Why Google’s RankBrain can make or break your business and it’s your fault

Still number 6 on Google search results? That’s RankBrain at work, your handy AI algorithm that is helping Google to find what people constitute is the right result for what they’re after – and what is pushing pages to the top of the results.

Thought Google’s engineers were still hard at work tweaking their ranking algorithm? Sure, but that’s just one part of it. The other part is RankBrain. And how RankBrain determines what heads to the top of the results is actually your (and my) fault.

Google's RankBrain can make or break your business

“AI is eating the world” the headlines scream. Eating the world? Hardly. But it is eating all your data.

Your website data is just one little tasty snack that AI is eating. Google’s RankBrain is chowing down on that treat to help it get better at what it does: find the right results for people who are conducting a Google search.

It’s not known the exact date that RankBrain was released into the wild. It’s generally attributed that it was some time in early 2015. We’re now 3 and a bit years down the track, which means RankBrain will have gotten a lot smarter.

RankBrain sorts your search queries into concepts (rather than just keywords) and then surfaces related results. A patent, made by Google in 2012, “Using concepts as contexts for query term substitutions” was granted in 2015. Coincidence? Seems unlikely. Why they decided to patent such a system… Well, that remains a secret.

Let’s go into a little more depth here about concept matching, rather than just keyword matching. Go ahead and type in “male singer with red hair” into your search bar. What do you get? Well, here’s what I got:

Damn, that’s exactly the guy I was thinking of, Ed Sheeran! How did his name ever escape me…

Getting back to my initial query, none of my search terms contained ed or sheeran – Google had managed to figure it out for me. It was even highlighted in that Snippet up the top there. That Snippet is what Google has determined to be the best answer to my query. Curiously, though, it’s not even the top of the search results:

That honour belongs to Mick Hucknall. Why’s that? Well no only does he have red hair, he was in the band Simply Red. Moral of the story? Keywords still matter. But if you’re looking to hit “Snippet status” on Google, they matter a whole lot less than they used to.

But concept matching is not RankBrain’s only function. It also learns how useful these results are to people via user feedback. It determines how useful a page is deemed to be by the public. Yep, that’s how Ed Sheeran got to Snippet status all the way from from, a fashion, beauty, and entertainment website.

How does it determine how useful the page is? That’s all on you (or us, rather). See, Google can tell which results are clicked, see how much time you spend on that page, and bounce rate due to pogo-sticking. What’s pogo-sticking? When someone leaves your page because the info they found was correct and useful to you, but the rest of your site isn’t of interest to them.

I can see how if you’re into Ed Sheeran and just had a mental block for a minute trying to think of his name (or after a few drinks) that you might be interested in checking out at least the Entertainment section of if you have a few minutes to spare, then maybe getting lost for a little while catching up on celeb gossip.

Anyway. Those are the two basics of RankBrain. Concept matching and user-input determined sorting.

So, RankBrain is being used to sort your business into their results. Basically, it can make or break your business. And all your searches, clicks, and time on page is contributing to making it smarter.

Let’s check out a concrete example as it relates to someone’s business – something the business wants to rank for. We will use as our example because they operate in a highly competitive industry and small adjustments can make a huge difference. They want to rank for the term “no deposit bonuses uk 2018”. Fair enough, customers want an up to date list of online casinos with a no deposit bonus that are still valid this year. Most people don’t know how to use the sort by date feature on Google to sort their results, but that’s another story.

Here’s a screenshot of my results:

Looks like is sitting at number 9 in the results. Not bad, but could be improved. Hey, wait a minute, I’m currently in Vietnam on a working holiday. I wonder if it makes a difference if I switch on my VPN and use a UK server?

Looks to me like they’re still number 9, but the other results are jumbled up when I use a VPN routed through London and go through Well there you go. User location can also make a difference in where you sit in the results, although not for here.

There are a whole new set of rules to play by in SEO it seems

Unlike back in the SEO days of yore, where you could keyword stuff, and rank higher for simply writing about similar concepts to your business (but not draw in customers), things are changing.

SEO marketers have been filling up my timelines (also screaming) “SEO/SEM is dead!” But that’s their hook as they they delve into how it’s not actually dead and you really need to come up with great content that’s actually completely in line with your business. You can’t fool Google anymore. RankBrain will catch you out.

What does all this mean for your business? Well, for a start, you need to think less like a machine when it comes to SEO and SEM, and more like a human, more like yourself. Tricks are for kids and people stuck in 2013. Location also makes far more of a difference than it used to – so you potentially need to think about the location your website is targeting, where it’s servers are located, and where your business is registered. People also want up to date content so you should update regularly.

In essence, what we can do to pander to RankBrain is create content that is business-centric, try and rank for things that our customers want and want to know. We can create websites they want to explore and interact with and keep content fresh and location-specific. If you haven’t already, it’s time for a website overhaul and content strategy in line with RankBrain.