitals

These are specific factors regarding user experience and interaction that Google considers important in every website. As part of other top SEO ranking factors, Google announced, in 2021, that the Core Web Vitals—page experience—will affect page rankings,

“Today we're announcing that the page experience signals in ranking will roll out in May 2021. The new page experience signals combine Core Web Vitals with our existing search signals including mobile-friendliness, HTTPS-security, and intrusive interstitial guidelines.”

Improving your core web vitals will give your users easy access to your web content, enabling a great experience. The 3 core web vitals include,

a. Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): This is the loading time of your site. It measures how long it takes for your page to load.

b. Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): This is the visual stability of your web elements. It shows how stable the texts, images, and icons on your site appear

c. First Input Delay (FID): This explains interactivity. It is the time it takes for users to interact with your page.

Image source

You can improve your core web vitals with the following tips from Wordstream,

  • Reduce JavaScript execution
  • Compress your images
  • Provide proper dimensions for images and embeds
  • Improve server response time
  • Fix slow loading issues

An improved UX can help you attract more online visitors and at the same time, give you a rank boost.

Conclusion: No one understands the algorithm

No one knows the complete scope of how RankBrain algorithm works because Google is yet to release a comprehensive study about it. Nonetheless, experiments from SEOs and tips from Google specialists have given us an insight into what it looks like.

There are controversies as to what affects these rankings. But it doesn't change the fact that as web crawlers go around the internet, they use certain signals to detect how individual pages answer each query and how they affect the users’ experience. They collate the data and decide the pages that deliver the most relevant results.

Use this to structure your next content. There are exceptions to some of these rules, so you'd break them at your discretion.