What makes Google search better than the competition? What could have possibly led it to become the top search engine and its name synonymous with search? Google has the most complex search algorithm of all search engines that uses over 200 major factors or signals to rank web pages. Compliance with those 200 signals is what makes SEO a science and knowledge of how to use them keeps thousands of webmasters at work and changes to these signals keeps them on their toes. Now Google’s search algorithm codenamed Hummingbird has several components to process those signals many SEO practitioners are familiar with, such as Panda, Penguin and PageRank. One of those components has been revealed to be a machine learning artificial intelligence that Google calls RankBrain.
What does this revelation mean for website owners and what exactly is RankBrain? When we think about AI, Skynet and Terminator often comes to mind. Will this make searching Google better? What happens if it goes awry? Will Google go after anyone named Sarah Connor? Seriously, Google hails RankBrain as its third most important signal for ranking web pages. What’s the other two?
“…RankBrain is one of the ‘hundreds’ of signals that go into an algorithm that determines what results appear on a Google search page and where they are ranked… In the few months it has been deployed, RankBrain has become the third-most important signal contributing to the result of a search query…”
–Greg Corrado, Google senior research scientist
Though Google says it’s the third most important signal, the company is mum as to what the first and second are. It’s either an industrial secret or they’re just mimicking George Lucas and will disclose the first two after disclosing the fourth and fifth.
RankBrain basically handles a large majority of queries the search engine hasn’t encountered yet from simple phrases to direct human-like questions on an obscure topic like What is the average weight of a person in the state of Ohio or what is the annual rate of corn consumption in California? In contrast to simple queries such as ‘Katy Perry free music downloads’ or ‘Scarlett Johansson nude pics’.
Google says that 15 percent of queries per day are unfamiliar and obscure, and these are now handled by RankBrain. First, RankBrain translates the queries into more understandable bits. Then, for unfamiliar terms, RankBrain looks for synonymous terms or phrases then processes the whole query. RankBrain is apparently better at it than Google’s engineers and has the potential to be applied to other applications.
“Our investments in machine learning and artificial intelligence are a priority for us. Machine learning has long powered things like voice search, translation, and much more. And our machine learning is hard at work in mobile services like Now on Tap, which quickly assist you by providing additional useful information for whatever you’re doing, right in the moment, anywhere on your phone. If you’re an Android user that runs Marshmallow, try it out by long pressing the home button, when you’re in the Map, it’s very cool… Machine learning is core transformative way by which we are rethinking everything we are doing. We’ve been investing in this area for a while. We believe we are state-of-the-art here. And the progress, particularly in the last two years, has been pretty dramatic. And so we are – we are thoughtfully applying it across all our products, be it search, be it ads, be it YouTube and Play et cetera. And we are in early days, but you will see us in a systematic manner, think about how we can apply machine learning to all these areas.”
–Sundar Pichai, Google CEO
For website owners, this could mean more complex SEO techniques down the line. And if RankBrain is better than Google engineers expected, even Google might find it difficult to publish new SEO guides. RankBrain is also a recent implementation and old SEO might mean nothing in the near future. As a learning AI, influencing RankBrain can be more difficult than a complex algorithm of IFs and THENs. Hopefully, it doesn’t put many SEOs out of business. Luckily, it’s Google’s third most important signal as the first and second might already be familiar to everybody except they don’t know what they are exactly. And that RankBrain cannot supersede them, and that majority of Google searches are often simple words and phrases.
For everyone else. RankBrain can be a boon to people doing research as they sometimes need to enter whole sentences, phrases or long original questions on obscure topics. Many such queries get scrambled by Yahoo, Bing and DuckduckGo. Speaking of other engines, why did Google go through the trouble of disclosing this information? Is it part of an upcoming SEO update announcement or much-needed PR? In light of Yahoo’s resurgence, Yahoo becoming the default engine for Firefox and Safari, Microsoft’s aggressive marketing of Windows 10 and Bing, and an antitrust case in Europe, Google search could sure use a little PR. Whatever the case, RankBrain can only make Google search better and better the more it learns as time goes by. And if something does go wrong and it goes offline, Google says that it would be as if half of Wikipedia has gone down. Basically, it means there’s no turning back for Google. It’s RankBrain or bust.