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Understanding Google RankBrain and How It Affects SEO

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Google announced RankBrain in late 2015, seemingly ages ago according to today’s standard. Yet, many marketers and even SEO practitioners don’t recognize the existence of RankBrain, and so, fail to understand how it may affect our marketing and especially SEO efforts.

In this guide, we will discuss all the ins and outs of Google RankBrain: its definition, what it does, and how it might affect your strategy.

Let us begin.

What Actually is Google RankBrain

While we don’t know for sure when Google RankBrain was invented, Google confirmed its existence in October 2015.

RankBrain is an A.I. driven system that is now a (core) part of Google’s ranking algorithm today. The main highlight of RankBrain is that it is capable of ‘machine learning’, another term besides ‘artificial intelligence’ that has been the buzzword of recent years.

Machine learning, as the name suggests, is the machine’s ability to learn as it receives new data. Meaning, we don’t have to program and re-program it all the time. In RankBrain’s case, it teaches itself through machine learning to study all the relevant ranking factors or signals, including but not limited to the user’s online behaviors, location, demographics profile, dwell time, and in-depth analysis of the search query to understand the true intention of searchers.

How RankBrain Works

What RankBrain does is, in essence, analyzing how users interact with the search results. Let’s use an example to explain this.

Let’s say we are searching for “RankBrain and SEO” on Google.  Now, the 4th result’s snippet seems to be relevant to your current issue, so you click on it. The content turns out to be an excellent one, and it answers all of your questions. In the end, you read the whole article, spending, let’s say, 10 minutes on the site. Here, RankBrain will recognize your activity, especially your dwell time. As a result, this site will get a boost on the ranking calculation.

On the other hand, let’s say with the same search you clicked on the first, highest result. Apparently, the content is terrible, and hence you only spent a few seconds before closing the window. RankBrain will also take note of this activity, and this site might be demoted if more users are doing the same thing.

So, RankBrain focuses on mainly two things:

  • The dwell time, which is how long a certain user spends time on your site
  • The Click-Through-Rate or CTR, which is the percentage rate of how many people clicked on a search result

How RankBrain and CTR Affects SEO

Even before the introduction of RankBrain, CTR already matters a lot to SEO. Why? Because the goal of SEO in the first place is for more people to click our site on the search result, in short, to get more CTR.

So, the fact that RankBrain analyzes CTR as a ranking signal now creates a dilemma: on one hand, SEO has been the primary way to achieve high CTR, but now it is also a ranking signal that will affect SERP.

Meaning, we should rely on other methods and tactics besides SEO in getting more organic CTR. We asked digital marketing consultant Mike on how Google algorithm does that:

  • Your headline matters a lot. Check out this list by Optinmonster for various tools to help you create better headlines.
  • Make sure your URL is both informative and comprehensive for your human readers.
  • Understand your audiences better. The more relevant your contents are, and the more effective your headlines are according to their preference, the better your CTR will be
  • Keep a lookout on how your competitors are doing. If you can compete on the same field, do it. If not, find other opportunities.

Think guide by Search Engine Journal might help you further.

How RankBrain and Dwell Time affects SEO

In September 2017, Google confirmed that dwell time is indeed a ranking signal today with the help of RankBrain. x So, what will it mean to SEO?

A dwell time is an amount of time a user spent on a  site, calculated from when the user clicked on a link until they close the window, hit the back button, or enter another URL (or search).

So, now that we understand that dwell time is a ranking signal, how good should we aim? According to a study by Searchmetrics, the average dwell time for sites that rank in the top 10 is 3 minutes and 10 seconds.

A dwell time of over 3 minutes is actually very, very hard to achieve. Yet, we should at least aim for an average dwell time of 2 minutes. How? There is no shortcut for this, and you will need to publish contents that are relevant and engaging. Also, make sure your site loads quickly, is mobile responsive and is at least decent regarding User Experience (UX).

Although content creation is a pretty broad subject on its own, here are some key principles:

  • You should especially put more attention to your title (headline) and the opening section of your contents. For word-based contents, check out this guide by Copy Hackers
  • It is no secret that slow load speed is one of the biggest reasons for leaving a site. Check out this guide to help improve your load speed.
  • Make sure your contents are focused, relevant, and comprehensive. Longer is not always better, but if you can keep a long article interesting throughout the whole article, it can increase your dwell time.
  • Focus on making contents that are engaging for human readers before focusing on keyword


Although at first the fact that Google RankBrain now plays a major factor in determining ranking signals can be scary, we should see it in a bigger picture: RankBrain will actually make the search engine a better, healthier environment, and so we can get more with our SEO in the future.

As we have mentioned in this guide, there are, in essence, two things we should focus on with SEO strategy in accordance to RankBrain: optimizing our organic CTR and optimizing the dwell time of our visitors. The key? Regularly publish
high-quality and relevant content.

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