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Is RankBrain A Ranking Factor In Google Search?

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Is RankBrain A Ranking Factor In Google Search?

Google’s understanding of human language is made possible by several breakthrough technologies in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Launched in 2015, RankBrain was the first of said breakthroughs. It allowed Google to return results for queries with no previous record of searches.

RankBrain’s functionality has evolved since its initial introduction. It now allows Google’s algorithms to do something that humans do instinctively: relate words to real-world concepts.

In the days before RankBrain, Google interpreted words literally. It didn’t understand synonyms or figurative meanings.

That limited both the quality and quantity of search results Google could provide.

The ability to interpret what humans mean when they write queries in natural language marked a significant milestone for Google Search.

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RankBrain does more than understand language; if you need a hint at its other function, it’s in the name: Rank.

In this article, we’ll investigate the claims around RankBrain as a ranking factor, providing clarity on what RankBrain is and how it impacts search results.

The Claim: RankBrain As A Ranking Factor

RankBrain is a technology that seems to impact how Google returns search results.

Due to its association with search, many people consider RankBrain a ranking factor.

Without knowing what “RankBrain” means, people new to SEO may assume it refers to a technology Google uses to rank search results.

That assumption isn’t far off, but not every component of Google’s search algorithm is a ranking factor in and of itself.

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The following section goes over what Google designed RankBrain to do and how it assists with answering queries.

The Evidence: Is RankBrain A Ranking Factor?

RankBrain is an artificial intelligence (AI) system introduced in 2015 to help Google return results for queries without previous search data.

That changed sometime between the spring of 2015 and 2016. Google announced an update to RankBrain, which integrated AI into all queries.

Wired revealed this information in an article that notes Google isn’t clear on how RankBrain improves all queries, but it does affect rankings.

From Wired:

“Google is characteristically fuzzy on exactly how it improves search (something to do with the long tail? Better interpretation of ambiguous requests?) but [Google engineer Jeff Dean] says that RankBrain is ‘involved in every query,’ and affects the actual rankings ‘probably not in every query but in a lot of queries.’”

What differentiates RankBrain from other Google algorithms is its ability to learn how to answer more ambiguous queries.

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As Google’s Gary Illyes explains, the algorithm makes educated guesses at what a user would likely click on for a never-before-seen query.

“RankBrain is a PR-sexy machine learning ranking component that uses historical search data to predict what would a user most likely click on for a previously unseen query.”

RankBrain allows Google to solve problems it used to run into with traditional algorithms.

Contrary to popular theories about how RankBrain works, it does not use data gathered from users’ interactions with a webpage.

RankBrain relies more on data gathered from users’ interactions with search results.

Illyes provides further clarity:

“It is a really cool piece of engineering that saved our butts countless times whenever traditional algos were like, e.g. “oh look a “not” in the query string! let’s ignore the hell out of it!”, but it’s generally just relying on (sometimes) months old data about what happened on the results page itself, not on the landing page.”

In short – RankBrain is a machine learning system that allows Google’s search algorithm to deliver more relevant results.

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RankBrain accomplishes this through an improved understanding of ambiguous queries and long-tail keywords.

RankBrain uses data gathered from users’ interactions with search results to predict which pages will likely get clicked on for a brand new search query.

Practical Example From Google’s Vice President of Search

In addition to returning results for ambiguous and never-before-seen queries, RankBrain is capable of connecting words to concepts.

Pandu Nayak, Google’s Vice President of Search, explains how this works with an example of a query that contains the phrase “food chain.”

“Food chain” can refer to organisms in an ecosystem (literal meaning), or it can refer to a hierarchy of people (figurative meaning).

As Nayak states, RankBrain helps Google determine the intended meaning of words based on how a searcher uses them in a query:

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“For example, if you search for ‘what’s the title of the consumer at the highest level of a food chain,’ our systems learn from seeing those words on various pages that the concept of a food chain may have to do with animals, and not human consumers.

By understanding and matching these words to their related concepts, RankBrain understands that you’re looking for what’s commonly referred to as an “apex predator.”

Thanks to this understanding, Nayak confirms, RankBrain can decide the best order for top search results by ranking them according to relevance.

Our Verdict: RankBrain Is A Confirmed Ranking Factor

Google has confirmed that RankBrain is used to rank search results and is involved in all queries.

