Have you heard about “RankBrain”? That’s the name of Google’s AI technology, making user intent a critical piece in search results. RankBrain is constantly trying to improve the Google’s Search Engine Results Page by attempting to understand what people are actually looking for when they search and delivering on that need.
Better search results pages are better for searchers, but how can you take advantage of this shift to get in front of more of your ideal customers? In short, how can you optimize for RankBrain? Or is it impossible?
If you want to understand more about how RankBrain in upending the search business and how you can stay on your feet, listen to Jeffrey Kranz, an SEO expert who focuses on RankBrain.
Rich: Jeffrey Kranz co-founded Overthink Group, a remote SEO and content marketing agency in the Pacific Northwest. He helps organizations reach their audiences by teaching their audiences, and especially in the SaaS, finance, and non-profit spaces. He loves outranking incumbent websites and hiding from direct sunlight. Jeffrey, welcome to the show.
Jeffrey: Thanks for having me, Rich.
Rich: So are you a vampire, that you like hiding form direct sunlight?
Jeffrey: Just about. If you find any images of me you’ll see that I am of a very, very pale complexion with red hair. I grew up in North Carolina andwhen I heard about the constant cloud covering in the PNW, I knew this was where I wanted to live. And I’m enjoying a good dose of it right now.
Rich: Excellent. And for any of you people that do want to see what Jeffrey looks like, of course you can head on over to the website. We’ll have a nice photo of him right there.
So Jeffrey, how did you get started in SEO?
Jeffrey: I got started in SEO because I liked teaching people. I was working at a software company at the time and I thought I really enjoy doing copywriting, persuasive copy is fun, and optimizing for click throughs and opens on emails is a neat game. But I really wanted to educate our customers on the sort of stuff that we were doing and help them understand this space.
So that led me to exploring back when I was using more sophisticated tools – just the Google Keyword Planner – and seeing how many times people are Googling certain phrases, what could I do to help them understand these things that they’re Googling.
So it was really born out of a love for teaching and wanting to write something a little bit longer than a landing page that got me into SEO. I would say that my first experiment with SEO happened back when Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films came out. There was a scene in which Gandalf says there were 5 wizards that came to Middle Earth, and I though, I bet a bunch of people are going to go home from this movie and Google “5 wizards Middle Earth”, or “5 wizards Lord of the Rings”. So I went home and wrote a post about it – and granted this was before the hummingbird update kicked in, so you won’t find it now because it was pitifully short – but I just answered that question and after just a bit of time I was ranking on page 1 for searches related to the wizards and Tolkien’s legendarium.
So that was kind of a moment when I realized this is a lot of fun and I can write about stuff that I’m into or that I think people are curious about, and they’ll find answers and look at me, I’m on Google. Hi, mom!
Rich: That’s awesome. And of course that was back in the days when Google was highly manipulative, but now things definitely seem to have shifted. And actually the reason why I wanted to talk to you today was about this addition to the Google algorithm called RankBrain. So for those people who aren’t familiar with RankBrain, what is it exactly?
Jeffrey: So RankBrain is the artificial intelligence that Google uses to figure out what search intent users have. So it’s kind of like Google’s way of saying, “Hey, is this what you’re looking for? Is this what you meant by that thing that you searched?” What happened to me really recently was I was trying to remember the name of an animal. You’ve probably seen pictures of it, it looks like a cross between a giraffe and a zebra, it’s called the “okapi”, but I didn’t know what it was called. I knew it was an animal that lives in the rainforest and it has a striped butt, so I Googled “rain forest striped butt”, and Google showed me images of the okapi animal and the Wikipedia article on it.
Well how did Google go from this weird collection of words that probably no one had searched before, if so I don’t know why, to understanding that this guy is probably looking for the okapi animal. Well that step in between is RankBrain and they figured out what was my search intent, what was I looking for, and served me up websites and results that answered that question.
If you look through the Wikipedia page for okapi, you’re not going to find “striped butt, rainforest”, or anything there. That’s Google’s RankBrain at work for you.
Rich: And so RankBrain is really some sort of artificial intelligence or machine learning in this case, that’s trying to understand our intent. Is that a good way of looking at it?
Rich: Ok. So I want to mention that Overthink Group has an amazing, amazing blog postthat goes into great detail about the nuances and the backstory of RankBrain, and we’re going to link to that in the show notes for sure. So if you really want to get into the nitty gritty “before they were stars” version of RankBrain, I strongly recommend checking out that link,
But I’m all about what do I need to do to improve my own business here. So I’m going to kind of come at it from a different angle if it’s ok with you, Jeffrey. I want to know how do I optimize for RankBrain.
