Google Rankbrain SEO [ Best SEO Strategy Insights in 2018 ]

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Brain Dean just came out with the most important SEO insight of 2018.  His article makes it clear that Google’s Rankbrain algorithm changes everything, and it walks you through exactly how that is.  By all means, go and read the article for the details on Rankbrain and a lot of great ideas.

Here, I want to summarize the key strategies you will need to adopt for SEO in 2018, and give you a framework for thinking about Rankbrain.  In short, I want to simplify Rankbrain and boil it down into actionable bite-sized strategies.

How to Map Out Your SEO Success

seo rankbrain strategy map

I find it very hard to succeed at anything if I can’t map out my path to success.  I don’t want to hear, “Just do this and you’ll win.”  I need to know why as well as how everything fits together.  Once you have learned a framework like that, you have so much more than a handful of strategies that may or may not work well together.

So, before we go any further, I want to show you what that map and framework looks like.

SEO from a Web Page Perspective

Imagine you want to organize and map out a campaign to win at SEO.  Most people start out thinking about web pages.

  • How much traffic does this page get?
  • Which keywords does it rank for?
  • How can I optimize my page for more traffic or better keywords?

That’s certainly how I started out thinking.  So I would create big spreadsheet with one row per web page.  I would populate that spreadsheet with information gleaned from Google Analytics and other sources.

Makes total sense to people, right?

There’s just one problem–Google doesn’t think that way.  It doesn’t start from pages.  Pages are a destination that comes a little later along the path Google follows to deliver your search results.

SEO from a Keyword Perspective

As we get smarter about how we think of SEO, most will transition from thinking about pages to thinking about keywords.

This used to be the absolute best way to think about SEO, in fact.

When approached from a keyword perspective, your job is focused on keyword research:

  1. What are the Concepts I want to rank for?  For example, wants to rank for any topic that helps entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses.
  2. What are the Keywords associated with those concepts?  There are various keyword research tools where you can enter your first thought of keywords representing your desired concept and they will spit out all sorts of related keywords together with metrics that tell you how much search volume there is for each keyword and how competitive the keyword is.
  3. Based on that data, you choose to target the keywords that have the highest volume but with competition that you can actually beat to rank well.

This is not a bad strategy even today, and you’ll notice how different it is than thinking about pages.

One of the key things that developed as Google has tweaked their algorithm to improve search results is that savvy SEO’s learned that creating more than one page around a particular SEO concept to target multiple keywords had become a losing strategy.

Once upon a time, that worked.  But, once Google learned how to match pages whose keywords differed but whose concepts were the same, all that happened was your pages competed against each other and your rankings fell.


SEO from an Intent Perspective

rankbrain seo searcher intent topic cluster lsi keywords

That change, where having multiple pages for the same concept became a liability, signals what life under Rankbrain will be like.

Long ago, very similar keywords to people looked different to search engines.  “Binocular” vs “Binoculars” were two completely different searches.

Early algorithm improvements used techniques such as “stemming” to resolve those differences.  Such techniques are fascinating, and certainly helpful, but they’re crude in comparison to Rankbrain.

The difference is that Rankbrain learns based on how searchers behave which keywords go with which concepts.  This is critically important, so let me say it again:

Rankbrain learns based on how searchers behave which keywords go with which concepts.

This has a two important ramifications that are almost like the carrot and the stick:

  1.  It knows with great certainty when you have multiple pages targeting the same content or intent.  It is therefore really good at penalizing you for that.
  2. It knows when there’s a great web page for a certain concept that uses different keywords than what you’re searching for.  You can still rank higher for targeting the exact keywords, but this capability shifts SEO from targeting keywords to targeting concepts and most importantly targeting high quality.

Take a moment to digest those two key outcomes of Rankbrain, because you’ll apply them time and again.

Let’s talk briefly about the difference between “Concepts” and “Intent”.  I’ve used those two terms intentionally to draw attention to the difference.   You want to think in terms of Intent, ultimately, with Concepts being a higher level umbrella that matters in a couple of ways.