In 2016, Andrey Lipattsev, a Google Search Quality Senior Strategist, said RankBrain was one of the three most important ranking signals (along with content and links).

RankBrain continues to play an essential role in search results today.

RankBrain differs from traditional ranking factors in that there’s not an obvious way to actively optimize for it.

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How do you optimize for ambiguous keywords or queries that no one’s ever entered into Google?

The only option is to provide Google with as much information about a page as possible, which site owners should do anyway if they create holistic content for users.

Illyes was asked this question once and replied with a similar sentiment:

“you optimize your content for users and thus for RankBrain. that hasn’t changed”

Search Engine Journal VIP Contributor Dave Davies provides more advanced tips for communicating information to Google regarding different entities on a page in A Complete Guide To The Google RankBrain Algorithm.


Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal

Ranking Factors: Fact Or Fiction? Let’s Bust Some Myths! [Ebook]

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How to Get SEO Buy-In: 7 Actionable Tips

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How to Get SEO Buy-In: 7 Actionable Tips

For many SEOs in agency, in-house, or enterprise roles, 20% of their job is actually doing SEO, the other 80% is about soft skills like getting buy-in.

I always say that 20% of my job is actually doing the SEO, and 80% of communicating, getting buy-in, and moving the boulder so that [stakeholders] can succeed

Tom Critchlow

At Ahrefs, multiple team members have worked in these roles, so we’ve compiled a list of our top tips to help you get more buy-in for SEO projects.

Start by identifying all the key influencers and decision-makers within the organization. You can check out the company’s org chart to figure out who’s who and who calls the shots on projects that impact SEO.

The executive team will likely be at the top of your list. But, we recommend working your way up to getting buy-in from executives by first working cross-functionally with decision-makers in engineering, product, editorial, marketing, or web accessibility teams.

They can each help you implement small parts of SEO that together can be a sizable contribution to the overall SEO strategy. They can also support your requests for funding or initiatives you pitch to executives later on.

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To build relationships with decision-makers in these teams, consider the following:

  • Who’s in charge of budgets and projects? → Learn what they’re working on and how you can help each other with specific projects.
  • What do they care about? → This is the “what’s in it for me” factor. Align your SEO recommendations and requests to these things.
  • How can they help implement your SEO recommendations? → Identify the 20% of SEO they can easily help with using current resources.

Here’s an example of what that might look like:

Who’s in charge? What do they care about? How can they help implement SEO?
Engineering Jane Doe, Head of Engineering Jane cares most about rolling out new features on time and minimizing bugs.  Jane’s team can resolve many high-priority technical SEO errors if she sees them as bugs.
Editorial Joe Blogs, Senior Editor  Joe cares most about publishing quality, brand-relevant content that leads to sales. Joe’s team can create or optimize SEO content with buying intent to maximize traffic on commercial queries.

Too often, SEOs lead with “I need X…” and end with “…for SEO”. Cue dramatic groans that echo company-wide.

Adapting your language and how you communicate is a minor action that can lead to big results in your mission to get buy-in for SEO. Communicating only what you need can often come across as an order and feels like extra work for someone else. Plus, it gives them no sense of why they should care or what’s in it for them.

Try this instead…

→ Highlight opportunities: “There’s an opportunity to do X that helps with your goal of Y”

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→ Leverage FOMO: “If we don’t do X, you’ll miss out on Y”

→ When speaking to executives:I intend to achieve X by doing Y”

It also helps to give your project a fancy name. Every time you talk about the project, mention the name, repeat key facts, and highlight the most exciting opportunities the project opens up.

Repetition is gold as it helps non-technical stakeholders tie goals and results to an otherwise intangible initiative.

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Most executives and department heads have no context for understanding SEO metrics like search volume, share of voice, or even organic traffic.

They don’t have an existing mental model to connect these numbers to. Therefore, when we start sharing SEO-specific numbers in meetings, many non-SEO stakeholders can’t easily approve specific actions or know how to make the right decisions—all because they can’t connect the numbers they’re already familiar with to the conversation about SEO.

Easy fix. Modify the metrics and actions you talk about to those that non-SEO stakeholders already understand.

For example, executives are likely churning over and obsessing about MBA-style metrics. CEOs think about things like revenue, market share, and profitability. Sales managers care about MQLs, SQLs, and so on.

