What is Google RankBrain and How to Optimise for it?

by SEO-Builder January 24, 2019
If you have decided to invest your time and money in SEO optimisation to improve your rankings, you should seriously consider optimising your site for Google RankBrain. Recently, Google announced that RankBrain is now the third most important search ranking factor. And with every passing day, it is becoming more and more important. In this article, you will learn everything you need to know about the RankBrain algorithm.
What is Google RankBrain?

RankBrain is a system based on artificial intelligence (AI) computing models which use state-of-the-art machine-learning algorithms to decide how to sort the Google search results (SERPs) best. Recent breakthroughs in AI research has made it possible not only to outperform humans on constrained tasks (e.g., image recognition, speech recognition), but also to design large-scale complex systems that can make decisions based on vast amounts of data.

The reason why Google RankBrain was invented in the first place is how difficult it is for Google developers to make changes to the search algorithm. They have to initially carry out a detailed analysis and then test the change and how it affects the rankings and, most importantly, the users. With the implementation of RankBrain, this process is completely automated and has already been shown to improve Google’s ranking algorithm. The changes it makes are 10% more efficient than the manual changes that engineers used to make.

Depending on the keyword, Google RankBrain will reduce or increase the importance of ranking it against other ranking factors such as backlinks, domain ownership, content length, new and quality content. This makes the search algorithm much more tailored to the needs of the users. The algorithm monitors user behaviour when new results appear in the SERP. If users interact more with the new results, they remain in the current position, otherwise, the old ones are returned.

How does RankBrain work?

A few years ago Google had a problem – 15% of the keywords people were searching for were completely unique. That may not look like much, but please bear in mind that Google processes over 3.5 billion of searches every day, which amounts to 525 million keywords that were never seen before by the search engine to that day.

Google RankBrain aims to understand:

  • What users are looking for (keywords and phrases).
  • How they interact with the provided results.

RankBrain tries to understand exactly what a user is looking for, the same way a human would understand. The mechanics of this process is based on matching “unknown” to “familiar” search phrases. For example, the algorithm can learn that when visitors search for the keyword “director and Terminal”, they are looking for a cinema, theatre, or the movie itself. It already knows what such a search must deliver and it will not return websites about airport terminals (for example).

Google has previously published an article on how to use machine learning to better understand the intentions of searchers. The article described the word2vec technology, which perceives keywords as concepts. The claim is that this algorithm perceives Paris and France the same way as Berlin and Germany (i.e., it has identified the relationship between Capital and Country). Although the article doesn’t explicitly mention RankBrain, both algorithms use similar technology. To summarise, Google RankBrain is not just entirely relying on finding keyword matches among the content of web pages, but it turns the keyword into a concept and finds results that meet and follow this concept

Which keywords should I target?

As you have seen, Google can now understand the context behind a keyword. This doesn’t mean that traditional ways to explore keywords are dead. It means that little change may be needed in order to better meet the RankBrain algorithm requirements. Avoid throwing a huge amount of time and effort only to optimise for long-tail keywords., they are not as good as they before. It used to make sense to create hundreds of different pages, optimising each for a specific long-tail keyword, despite how time-consuming it was. Prior to Google RankBrain, it was beneficial to even optimise for synonymous variations of keywords.

Nowadays, that is not the case, because Google RankBrain understands that these keywords are basically the same. Therefore, the algorithm will show almost identical search results. Instead of long-tail keywords, I recommend optimising your content around for keywords of average length. Typically, these are phrases that contain between 2 and 4 words. They do not have such an enormous amount of search volume as the super general keywords, neither is their volume as small as the one for the well-targeted long-tail keywords.

medium length keywords moz example

When you optimise your page for similar words and achieve good results, the RankBrain algorithm will promote you by ranking you for any synonymous and semantically related keywords. Don’t you think that is much more accurate than how things used to be?

How does RankBrain measure user experience?

