RankBrain – what you need to know about Google’s new algorithm

Posted by Rebecca Appleton on 28 Oct, 2015
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Google has lifted the lid on RankBrain – the new machine learning technology that it uses as part of its Hummingbird search algorithm.

The search engine, which is notoriously secretive about its algorithms, how they work and what they include, has confirmed that it is using machine learning to help it determine search results.

While Google hasn’t played all of its cards, it has said that RankBrain is an artificial intelligence technology that it uses as part of Hummingbird to help determine its search results.

Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist at Google confirmed that RankBrain has been used to interpret a “very large fraction” of the millions of search queries processed every week. It is thought the AI technique has been running quietly in the background for at least a couple of months, though Google declined to provide a full timeline of RankBrain’s roll out.

A Bloomberg article on RankBrain says that the algorithm turns words into vectors, which it then uses to make sense of search queries. When new search queries are inputted which the program hasn’t come across before, it creates a list of similar words or phrases to guess what the unfamiliar terms may mean, and then filters accordingly. Corrado says that around 15% of queries inputted by users every day are ones that it has never seen before, so RankBrain provides a quick and efficient method of dealing with these new searches.

As any SEO practioner knows, algorithms are typically signal based. Signals are weighted according to importance, with some being very important in determining where a page is indexed, and others not at all important. RankBrain’s ability to ‘learn’ means it is now the third most important signal in the algorithm. A test against Google engineers found that RankBrain indexed pages correctly 80% of the time, compared with a human’s 70% success rate.

Google’s Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai is known to be very much in favour of AI. Last week he said that the search engine expects this type of technology to be much more widely diffused throughout everything it does, “Machine learning is a core transformative way by which we are rethinking everything we are doing.”

Google has said that the use of machine learning, AI and RankBrain won’t negate SEO efforts. For users, there likely will be a noticeable difference due to the emergence of RankBrain in that the search results presented should be more relevant, even if their search input was new or somewhat ambiguous.

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