Here are some examples of how to translate SEO lingo for non-SEO stakeholders. These are inspired by Tom Critchlow’s interview on Voices of Search.

Monthly traffic → Lifetime traffic value e.g., “By creating X content, we can get Y monthly traffic predict Y lifetime traffic value.” HINT: Multiply Ahrefs’ Traffic Value metric by 60 to get a 5-year estimate, a common timeframe for calculating lifetime metrics.

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Example of Ahrefs' traffic value metric in Site Explorer dashboard.

Share of voice → market share e.g., “By doing X, our share of voice SEO market share has grown Y%. We’d like funds to do more of X.”

Traffic growth → revenue growth e.g., “We can grow organic traffic predict Y% revenue growth from SEO if we hit X traffic targets. These are the project milestones that will get us there…”

It depends → forecasts e.g., CEO asks “What’s it going to get us?”… “It depends. I made a model that forecasts approximately X% growth in Y months.”

It doesn’t matter what specific metrics are used in your organization. You can adapt SEO metrics to the ones everyone in the company is already thinking about. The main goal of doing this is to take SEO from being a mysterious “black box” activity to something measurable and relatable to non-SEO stakeholders.

How to demystify SEO for executives.How to demystify SEO for executives.

Devs and engineers are essential SEO allies within any organization. And while you can often skip the lengthy relationship-building phase and jump straight into tech fixes, how you frame your requests still matters.

Don’t be the kind of SEO that constantly gives them extra work “because it’s good for SEO.”

Instead, tie in your requests to what they care about. Fixing bugs is an easy approach to take here because devs already understand and care about these things for reasons unrelated to SEO.

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Jackie Chu’s 2023 MozCon presentation outlined this brilliantly. A bug typically:

  • Delivers a confusing brand experience
  • Impacts customers (humans and bots)
  • Impacts other channels, like SEM

If pages can’t render, that’s a bug. If there are content differences between mobile and desktop, that’s a bug. Anything that needs improvement in Ahrefs’ Site Audit is, you guessed it, a bug.

That said, not all bugs are created equal. If you bother devs with a load of super minor or unimportant issues 24/7, they’ll learn to ignore you. So, make sure to prioritize and only ask for bug fixes that matter.

You can easily do this by filtering your Site Audit results by importance:

Ahrefs' Site Audit tool showcasing the ability to prioritize tech fixes.Ahrefs' Site Audit tool showcasing the ability to prioritize tech fixes.

Submit:

  • Errors as high-priority
  • Warnings as medium-priority
  • Notices as low-priority

You can also show your dev team how to interpret each issue listed and find the steps they can take to fix them by clicking on the “?” next to specific issues.

Example of a tip for how to fix hreflang issues in Ahrefs' Site Audit.Example of a tip for how to fix hreflang issues in Ahrefs' Site Audit.

Too many SEOs pitch projects without considering everything that’s needed to make them happen. You’re more likely to get buy-in if your pitch is specific and shows decision-makers the exact details around things like the project’s cost, resources required, and expected timelines.

For example, say you need 100 articles published within three months. Make sure you chat with your editorial and development teams first. See if they can fit this project in and what resources they need to make it happen.

Then, build those resources into your pitch:

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→ Instead of: “I’d like to publish 100 articles on the blog within three months and estimate I’ll need $X per article”.

→ Try this: “To get 100 articles on the blog, which we estimate will contribute to $X in lifetime traffic value, we’ll need to hire a freelance writer and dedicate two development sprints to the project within the next three months. Jane from engineering and Joe from editorial are collaborating on this with me, and we estimate a cost of $Y.”

Need to convince the Jane’s and Joe’s in your organization to partner with you? No worries. Check out the next point.

SEO is chronically underfunded and underresourced… but so are most other teams. You can become an ally and help other teams get more resources because they’re helping implement your SEO strategy.

They get more of whatever they need (people, money, resources). You get their help with SEO tasks, and they get prioritized. Win-win for you and your new BFF.

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You can get the ball rolling by pitching a small test or project that is easy for the other team to get on board with.

Avoid this → “I need 10 of the articles you’re working on each month to do X for SEO”.

Try this instead → “There’s an opportunity for us to do X, and it will allow you to meet Y KPIs. Can we run a small test (and build a case for the execs) so you can hire another writer to work on this project?”

Small tests are a great way to warm up a new contact within your organization, especially if there’s a clear benefit they’ll receive if the test works.

