I just finished watching the first season of Westworld, a television series on HBO about a fictional theme park inhabited by robots called “hosts”. Humans pay to visit this park and interact with these robotic hosts. The “hosts” have a “script” they follow but they are able to improvise, learn from new information and change their script in response to new knowledge. The show has got me thinking about machine learning and artificial intelligence in our world today. Is our world today that far off from the world in Westworld? I’m interacting with machines all day long and sometimes I feel like these machines are starting to know me better than I know myself. For example, Amazon knows what I want to purchase, Netflix knows what what I want to watch and Google Home knows more about my upcoming day than I do. The machines around us don’t look like the human replica robots of Westworld but they are definitely acting like AI robots as they acquire information, build upon and learn from new knowledge.
We currently have AI systems that are teaching themselves about us and making new connections without any aid from us humans. One such system is Google’s RankBrain, a machine-learning artificial intelligence system released in 2015 that’s part of Google’s algorithm to produce search query results. All of our Google search queries are being run through RankBrain. RankBrain is learning which search results we like and using this knowledge to find pages that might not have the exact words we searched for but that we would find interesting and relevant to what we are looking for. Why should we be excited about an AI system taking over Google? Google RankBrain is making our search results better which is great news because most of us are making search queries all the time – to learn, to make decisions, to interact with the world. If I go and view my Google search history for this past weekend, it almost provides a recap of what I was thinking about and doing. I don’t think a waking hour goes by where I’m not looking up something. My default answer as a parent is “Google it”.
Think of RankBrain as one part in Google’s search algorithm, Hummingbird. Hummingbird is the official name given to Google’s overall search algorithm used to sort through all the pages it knows about and produce relevant search results based on your queries. Hummingbird also contains other parts in addition to RankBrain such as PageRank (to acknowledge sites based on the links from other pages pointing at them), Panda (to stop sites with poor quality content), Penguin (to stop sites spamming its search results), and Pigeon (to provide relevant local search results). All of these parts make up Hummingbird and each has an influence in deciding what is produced when you make a search in Google. Google says, “Google’s algorithms rely on more than 200 unique signals or “clues” that make it possible to guess what you might really be looking for. These signals include things like the terms on websites, the freshness of content, your region and PageRank.” RankBrain is one of these “signals” that contributes to search results. Some of these signals have a bigger influence than others in deciding what results appear and how those results are ranked. RankBrain has now become the third most important factor in ranking results of search queries in Google so you could say RankBrain has a big influence and is changing SEO.
RankBrain essentially takes search queries and associates them to ones that are more typically searched for and then produces results for a search query based on queries that are more prevalent. Think of RankBrain as a tool that improves results displayed by making small changes to queries based on what it has learned from previous keyword and phrase searches as well the behavior of users making those search queries. With RankBrain, Google is automatically making adjustments based on searches and users actions, whereas previously that data would flow to individuals who still had to manually make decisions and changes to the algorithm and string matches. So how can you rank higher with RankBrain? Start by making a list of keywords you want to target. Enter those keywords into Google and add to your list of keywords the Google’s related searches results that come up for those keywords. Then develop content such as blog posts, case studies, guides, and whitepapers that are built around and include those keywords and searches. You need to think about what your target audience is really searching for and what their intent is and then create the best content for your target audience based on that research. Building content that is useful and engaging to your audience is the key to ranking higher with RankBrain. AI systems like RankBrain are only going to become smarter and have greater impact on search in the future. If content ranks highly but most users immediately hit the back button and return to the search results (known as return-to-SERP), then Google takes note of that and over time will automatically adjust its algorithm to instead rank pages that answer the user’s query. Google also tracks how users refine their search as we often will revise the phrase we are searching for if we don’t immediately find what we are looking for or as we need to get more specific. Keep this in mind as you start the new year and develop your SEO strategy for 2017.
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