Surely, Google RankBrain approaches the understanding of new keywords and can be fully automated as an algorithm, but the big question is: how does it make evaluate whether the changes it makes to the search algorithm are useful to the user or not? The answer is, in fact, quite simple – through trial and error.

google rankbrain flowchart


The RankBrain algorithm returns certain search results that it believes will be useful to specific users. Out of these web pages, if a lot of people click on a particular one, the search engine will give more weight this site and promote its rankings. On the other hand, if people do not interact much with a result, the next search will replace the search engine with some other webpage to see if it is relevant enough for that search. In the next
paragraph, we explain how Google RankBrain exactly measures how interactive people are with your website.

What metrics does the RankBrain algorithm use?

The algorithm focuses on the following main behavioural metrics:

  • Click-Through Rate (CTR) – the ratio of people that clicked on your site.
  • Number of clicks through the organic search results.
  • Time users spent on your site.
  • Bounce rate – the ratio of people that continued to browse your site.

Pogo-sticking – this metric is very similar to the bounce rate, yet it’s different in a way. Visitors that land on your website may immediately see the information they are looking for and leave the site. Google is smart and knows that the bounce rate is not always a bad indicator and is capable of understanding when users find what they need. Pogo-sticking is also different in a way that it can track when visitors land on a certain page, see that there is not what they are looking for, click the back button, return to the results in Google, and click on some other page. This can serve as a very accurate indicator that your content is irrelevant.

Let’s look at one specific example:

Let’s say we have a stretched muscle on the back that has happened while we are doing sports. Accordingly, we look for a “sprained muscle on the shoulder”. Statistically speaking, most people would click on the first result. Say we click on the first page, but to our regret come across general stuff like “Muscle groups in the shoulder” and so on. We do not find what we are looking for, so we click the back button and go back to the results page, click on the second result. There, too, we do not find the information we’re looking for, because there are only general tips like “put ice.”

Again, we press the back button and return to the results page and click on the third result. Bingo! This is the result we were looking for. So, in this case, we do not press the back button, but keep the site for 5 minutes, reading what we were initially looking for. This wandering back and forth between the results page and clicking on the back button is something Google RankBrain measures and uses in its search ranking algorithm.

When Google notices that after visitors click on a result and they immediately press the back button, this is a clear message: “This result is irrelevant.” On the other hand, when Google notes that many people stop on a certain webpage after having pressed the back button several times, this result will rise in the rankings to make it more discoverable because it’s preferred over the others.


Optimise your titles and descriptors for more clicks

Organic traffic is a key RankBrain ranking signal. The question is: how do we get users to click on our score? And that is exactly what we will draw attention to in this chapter.

Add emotion to your meta tags

There are no two opinions on the subject: emotional titles attract more attention and respectively more clicks. This has been a well-known fact for a while, the copywriters have been using it for years, but here’s a little bit of statistical data from CoSchedule.

It seems that the second title, besides being more appealing, also invites the user in an unobtrusive manner.

Use brackets at the end of your title tags

A HubSpot and Outbrain study shows that the titles which include parentheses improve results by 33% (an experiment based on 3.3 million
pages). Here are some examples:

brackets in title tags

  • SEO for e-commerce shops (full guide)
  • How to carry out a keyword research analysis [step-by-step]

Here are some other ideas you can use:

  • (2019)
  • [Infographic]
  • (Updated)
  • [Research]
  • (Case Study)

Use numbers

Use numbers not only in list type articles (“5 ways to lose weight”). The use of numbers in titles has been shown to increase the CTR and the good thing is that there’s nothing to stop you from using them in your title tags.

  • How I increased my organic traffic by 20% for 20 days
  • How I ranked my site in the top 10 for 2 months

Use powerful words in your headlines

Using powerful phrases will definitely attract more attention and lead to an increase in your website’s search result CTR. Of course, you can’t really insert these phrases in every single meta title tag of yours, but where possible – add them. Make sure to optimise your meta descriptions as well. Use words and phrases such as:

1. Add emotion (as we already did with the title tags)

Let’s look at some examples again:

Title: Why do we gain belly fat and how do we burn it?

Description: Forget about those flat belly diets, “magical” tricks for quick weight loss and other absurd methods for fat burning. Here we share a true story behind which is entirely based on academic research and facts.

2. Ask yourself why someone would click on your website

  • Does it seem compelling?
  • Does it stand out from the rest?
  • Does it look genuine?
  • Is it based on solid evidence?
  • Is your description maybe funny?
  • Or catchy?

