Everything You Need to Know

What Is RankBrain?

Google RankBrain is an AI model that helps Google better understand users’ nuanced search intent to serve up more relevant results. 


Through machine learning and natural language processing (NLP). These components let RankBrain learn from and understand the reasons why people search certain terms.

Introduced in 2015, the algorithm was designed to solve the problem of unmet user intent that happened with simple keyword matching. Especially for never-before-seen searches, which accounted for 15% of all Google searches at the time.

Before RankBrain, Google would just look for exact keyword matches in its indexed pages whenever someone entered a search query. 

Say you searched for “blue shoes produced by Nike.” Google would scan their index for pages containing the words “blue,” “shoes,” “produced,” and “Nike.” And then showed pages with those terms.

This led to a broad range of results, like a Wikipedia page about Nike or an article on shoe production. Or a webpage that did contain the exact phrase, but didn’t actually meet the user’s search intent.

With RankBrain, Google could start to better understand the meaning behind searches. After the RankBrain rollout, if you searched for “blue shoes produced by Nike”, Google would know to show you links to blue Nikes. 

Nike's "Blue Shoes" page comes in the first Google result for "blue shoes produced by Nike" query

And even if a key phrase isn’t included in the search, RankBrain’s machine learning and NLP abilities can still help it figure out what the user is getting at.

For instance, we searched for “the cat who loves lasagna.” 

Even though we didn’t mention Garfield, Google RankBrain was able to use learned context to understand what we were looking for. So, it showed us results related to everyone’s favorite lasagna-loving cat.

Garfield comes as Google's first result for "the cat who loves lasagna" query

Further reading: Google Algorithm Update History [+Latest SEO Changes]

How Does Google RankBrain Work?

RankBrain works alongside different Google algorithms to continually learn and refine its understanding of searches based on the best-performing search results. 

By learning what people usually click on when they search for certain things on Google, RankBrain can more accurately understand the searched topic and context around it to serve up results that are the most valuable to users.

Machine Learning and NLP Train Google RankBrain’s “Brain”

Definitions of machine learning and natural language processing (NLP)

Think of machine learning as RankBrain’s memory. Because of it, RankBrain can remember which pages people found helpful (or unhelpful) in the past for similar queries. So, it knows what content to serve up the next time someone searches that keyword.

It’s like being a bartender who has learned their regular customers’ likes and dislikes. The bartender can use that info to suggest something they’ll probably enjoy based on their past behavior.

And NLP lets RankBrain understand the nuances in human language. It’s not just taking searches word for word, it’s also factoring in context. 

So, when someone searches for “best Thai,” RankBrain can figure out that the user is likely searching for a Thai restaurant, not results related to Thailand.

Different Algorithms Operate in Tandem With RankBrain

While Google RankBrain runs in the background of all searches, it doesn’t work alone. It’s part of a more extensive system of algorithms that Google has launched over the years. 

RankBrain operates under the overarching Hummingbird algorithm, an NLP model that primarily focuses on semantic search. In other words, using context clues and historical data to understand search phrases and search intent.

If Hummingbird is the car engine, RankBrain is the turbocharger. Its capabilities boost Google’s overall accuracy in meeting search intent, especially for new, rare, or long-tail keywords.

And like a turbocharger, Rankbrain isn’t always turned “on.” Depending on the nature of the query, Google may select a different algorithm to process it.

For example, it may use the Local Search Update to process location-based queries or the topic authority system for news-based queries.

Further reading: 9 Tips for How to Bring AI into Your SEO and Content Strategy

How Google RankBrain Impacts SEO

Google RankBrain affects where web pages rank on SERPs based on the following factors:

  • How well the content meets search intent: RankBrain is all about getting to the heart of what searchers are really looking for. Let’s say someone searches for “easy beginner yoga routines.” Even if you targeted that keyword, it’s unlikely that RankBrain would show your content if it, say, focused on advanced yoga classes or selling yoga equipment. It wouldn’t meet the user’s need for simple, beginner-friendly yoga information.
  • How searchers respond to the content: If your page gets a lot of traffic, keeps people on your site, and answers what searchers are looking for, RankBrain takes note. This means crafting content that resonates with readers, serving a purpose beyond just existing for SEO.

Basically, RankBrain isn’t going to shoot your content to the top just because you optimized it with relevant keywords.

In fact, it actually penalizes keyword cannibalization (when multiple pages on your site compete for the same keywords) because it’s unhelpful to readers. What page is really the most relevant if they all seem to say the same thing?

How Do You Optimize Content for Google RankBrain?

