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RankBrain’s Significance – and the Current State of Other Google Updates

Published: January 12, 2016

Author: Leslie To

A few weeks ago, word spread that a machine-learning AI technology called RankBrain is helping drive Google’s search results as a part of the Hummingbird algorithm. Now, anything new associated with Google’s search algorithm tends to stir the pot in the SEO community, so I’d like to take a look at RankBrain’s significance – and give some insights on how other well-known updates are playing out and how SEOs should take action.

First, What Does RankBrain Mean for You?

Even though RankBrain as part of the search algorithm was only recently announced, it’s been fully live (and global) for a few months now. I personally don’t think this changes any best practices since this is simply an extension of what they’ve been doing with Hummingbird; it’s a push towards machine-enabled learning rather than relying on what was a largely human method of understanding and parsing queries. (Side note: Bing announced their machine learning system back in 2005, called RankNet, and you can bet with RankBrain’s recent announcement, Microsoft is about to invest more energy into that thing.)
With RankBrain, Google hopes to better parse intent based on a searcher’s query and conflate some of the longer-tail, rarer queries with related, more common searches to create a more concise user experience. The biggest surprise is that Google announced RankBrain is the third-most important signal and is processing a “very large fraction” of queries (to quote the G-men). But what that means exactly is a little unclear at the moment.
Expect that with increased conflation of related queries and better page processing, content that’s been hovering on the border of quality will see some declines. I also expect that RankBrain will refine the Knowledge Graph and expand the Google Answer Box a lot more, which could spell doom for sites with thin content.

So How Do All Those Other Updates Stand?

Before we dive into past Google updates and their present-day significance, we have to remember that with all of these, Google is trying to clean up search results pages for their end user. By removing sites that provide little quality and penalizing domains that try to “game” the system, they’re attempting to create a better search experience.
We need to get away from the language of “maximizing rankings of online content for algorithm updates” and start thinking about how to serve content that will benefit your users the most. If you’re optimizing for your end-customer, instead of trying to get ahead of Google’s algorithm updates, you’re always going to end up on top, and Google (and other search engines) will reward you for it.
This is not to say that black hat tactics don’t work; they do. But it is precisely these tactics that forced Google’s hand to begin with. So I want to get away from the “beating algorithm” rhetoric to “working for the greater good” conversation.
With all that said, let’s break these suckers down.
Panda: If you’ve invested in thin content in an effort to drive volume, you can stop. It will yield less value as RankBrain and Hummingbird get smarter.
Penguin: Stop investing in link farms. Again, stop investing in link farms. Link building works, and I’d be lying to you if I said it didn’t. But it works in the short term, and the risk you run by investing in volume link building tactics is not necessarily a risk you want to take. I’ve had clients work really hard to try to come back from a Penguin penalty, and it is just not worth it. This is just one of those high-risk ventures that’s not worth the money nor the potential headache that will come.
Pigeon: Local search is its own beast, and Pigeon is trying to be better at tying local business listings with website information. Own your local business listings account and keep it up to date so you’re not dealing with misinformation across the web.
Payday: This targeted queries that most often trigger spammy websites. Queries like “payday loans,” “casinos,” and “viagra” were targeted, and their respective SERPs were cleaned up. This whole “gaming the system” trend we’ve got going? Yeah, it’s just blowing up out of control on these kinds of queries.
Pirate: This is Google’s attempt to clean up their SERPs by punishing sites that violate copyrights and more strictly enforce the DMCA. This doesn’t necessarily mean Google is solving the Piracy problem, but know that they are actively trying to control for it. While their algorithm and how they go about punishing piracy sites isn’t always transparent, they are very transparent about legal issues and compliance. I wouldn’t say this is a huge concern unless you’re running a piracy/torrenting site, in which case, yes, you should be worried.
Top Heavy: Google went after sites with top-heavy ads (which to me is a little ironic when you consider how top heavy Google SERPs have become, but we digress). Again, think about your user. If you’re on a site to consume content and you’re bombarded with nothing but ads in the above-the-fold content, then you’ve just given your user a really poor experience. Just think about what would frustrate your user and try not to do just that. On a related note, Google recently announced its penalty for giant interstitial ads. Moral of the story? Stop being top heavy with content your users aren’t looking for.
Mobile Friendly: This update was probably the biggest news this year; it’s otherwise known as “Mobilegeddon” (as a side-note, Google hates that name). At first, it had lukewarm results, but by mid Q2, when non-mobile friendly sites and URLs started to fall out of SERPs, it was clear that mobile-friendliness was here to stay. If you haven’t jumped on the mobile train yet, you need to.
One of the biggest game-changers, however, was the re-introduction of app indexation. By making app indexation more robust, Google hopes that search will become a core part of app usage. Allowing users to jump into the native app and back into search not only grows daily users within the app, but it makes it easier for users to use Google search as the go-to search option for all content (app or web). Optimize your site experience starting with mobile, then expand outwards and start thinking about to better tie your app into your overall site experience.
All that said, it’s my strong belief that optimizing for the user over optimizing for algorithms is the way to go. The game of predicting what comes next from Google is a tricky one; if you’re parsing the right kind of data and learning what your users react to best, you’ve already got your charter. Make sure your SEO strategy reflects it.

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