What content marketers need to know about RankBrain and SEO

The traditional notion of SEO content involves the generation of large blocks of text (usually greater than 500 words) placed on blog pages, product pages, or other destination pages, into which are sprinkled keywords that are important to the business. Once indexed by search engines, such pages will achieve visibility on SERPs, provided that an exact match is made between the keywords in the content and the keywords in the query.

This notion isn’t completely obsolete; keywords and key phrases still matter. However, their value is gradually being deprecated, as search engines become better able to determine the meaning behind and beyond the actual words being used on a given web page and match this meaning to the context in which the user query is executed.

RankBrain + Hummingbird = contextual awareness

Google’s RankBrain is the latest algorithmic advance to come down the pike. While Google has been characteristically tight-lipped about revealing the exact details governing its operation, it appears that it represents a heuristic, machine-driven enhancement to Hummingbird, released in 2013.

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Hummingbird, as you’ll remember, represented a major leap forward for Google, in terms of better understanding the conversational-style queries predominate on mobile devices. Such an understanding was derived though a process of query substitution using query logs, synonym rules, and adjacent or related context. While the RankBrain patent is not yet available for inspection, it appears to provide a high-speed. self-learning module through which Hummingbird can more quickly refine the accuracy of these substitutions, thus improving the quality of results.

How content marketers should respond to RankBrain

Because RankBrain and Hummingbird both have the same goal and work in tandem with each other, any steps taken to optimize content for one algorithm will likely provide benefit via the other. In light of the advent of RankBrain, here are four steps I would take when creating new content or while revising and improving old content.

1. Write in-depth

RankBrain and Hummingbird’s tag-team uses a process of query substitution to expand user queries beyond the actual text strings within them. The simultaneous occurrence is an important element in this process, because the presence of words in queries that are related to the actual query executed informs the algorithm’s substitution choices. Put more concretely, if you’re writing an article on HVAC systems, the algorithm will likely expect certain words that relate this subject to appear in authoritative examples of such content, such as “central heating,” “centrifugal fan,” “chiller,” and so on.

While it is impossible to quantify the degree of credit that such content will acquire as a result of including such logically related terms, it is likely that well written, in-depth content will rank better than the superficial, less than 400 words, keyword rich, listicle style articles that have been so popular for the past several years.

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2. Understand how your products are being discussed in the field

Popular SEO keyword research tools are naturally keyword oriented, as opposed to being synonym oriented. Consequently, they may be not be sufficient in terms of giving you the kind of holistic insight you’ll need to understand how people are actually searching for your products, services, or any other details about your business.

To get this kind of insight, you may need to consult:

  • Conversations occurring between your sales team, customer service team, and your actual customers.
  • Your own support literature (manuals and FAQs).
  • Online Q&A oriented online forums, social media groups, and support email threads.
  • Focus group transcripts.
  • Your own notes from trade shows and other marketing events.

By organizing your content around the conversational phrases actually used in your industry, you’ll be better equipped to create focused content that will be highly visible to these groups when they search for answers online.

3. Refine all signals in your content to indicate context

While RankBrain and Hummingbird represent major advances in machine-driven artificial intelligence, any assists from you will make them better able to surface your content – provided, of course, that your content is actually relevant to a given user query.

Such assists include:

  • Standard SEO hierarchical markup (H1, H2, and so forth), categorization, and tagging.
  • Implementation of schema markup on your pages.
  • Logical (but non-spammy) cross-linking among your content pages and the inclusion of outbound links in order to establish citation and context.
  • Any other signals like authorship or links to and from relevant social media and online forums that indicate topical relevance and/or authority.

4. Delight the reader with a great user experience to accompany great content

Research from several sources indicates that just having great content may not be enough. If site visitors are exhibiting behavior that is typically associated with poor quality sites, then you may lose rank. Think back to Mobilegeddon and Flashgeddon; for publishers, ad load time may count, along with site load times (yes, this does include rich media advertising). So, if you delight the visitor in every way by providing an excellent user experience, RankBrain will know will reward you for it.

Homepage image via Flickr. 

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