Focus on that when writing your meta description. Writing great meta descriptions is not an easy task, it takes some time and sometimes even testing different tags to seek improvement. If you are interested in more detailed information on how to write good meta description tags to attract more visitors to your website please check out our great article on that topic.

3. Add the target keyword

Adding the keyword you are optimising for (there may be a few) will also increase your rankings as Google will bold it when your description pops up in the search results.

Optimise your titles and descriptions for more clicks

Having looked at several ways to increase CTR-a, what’s next? It’s time to show Google that your site satisfies the needs of your visitors by providing them with relevant content. How do we achieve that? By keeping them as long as possible on our webpage.

The time users spend on the site after clicking a search result is also a major ranking metric that Google monitors. Obviously, when users spend more time on your site, this is a good indicator that conveys a clear message to the search engine: “People like this site, let’s improve its ranking.” On the other hand, if visitors leave your site two seconds after they are there – it clearly shows that this site doesn’t satisfy the needs of the user and can be downgraded with several positions in the SERP.

So, it’s logical that Google RankBrain reflects the time spent on your site and accordingly shows different results based on what you like and what doesn’t. Experiments also show the correlation between low bounce rate and high ranking in SERP.

bounce rate figureRecently, one of Google’s engineers has admitted that search ranking was based entirely on off-page factors (external hyperlinks). Although backlinks still are the most important factor in positioning a site, here’s what Google says:

“We are currently integrating machine learning to develop models which can monitor whether a user has stayed on the site after clicking the link or clicking the back button and what exactly this user behaviour will tell us.”
How to reduce Bounce Rate and increase the time visitors stay on your website?

1. Position your most valuable content Above the Fold

Above the Fold is what your users see when a site is loaded without scrolling down. When someone clicks on your site from Google, they want to instantly find out if they’ve found what exactly what they are looking for. In other words, no one will scroll to the end of an article of 3000 words to find (eventually) what they are looking for.

Therefore, it is highly recommended that you remove and clear everything that covers the Above the Fold space of your website. These may be massive banners or navigation menus (headers), ads, and so on.

2. Use short introductions (maximum 5-10 sentences)

Believe it or not, we spend more time working on the introductory parts of my articles than on the headlines. This is because 90% of users will decide to stay or close the site after reading the introductory paragraph. When someone is looking for something specific, they are expected to have knowledge in this area, so there is no need for big intros. Use a brief summary of the main points covered in the article.


Title: Exactly how we ranked to position #1 with White Hat methods

Introduction: In this case study you will find out how one of our colleagues ranked a new site in a highly competitive niche and reached the top 3 for over 40 keywords. We will also cover how we successfully monetised the site leading to a return of the initial investments in less than a month.

Bad Intro: SEO is a long and complicated process that helps to locate your site in Google’s results. The process is divided into on-page and off-page SEO optimisation…

You get the idea.

3. Write long, detailed, and meaningful texts

This is well tested and it works. The more content you have on a page, the longer time visitors will spend on it. Of course, your content will have to be relevant and include various images, infographics, examples, videos, and interactive elements to engage your users. It’s obvious that it takes more time to read a 2000 words article than one with 400 words, but this is only a piece of the whole puzzle.

The other reason that the volume of content is important in the time of stay is that the long and comprehensive content can fully respond to the user. Last but not least, long content can rank for many different search phrases, whereas an article with 300 words doesn’t offer such benefits.

Let’s look at the following example:

Let’s say you are looking for information about how to eat properly and healthy. You go on Google and type in the following keyword:

healthy diet google search example

You click on the first result, which is a short article, about 350 words, and you find only basic information that lists several types of diets. This puts you in a position where you want more information, you are not satisfied with what you just read, and then press the back button to look for a more comprehensive article. Then say you click on the second result, which is a complete guide to the correct way of taking the various foods. The meaning of proteins, carbohydrates and everything else that you need as a daily intake is described. You end up spending 15 minutes reading the article and then go on to the website’s blog to explore other interesting stuff. 

