Our Blog

The Google Rankbrain Algorithm: What Is It and How Does It Affect Your SEO

By Snap Agency March 13, 2018

Uncovering the inner workings of Google’s search algorithm is as easy as explaining quantum mechanics to a three-year-old. That’s to say that it’s nearly impossible. However, that is not to say that we don’t have a deep understanding of said algorithm; we’re just not privy to all that it entails. Because if we were, we’d be writing this blog from our satellite office aboard the S.S. Snap sailing around the Caribbean.


Google closely guards its search algorithm. We can understand its basic functionalities and learn tactics to optimize every aspect of our digital marketing approach, but no one knows the exact formula that will make their content rank first for every search 100% of the time. Because if someone did know that, then the rest of us would be out of business. But learning to play the Google search game is half the fun of digital marketing, and we’ve been studying for nearly 20 years.

PageRank vs. RankBrain vs. Hummingbird

We’re not going to dive too deep here; see quantum mechanics comment above. But, to put it simply, Hummingbird is what Google calls its search algorithm, and RankBrain and PageRank are parts of that equation. Think of Hummingbird as a symphony orchestra. All in all, we think of the orchestra as a single entity, but really, it’s composed of various sections that optimize its performance. From the wind instruments, to percussion, modifying a single orchestra section changes the entire sound of the symphony. For our example, RankBrain will act as the percussion section.

What is RankBrain

The percussion section is able to modify the mood of a piece with a well-timed drum beat or bell ring. The emotional aspect of the section is similar to that of RankBrain’s prime functionality. RankBrain is a machinelearning based updated that Google made to its algorithm that first began to be implemented in 2015, but it’s taken a few years for this software to learn enough to be impactful on real-time searches. RankBrain has only become a serious contributing factor to Google’s search algorithm recently.


Do you remember back when Google first launched? It was in September of 1998. The new platform handled around ten thousand search queries per day, but a year later in 1999, the search engine was already handling 3.5 million search queries daily. In 2000 it was 18 million queries per day, and so on and so forth. While demand for the new, seemingly limitless, online knowledge base kept growing, users had to be exact with their searches. In the beginning, if a user typed “ice cream” into Google, they would only be shown results with the word “ice cream.” But now, Google has evolved, and with the use of RankBrain can evaluate the true intent behind a search term.


Now, when users search “ice cream” on Google, RankBrain and to a larger extent, Hummingbird, will use its acquired knowledge to determine what the best search result for your query is. RankBrain looks at a search against user-specific data like location, personality, and word use to determine which search results best match with the intent behind a search. As mentioned above, RankBrain utilizes machine learning which means that the computer teaches itself how to perform a task better after being taught by humans and developer coding. If you’ve spent time looking up recipes for your own DIY ice cream, or have been researching lactose-free ice cream alternatives, RankBrain will use that data to pick the best “ice cream” results for you.


It’s the human aspect of RankBrain’s learning that has had the biggest impact on how content is being ranked on Google. With RankBrain, SEO today is not what it way even five years ago.

SEO: Then vs. Now

Let’s say that a business makes shoes. In the past, SEO experts would counsel that business to incorporate short tail keywords into their copy so that they would be an exact match for Google searches. So your keyword strategy might look something like this: sneakers, shoes, running shoes, and shoe. Because back in the day, having these words on a page multiple times would make you rank first for any searches using the same words. This algorithm was the birth of the now outdated blackhat SEO practice.


Blackhat SEO was a strategy used in the late 90s and early 2000s that focused on appealing to search engines as opposed to consumer audiences. Content could be classified as blackhat if it was added for the benefit of ranking on a search engine as opposed to improving the user experience. Some of the most blatant blackhat tactics of the time included:

  • Hidden text or links
  • Cloaking
  • Link farms
  • Duplicate content
  • Doorway pages
  • Keyword stuffing


Google quickly realized that marketers and individuals were using these dirty tricks and set out to find a way to better assign value to content. And thus, RankBrain was built.

How RankBrain in Changing SEO

RankBrain uses what it calls “signals” to rank content. Put simply; signals are like a point system that’s native to Google. There are around 200 major signals and up to 10,000 sub-signals that can affect your content’s “score.” According to Search Engine Land and our own digital experts, the most important search engine optimizations that you should focus on include:

  • Content: Pages should be well written and have a substantial amount of content. Learn more about how long your blogs and content should be in 2018 here.
  • Architecture: It should be easy for a search engine to crawl your entire site. It shouldn’t be overcrowded with ads or spam.
  • HTML: Your HTML title tags should contain relevant keywords that enhance your page’s overall value.
  • Trust: Has your page garnered enough links and shares to make it an authority on its subject? If you’re still in the process of writing the piece, will its content be of a high enough equality that other industry leaders would share it?
  • Links: The links that you use on your page should be from high authority sources that only add to your content’s credibility.
  • Locality: The content on your site should have local references if you’re a local business. Larger enterprises that may target an entire country should likewise have geo-specific references.


In a nutshell, since the new RankBrain update focuses on the intent behind a search as opposed to the specific keywords used, you should reevaluate your SEO approach using the tactics above to make sure that your website content is user-focused. And at the end of the day, remember that quality is more important than quantity in 2018.

If you’re still confused about this whole RankBrain thing, don’t sweat it. We’ve learned as much about RankBrain and the entire Google algorithm as possible so that you don’t have to. Our SEO experts would be more than happy to talk with you about optimizing your website to account for the new changes to the RankBrain algorithm. If you’re ready to add SEO services to your 2018 marketing strategy, send us a message today!