When we talk about optimizing for RankBrain, it’s basically just aligning with modern SEO best practices.

So, meeting search intent, creating helpful content, and establishing your Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (EEAT).

Here are some tips to satisfy both RankBrain and searchers:

Focus on Writing Quality Over Keyword Quantity

When crafting content, it’s tempting to stuff in keywords with the goal of ranking higher in search results. But this makes your content sound robotic and inauthentic.

This leads to user disengagement and distrust, impacting your overall traffic. And in turn, how RankBrain lists your content.

Keywords are definitely important for SEO. But they shouldn’t be your sole focus.

Instead, focus more on using natural language that reflects how humans speak and write. When you prioritize connecting with your target audience, you’ll improve the likelihood that they’ll find your content valuable.

Which leads to more clicks, shares, and higher rankings.

Your writing should be genuine, relatable, and easy to digest.

Consider this approach to a piece targeting the “SEO tools” keyword:

“If you’re looking for the best SEO tools, then our SEO tools are the top SEO tools in the market. Many users have said our SEO tools are the ultimate SEO tools for all their needs.”

This blatant overuse of “SEO tools” is clearly designed to boost search rankings, but sacrifices readability and helpfulness to the reader.

Let’s consider this second option:

“Finding the best SEO tools can save you time and energy, freeing you up to focus on your high-level marketing strategy. Whether you’re new to SEO or an expert, our scalable platform can help you reach your goals.”

The second example uses the keyword less, but the writing itself is more helpful to readers.

Get more tips in our full guide on how to write quality web content.

Understand and Match the Appropriate Search Intent

When you understand search intent, you can tailor your content to meet the needs of your audience. And RankBrain loves to see this.

On the other hand, content that doesn’t tie back to the reason users searched for something won’t rank well.

There are four types of search intent:

The four types of search intent, with examples
  1. Navigational intent: Users are looking for a specific site or page. For example, someone might type “Semrush login” to find our login page.
  2. Informational intent: Users want details, definitions, or explanations on a topic. A query like “What is RankBrain?” falls under this category.
  3. Commercial intent: Users are doing research before making a purchase. Like searching “best SEO tools 2023” to compare options before buying.
  4. Transactional intent: Users want to buy something. “Buy RankBrain guidebook” is a transactional query.

Let’s say you want to target “best running shoes.” This is a keyword with commercial intent.

So, creating content like product comparison pages, reviews, and listicles that help the reader in their decision-making process would match search intent.

But what wouldn’t meet this intent would be an educational guide about running shoes. 

While this kind of content does have user value (helping someone who wants to learn about running shoes), it doesn’t have relevant value here. So, it wouldn’t rank well because of this misalignment in content and search intent.

You can manually assess search intent by Googling keywords and looking at the top results on the SERP.

For example, question words like “what,” “how,” and “why” tend to signal informational intent, while purchasing words like “order,” “deal,” and “discount” signal transactional intent.

But this process takes a lot of time.

Our Keyword Magic Tool makes it easier to identify the search intent for any given keyword.

Navigate to “Keyword Magic Tool” under “SEO” > “KEYWORD RESEARCH” on the left-hand sidebar.

Navigating to “Keyword Magic Tool” in the Semrush menu

Enter a seed keyword (a broad term relevant to your industry) in the search bar, select your desired location, and hit the “Search” button.

"best running shoes" entered into the Keyword Magic Tool search bar

You’ll see a list of suggested keywords to target.

Keyword Magic Tool results for "best running shoes"

Look at the “Intent” column. Different letters stand for different types of search intent:

  • I = Informational intent
  • N = Navigational intent
  • C = Commercial intent
  • T = Transactional intent

In this case, most of the related keywords have a commercial search intent, as seen by the “Cs.” 

But if we search “running shoes,” different search intents pop up: 

Keyword Magic Tool results for "running shoes" with the "Intent" column highlighted

You can filter by different search intents by hitting the “Intent” dropdown. Tick the categories you want to see, then hit “Apply.”

"Commercial," and "Navigational" selected under "Intent" filter drip-down menu

Now, you can make sure your content meets the needs of users searching for certain keywords. Which boosts your likelihood of gaining traffic and rankings.

Create Topic Clusters and Pillar Pages

Use topic clusters and pillar pages strategically organize content and enhance your website’s credibility in the “eyes” of Google RankBrain.

A topic cluster is a group of related pages that cover different aspects of one central topic. A pillar page is a comprehensive resource on a broad topic. It serves as the “springboard” for the topic cluster.

