November 7

How Does RankBrain Work? A Lesson in Google’s AI Search Algorithm

Links. Content. RankBrain. That’s what Google has officially confirmed as its top deciding factors when determining a webpage’s rank. While links and content are the unspecified #1 and #2 influencers, it is RankBrain, the elusive #3, that SEOs just can’t quite figure out.

The Secret Life of RankBrain

RankBrain went from being used in 15% of search queries to 100% of search queries in less than one year. As of October 26, 2016, we’ll have completed our first official year with RankBrain. Annoyingly enough, digital marketers have hardly gotten a chance to know this rank factor at all.

How Does RankBrain Work?

RankBrain was first revealed on Bloomberg in October 2015, and was (attempted to be) explained:


Or, to put it more simply, RankBrain is a supernatural result of human intuition joining forces with an ever-expanding query thesaurus.

The best visualization of what actually happens with RankBrain comes from a Whiteboard Friday episode from Rand Fishkin:

Source: Moz
Source: Moz

The most important – and complicated – task for RankBrain is determining user intent while searching. Understanding user intent is key to universally improving search experiences. Obviously, this process of understanding is not accomplished immediately. Actually, RankBrain does all of its learning offline. Google gives it large batches of historical searches, allowing the system to learn and make better, more informed predictions (the supernatural phenomenon). These predictions are then tested, and if they are proven good, the latest version of RankBrain goes live. As each version is released, the learning and predicting continues until the system gets scary-good at understanding user intent.


Can you give me a real example?

Let’s keep it simple. When you search for “Obama’s wife,” odds are that your search result will include Michelle Obama. If you search for “18th president of the United States,” you will see Ulysses S. Grant.

Let’s say you type “coffee shops Minneapolis” into your search, and someone else in Minneapolis asks the question, “Where can I find a good cuppa joe around here?” Google knows that you are both looking for a local place to buy a coffee.

Looking for more? So is the rest of the digital marketing world. To date, Google has only provided two or three real examples of what it looks like when RankBrain is in action.

A Year in Review: What Have We Learned?

The short answer is: not a whole lot. We shouldn’t be surprised, as earlier this year at an SMX West keynote Paul Haahr, one of Google’s top engineers involved in core ranking, revealed that Google understands how RankBrain works, but not really what it is doing. Which begs the question, how are we supposed to know what to do?

Honestly, we really aren’t supposed to know exactly what to do. You can’t simply tell someone how to have better instincts (unless, of course, you are Liam Neeson).

Source: We Know Memes
Source: We Know Memes

What You Can Do

You can stay informed and up-to-date with algorithm updates and changes in search trends. You can continue keyword optimization and improving the technical aspects of your website to help Google read it more easily. You can write content that has the user’s best interests at heart.

AI and machine learning systems have officially been integrated into our everyday lives, but we kind of asked for it. We want information faster, more accurately, and more often – and Google has quickly obliged. Keep your focus on meeting the needs of the user, and you’ll be just fine.

For a more thorough look into RankBrain, we recommend you check out our article, “Approaching RankBrain Intelligently.”

Learn More About RankBrain