Google RankBrain Explained (And 3 Steps How To Optimize For It)

By Brady Cargle |

It was the early 2000s. Google had a big problem.

They were by far the biggest search engine. Their competitors weren’t doing anything other than eating dust. But Google wasn’t perfect.

They needed a way to make searches more relevant to users. Relying 100% on backlinks, content depth, and keywords wasn’t cutting it any more.

Enter RankBrain.

What Is Google RankBrain?

RankBrain is a form of artificial intelligence (AI) that runs a continual split test on search results. RankBrain helps Google give searchers the most relevant results for each query.

Google started using RankBrain in 2015 on about 15% of searches. In 2016, RankBrain had a role in all searches.

And it worked.

RankBrain worked so well that it started outperforming Google’s experts at determining which pages are best for users. RankBrain was able to apply machine learning to search results, learn patterns, and deliver better results to users. This one metric became so powerful that Google made it the third most important ranking factor. Right up there with content and backlinks.

But how does RankBrain work?

3 Ways RankBrain Works & How To Optimize Your Site

For all intents and purposes, RankBrain is a continual split test. It works in 3 primary ways:

Let’s take a look at each of these.

RankBrain Evaluates Search Intent

Search intent might just be the reason that you aren’t ranking on Google. It’s the least-talked-about, most important ranking factor today.

Let’s say you find the keyword “kitchen design ideas”. It’s in your niche, you think you can rank for it, and you know that you’ll get tons of links and traffic by writing up the post.

So you write an amazing guide on kitchen design. It’s really awesome. You explain the latest trends, what colors are in vogue, the gear that every kitchen needs. It’s by far the best written, most well thought out, attractive post on the internet for kitchen design.

You even toss in a couple of pictures to keep user interest and improve time on page. Look at you go!

Even though you have an awesome, engaging post with beautiful writing, you will never rank for the keyword “kitchen design ideas”.

Wanna know why? Just take a look at the search engine results page (SERP):

kitchen design ideas serp

You know what I don’t see here?

A post.

All I see are pictures.

So no matter how good your post is, it’s not satisfying the greatest ranking factor of all: search intent.

Users just aren’t looking for what you’re offering.

Search intent is important because it’s the main job of Google: help searchers solve their problems. When Google doesn’t align with search intent, they don’t make money. So if you don’t align with search intent, you don’t get ranked.

So how do we optimize for search intent?

Optimizing For Search Intent

To optimize your content for search intent, first you have to know the difference between search intents. There are 4 types of search intent: informational (I want to know more), transactional (I want to buy), navigational (I want to visit a specific website), and commercial investigation (what is the best…?). Finding out which keyword fits what search intent isn’t too challenging.

Here are some examples for each search intent, and this list isn’t exhaustive:

Informational Transactional Navigational Commercial Investigation
Questions (who, what, where, why, how) buy ipad Niche Pursuits best hiking shoes
Bradley Cooper movies cheap television Organic Traffic Formula login password protection software for a family
Donald Trump age ATL to CHI flights Kindle Cloud Reader highest rated buffet in New York
directions to Waffle House hiking shoes for women Donald Trump tweets Sephora review
best ways to tie a knot coupon for expensive mattress Reddit IAMA KWFinder vs Long Tail Pro

This list isn’t exhaustive, but I don’t want you to think that this whole search intent thing is tough to figure out.

Google helps you out here.

If you ever see a rich snippet, that is almost always a dead giveaway for the majority of user’s search intent. Let’s take a look at the results for “apple cider vinegar”:

apple cider vinegar transactional and informational

The rich snippet on this SERP is informational, so it’s a safe bet to say that the majority of people searching for “apple cider vinegar” want to learn more. You can see that the top few results (and Google’s People also ask box) are also informational.

But there’s an ad for this search result as well. And that should give us another clue:

This search intent is also transactional. Some people may be wanting to buy apple cider vinegar.

So this search result is informative, but has a little bit of commercial intent as well. If I were trying to rank for “apple cider vinegar”, I would do it with an info piece.

You can use this tactic on pretty much any keyword: if I search for “best paintball helmet”, I get a bunch of buying guides. That’s commercial investigation.

Any time you find an awesome keyword that you want to target, you need to get a good idea of the search intent. What are people looking for with this keyword?

Google gives us an idea, but search results are always changing. Google is awesome at tailoring their results to match search intent, but it’s possible that they’re just testing things out.

If you want more detailed info on search intent, you can use Ahrefs (read our Ahrefs review here). Go to the Keyword Explorer, type in your target keyword, and scroll down to “SERP position history”. I typed in “kitchen design ideas” and here’s what we see:

ahrefs serp overview stable serp

You can see that this SERP is pretty stable; all of the results have held pretty steady in their top spots.

