5 SEO Strategies to Get Ahead in the Google RankBrain Era

5 SEO Strategies to Get Ahead in the Google RankBrain Era

Let’s imagine I arrive at your site from an organic keyword search. I know what I want, and I’m prepared to pay good money for it.

But, within five seconds, I hit the back button: no credit card purchase, no newsletter signup, not even another page view – nada, zilch!

I had a need, and money in my pocket – but for some reason I returned to Google and continued my search.

What happened? And how can you fix it?

The Power of Intent

In the good old days, you could keyword stuff to your heart’s content – and search engines couldn’t get enough of it – but that was nearly two decades ago! Now On-Page Optimization involves getting the right blend of keywords, in the right places, while still providing a great read for your visitors. But if you stop there, you miss a big part of the puzzle…

The missing piece is the power of intent. And by intent, I mean understanding the underlying meaning of a keyword (what task does the searcher want to achieve) and then creating content that satisfies that intent. Sure, the more traditional and keyword-focused SEO signals still count; but search engines, and in particular Google, are putting more emphasis on user intent signals. They try to understand what the user wants to achieve, and whether it was fulfilled.

This mimics human behavior. So, if we return to the opening paragraphs of this article, the reason the searcher clicked back to Google and didn’t stay on your site was likely due to a mismatch in the content offered on your site and the searcher being able to carry out the task they wanted to complete.

RankBrain and Task Completion

To better understand the user intent, let’s look at Google’s RankBrain, released in late 2015. RankBrain is a sub-algorithm that uses artificial intelligence to try to deliver the best results.

Surprisingly, its announcement slipped under the radar of many marketers – but that soon changed when it was officially confirmed that RankBrain is the third most important Google rankings factor.

There was a clear shift in focus, and modern SEO copywriters now optimize for user intent of a keyword first – and combine traditional copywriting and keyword targeting afterwards.

Let’s now look at what you can do to optimize for user intent and Google RankBrain:

1: Understand the User Intent of a Keyword

The first step in being the best result is knowing what the best result looks like – and of course, this will differ from one person to another. But it’s your job to increase the probability that your page returns the best result to the most common users.

You can boost your chances by researching your customers, learning how your industry thinks, and anticipating what questions searchers are likely to ask.

Let’s look at two keyword examples:

Keyword – ‘best time to go to Mexico’: This is an informational keyword and the intent is very clear. The user is not expecting a sales page on Mexican vacations but instead a concise answer to the best months to visit the country.

Keyword – ‘ski vacations’: this is a transactional keyword and at first glance the intent also appears clear. But, when you think about it, there are a lot of things we don’t know:

  • We don’t know if the searcher is new to skiing, is a seasoned pro, or somewhere in-between.
  • We don’t know if they ski or snowboard.
  • We don’t know whether they would like to ski in France, Whistler, Canada, or somewhere else.
  • We don’t know whether they consider a $2,000 ski vacation cheap or luxurious.
  • We don’t know if they’d like to stay in a chalet or a hotel.

The intent in the second example is a little vague. For most, the keyword ‘ski vacations’ would not be a good fit for a website specializing in high-end French ski vacations. It would be better served by a page offering more choice, covering the variety of things skiers will be looking for.

When you understand the intent of a keyword you can be more selective in picking your content battles, and more realistic in the ones you think you can win – as well as being able to deliver the content that your visitors want to see.  

2: Improve Click-Though Rate from SERPs

Ranking for a keyword is only half the battle. Getting users to click on your website – and not your competitors’ – is what you need to focus on next.

And, by improving the click-through rate (CTR) for a keyword from organic search engine results pages (SERPs), you’ll get two benefits:

- More SEO traffic, which of course, is free!

- A boost to your existing rankings, especially if your CTR is comparatively higher than your competitors’ average, because RankBrain will see this as positive engagement and it will be used as a signal to boost your listings higher.

Let’s now look at ways you can boost your CTR from the SERPs:

  • Title Tags: When you only focus on including keywords, sometimes title tags can be disengaging and even spammy. Instead, consider adding positive and emotive adjectives. Where it makes sense, adding the date to the end can also help as well, especially for blog posts. For example,  consider a blog with the title tag: ‘Free SEO Tools’. It’s a bit vanilla looking, isn’t it? LunaMetrics made this more interesting, while still including the keywords by going for the following: ‘Our Favorite Free SEO Tools for 2018 – LunaMetrics’.
  • URLs: Long URLs tend to get truncated, so creating short, concise two- to four-word descriptive URLs can help with click-through rates.
  • Meta Descriptions: This is your opportunity to really sell what the page is about. Think of ways to not only describe what the page is about but entice the users to click-through. Did you know Google recently doubled the amount of words you can include? Checkout Portent’s SERP Preview Tool to see how much space you now have.
  • Rich Snippets: The chances are you’ve seen a star rating appear next to an organic listing. These are examples of rich snippets, and when used correctly by implementing structured data, they can massively improve your CTR.