Test results are also very helpful when pitching to executives down the track. If you can demonstrate small-scale success in one area, it’s much easier to get funding for bigger projects that can piggyback on those early wins.

Even if the initial pitch is for another team to get funding, you’re getting your foot in the door for bigger projects. Plus, you’re essentially getting free SEO if you can leverage the other team’s resources for your benefit.

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A good habit for every SEO to develop is to link everything to strategic objectives. We need to get better at pitching the strategic value that our projects deliver instead of the actual work we need to do.

No one cares about the hundreds of technical fixes we need to work on. But everyone cares about revenues dropping if we don’t get support for technical fixes that affect conversions (and SEO, of course, but they don’t need to know that).

Key note here: strategic objectives go beyond metrics. They include things like:

  • Entering international markets
  • Becoming the market leader
  • Expanding X division

You get the idea.

Here are the tactics we’ve found that help position SEO as strategically valuable.

Compare against competitors

This tactic has a very high success rate in our team’s experience. When ideating this blog post, Tim, Patrick, Chris, and Mateusz all cited great success with this approach, and my own experiences echo this.

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It works for literally any SEO activity you’re pitching, especially if you’re in a fierce market with SEO-savvy competitors who are already doing the thing you’re recommending.

For example, you could try the following different pitch angles:

→ Closing the gap: “If we did X, we’d be able to close these gaps with our biggest competitor in Y months…”

→ Reverse engineering: “Our biggest competitor did X. If we dedicated Y resources, we could close the gap and outpace them within Z months.”

→ Becoming a pacesetter: “There’s a gap in the market and none of our competitors are leveraging it. X resources would allow us to take Y actions that give us a competitive edge and make it difficult for competitors to catch up.”

No matter your angle, an easy place to start is in Ahrefs’ Site Structure report. Here, you can see what strategies your competitors are using along with high-level performance metrics, like organic traffic and the number of referring domains that different website segments get.

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Example of Ahrefs' site structure report.Example of Ahrefs' site structure report.

Compare against internal departments

Another great approach is to bring your pitch back to what’s going on in other areas of the organization.

This is a great tactic to benchmark the value of SEO in a way that is immediately apparent. It’s also a great way to get easy buy-in if your company’s strategic objectives focus on specific divisions or products.

Here are some pitching angles you can try:

→ Expanding a division: “We need X resources to help division A expand to the level of division B.”

→ Improving KPIs: “Product A has a high cost per acquisition. We were able to lower CPA by X% for product B using SEO. If we had access to Y resources, we could repeat these actions for product A.”

→ Learning from mistakes: “We learned lessons A, B, and C from a past product launch. If we had X resources, we could help launch the new product for division A without repeating past mistakes.”

Forecast opportunity costs

Opportunity costs are the lost benefits you experience when choosing an alternative option. When it comes to getting buy-in for SEO, it can help to show what the opportunity cost would be if decision-makers chose not to invest in SEO.

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It’s super easy to do this using Ahrefs’ traffic value metric.

Example of Ahrefs' traffic value metric in Site Explorer dashboard.Example of Ahrefs' traffic value metric in Site Explorer dashboard.

This metric shows you how much you’d be spending on paid ads to get the same traffic you do through SEO. It has opportunity cost baked right into it!

You can use it in a few different ways. My favorite method is to look at a successful segment of the website and use its metrics to forecast potential success for a new segment you want to optimize or build-out.

For example, here you can see how the French segment of our site compares with the Spanish segment.

Comparing two website segments using Ahrefs' competitor comparison features.Comparing two website segments using Ahrefs' competitor comparison features.

Want to launch into a new international market? Use these metrics to build a case of what you’d be missing out on by not expanding.

Want to improve an underperforming segment of your site? Show that segment vs a segment that’s skyrocketing to your executive team.

My second favorite method is to use the Traffic Value metric to pit SEO against Google Ads or other marketing channels and showcase how SEO compounds over time and costs less in the long run.

Realistically, if there’s a marketing budget to be had, and it doesn’t go to SEO, these are the alternative channels it will likely go to. So, positioning SEO as a worthwhile channel to invest in can get you a bigger slice of the budget.

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For instance, you could pitch something like, “Our forecasts show that we could reduce our cost per click to $X (traffic value / traffic) by investing Y resources into SEO instead of [another channel].”