This means that Google has nailed the search intent for this keyword. When people search for “kitchen design ideas”, the SERPs offer an exact match with what people are looking for.

So you know what to target with your article.

But not all SERPs are like this. Some are unstable.

ahrefs unstable serp

This SERP indicates that not even Google knows what to rank for the term “nails”. Do people want to know about fingernails design trends, places to buy fingernails, fingernail anatomy, or the kind of nails you hammer into wood?

This is a keyword I would avoid. If Google doesn’t know what searchers want, I’m confident that you don’t either.

Aligning Your Content With Search Intent

So now we know how to gauge SERPs using Google (and in 90% of cases, you won’t need Ahrefs’s SERP overview tool). It’s time to align our content with search results.

This will vary depending on the page you’re trying to rank, but I can sum it up pretty quick:

Check what the ranking pages are doing. Do the same thing.

If you’re working on a massive 11,000 word guide and all the ranking pages on Google have less than 2,000 words, you’re doing the wrong thing.

If you’re trying to rank a product page but everyone else has “how to” guides, you’re doing the wrong thing.

You get the idea.

The easiest way to optimize for search intent is to follow the crowd. Look at what your competitors are doing. Check what pages of theirs are ranking,  look at their content structure (list, how to, buying guide, etc.) and then do something similar.

The goal isn’t to reinvent the wheel; it’s to rank on Google. And if your competition is already ranking, then they’re doing something right. You should do something similar, but do it better.

So RankBrain starts by making sure that you’re aligned with user intent. Once RankBrain decides that SERPs and searchers are aligned, RankBrain begins monitoring results and changing them based on feedback.

RankBrain Monitors User Satisfaction

One of RankBrain’s functions is to serve as a permanent split test. It is always changing around results, testing user satisfaction, and adjusting where necessary. RankBrain uses click data to see how happy users are with the results you’re giving them.

If a website isn’t grabbing visitors and keeping them engaged, RankBrain moves it down the search results.

But how does RankBrain judge user satisfaction?

It keeps a close eye on your user metrics: organic click through rate, bounce rate, time on page, and pages per session.

Optimizing For User Satisfaction

Since RankBrain focuses on 4 specific areas to gauge user satisfaction, we’re going to take a look at each. If you want to learn more about improving user metrics, you can check out our full guide on how to improve user metrics.

Improving Organic Click Through Rate

This is a metric that I see a lot of people put nominal effort into. These same people almost always stop short of any real improvement on their organic click through rate (CTR).

Improving your CTR involves a little bit more than installing Yoast and getting a green light.

Brian Dean conducted a massive study on organic searches and CTR. I can’t top that, so I’ll just sum up his findings:

If you match the search intent and pay attention to the bullet points above, you won’t have a problem with CTR.

Improving Bounce Rate

Bounce rate is one of the strongest indicators of how awesome your content is. In particular, there’s a specific kind of bounce that’s very important to RankBrain: the pogostick.

Pogosticking is when you click on a Google result, back out, and then click on another. It works like this:

You’re searching for an awesome kayak to carry on your next trip down the river. You click on the number one result and you’re smacked with a monster wall of text. It’s a long intro, then the page tells you why you need a kayak, the benefits of a good kayak… You’ve seen the kind of page before.

You know you need a kayak and you know the benefits. You’re not interested in reading, you just want to know the best one for your situation.

You hit the back button, return to search results, and click on the second option.

That’s called pogosticking. If your users do it, RankBrain will wreck your spot in the search results.

But have no fear; there are many ways to prevent pogosticking. Here are a few:

Preventing Pogosticking #1: Keep Intros Short

There’s aren’t many people in the world who care about your intro. If someone is searching the term you’re trying to rank for, I bet that they already know why it’s important.

I would never allow an intro to be more than 100 words. I like to keep mine closer to 50 when possible. (the into for this post is just 57 words)

Preventing Pogosticking #2: Give Fast Access To The Info Your Readers Want

This goes along with the short intros, but there’s a subtle difference. 

Not only should you keep your info short, but you should make the key elements of your post visible within the first minute. I like to start a lot of my posts out with a short bullet point list.

Here’s an example from my post on how to improve user metrics:

6 ways to improve user metrics

This accomplishes a few purposes:

First, it serves as “snippet bait”.

Second, it shows the reader that I have a plan for my content and it’s not just a bunch of generic junk. The reader has a natural peak in curiosity and wants to read more.

Third, I’m allowing the reader to get a bird’s eye view to fix their problems. We live in a fast world and not everyone has time to read through 3,000 words of content.  I think that these little summaries keep readers from going to other pages.

Another way this rule applies is with your reviews or buying guides.

If someone is searching “best dog collar”, I promise that they know the benefits of a good dog collar. They know why they need it.

Just tell them the best one already.