With Rankbrain, Google does a better job than ever before of identifying the searcher’s intent based on the keywords they type in and matching that search with results that are of the highest quality.

Intent is what the user wanted to do.  Take the “Binoculars” concept.  There are a number of intents a user searching for information about binoculars might have:

  • They’re shopping and want to find the best binoculars for their needs.
  • They’re shopping and want the best price on particular binoculars they’ve already identified.
  • They have binoculars and want to understand how to use them for some purpose, like bird watching or star gazing.
  • They’re curious and want to know how binoculars work.
  • They have some binoculars that were dropped and want to know how to restore them to peak performance.
  • etc..

There are lots of different intents associated with binoculars.  Here’s the crazy think about RankBrain:

Nobody has to tell Rankbrain what all the intents are.  It figures them out based on user behavior.  

Rankbrain learns…

Based on the keywords together with which articles where the best received in searches, it groups search results by intent.

Concepts are important too.  If you created an outline of Intents, you’d use Concepts to group and sub-divide them.  I will talk more about LSI (Latent Semantic Intent) keywords below, but think of Concepts as relating to LSI.

Going back to our “binoculars” example, we might create an outline that looks like this:

optical instruments


learning intent

basic definition

how they work

types of binoculars

optical coatings (Note: shared with a lot of other areas too!)

purchasing intent

how to evaluate the best binoculars

best brands

where to buy binoculars

where to buy each brand

using intent

bird watching

star gazing

camera lenses

eye glasses


One more Rankbrain Insight: How it Scores Search Results

Lead Scoring

OK, I want to give you one more insight into Rankbrain and then I will map out the key strategies for you to follow if you want the best and easiest SEO in the era of Rankbrain.

That insight is how Rankbrain scores different search results.  It is looking to move better results higher on the results page so they get more traffic.  Being able to succeed with that scoring is critical to your SEO success.

It’s based on hundreds of factors, but for my audience, entrepreneurs starting out and small businesses without giant staffs and budgets, only a few matter:

  • Clickthrough Rate.  The more people that clickthrough to your page in the search results, the higher the quality Rankbrain thinks it is.
  • Dwell Time:  How long did the reader spend on your page?  Did it engage and hold their attention?  Google assumes that if it did, it’s good stuff.
  • Bounce Rate:  Did the user bail out right after visiting your article or did they hang in and read more pages?  Remember, you probably have Google Analytics installed, which makes all this behavior more data that Google can harness.  The thing about bounce rate is that it’s okay if it is high, sometimes.  What you want is for your bounce rate to be lower than that of other pages in the same search results.
  • Pogo-sticking:  Did the searcher click your result then immediately come back and click some other result?  Oops!  That tells Google they didn’t find the answer on your page for their intent, so it’s probably not such a good page to show others.
  • Links:  Do tons of people link to your page?  Hey, it’s probably the authority to refer to then.  Remember, Rankbrain is the #3 most important ranking factor.  Other things like backlinks matter more.  Google also likes you to link out to other sites.   Lastly, the flow of links internal to your site matters.
  • Keywords in URL, titles, image alt text etc.:  Yes, this still matters.  Even though Rankbrain infers relationships to keywords that may not even be in your article, it will prefer to send people to articles with a closer keyword match if comparable quality is available.
  • LSI (Latent Semantic Intent) Keywords:  Think of these keywords as indicators of your article’s completeness.  How can you write an article about Bill Gates that never mentions Microsoft and have it be considered complete or high quality?  BTW, in the long run, building out your content so it covers all the LSI bases is what Topic Clusters are all about.

As I said, there are hundreds of factors considered, but those are the most important if you want the most bang for your (limited, me too!) bucks.

Here’s a sneaky thing–Rankbrain learns how much to weight each of the factors it considers to get the best results.  The weights may differ for different search intents!

You can imagine that if I want to buy a particular car, say a Chevrolet Corvette, we want to rate local dealers more highly than if I just want to learn about whether the Corvette is the right car for me.