In addition to the elements you see in the SERPs, if your brand is well known – either offline, online, or both – this will improve the chances that a search will click on your listing. Think about it: if all other factors are equal and you see a brand you trust, you’ll be more likely to click on it as opposed to one you don’t know.

3: Reduce Bounce Rate and Improve Dwell Time

Let’s take a look at bounce rate: this is the percentage of visitors to a particular webpage who bounce/leave the site after viewing only one page. That’s usually not a good experience, so the lower the bounce rate the better.

As a general rule, 20% or less bounce rate is very good, 20-40% is good, 40-60% is okay, and over 60% is disappointing. You can find the bounce rate in your web analytics software of choice – Google Analytics, for example. Go a step further by creating a filter/segment to only view organic traffic when analyzing SEO bounce rate.

Dwell time works a little differently. We sometimes call this ‘pogo sticking’ and it’s the amount of time between when a user clicks from an SERP, visits a page, and then returns or pogo sticks back to the SERP. Every keyword will have a different average dwell time, and this is only known by search engines. If your dwell time is better than average (they stick on your site longer), then search engines may give your pages a ranking boost because your visitors will have a better user experience.

Let’s have a look at some of the things you can do to improve both bounce rate and dwell time:

  • Add a clear call to action: A call to action can be when a user buys or signs up to something which will help with sales, but for SEO it can also be to view related content, services, or tools – and this will help with both dwell time and bounce rate.
  • Create an engaging start to your content: A low dwell time often happens when users don’t scroll down, and they almost instantly click back because they feel the page isn’t relevant or interesting. Spend a disproportionate amount of your time on the main heading and opening paragraphs, so you can engage your visitors to carry on reading.
  • Link to relevant content: When writing content there are usually opportunities to interlink to other pages on your site within the main body text. This can add to the user experience while not disrupting your sales process. Do this wisely and you will see your dwell time and bounce rate soar.

4: Enhance Page Loading Times

We live in a world where attention is increasingly precious. According to research by Microsoft, you now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish — which is just nine seconds! And in the easily distracted, digitized world in which we live, the ‘back’ button is only ever milliseconds from being clicked. So, in addition to making your content engaging, you need to make sure it loads quickly.

Head on over to Pingdom’s Website Speed Test tool to see if your homepage loads in two seconds or less. It’s great if your webpages score well in the performance grade test, but it’s the load time that matters most. Repeat the test for other key pages on your site.

If you can improve page loading times, you will improve bounce rate, dwell time, user satisfaction, and conversions – and gain more love from Google.

And according to Pingdom, the average webpage loads in 3.4 seconds – but you don’t want to be average, right? Google’s John Muellor recommends aiming for below 2-3 seconds – and less than 2 seconds is considered quick.

Try to keep file sizes small. Pinggdom also reports that the average file size of a page is 3.4MB – but with optimization, that number can often be reduced to 2MB or less, which means quicker loading pages, happier visitors, and a potential ranking boost!

Can you reduce file requests for your key webpages? Using a tool like Pingdom, review every file request and look to see whether any can be: removed – for example, if they are unnecessary or duplicated; or combined –for example, combing multiple CSS file into one.

5: Over-Deliver on Task Completion

For web design, a great user experience often starts with a visitor on a website – but in SEO, the visitor starts with a keyword, on a search engine, and has a task in mind. That task may be to find information, buy a product, or be entertained. Your job is to convince search engines and users that your content is the best at fulfilling the task that needs to be completed – and this requires carefully planned content.

However, great user experience does not equal conversion optimization. It can, if a user has used a transactional keyword and your product is exactly what they’re looking for. However, the lion’s share of organic traffic is for informational keywords – and that’s why the Harvard Business Review suggests that most successful brands focus on users, not buyers.

If you think of your search engine visitors as users first you can tailor content that satisfies their needs first, rather than trying to force them down your sales funnel. If you get this part right, you will get more repeat visitors (because they had a good experience) and more new visitors (because RankBrain sees that you’ve satisfied their needs) – and with the right content strategy, you’ll find it will assist in more sales.

But remember – optimizing for RankBrain is a moving target…

That’s because Google uses artificial intelligence, which means that what works well now may change in the future. But the one likely constant is to always strive to be the best result and not necessarily the best keyword optimized result.

We’ve covered five ways you can move closer to becoming the best result, but if you are looking for my top two to focus on, I’d recommend #1 (Understand the User Intent of a Keyword) and #5 Over-Deliver on Task Completion).

First, you need to better understand the underlying intent of important keywords (what task do users want to complete) and then offer great content that satisfies the intent and enables them to complete the task at hand. Google will be happy, your visitors will be happy – and your bottom line will look much happier too!


Joe Williams

Joe Williams teaches search engine optimization at Tribe SEO. He holds a degree in Computing Informatics, and he’s been an SEO for over 15 years. He’s consulted and trained many large blue-chip companies including The Guardian, Cosmopolitan and Sky. He's on a mission to make SEO easy, fun and profitable. You can catch him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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