I like to start my buying guides/reviews with a list of the best products (or a rating if it’s just one product). I think many readers (myself included) don’t care much about your buying guides. They want to know what item is best.

I try to start my buying guides with a list of products, then go into the details later. Explain how to pick the best one, answer some FAQs, give best brands, etc.

However you do it, don’t make someone sift through a mile of your content to find what they’re looking for.

Because they won’t sift.

They’ll leave.

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Preventing Pogosticking #3: Improve Internal Linking

One way to stop users from pogosticking is to get them on another page of your site. This is done through relevant internal linking.

I don’t think it’s a bad idea to include internal links in your intro when you can. The goal here is to show the reader that they don’t have to go anywhere else to solve their problem.

If you have related posts on your site, you should have internal links going to those articles.

This helps your readers find other interesting content and works wonders on your user metrics.

Spencer gives the full deets on what internal linking did for us when we started back in June.

(hint: it’s pretty amazing)

It also prevents users from pogosticking away in the first few, precious seconds. This is true whether you open links in a new tab or not. 

The problem is that internal linking can be a bit of a pain. You have to:

  1. Have an intimate knowledge of your site
  2. Find relevant anchor texts
  3. Repeats steps 1 & 2 for every post

Have a site with 10 articles? Not too big of a deal.

Have a site with anything over 20 articles and it becomes quite a hassle.

This is a problem that almost every site struggles with and there are a few internal linking plugins that try to solve it. But even with these tools, it’s still a hassle.

Unless you’re using one tool.

Spencer made an internal linking plugin called Link Whisper to solve his own need. It uses AI to scan your whole site, find relevant anchor texts, and create internal links.

It works like this:

At the bottom of each of your posts, you’ll see a box with a list of possible anchor text and URLs. These are the links that Link Whisper is recommending. You can check the box next to any of them to select and add the internal link.

It’s as easy as that.

I won’t say that internal links will stop all of the pogosticking on your pages. But they help a lot.

And on top of that, internal links have improved our user metrics: bounce rate, time on page, and pages per session.

You can read more about the difference internal linking made on Niche Pursuits.

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Preventing Pogosticking #4: Answer All of a User’s Questions

People pogostick for a variety of reasons:

  1. The intro was too long…
  2. It took too much time to get to the good information…
  3. The post is generic and shallow…

Answering all of a user’s questions combats this third type of pogosticking.

The goal here is to avoid fluff in your posts and create depth. A lot of people mistake word count for depth, but they aren’t the same thing. I’m a firm believer that you should never aim for a high word count in your posts.

Instead, you should aim to answer all of your reader’s questions about a topic.

Let’s say your reader searches for “how to relieve muscle soreness”. Try to avoid the generic stuff that your reader already knows (“Rest should relieve your muscle soreness”).

Avoid the fluff. If your sentence and post can do without it, you should remove it.

Every sentence should add incredible value 🙂

On top of your regular answer to this query, you should be answering followup questions like:

But how do you know what followup questions to answer?

I like to use Google to help me out. When I search for “how to relieve muscle soreness”, I see a People also ask box:

google people also ask bow

There you go. There are your related questions to answer.

But not every query will be able to provide you with this type of “low hanging fruit”.

So it’s time to head into our keyword research tools (I’ll be using Long Tail Pro).

You can search for your target keyword. I’m searching for “how to relieve sore muscles”. And then set your filters to include question words: how, what, when, where, why.

long tail pro filter

This looks different depending on your keyword research tool, but you can do it with any tool. Click Apply Filters or your equivalent.

long tail pro questions

And there we go.

Answering these additional questions (and you don’t have to answer them all) helps your reader get all of their info in one spot.

They don’t have to visit other search results to answer followup questions. They have access to everything they need right within your post.

Internal linking helps with this as well; you give your readers an opportunity to find related posts. These related posts help the reader with questions or concerns they might have after reading your initial post.

Stop worrying about word count and start worrying about content depth:

Will the reader have to go anywhere else after reading my post?

If the answer is yes, then you aren’t going deep enough. Find related topics, figure out what else readers are searching for, and put all the info in one place.

I should mention here that some topics will warrant their own posts. If you have a post about relieving muscle soreness and you find a keyword about “how to avoid sore muscles the day after a workout”, then feel free to write both posts.

Add internal links where relevant.

Then on your post about “how to relieve muscles soreness”, you can add a short FAQ about avoiding sore muscles. No need to include the entire content of your other post. But do add an internal link and a short blurb that readers will be looking to learn.

Improving Time On Page

This one is a bit trickier than the other user metrics, but it’s not too hard to crack.

There are a few things you can do to improve your time on page:

If you’ll notice, we try to do all of these things on Niche Pursuits. 

The in-depth content serves a multi-purpose of preventing pogosticking, showing Google that we’re a topical authority, and improving time on page.