Jeffrey: Well that’s a really good question, because as far as Google has told us there are 3 really major factors. Now of course we all know the triple digit factors that go into what results rank for different searches. But the three biggest factors are the content itself, the links that are pointing to that content, and then RankBrain. So it’s good that people are wondering how we account for RankBrain in our strategy.
On one hand RankBrain is trying to serve people answers to their questions. And so to some degree you could say you don’t optimize for RankBrain, RankBrain optimizes for the user. But you can, and the way you optimize for RankBrain is by optimizing your content in general. There are some things that RankBrain pays attention to that signal whether or not a piece of content is a good result for different searches. And those are things like click through rate. So if you Google something and you hit a search engine’s result page and you see that list of links, then Google is going to pay attention to which links get clicked on the most. And there are ways that you can improve the click through rate of your results in the search.
Some ways of doing that are just the same ways that you optimize, let’s say, an email. You want more people reading your email, you want to improve your open rates, then improve your open rates by writing better subject lines. So you can do the same thing with the title tag on your content. You can make a more compelling title, make sure that your title describes the sort of content that you’re covering, pre-empt the questions that people are asking, and optimize that way.
Oh, a really good tactic for optimizing titles is to see what people are already spending money on to get clicks. One way that Brian Dean popularized – I think he started recommending this around 2016 – was if you want to rank for something and you want to increase your click through rate, Google what you’re trying to rank for. Then look at the PPC ads that are running above the organic results. People are paying to get clicks on those ads, so take notes on the ads that people are running. Because if you’re paying attention to the ads that people are running, they already have ad specialists testing these and trying to optimize click through rates.
So you can probably learn about what makes people click and what doesn’t by just paying attention to how people are already spending and optimizing their money, apply that to your organic content, and you’ll increase your click through rate on that organic content. That’s one way of doing it.
Optimizing your Meta description is great. A lot of people will just publish a blog post and the title that’s on the blog becomes the title tag on the content, so that’s what shows up in the search. And then the first couple lines of that blog post will show up in the Meta description. You can optimize your Meta description as well. And the Meta description is, of course, that little bit of text that shows up below the blue link on the search engine results page. Optimize that to make sure it describes the content that you are going to be serving up and tease out the kinds of benefits that people are going to get from reading that content.
And then another way – we already experience this all the time when we’re going through our inboxes – is it’s not enough to just read a subject line. A subject line isn’t the only thing that makes you want to open an email, it also depends on who’s sending it. If you have a strong brand and you have a good deal of brand affinity with your audience, then when they see content from you they’re more likely to click it. So developing good relationships with your customers, with your email list, with your social audiences, that’s going to increase your click through rate as well.
I know that anyone who plays in the SEO space has a good deal of trust for anything that Moz puts out. So if I Google anything that has anything to do with search engines or optimizing for them, and I see a result from Moz even if it’s not the #1 result, if I see something on Moz.com I’m going to click it because I know they’re looking through data, they’re trying to make an honest assessment, No one at Moz is just cooking up material to try and get me to read it. And so I’m going to click through to that even if it’s not the first result.
And that’s a way that you can do the same in the search. You want to up your click through rate, build a strong brand. When people trust your brand they see you in the search and you get higher clicks.
Rich: Ok, because Moz is not Buzzfeed or Mashable. There’s trust built up with the Moz brand that they’re really in it for you. Correct?
Jeffrey: I have a lot of trust for Moz, yes.
Rich: Ok. So I just want to take a pause tight here and make sure that I’m following along. So RankBrain is trying to do a better job of understanding the user intent. So really it’s focusing on optimizing the search engine results page more than anything else, and trying to understand people are looking for certain things. It’s looking to learn more about what people want.
And so if we’re trying to “optimize” – and I put that in quotes – a few of the things you mentioned so far is around stuff that people are going to see on that search engine results page before they even click through. The point here is that if we improve our title tags, if we improve our Meta descriptions, and if we build our brand and use our brand, then we’re more likely to get click throughs with RankBrain. Part of what RankBrain may look at is did people choose this option on the search engine results page. That’s kind of a signal to RankBrain and Google that this might be a relevant result. Is that pretty close to the truth?