The pillar page links out to pieces within that cluster, and the cluster pieces link back to each other and the pillar.

The structure of a topic cluster

This improves your site’s structure and internal linking.

Let’s say you run a baking blog.

Your pillar page might be an ultimate guide to baking tools, explaining everything from whisks to mixers. Then, you create topic clusters—individual pages diving into each tool’s uses, maintenance, and top brands.

This interrelated content tells RankBrain, “Hey, this site isn’t just throwing random keywords around. It has lots of interconnected, relevant content.”

So, when someone searches for baking tools, your thorough content stands a good chance of ranking well because RankBrain understands the breadth and depth of your pieces.

You can generate keyword clusters using our Keyword Manager.

Enter up to five seed keyword(s), select a database, and click on the “Create list” button.

Keyword Manager tool search

The Keyword Manager tool will automatically create a list of keyword clusters:

Keyword Manager tool's list of keyword clusters for "running shoes"

The generated list contains the following key elements:

  • Keyword clusters that you can target with new content
  • The intent of each main keyword
  • The number of keywords in each cluster
  • How difficult it will be for you to rank for each main keyword (KD%)
  • The potential reach of your new content (Volume)

Based on the information and related keywords, you can decide on whether you want to create a pillar page or cluster page for the keyword cluster that you chose.

Take the keyword cluster “asphalt running shoes.” With a search volume of 4,100, relatively low KD% (25), and 17 different keywords, it would make sense to create a foundational pillar page. And those 17 different keywords provide opportunities to create more granular, related cluster pages.

This approach would tell Google RankBrain that we’re an expert on all things about asphalt running shoes.

For a deeper dive, check out our guide on creating keyword clusters with Keyword Manager.

Include Semantic Keywords

Semantic keywords (terms conceptually related to your main keyword) help Google RankBrain match your pages with relevant search queries.

Say you’re writing an article about “digital photography.” Semantic keywords related to this topic might include:

  • DSLR cameras
  • Shutter speed
  • Aperture
  • ISO settings

These terms provide context that helps search engines understand the depth and breadth of your content on “digital photography.” They complement the main keyword with relevant, related aspects of the topic, giving a big-picture view.

You’ll probably naturally incorporate some semantic keywords into your writing just based on the topic you’re covering. But if you’re looking for more ideas, our SEO Writing Assistant can give you recommendations.

Under “Content Marketing,” click “SEO Writing Assistant.”

Navigating to “SEO Writing Assistant" in Semrush menu

Then, click the “+ Analyze new text” button.

"+ Analyze new text" button selected under SEO Writing Assistant

Type or paste your content in the text box. Then, add at least two target keywords in the “Keywords” box under “Content recommendations” on the right-hand sidebar. 

Select the location and device specifications for your target audience. And click the “Get recommendations” button.

"Content recommendations" section highlighted on the right-hand sidebar in SEO Writing Assistant

The SEO Writing Assistant will analyze your text and give you a content score based on:

  • SEO
  • Tone of voice
  • Readability
  • Originality
"Content score" section highlighted on the right-hand sidebar in SEO Writing Assistant

Scroll down to “SEO” > “Recommended keywords” to see different semantic keywords that may make sense for your content.

Recommended keywords" section highlighted on the right-hand sidebar in SEO Writing Assistant

Other tools that can help you find semantic keywords include:

Refresh and Consolidate Outdated Content

Search engine algorithms evolve, industry trends change, and your old content can quickly become outdated. And when your content isn’t relevant or accurate, Google RankBrain won’t rank it highly on SERPs.

Instead of continuously churning out new articles or pages, look inward and refine what you already have. Finding opportunities to revamp and consolidate old content is a fairly low-lift way to improve your content quality and rankings.

Let’s say you have several old blog posts that talk about different ways that running shoes can impact your performance. Combining those pieces into one robust, evergreen piece makes it easier for readers to find that info. And gives you more staying power on SERPs.

Here are some signs to look out for to consider whether your content would benefit from a refresh:

  • Contains specific dates or years
  • Includes outdated information
  • Has high impressions but low click-through rates

Try using Semrush’s On Page SEO Checker to get ideas on how to optimize specific pages on your website for your target keywords.

Further reading: How to Remove Outdated Content Using Google Tools

Enhancing Your SEO Strategy Beyond Google RankBrain

Understanding and optimizing for Google RankBrain is just one part of refining your SEO strategy.

Check our “Advanced SEO Techniques & Strategies for Success” post for insights and actionable tips you can apply to improve your search rankings, increase website traffic, and outperform your competitors.

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