Videos are self explanatory. Not everyone will watch an 11 minute video on your site. But a lot of people will. And those few that do can send a strong message to Google that you’re providing a monster amount of value.

Graphics and images work the same way. I love to include pictures in my posts. They keep things from becoming a monster wall of text while providing a huge amount of value for the reader (that’s you).

It’s a lot easier to get a glimpse at a picture and understand than read a few hundred words without seeing anything.

And then you can open all links in new tabs. This does improve your bounce rate and I try to do this on all of my posts. We’ve still got a ton of content that doesn’t open links in new tabs, but I’m working on fixing it 😉

Opening links in new tabs also allows your reader to keep access to what they were reading in the first place. I think it’s just good practice.

Improving Pages Per Session

Maximizing your pages per session is super easy and something that everyone should do. One of the best ways to do this is to allow your readers to find similar content from inside your posts.

On our sidebar at Niche Pursuits, we have a list of recent posts and then popular posts:

niche pursuits recent posts sidebar

And then at the bottom of our posts, we have a post grid:

niche pursuits post grid

This helps our viewers get to related content that may interest them

And then we sprinkle in a healthy load of internal links in content. 

I’ve never talked to anyone who’s done it, but I would be interested to see the effects of a post grid in the middle of a post.

I think that low post grids might be too little too late. But a post grid in the middle of a post, maybe 25% – 75% of the way down, might have an awesome impact on pages per session and bounce rate.

Let me know if you give it a shot 😉

The biggest thing in optimizing your pages per session is to make sure that you’re giving readers opportunities to find interesting content.

Part of this means that you need to publish more interesting content. Part of it means that you will need links to your interesting content.

Now that we’ve talked about optimizing your user metrics, let’s take a look at the final function of RankBrain.

RankBrain Provides Context For Never-Before-Seen Searches

In 2017, Google said that 15% of all searches had never been seen before. They’re new, fresh off the press.

And no websites know to target these keywords. They can’t know; the keywords are new.

So Google was faced with an issue: how do we provide relevant results for searches no one has dealt with?

They figured out that a lot of these “new” searches weren’t that new. Someone might search “shoe brand with a check mark” when they want to know about Nike. “what is the name of that toy that spins” could be used to describe a fidget spinner that was all the rage a while back.

RankBrain works by analyzing search results and providing context for these new, fresh off the press, never before seen searches. It makes sure that users have at least a decent result for their new question.

How To Optimize For Context

“Context” is a metric that’s hard to define and impossible to measure. Even so, there are a few ways that you can establish your “context” in a niche.

We call this your topical authority.

Topical authority

shows Google how much you know about a certain area or niche. If you have an awesome website on toys and all of a sudden people are asking about a spinning toy, Google has a hunch that you might know the answer.

You end up getting ranked for new searches just because you’re an expert in old searches.

Here’s how to make sure that your site is a topical authority:

The emphasis here is focus. You don’t want to be a small site with 10 categories. You want to be a big site with 5 or 6 categories. My niche site that I run right now has just 3. Spencer’s Niche Site Project 4 site has just 3 categories.

In today’s search landscape, it’s better to be a master of 3 categories than it is to be a jack-of-all-trades with 6. Go deep into your most relevant categories and ignore the rest until your most important ones are finished.

You can’t predict what people are going to be searching tomorrow.

But you can show Google that whatever they’re searching, you’re the best resource in your niche.

RankBrain Can’t Stop You

RankBrain is still kind of new and a lot of people aren’t optimized.

Don’t be one of those people.

Align your content with search intent, be awesome to your users, and build in-depth content in fewer categories, not more.

What are you doing to optimize for RankBrain? Let me know in the comments below 😉

Niche Business Ideas | 4 comments

By Brady Cargle

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Thanks for sharing this article! This gives an idea about how to optimize the website and how to improve user metrics.

Anil Agarwal

Hi Brady,

I think searcher’s intent is the key here. Most people perform keyword research without worrying about searcher’s intent. That’s why most people struggle with conversions and sales.

Fortunately, with the introduction of RankBrain, people are realising the importance of intent. But it’s still most underrated stuff when it comes to SEO. It’s also important to include an FAQ section within your most important pages with relevant questions (by using LSI keywords) as it drives more traffic from search engines like Google.

We’ve been implementing FAQs section on our blog for over a year now and we’re satisfied with the results. You just need to know your user’s intent, use proper keywords, create engaging content, build quality links to be able to properly optimize for Google.

Thanks for sharing such a massive post with us. Keep up the great work!

Brady Cargle

Hey Anil, 100% agree. Search intent is a huge deal 🙂

I like using FAQs a lot. They help readers and tend to do well in featured snippets.

Thanks 🙂

Rahul Digital

Great Info!!
Thanks for sharing very useful articles with us and help improving knowledge in current times.

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