Jeffrey: Yup. Because that’s what RankBrain is trying to solve for. They’re trying to make sure that the results that they serve up for people – whether they’re searching for tried and true keywords that everyone’s Googling every day or stuff that no one has Googled before (like rainforest striped butt) – they’re trying to make sure that that search is full of results that meet that search intent. So, yes.
Rich: I’m sure we’re going to get to the content itself has to be good, but I’m also just wondering, it almost sounds like the title and the Meta description – to a degree – you mentioned a more pure version of this with email subject lines. I’m almost thinking as long as you’re using the right language, a clickbait type title might actually help you as long as you back up that title with content itself.
Rich: Ok, so we may want to take some lessons from Buzzfeed after all, but maybe that will work today but it won’t work down the line. What are some other things that we can do that may help us optimize for RankBrain?
Jeffrey: Well one way is to give people a better experience on your site. So driving down bounce rates, that’s going to help you as well. Google is going to be paying attention to are people going to your site, and then one they get there, great you got a click. But if they turn around and leave right away, then that sends RankBrain a signal of this might not have been what they were looking for after all.
And so this gets us into the problem that content managers and designers and people who are trying to engage people on the web, have been dealing with for a long time. How do we give people a good experience? So increasing your page load time, that’s going to give you a better chance of RankBrain pushing up your content in the search. If you give people plenty of reason to engage on that page, that’s where you kind of get into, well if you have longer content RankBrain is not going to say, “Oh, this is long content, this is automatically good.” But if you give people really engaging, educational, and valuable content that makes them stick around on that page, you up your page dwell time, and that sends RankBrain a positive signal.
So there are ways that we’re getting into what you allude to earlier where the content itself, as you optimize the content for a good technical experience; it loads fast, it looks nice, it gives people the information that they want. And also a more subjectively good experience, if you will. It’s educationally valuable, it helps people answer the questions that they’re searching for. Then that sends positive signals back to RankBrain as well.
Rich: So I understand bounce rates, specifically if somebody comes to my website through the search engine results page, they look at one page and they leave. I understand why Google may see that as a negative signal, but what if I have written a blog post on “Everything you need to know about hashtags”, and somebody’s done a Google search and they click on that link and my post is pretty exhaustive and there’s really nothing else to do after they’ve read that blog post. Then isn’t that considered to be a bounce rate even if I’ve answered their question. Have I somehow punished myself by writing in a way that answers their question and doesn’t give them a reason to keep clicking around my website?
Jeffrey: Well the good thing is Rank Brain is not just looking at bounces as a pass/fail. It’s not just saying, “Uh oh, someone got to this page and they didn’t read anything else and they left. So it’s obviously not the best result.” They’re accounting for a myriad of factors that go into this. In fact I’ve seen posts that get promoted that have very little content because they answer the question right away. Google is going to be paying attention not only to did someone click on a thing, did they read it, and did they bounce. They’re going to be looking for whether or not you searched for something else to try to get a new [inaudible] altogether.
So if you go and you Google and you’re an HR Manager and you have a question about payroll and so you look up “what’s gross versus net income”, or something like that, and you hit gusto.com. Well you get a really quick answer and then you bounce, and then you don’t Google some other variation of “gross versus net income”, then that itself gives RankBrain a signal that says they searched for the thing, they seemed to have got their answer, and they moved on. That’s a positive signal, too. So you don’t live or die on whether or not people bounce. But if you drive your bounce rates down, that’s still a positive signal.
Rich: Alright. Talk to me a little bit about co-occurrence and LSI keywords. By the way, that sounds like the most nerdy question I’m going to ask all day.
Jeffrey: Yeah, I don’t know if anyone has ever asked me that question. I don’t know if anyone has ever aid, “Talk to me about LSI keywords”. So LSI, that stands for “latent semantic indexing” of keywords. So that plays a role in helping RankBrain know what sort of results are going to fit into different searches.
Do you drink beer, Rich?
Rich: I live in Portland, Maine, one of the craft beer centers of the universe, so I absolutely do.
Jeffrey: Excellent. Live in Bellingham, Washington, which if my stats are current, has the highest craft brewery per capita count in the U.S.
Jeffrey: So if you like beer, you’re not usually going to hear people talking about how much they like beer by just saying, “beer, beer, beer, beer”. People will be talking about IPAs, they’ll be talking about porters, they’ll be talking about stouts, they’ll get a little bit deeper and talk about the hoppiness, they’ll talk about the kinds of hops, do I like beer that gives me citrus notes, do I like bright beer. We’re going to be using this vocabulary that is associated with beer if we really like beer and we really know what we’re talking about.
