What Is Google RankBrain and Why Does It Matter?

Jayson DeMers
4 min readApr 5, 2020
Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Recently, Google made another one of its fascinating yet painfully ambiguous announcements: the company is now relying on the power of an artificial intelligence system known as RankBrain to monitor its search results, make progress where necessary, and ultimately guide the development of their core search algorithm. In fact, over the past several months, a “substantial percentage” of all Google queries were handled by RankBrain itself. The average user (i.e., people like you and me) hasn’t noticed anything especially different, but according to Google’s plan and current available data, this move to RankBrain will make the web an easier, better place to search.

That being said, if we haven’t noticed much of a difference, why is RankBrain such a big deal? What is it actually doing, and why is that relevant to the average user?

The Basics of RankBrain

RankBrain is an artificial intelligence system that’s being applied to and used with Google’s current search engine algorithms to provide better results to user queries. Rooted in machine learning, RankBrain will use mathematical processes and an advanced understanding of language semantics to gradually learn more about how and why people search, and apply those conclusions to future search results. Rather than being pre-programmed to respond to certain situations in a specific, pre-determined way (like Google search has been up until now), it can update itself over time. Think of it as a robot that can constantly scour for better parts to upgrade itself with rather than relying on an outside human for occasional maintenance.

What RankBrain Isn’t

Google is a complicated company with a thousand different products moving in a thousand different directions. To better clarify exactly what RankBrain is, it’s helpful to spell out exactly what it isn’t:

· It isn’t a new Knowledge Graph. The Google Knowledge Graph is an artificial intelligence program too, but this isn’t a new version of the Knowledge Graph, nor is it directly affiliated with the feature.

· It isn’t an algorithm update. Don’t think of RankBrain the way you would think of Panda, Penguin, or Hummingbird. This isn’t a new algorithm, nor is it any kind of standalone update to assist that algorithm. Instead, it’s a new modification, working in conjunction with Hummingbird (the semantic search algorithm) to produce more meaningful results.

· It isn’t a new type of search. RankBrain isn’t a new type of engine, nor is it intended to make any significant updates to the process a user relies on to get results (i.e., SERPs will remain indistinguishable for the typical user).

· It isn’t a robot. Hopefully, this one is obvious, but the term “artificial intelligence” combined with my robot example in the preceding section could lead people to a misconception about what RankBrain really is. RankBrain isn’t a robot, nor is it conscious. It’s just a series of mathematical equations that can learn and improve over time.

Ranking Signals Today

As mentioned in the original Bloomberg article, RankBrain can actually be considered a new ranking signal. And as far as ranking signals go, this one is the third most important in determining the eventual rank of a given page. Of course, because Google is very secretive about the precise mechanics of its ranking algorithm, we have no idea what the top two ranking signals are, or what the other most important ranking signals are, but we do have an idea of the ranking signals that exist today, many of which are illustrated in this infographic based on data from Moz and Searchmetrics.

There are actually hundreds of different ranking signals (and possibly thousands of sub-signals). The point I want to make here is about RankBrain’s significance — for it to displace all ranking signals except two, it must be critically important to the future of search.

How RankBrain Will Improve Search

RankBrain is new and obviously important, seeing how influential it is in fetching results. So how exactly is it improving the search experience?

The biggest improvement seems to be the analysis of ambiguous, unrefined, or otherwise difficult-to-interpret queries. The example given in the original article was the complex, vague query, “What’s the title of a consumer at the highest level of a food chain” versus a much more concise but identically intended query, “top level of the food chain.” The latter is already sufficiently handled by Google’s search algorithm, but the stagnantly programmed human-originated algorithm can only do so much with the former.

Over time, RankBrain will learn more about how to appropriately handle these types of queries, correlating certain ambiguous phrases with more concise terms to better understand user intentions.

What RankBrain Is Doing to SEO

Despite its status as a ranking signal and its significance to the future of Google search, RankBrain isn’t introducing much impact to the SEO world. Its range of effects primarily deal with exceptionally complicated, ambiguous, or poorly worded long-tail queries, so you might see some ranking shakeups on a very small scale, but otherwise, your traditional best practices will remain the same. For example, if you’re focused on optimizing for queries related to ice cream, RankBrain is going to help ambiguous, relatively rare queries like “that sweet cold dessert people have at birthday parties” be translated to more concise, relevant, appropriate terms. Long-tail keyword strategies might take a small hit, but for now, it doesn’t seem like RankBrain demands any significant changes to your current SEO campaign.

Like any new Google feature, RankBrain will likely continue to develop over time. You might not notice these changes as a consumer, but they are significant to the average relevance of a search results page, and could dictate the future development of search algorithms altogether. For now, don’t make any radical changes to your strategy, but do pay close attention to your rankings and any new developments in our understanding of this new ranking signal and technology.



Jayson DeMers

CEO of EmailAnalytics (emailanalytics.com), a productivity tool that visualizes team email activity, and measures email response time. Check out the free trial!