What Is the RankBrain Algorithm Update?

Implemented in October of 2015, the RankBrain Algorithm Update is the most recent Google update to Google’s core algorithms that incorporates machine learning technology. Well, it’s actually the only one to incorporate artificial intelligence so far.

As far as Google algorithm updates go through, RankBrain is big. Soon after implementation, it became the third most important factor Google uses to determine search results rankings.

What Is RankBrain Anyway?

I know what you’re thinking. Another Google algorithm update? Now I have to change up all of my SEO strategies…AGAIN! 

Not so fast. Let’s slow it down a bit and talk about exactly what RankBrain is. 

The first thing you need to know is that RankBrain is the real deal when it comes to artificial intelligence. This new update for Google teaches itself how to produce the most relevant search results based on user behavior.  

RankBrain is an absolute boss at analyzing search queries and their contexts to determine user intent. It might even know better than you do what you’re looking for on the web. Creepy? A little. But also super cool, we have to admit. 


Wikipedia calls RankBrain an algorithm (see above), which isn’t technically correct. Really, Rankbrain is a component of Google’s core algorithm (aka Hummingbird) that’s responsible for producing search results for all queries. 

RankBrain Isn’t an Algorithm, Exactly

Wikipedia’s misnomer is a little like calling your mac-n-cheese “dinner” when in reality, your meal is composed of mac-n-cheese, chicken tenders, and broccoli. In this scenario, your cheesy pasta may be the biggest, most delicious part of your dinner, but the mac-n-cheese can’t actually be called dinner all by itself. 

So in essence, RankBrain is Google’s mac-n-cheese. Get it?

So What Does RankBrain Do?

The inner workings of Google and its search algorithms are super secretive, so no one knows exactly how RankBrain works, but we have a pretty good idea.

RankBrain Interprets User Intent

You see, Google’s main algorithm is comprised of approximately 200 signals that it uses to determine a website’s ranking. Some of these signals include keywords, engagement, domain authority, etc. The search engine considers all of these factors simultaneously, which allows them to return millions of results in just fractions of a second. 

So when you search for a hummus recipe, you’ll get the best one Google can find for you in just 0.45 seconds as well as 42,999,999 other results. 

Before Rankbrain, all of the ranking signals were considered in the same way, no matter what the search terms were. Post- RankBrain, these signals are weighted differently depending on the specific search query. That’s because RankBrain acts as an interpreter between the user and the search engine.

 In essence, it tells Google what you intend to search for, so it knows what kind of content you’re looking for. I told you it was creepy. 

But it gets creepier. 

RankBrain Learns from Your Past Searches

One of the creepiest (and coolest) things about RankBrain is that it gets smarter as you search. It “watches” how you interact with search results to get a better idea of exactly what you’re looking for. 

Let’s look at an example. The above SERP featuring results for the search query “hummus” shows Google’s first attempt to give me the results I wanted. 

After using a few variations of the search query such as “hummus ingredients,” “hummus nutrition,” “hummus chickpea,” and hummus types,” for instance, I tried the original search term again and got different results from my initial search: 

It seems Google determined from my various searches that I’m looking to learn about various things related to hummus, so it gave me a carousel of options to choose from as my top result. This is RankBrain in action. 

To further illustrate how RankBrain works and just how good it is at its job, check out the search query suggestions for my very next search:

Four out of the ten suggested search results were related to hummus. So not only does RankBrain interpret intent for search results, but it also tries to predict what a user will search for next based on past searches. Whoa.

What Does RankBrain Mean for SEO?

There are plenty of naysayers out there who will tell you that RankBrain is the end of SEO. But don’t they also say that every time Google changes their algorithms?

There’s no reason to throw in the towel just yet. Let’s look at the glass half full instead. To put an optimistic spin on it, RankBrain hasn’t killed SEO. It’s just made it a whole heck of a lot more interesting. 

How to Optimize for the RankBrain Update

Here are our recommendations for optimizing your website in the age of RankBrain:

Focus on Links and Content

Remember earlier, we mentioned that RankBrain is the third most important factor Google considers when ranking search results? You might be wondering what the other two are. The answer is content and links. This is why it makes sense to stay the course when it comes to these two important SEO factors. While you may not be able to optimize for RankBrain per se, you can optimize around it. 

Ditch Keyword Stuffing

Stuffing your content with keywords used to be an effective SEO practice, but those days are over. Not only is it unnecessary—because RankBrain made Google’s algorithm smarter—but it’s also against the search engine’s quality guidelines. Nowadays, keyword stuffing has the exact opposite effect compared to what it’s supposed to achieve. That is, it can actually cost you rankings. 

Google provides this example of keyword stuffing to show webmasters what not to do: 

This is an extreme example. But if you’re doing anything resembling the above, stop it. Now. 

What’s Next After the RankBrain Algorithm Update?

Since RankBrain is constantly learning and improving itself, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to artificial intelligence and search updates. Things are bound to get even more mind-blowing. In addition to coming here to check for Google updates, we recommend you keep filling your site with fresh, relevant content for your readers. That’s the one constant that Google—and RankBrain—will always reward.