Well RankBrain kind of pays attention to these keywords and how they group themselves together. And so just like if you’re sitting in a spot and hear two people talking about how much they love beer, but they only say a handful of beer-related words. You think, ok, well maybe they think they like beer but they definitely aren’t all that into it. I wouldn’t tell someone to talk to those guys because they know a lot about beer. Whereas if you overheard another conversation where people are talking about all of this vocabulary and they’re talking about different crewing methods, different grains that are going into it, then you would think these guys know what they’re talking about. That’s what Rank Brain is doing when it’s looking at LSI keywords. They’re paying attention to the way words tend to go together when people are discussing a certain topic.
Rich: Ok, so this is interesting. Because my friend Andy Crestodina always says things like make sure you’re writing the best content on the internet, which of course is very difficult to do. But I guess if we’re telling people – keeping with the beer motif – if you are writing about beer or if you want to rank well for beer, then you should be talking about not just beer but lagers, ales, hoppiness, all these topics as opposed to the two guys wearing backward baseball caps downing as many Coors Light as they can while watching the game.
Jeffrey: Absolutely. If Google is going to rank conversations about beer as informative, if RankBrain were sitting in a spot overhearing those two conversations, then RankBrain would know that the two guys who only say “beer” and “can”, versus the other two folks that are talking about different nuances of beer and really describing what’s the difference between an IPA and an Imperial IPA. If RankBrain is overhearing those two conversations they’re going to hear more of those latent semantic indexed keywords in the latter conversation and assume that the latter conversation has more information about beer that would be valuable to people who are Googling questions about beer. Does that make sense?
Rich: It does. And to me really it feels like – and I have a question about this – but it feels like we’re almost getting away from specific keywords or focusing narrowly on one specific keyword. And we’re almost looking for a richness, a palate if you will, of words that are semantically connected more than anything else. That’s the future of search.
Jeffrey: Absolutely. Because Google is getting smarter than keywords. And we as marketers need to get smarter than keywords, too. So we can go back to, again I love the example of Googling “rainforest striped butt”, because it has nothing to do with the thing that I was searching except for that’s the best I could get at describing it on the fly quickly typing it into Google. That’s how smart Google is. And we need to understand that. We’re not just trying to get Google to rank for copy, or we’re not just trying to rank for beer by saying “beer” over and over again. If we want Google to take us seriously when we’re talking about beer, then we need to be using the vocabulary that people who know about beer use.
Rich: So is this the death of keyword research? Is there a point of going and trying to figure out all the specific keywords we’re using, or has it just become more nuanced?
Jeffrey: I think it’s become a lot more nuanced. In fact, keyword research is quite alive and well for us at our agency. We use it all the time because we want to know what are the various ways that people are reaching a certain post. So if we’re doing competitive research, then we want to know what are the things that people are doing that we wouldn’t have even expected them to be Googling that lead to a competitor’s page. Because that’s an example of RankBrain at work. If we can understand what connections is RankBrain making, that’s kind of reverse engineering it, right?
We’re saying that we know that a competitor is getting this kind of traffic, so what is that traffic coming from. You can use a tool like Ahrefs to see what are the keywords that people are typing in that are pushing that traffic to them and find some questions that people have and ways that people are trying to voice their intent, and this is what Google is giving them. And if you’re really smart then you can see this page is kind of answering the question and maybe this is just the best that Google can find to serve up this answer, I bet we could do better.
So that’s kind of a way that you can almost reverse engineer competing content to optimize for rank branding, if you will, by just saying what connections has Google already noticed between different searches and existing content. How can we better satisfy that search intent? Because if we’re looking to satisfy search intent, that is true optimization for RankBrain because that’s what RankBrain is trying to do.
So I would say we’re still going to be using keyword research, we just need to think a lot bigger. We can’t be just saying, ok how do we put that one golden keyword everywhere in this page. We need to be saying if people are really trying to understand this topic, this topic is bigger than any specific one keyword, what’s the language that people use when they’re trying to understand this topic. We need to use that language when we’re talking about it in our content.
Rich: So I thought that was going to be my last questions, but I’m sorry I’ve just got to ask one more. So it seem sot me that in the past one of the things that we try and do to really target a specific keyword is to write a blog post that answers a specific question, and then write a different blog post that asks a slightly different version of that question, then we would just create content that’s very narrowly focused. And it feels like now we’re not trying to do that. Is that correct?
