Google RankBrain is a machine-learning system integrated within a Google algorithm update called Hummingbird. This Google system is able to better serve search results to users based on their intent, rather than just keyword matching.
It’s hard to realize how complex and sophisticated is the Google search algorithm just because it works so marvelously well that it seems natural it does so. Yet before we got there, it took almost two decades. And that revolution was evident in 2015.
My mission at Google is to develop natural language understanding with a team and in collaboration with other researchers at Google. Search has moved beyond just finding keywords, but it still doesn’t read all these billions of web pages and book pages for semantic content. If you write a blog post, you’ve got something to say, you’re not just creating words and synonyms. We’d like the computers to actually pick up on that semantic meaning. If that happens, and I believe that it’s feasible, people could ask more complex questions.
In other words, a few years back it didn’t make any sense to ask questions to Google because it didn’t know what to do with them. Today the scenario has changed substantially. We can test that right now:
When I type in Google’s search box “moon distance,” that is what I get:
You may think this is pure keyword matching, but it is not.
In fact, if I ask “How far is the moon?”
I get the same answer:
Google’s ability to understand language goes further. If I search “moon distance in meters” that is what I get:
In short, Google knows I’m referring to the same thing and gives me the proper answer.
What does that mean for SEO? Is traditional SEO dead?
The old SEO says that if you want to be successful at ranking your site you got to have backlinks, keywords and optimize for those. Those basic tactics still work. Indeed, the backbone of the web got built upon backlinks.
In fact, in a Q&A with Andrey Lipattsev, a Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google, when asked what factors, together with RankBrain affected Google’s rankings, he replied:
I can tell you what they are. It is content. And it’s links pointing to your site. (source: searchengineland.com)
Therefore, it was confirmed that the three major factors in Google’s rankings are:
1 & 2: Links, Content (hard to say what comes first among the two)
How do you make your SEO strategy effective in an era where NLP-powered search algorithms can read human language independently from keywords?
First, this process is more like a transition. Therefore, even though keywords still matter they are becoming obsolete. When is this happening? Hard to say!
That will probably also depend on how fast voice search will take over, which will speed up the process as people will start interacting in natural language rather than keywords with those digital assistants.
What can you do then?
As made clear by Google itself there are a few things that still help it understand web pages. One of them is structured data. In fact, not by chance Google has inserted structured data in its Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Starter Guide by making clear that:
Proper structured data in your news, blog, and sports article page can enhance your appearance in Google Search results. Enhanced features include entry in a top stories carousel and rich result features such as headline text and larger-than-thumbnail images.
Source: Google Developers
This is crucial because this structured data also trigger voice commands ad Google specifies here:
By structuring your content according to this guide, your content may be automatically turned into an action on the Google Assistant.
Source: Google Developers
There are tremendous implications for that.
First, you can’t think any more of SEO as single and isolated “tricks” or tactics. That is something that great SEO experts already knew. But now this needs to be clear to everyone looking to implement advanced SEO strategies today.
Second, with structured data; SEO, PASO and editorial strategy become the same thing. If you start building your content
Third, you need an entity-based content model based built upon a sort of barbel strategy. On the one hand, short, conversational and voice-ready content. On the other hand, long, detailed content. The short content will be used to address specific questions, to make it ready for voice search.
Summary and conclusions
We saw how Google changed in the last years. What was relevant just in 2015, it isn’t so anymore. Of course, old strategies might still work in the short term, but they’re slowly losing relevance. This means that a winning SEO strategy has to be more holistic and it has to take into account an entity-based content model built upon three pillars:
- long-form content for the top of the funnel
- short-form, conversational content for the bottom of the funnel
- structured data to make that content better understood by search engines and voice-search ready
Those things together can help you reach the top of Google‘s search but most importantly get ready for voice search.
This kind of approach – the entity-based content model – has been developed together with the WordLift team for whom I’ve been involved as Business Developer. WordLift is a software that uses AI in the form of NLP to enhance on-page SEO and assist SEO experts to transition toward a future where RankBrain became a primary factor for Google’s search algorithm.