The above scenario clearly indicates to Google RankBrain that for that specific keyword “how to eat healthy” the first website doesn’t offer the best content. If this happens multiple times that website is likely to be downgraded in the search results. On the other hand, the second website has offered a solution to the needs of the visitor and is likely to be promoted for that. 

Let’s look at a second similar example:

Imagine this time we are experiencing a headache and you want to try and treat it without having to visit your GP. You decide to go on Google and search for “how to treat a headache” hoping to find useful advice. 

headache search google keyword example

There are interesting articles for this search query, but thanks to user interactions, Google has ranked this website second. Why?

To begin with, this is not a general news site which is just adding to their content with another article. This is an article from a blog that’s particularly about healthcare. Second – it really is an amazing article! It provides information on 18 different tips to reduce your headache pain. And third – the material is over 2000 words – it is obviously useful for people.

The result: Most visitors will get a cup of coffee and start reading from start to finish. Some would even re-read sections of the article so they don’t miss something important. They will spend a lot of time on the site because it gives useful and interesting information.

The conclusion is that everyone benefits! You give your users what they want and are looking for, and on the other hand, they are pleased, RankBrain reports this and gives your site a boost in search engine results.

4. Break down your articles into separate paragraphs

Let’s face it, to read an article with 2000 words takes time and is not easy, and users become more impatient and demanding. It’s even more difficult when the text is not properly formatted: it is not properly aligned, no spaces between the paragraphs, no images, and so on.

The easiest way to make your content more usable is by more often leaving a gap between sentences and paragraphs and, above all, adding subtitles and lists. In addition to subtitling, the semantic sections also help users who want to scan through to get a quick and easy idea of what each paragraph involves.

5. Use Latent Semantic Index (LSI) keywords in your articles

LSI are keywords and phrases that are related in some way to the theme of the main keyword – semantic variations. For example, let’s assume you are writing a link building guide. LSI are words and phrases like:

  • Backlinks
  • Domain Authority
  • Hyperlinks
  • Trust Flow
  • Anchor Text

When Google RankBrain sees that these words appear in your article, it will conclude that this article refers to link building. Which, in turn, implies that this page can also be ranked for those other phrases related to the topic.

Here are two tools you can find or analyze LSI:


How can you increase your brand awareness?

1. Try Facebook ads

Even if people do not click on your ads and do not convert, Facebook ads can make your brand visible to many. And people have a strong visual memory. And when those same people see the relevant brand in their search results, they are much more likely to click on your score.

Keep in mind that in our example above we have only described the worst-case scenario. Facebook offers great opportunities for targeting, so make sure to check them out.

2. Also, create an extremely valuable email newsletter

Nothing raises brand awareness more than sending valuable content to people’s e-mail boxes. Do not overdo it with advertising your services though, your subscribers may quickly decide to abandon you.

Branding can increase your click-through rate! We’ve already shown you how the use of numbers, emotions and strong words can improve organic search CTR. But there is another huge variable we have not mentioned yet: brand awareness. Needless to say, if someone knows your brand, they will be more likely to click on your site in the search results. In fact, WordStream has established that brand awareness can increase the CTR by up to 342%!

3. Take advantage of the power of podcasts

Launching your own podcast channel where you interview experts from your industry is a great way to build your brand while developing and building relationships with others in your area. Some industries, like marketing in the USA, already have a lot of podcasts that would be difficult to do for beginners. Nevertheless, small-scale podcasts you are relatively easy and cheap to do.

4. Offer great affiliate and referral opportunities

Affiliate partners will happily distribute the links of your product or service when they know they will receive a commission in return. Dropbox is a great example of how smart referrer programs can grow and work nicely with business. Dropbox adds 500 MB of extra storage space to anyone who
can refer a friend to sign up through their affiliate link (the prize is up to 16GB).

When Dropbox was still young, this referral program helped then generate a huge number of registrations and saved countless dollars for the company that would have been spent on advertising instead.

5. Partner with other brands

If you do not have good connections, you could still do it relatively easily. Just become a sponsor of an event that has such an audience you are interested in. Yes, that will cost you some money, but your brand will be associated with the big names in the field.


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  • Ramon Tejera

    Really informative, thanks for sharing this!