It’s been a while since we had some good old sensationalist headlines about Google algorithms. How boring. But, just when you thought all had gone quiet on the algo front, Bloomberg runs the story that Google is “turning its lucrative web search over to AI machines”.

And, true to form, the online community guzzled up the bait in a single bite. Someone call John Conner, the machine are taking over! Google’s PR team must love this game, every time there’s an announcement – release one story, sit back and wait for it to explode.




But what does RankBrain really mean for search after everyone takes a much-needed deep breath?


Third ‘most important’ signal

The headline comment from Bloomberg’s conveniently exclusive story is that RankBrain has shot to the dizzy heights of being Google’s “third most important signal”. This is big news, for sure, but the impact is going to be nothing like the chaos of early Panda and Penguin algorithm updates. Essentially, RankBrain is the automated version of what Google already does – except it will learn by its own devices.

That might be underselling the technology itself (to quite a large degree) but from a marketing point of view it couldn’t be more true. Much of what Google does still relies on sheer man/woman power and RankBrain is here to largely automate the system, by expanding on the existing Hummingbird algorithm with a self-sustainable (AI) refresh.


The marketing impact of RankBrain

When Hummingbird rolled out in 2013, the big news was that Google had become much smarter with its understanding of search queries. Things like search context, user intent and word variation became less of an obstacle for the search provider.

Suddenly, we started talking about long-tail keywords and synonyms – even the algorithm’s ability to distinguish between Apple products and the similarly named fruit.

Now, bear in mind that Hummingbird is the name for Google’s entire algorithm – not small chunks of it, like Panda, Penguin and Pigeon. RankBrain is also a smaller chunk of the wider algorithm, but it takes many of the key improvements we saw with the Hummingbird update to a new level.

RankBrain’s role is to return more accurate results for the obscure, unique searches Google hasn’t quite managed to crack yet. The key difference is it’s going to get smarter at doing it by its own accord. Which means more long-tail keywords and variations being interpreted with better accuracy, better understanding.


What this means for your search strategy

The initial impact on search isn’t all that huge. Whereas Hummingbird felt like a giant leap forward in search, RankBrain is the obvious next step along the same path – even if the technology is a little more sci-fi. It will mean more accurate search results for a wider range of queries (at least that’s the plan) and a sustainable platform for growth.

It’s a big step for Google, no doubt, and we already know it affects the vast majority of searches. But there’s no doomsday element to this update, no need to panic about RankBrain. It may open the doors for some more obscure long-tail keyword choices and this could have a knock-on effect with PPC. Meanwhile Google may be hoping RankBrain will have a positive impact on voice search – but that’s about the long and short of it.

Panic over.