Earlier this month, Google properly killed its Toolbar PageRank feature. PageRank is, or was, the 1-10 score counter that SEO professionals and webmasters used to use back in the old, dark days of SEO to assess how ‘good’ a website was. In truth it’s been pretty obsolete for the average webmaster for some years now. Google apparently still uses a very complex incarnation of PageRank in its own algorithms, but but the search giant says it’s very much an internal thing and not something to worry our pretty little heads about. Or is it?

It’s because of SEO that we have a user-orientated internet – filtered, not censored

It’s thought that this complex incarnation of PageRank is in fact called RankBrain (stay with me here), and we know a fair bit about it.

I received an email newsletter just this morning from the desk of Chris Cemper, CEO of SEO research specialist Link Research Tools, whose team he says recently quizzed Google on its new top three search ranking factors. The top two are top secret, naturally, but number three, Google admits, is RankBrain. Bloomberg reported back in October that Google was testing RankBrain on a “very large fraction” of its search queries and we can only assume it’s now working full-time.

RankBrain is an artificial intelligence-based search technology that learns as it goes. It turns text-based search queries into number patterns that the computer can understand, and means that if the computer doesn’t understand a search query (which is about 15% of the time), it can call upon what it knows to work out what the searcher is asking. It’s incredibly smart. Smarter, even, than the engineers that come up with these algorithms in the first place; the aforementioned Bloomberg story reported that RankBrain outperformed Google engineers when they were asked to estimate the relative ranking of a handful of random web pages.

End of an era

The loss of PageRank is a bit of a shame – in an end-of-an-era kind of a way. At one point, it was like a video game: you darted about the maze of your website back-end making little tweaks to your SEO factors and waited to see if you’d raised the bar a notch. Still, the reaction to PageRank’s demise amongst SEO communities ranges from “who cares?” to “good riddance”.

That’s because SEO is, and absolutely should be, a game of quality over quantity. SEO in 2016 and beyond is a much more organic, flowing affair. Rather than looking for ranking signals, as was more or less the case with PageRank, now RankBrain seems to base its decisions on the accuracy and relevance of the content it is presented with. The better, more wholesome the content, the more it learns. It’s like feeding your search engine superfoods rather than the bare minimum it needs to get by.

SEO is, and absolutely should be, a game of quality over quantity

The most important ranking factors

Now that we can be reassured in the knowledge that RankBrain is doing a far finer job than its predecessor in the internet’s kitchen, what can we do front-of-house to produce the service and experience that customers now expect? For that, we turn to those most important, and second most important ranking factors. They may be a Google-guarded secret, but we can probably take an intelligent guess. Link Research Tools’ strategists opine that ranking factor number two is web content, and number one – links. Without trying to steal anyone’s thunder here, I expect they’re right.

It is a shame that we don’t for sure know what those other two factors are – it would give us a clear indication of RankBrain’s influence – but I guess that information’s another handy bit of Google PR for another time.

Carry on quality content

But that all being said, it makes sense that content would be more important than RankBrain in the ranking rankings; machine learning still needs something to learn from, after all. So, stay your course of producing high quality content and craft it intelligently and logically. You’re effectively giving a robot a script to learn, so think about the best ways to prompt it; you may even discover hidden opportunities to shape its thinking to your benefit.

So this all means that link-building has to be – as it kind of always has been – the most important factor for search rankings.

But don’t be scared by this. I’ve seen the dark side of SEO and trust me, things are way better now. It’s because of SEO that we have a user-orientated internet – it’s a filtered, not censored internet. One that has gradually and sensibly removed the digital deluge of utterly useless, sometimes harmful, content clogging up the pipes. SEO professionals have had to stay adaptable and open to changes and sometimes the search engines have penalised the wrong people, but it’s always been a learning process. No system is perfect, but we’re getting there.

I remember once upon a time in my far earlier, more carefree SEO days (I testify that I’ve since repented) actually being asked by my manager at the time to search out so-called ‘link farms’ for any link-backs to the website I was working on. Managing to get any external link, whether it was relevant subject matter or not (mostly not), back to the website was fair game I think the only prohibited link-backs were from online gambling or sites with adult material (even then, following the chain of links from your website to one with this sort of illicit material was only a matter of a couple of degrees of separation). I would regularly send emails out to the link farm’s webmaster and hope they’d link back to the website I was working on at several points across several web pages. Methods like this were known as ‘black hat SEO’ and, while they were great at teaching you what not to do, they were terrible for what they wanted to achieve.

You see, it’s pertinent that Google calls the learning machine ‘RankBrain’ because that’s effectively how the internet behaves: like a brain, a brain that needs to be conferred with some sort of order. You and I learn by creating new connections in our head and the web is no different. SEO – in other words conferring the internet for the people that use it – doesn’t just need links; it is links. Without links we have just islands of information bobbing about the virtual ether with no rhyme or reason. Once you understand that, you see why link-building is inherent to SEO, and why the black hat method of link building doesn’t just warrant a penalty; it’s also useless to you.

It’s effectively how the internet behaves: like a brain

For the love of blog

You can’t think of link-building as more, more, more = better, better, better. Link building is about creating content that relevant people want to link to. It’s a simple premise, but it takes time. You need to keep creating high quality content, ideally littered with little gems of brilliance that no one else in your field has thought of – that’s where your links go. The stuff we all link to and tell our friends about is the stuff that’s uniquely valuable in some way; it’s why user generated content works, and why people share online reviews with each other; it’s useful information you won’t find anywhere else.

Still, one of the tried and tested ways to achieve this is with your business blog. I know it can feel laborious, but I’m afraid there’s really no easier way to keep creating high quality, regularly-published, easy-to-link content that’s indexed as part of your website. It’s that simple. If the prospect of creating and managing a business blog seems too much for you then give us a call, we can help. It works for our blog.

There’s really no easier way to keep creating high quality, regularly-published, easy-to-link content

An important consideration is that link-building is a two-way street; there’s always a source and a recipient of the link. You may not have employed a link-building strategy in the past and therefore you have very few links going out of your website. But have you checked your backlink profile for links coming in to the website? You might want to use a Site Explorer tool to do a backlink audit. With this you may find you need to clear or disavow a few bad links; a quick web search pulls up numerous well-documented methods to do this.

Google has always maintained that link-building is important, and it’s when you really consider the nitty gritty of its importance that you can tailor your content strategy to work in its favour. Just remember SEO is not a restriction, it’s an opportunity. RankBrain might be a new beast, but it’s a beast that learns. Feed it some brain food and it’ll come back for seconds.