Jeffrey: That is the way things are going right now, Rich. So part of that is Google is getting smarter and we don’t need to be writing one specific post for every single keyword or long tail keyword that people are writing. Because Google knows that people are searching for this, then this existing piece of content is going to meet that search intent, it’s going to satisfy that search intent just as well. SO let’s see if I can think of an example.
Rich: Well just form our experience, we have hundreds if not thousands of blog post on our site back from the days of when you would basically try targeting email marketing keyword search by writing 12 different articles on email marketing. Would you suggest in these days if we were about to revamp that we should take all 10 or 12 of those articles and combine them into one epic authoritative post? Is that where Google wants us to go?
Jeffrey: That’s a really smart way of dealing with redundant content, yes. So with content marketing in the past, we were told write consistently, publish consistently, and make sure that each blog post – each 300-600 word blog post – covered one specific long tail keyword. Well now we don’t need to do that, and it would make more sense for us to go back through if you’re trying to rank for let’s say, “increase open rates”, or “open rates for email marketing”. Go through your blog. If you’ve done a good job I managing it then you should just be able to go to the category or the tag of “email marketing” and “open rates” and look at what you’ve already published and say let’s merge these suckers together.
Let’s pull together the content that we already have, let’s make sure that it flows in a really educational and valuable way, make one big authoritative page about email marketing, and then if there are pieces that are too substantial to really wedge in to the middle of a post – if they feel like this is almost a post in and of itself – then you can still have multiple blog posts on a certain topic. But try to consolidate your content around some of these more authoritative pages.
And you can merge those old posts together, you can use 301 redirects on posts that you’re retiring if you want to preserve any links that you received to those that are going to the new monster post, you can do that. And this is something that Hubspot has been championed for a little over a year now. You may have read that they overhauled the Hubspot blog toward the end of last year to start doing more of this.
So they had so much content they started grouping them together and creating these authoritative long form pages, that they called pillar pages. And then they would have clusters of complimentary content that internally linked to those pillar pages. And that’s worked really well.
A great example of one of those pages is on buffer.com. Buffer recognized that this is how SEO is going, and they help social media marketers so they wrote this definitive guide on Instagram marketing. And if you Google “Instagram marketing”, they tend to show up in position 1 or 2, they’re neck and neck with Hubspot on that. So they wrote that long form guide and then they went through their old blog posts and linked those to that long form guide. And now they get plenty of organic traffic from people who are trying to understand how to do Instagram marketing. Which works really great for Buffer because they help people do marketing on social media.
And we can do that, too. It’s especially helpful for people who have already been putting all the work of making content week in and week out for the past couple of years. We’re sitting on this huge corpus of content that we can use to make authoritative long form posts that Google likes, that RankBrain likes, and that the people that we’re trying to reach like.
Rich: This is awesome and honestly I could probably talk to you for another 2 hours on RankBrain, but I’m going to respect your time. I do want to tell everybody that they should totally check out this article we’re going to link to in the show notes, but I know that people are going to want to learn more, Jeffrey, where can we send them to learn more about you and Overthink?
Jeffrey: Overthinkgroup.comis where you can learn about what we do. We keep a blog that explores things like RankBrain and other things like search results and really important things that people need to understand about SEO and content marketing. I would also recommend joining the Overthink newsletter, so that’s overthinkgroup.com/newsletter, that goes out every Monday, where we find stories that are happening, in the world of content and sometimes beyond, that help us make more strategic content decisions. So you’ll find stories, you’ll find commentary on how to bring what’s happening in the world of content to your work, so that you have something really insightful to either share with your co-workers or implement in your strategy every week.
Rich: And I am a new subscriber to that email newsletter and so far it’s been fantastic. Jeffrey, thank you so much for coming on and sharing your expertise with us today.
Jeffrey: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.
Jeffrey Kranz and his group at Overthink specialize in content marketing and SEO, and they help growing brands with this by teaching them how to plan, create and promote the very best ranking content. Check out their informative newsletter on the topic, as well as a super helpful article that was discussed in this episode.
- For people who want to know some B2B SEO best practices (including keyword research and finding that LSI vocabulary), Overthink’sbeginner’s guideon the subject should prove helpful—especially the “beer” conversation analogy in the “related terminology” section.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.