What is RankBrain and How Does It Affect Your Keyword Focus?

All search marketers are familiar with keyword research – it’s a standard practice for all SEO’s, and has been the first step of any solid search marketing strategy since the early days of Google. But what will happen now that Google has unleashed RankBrain – a machine learning artificial intelligence system focused of providing the most relevant results for users? In this article, we take a look at keywords, search queries and the impact RankBrain has on these for search marketers.

What is RankBrain?

RankBrain is the most effective tool Google has developed to deal with the problem of understanding user intent. Google has stated that RankBrain is the “third most important ranking factor.” Its role is to review any searches that may be worded strangely or potentially ambiguous and translate that into a format that will allow Google to serve up the best results for the user.

“RankBrain uses artificial intelligence to embed vast amounts of written language into mathematical entities — called vectors — that the computer can understand. If RankBrain sees a word or phrase it isn’t familiar with, the machine can make a guess as to what words or phrases might have a similar meaning and filter the result accordingly, making it more effective at handling never-before-seen search queries.” Bloomberg, 2015.

Great search marketers have been telling their clients for years that although we track keywords and work to make sites rank for these terms, Googles interpretation of the meaning behind a search has evolved and continues to do so daily. As such, keywords that you are tracking are not the be-all end-all measure of whether your organic search marketing campaign is working; rather, they are a guide to serve as an indicator of your website’s overall search visibility. Google has gone from serving up exact matches for basic keyword clusters to understanding and interpreting the implied intent and then serving the best page for user experience.

The Evolution of Search

Google’s goal is “to get [a user] to the answer [they]’re looking for faster, creating a nearly seamless connection between [the user] and the knowledge [they] seek.” In fact, query understanding is its own search project within the algorithm. For search marketers to understand the best terms to target for their clients and to be able to craft an effective campaign, we should begin by understanding how Google interprets the user’s intent and the difference between queries and keywords.

Search Query: A word or string of words that users will type into the search engine. It can be identical to targeted keywords, but can also be a full sentence or question.

Keywords: Core word or words you target to rank for that may formulate part of a search query.

Although keywords are no longer the only focus for SEO in 2016, they still play an important role for search marketers as they do form the basis for targeted search queries. As Google has grown its understanding of users and their intent behind queries, it’s become more important now than ever for search marketers take a deeper look at focus keywords. Each search query has an intent, and satisfying this user intent is what you need to focus on if you want to drive qualified traffic.

Let’s take a look at some examples. Entering the search term “haircuts” into Google in Melbourne yields the below results. This is because Google has understood that my intention is to find a salon to get a haircut.


What happens if we add another word to our query and search “best haircuts?” Google has understood that I am trying to see what the best or popular haircuts are now.


It’s this distinction between an informational query and a more transactional query that makes all the difference in the SERPS.

A Deeper Look at Search Queries

There are three types of search queries: transactional, navigational and informational. With RankBrain helping Google understand what a user is looking for, it’s important that as search marketers we determine the intent behind the query and therefore the best course of action for targeting the associated keywords we identify.
Let’s start by breaking down the the 3 kinds of search queries.

Transactional: This user is looking to complete a purchase or transaction of some kind. They will in include things like “order flowers Sydney” or “Buy Nike Air Max Online.”

Navigational: Navigational searches are those which are an attempt to find or access a specific brand or website. Brand searches can really only be targeted by the website that the user is explicitly looking for.

Informational: These searches are focussed on the user getting more information about a product, place or topic. For example a user might be looking for the “symptoms of chicken pox” or for “LG tv reviews.”


Once we understand the types of queries consumers make, search marketers must find a way to target these queries effectively as well as identify how they might tie back into our websites. Satisfying informational search queries can establish your site as a thought leader and build your brand awareness, while targeting transactional search queries will ultimately drive revenue and conversions on your site. Take time to develop content for each – identify gaps in content that users are searching for on the web with keyword planning tools. And of course, navigational search queries are important – if users cannot find you by your brand name, you have bigger problems.

Where to from Here?

Keyword research is still an integral part of an effective search marketing campaign. However, a strong focus on basic keyword clusters is no longer the key to success in 2016. You have to be willing to dig deeper and expand on how your tracked keywords will work with user queries, and in turn, how you can best target these queries. Content that satisfies all different types of user intents will continue to be a very important focus for search marketing, and represents another opportunity to target the queries that will be most lucrative for your site.

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