SEO Strategies for the Rankbrain Age: 2018

Get out your spreadsheet or other favorite organizing tool.  Set it up to track Concepts and Intent.

Your job is to build the concept and intent outline similar to what I’ve shown above.  It’s not as hard as it sounds, because you can build it as you go and as you need it.  Something like this:

  1. Create a simple concept outline for your web site based on the sort of people who will visit and what you want them to get out of the site.  Be very high level to start.
  2. Pick a topic you want to write about and plug it into the outline.  Thinking about what new concepts and outline levels it introduces.
  3. Research they keywords for your topic.  Use your favorite keyword research tool to dump them into a spreadsheet.  Make sure you capture search volume and competitiveness for each keyword.
  4. Score the keywords based on volume vs competitiveness.  I create a column in the spreadsheet that just simply divides volume by competiveness.  You may want to exclude terms that are way out of your reach.  For example, has a Domain Authority of 40 as I write this.  So, I don’t consider keywords above 40.  I may get to 56 someday, but for now, I want traffic I can reach today.
  5. Take the keywords that fit your criteria, and flesh out your Concept Outline based on new ideas you discover there.  When you get the outline down to the level of intent, list the keywords related to that intent under that outline entry.

Now you’re ready to refine your idea of what your article is about using your outline.  Here’s what you want to think about:

Your Content Outline guides your Topic Clusters

Can I map out a series of articles that will take me from the most general to the specific intent I’ve identified for this article?  Use this information to plan your article so it’ll fit into that framework and put your plan into your Editorial Calendar so it comes together.

This work will lead you to implement Topic Clusters, one of the hottest SEO strategies going lately.  You don’t have to build the whole Topic Cluster at once.  You can write top down, bottom up, or whatever.  But, it is important that it all links together, makes sense, and is optimized for SEO as a matched set.

You need to chunk your Concept Outline’s entries into properly-sized articles

If you think of your Concept Outline as a Tree, you want to balance your articles so they are pretty long (Google rewards length because it takes longer to read an article and longer articles touch more LSI bases and are more likely to be linked to as valuable resources), but not too long.

We already saw you don’t want multiple articles targeting keywords that are all for the same buyer intent.  But, some types of buyer intent need to be grouped with related intent to create long enough articles.  Shoot for a critical mass of 2000-2500 words, and think about splitting up articles over 4000 words.

You’ve got what you need to write your article

At this stage you have:

  • A Concept Outline that is complete from very high level to article level for your desired article topic.
  • An article topic that is refined to fit well with the Searcher Intents your Concept Outline work has uncovered.
  • A list of keywords that are the best combination of search volume vs competitiveness that your article can use for URL, titles, alt text, and the usual SEO purposes.
  • A Concept Outline that you can quickly convert to an article outline to make writing the article faster and easier.

Dang!  You’ve done your homework and you’re ready to write your article.

Did it seem like a lot of work?

It is, but there is good news.  That homework makes writing the article a lot easier.  After all, you have a complete outline that includes keywords.  You can use the keywords to bring up all the best articles on each topic to make sure your article is complete.

Second, a lot of the homework you did will be useful on future articles.  Fleshing out the Concept Outline for your website is hugely valuable over time.  Having that map of the terrain gives you a real competitive advantage over a blogger who just wakes up and writes an article about the first thing that pops into their head.

For me, next steps are to choose the article’s URL based on my list of keywords I want to rank for.  I will also incorporate those keywords into the article’s title and I will do everything I can to make the title and description sell users on clicking through the search result.

To help with that, I use Brian Dean’s YoRocket WordPress plugin.  I’ve seen it consistently improve my clickthrough rates as I went through re-engineering every page of a 2000 page web site for my CNCCookbook business.

What’s left is finding great images to tickle the visual side of the brain and writing up the concepts your outline has uncovered.

Follow those steps to win the SEO game in 2018 by wooing Rankbrain to love your content.

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