RankBrain: How Robocop Teaches us that SEO Relies on Cyborgs

Jen Saunders
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Search engine optimization is not an industry best suited for marketers who like consistency. Its rules are constantly changing, you never truly know what the outcome of even the smallest implementation can bring, and consumer search behavior and engagement continue evolving. In order for the best SEO agencies to remain at the top of the industry, we must all learn to better understand Google RankBrain and think like a cyborg–a half man / half machine that walks, talks, and thinks while influencing SEO. If the best search marketers take a lesson from Robocop, we can all be a little better, and rank through mobile-friendly organic optimization with our guns out and blazing.

A Search Engine and a Cyborg Walk into a Bar…

Who remembers Robocop? In 1987 movie audiences were introduced to family man Officer Alex Murphy of the Detroit Police. He was gunned down by drug lords, died from his injuries, and his body was claimed by Omni Consumer Products–a government contractor that manufactured “super cop” cyborgs by harvesting dead officers.

Alex Murphy became Robocop, starting out as a stiff and rather automated solution to differentiate between right from wrong before implementing a corrective action. As Robocop gained more experience scanning various kinds of traffic, he slowly started showing human elements that allowed him to identify with the people he swore to protect; he had memories of his family, and through his journey he experienced emotions like sorrow, joy, anger, and empathy.  Robocop’s path to self-humanization developed through his role of upholding the law while trying to provide the best society for people to live in. At the film’s conclusion, Robocop enters the board room, and kills the bad guy by shooting him through the window of the highrise office. The final dialogue in the movie ends when an executive for OCP says, “Nice shooting son. What’s your name”. Robocop responds, “Murphy”.

Google Rankbrain

Google’s search engine and one of the core components of its algorithms work together to police the search results offering people the best answers to their queries. It does this by awarding higher organic placement to the sites with high value content, while burying the bad, poor quality content. To do this, Google embodies the cyborg; it’s search bots mechanically crawl millions of web pages indexing sites, while its human attributes learn, over time, to differentiate between good content that people identify with that provides answers or solutions, and inferior or unrelated spam.

When Google RankBrain says, “Dead or Alive You are Coming with Me”

By now you should have heard of RankBrain, the third most important signal contributing to Google’s organic ranking factors. RankBrain utilizes machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) as it consumes, judges, penalizes, and rewards. It is an independent learner; it cultivates the “hurts and needs” of the search world, and learns to identify through online content. If a web page is good and matches user intent, RankBrain will reward it with a seat high atop the SERPs (search engine result pages). If the page is bad (not relevant), it will wind up like good old Dick Jones only to get thrown from the highrise down to the pavement . With RankBrain, Google takes on the semblance of the cyborg and uses its badge of authority to police every indexed web page in search land, with the Alex Murphy component identifying intent.

seo agencies study should conduct rankbrain experiments

Think Like a Cyborg

RankBrain should thank mobile devices, because without smartphones it likely wouldn’t exist, and to think like a cyborg you should consider how searchers use their Androids and iPhones. In a 2014 article by Search Engine Watch the publication announced that mobile exceeded PC in search volume with 99.5% of searches looking for content and information. With the surge in mobile searches Google rolled out a number of algorithm updates aimed at improving mobile search results. Then came AMP. Then RankBrain. One of the many things RankBrain does is help determine what results should come up when people perform voice searches. So with this in mind, what can a good SEO do in terms of creating content that RankBrain will favor? You need to think like a cyborg, and here’s how:

  • Use long-tail keywords to answer long-tail queries
  • Use Google’s related search results in a relevant manner
  • State what it is, and what it isn’t
  • Who would want it, and who wouldn’t
  • What is it similar to
  • Make it emotional
  • Made it educational
  • Produce damn good writing

Damn Good Writing? I’d Buy that for a Dollar!

Thinking like a cyborg requires implementing damn good writing that offers value to the bots that crawl it, and to the humans who read it. In a May 2016 SEO content experiment I ran, 100 pages for similar products on a large eCommerce site were tested. All of them were new pages attempting to rank for keywords with the same degree of difficulty, with the same amount of content. Half of them were done according to a flow-structure any college freshman would learn in English 101, and I embedded the  verbiage with the above bullet points–the ingredients to a content formula I like to call Identifiable Content. google_rankbrain_seoThe other half of the content was done according to the protocol I had been using before, which was still better than most. Of the pages using the the new protocol, 88% ranked significantly better. As for user engagement and conversion, 57% of the enhanced content pages held for longer user engagement (average time spent 62 seconds) and their conversion rate was 19% compared to the 11% CR on pages with the older protocol. When you write, think like Robocop; embrace your inner Murphy by keeping the content emotional and human, while paying tribute to the mechanical.

Another discovery point was that organic, long-tail keywords would appease RankBrain by providing the best answers to queries made from smartphone voice searches. Therefore another batch of pages were tested using the new protocol with half using traditional keywords, and the remainder using the long-tail species. Pages with long-tail useage ranked 54% higher–a staggering number that, when compiled with all the data, revealed this: long-tail language and Identifiable Content both had a significance (nay, massive) impact on ranking with almost identical value, as well as a hand in higher user engagement and conversion.

ED209 vs Murphy vs Robocop

Thinking like a cyborg means your SEO needs to take that extra step to optimize itself for human search queries. If you focus solely on technical ranking tactics you will be left with a strategy that resembles ED209–that awkward, clumsy robot who was so far removed from being able to identify with humans that he shot that poor guy during the product demonstration. Then you had Murphy–he didn’t have the machine component that could have carried him to victory in his fight against those gangsters. Even well-written content that triggers your reader’s emotional chords needs a technical backbone, or it won’t rank. Here enters Robocop; the RankBrain component of Google’s mysterious algorithm that relies on machine learning and AI to encapsulate the best of technical and human. When you think like a cyborg, your SEO strategy will have a better chance of dominating the SERPs, provide a better user experience, and see an influx in conversion.

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