If your website is fairly new or you don’t have existing successes to leverage, you can do both of the above by using a competitor’s website as a proxy until you start getting some results that you can use in future forecasts.

So, your pitch would be more like: “X competitor is saving up to $Y (traffic value) in Google ads costs by using SEO. We’re leaving money on the table by not investing in SEO.”

Key Takeaways

Good SEO is about giving people what they want. Getting buy-in is the same, just for a different audience.

The more you help others in your organization get what they want, you’ll also get what you want.

When it comes to collaborating with other departments, it comes down to helping them meet their KPIs because they’re working with you. It builds a positive relationship where they feel happy to help you out in the future and are more likely to prioritize SEO projects.

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As for getting buy-in from executives, understanding where they spend most of their mental energy and aligning your projects to those things can go a long way.

If you’ve got any questions or cool tactics to share, reach out on X or LinkedIn any time!



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Websites Created With Google Business Profiles To Shut Down In March

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Websites Created With Google Business Profiles To Shut Down In March

Do you have a website created through Google Business Profiles for your local business?

If so, you must find an alternative website solution as Google plans to shut down websites created with Google Business Profiles in March.

Websites Created With Google Business Profiles Will Redirect Until June 10, 2024

A redirect will be put in place from your GBP website to your Google Business Profile until June 10, 2024.

“Websites made with Google Business Profiles are basic websites powered by the information on your Business Profile.

In March 2024, websites made with Google Business Profiles will be turned off and customers visiting your site will be redirected to your Business Profile instead.

The redirect will work until June 10, 2024.”

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How To Find Out If You Have A Google Business Profile Website

To find out if your business has a website made with Google Business Profile, search for my business or your business name on Google. Once you find your Google Business Profile, edit your profile and check for your website in the contact section.

If you have a Google Business Profile site, it should say, “You have a website created with Google.”

Otherwise, it will allow you to add the link to your website.

Screenshot from Google, February 2024Websites Created With Google Business Profiles To Shut Down In March

Choosing An Alternative Website Builders For Small Businesses

Google suggests Wix, Squarespace, GoDaddy, Google Sites, Shopify for ecommerce, Durable, Weebly, Strikingly, and WordPress as alternative website builders to create a new website or ad landing page to replace the Google Business Profiles site.

While some, like WordPress, offer a free website builder with generative AI features, its users’ content may reportedly be sold to OpenAI and Midjourney as training data unless they opt out.

Regarding Core Web Vitals, WordPress, Wix, and Squarespace showed the most improvements in performance.

It’s also worth noting that while Google Deepmind used a Google Sites website to introduce Genie, its new AI model, Google Sites may not be best for SEO.

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Updating Ad Campaigns

If you have a Google Ads campaign that links to a website created with Google Business Profiles, the ad campaign will also stop running on March 1, 2024, until the website link is updated.

There’s still time to update your business website to ensure visitors are not sent to a 404 error page after June 10, 2024. If you haven’t chosen a new website builder or hosting service, review the reviews to find the most reliable, affordable, and optimized solution for your business.

Featured image: Vladimka production/Shutterstock

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How We Built A Strong $10 Million Agency: A Proven Framework

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How We Built A Strong $10 Million Agency: A Proven Framework

Building a successful agency can be a daunting task in today’s ever-evolving space. Do you know the secrets to succeeding with yours?

Watch this informative, on-demand webinar, where link building expert Jon Ball reveals the closely guarded secrets that have propelled Page One Power to become a highly successful $10 million agency.

You’ll learn:

  • The foundational principles on which to build your business to succeed.
  • The importance of delegation, market positioning, and staffing.
  • More proven lessons learned from 14 years of experience.

With Jon, we’ll provide you with actionable insights that you can use to take your business to the next level, using foundational principles that have contributed to Page One Power’s success.

If you’re looking to establish yourself as a successful entrepreneur or grow your agency in the constantly evolving world of SEO, this webinar is for you.

Learn the secrets of establishing a thriving agency in an increasingly competitive SEO space.

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View the slides below or check out the full webinar for all the details.

Join Us For Our Next Webinar!

How An Enterprise Digital PR Firm Earns 100’s Of Links In 30 Days

Join us as we explore how to scale the very time-consuming and complicated process of earning links from digital PR, with proven case studies showing how you can earn hundreds of links in 30 days.

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