All marketers must recognize the importance of SEO in growing a loyal audience, site traffic and conversion rate. Since the implementation of Google’s machine-learning artificial intelligence algorithm, RankBrain, optimizing landing pages for top keywords (a central piece of SEO) has changed fundamentally, and as Google’s third most important ranking signal it’s becoming increasingly important to re-calibrate your SEO strategy to accommodate for RankBrain.

What is RankBrain?

RankBrain is a machine-learning artificial intelligence algorithm that Google has implemented alongside its other human-engineered algorithms, used to sort search results. RankBrain looks at SERPs for various keywords and tweaks the importance of various ranking signals – backlinks, domain authority, content length, etc – resulting in different SERPs. The RankBrain algorithm then analyzes how searchers interact with the new results, and if they find the new SERP more useful (displaying better content), RankBrain keeps the changes, if not, it reverts back to the old algorithm. When RankBrain makes tweaks to the SERPs (believing that searchers may find the results more useful) if any particular page gets a lot of attention, that page will receive a rankings increase. If searchers find any particular page not to be useful, RankBrain will replace that page on the SERP with a different page and then analyze how it performs. How does RankBrain determine if searchers like the new results better you ask? A few ways:
  • Organic Click-Through Rate
  • Time on Page
  • Bounce Rate
Before implementing the RankBrain algorithm, Google displayed SERPs simply by matching words in a search query to words on an individual page. With RankBrain, the AI attempts to learn what the words mean together (the intent), context included, to produce more fruitful search results for the searcher.

How does RankBrain Impact Optimizing Keywords on Landing Pages?

Before RankBrain, the most commonly agreed upon and effective SEO keyword targeting strategy was to build many different landing pages optimized for many different long tail keywords, even simple semantic varieties. For example, an SEO optimizing a travel blog would create one landing page targeting “best hiking routes in Hawaii,” and another landing page targeting “best hiking trails in Hawaii.” After which Google would rank each of the landing pages for their individual long tail keywords. Since implementing RankBrain, the Google algorithm now understands that these long tail keywords are essentially the same, and deliver almost identical SERPs for both phrases – making it ineffective to optimize around long tail keyword phrases anymore.

New Strategies: Optimizing for RankBrain

In short, instead of optimizing landing pages for long tail keywords, SEOs should target mid-tail keywords. Below is a screenshot from Ahrefs showing, keyword difficulty, CPC, search volume, and other metrics for six “New Zealand Hiking” related keyword phrases. As expected, the shorter keyword phrases have significantly higher search volume than their long-tail counterparts. In the past these mid-tail keywords would be more difficult to effectively target and break into the top three search results. But with the introduction of RankBrain, these mid-tails present a new opportunity, allowing SEOs to target more generic, mid-tail keyword phrases and have the Google algorithm understand their intent. How do I decide the best mid-tail keyword to target? There are myriad SEO tools and metrics that can be used to analyze keyword viability – SEMRush, Google Keyword Planner, Ahrefs, Brightedge to name a few. But one of my favorite strategies involves something much more basic: simple Google searches comparing broad-match results, exact-match results, and the total number of both for any given keyword phrase. It’s also useful to compare the domain ratings for first page SERPs during the comparison process to get an idea of how difficult it will be to rank highly. Using the “New Zealand Hiking” search metrics above, you’ll notice that the two most searched phrases are “New Zealand Hiking” and “Hiking in New Zealand” with 600 and 450 average monthly searches respectively, compared to the 150 or less average monthly searches for all the remaining keyword phrases. The first step in deciding which keyword phrase to target is performing a Google search, and then another with the keyword phrase in quotes, comparing the number of broad match and exact match search results.

The first thing you may notice is that the keyword phrase “New Zealand Hiking” has significantly fewer search results in both broad and exact match instances, despite having an average of 150 more searches a month than “Hiking in New Zealand” (600 vs 450). On the surface this simple comparison shows that there is more search volume and less competition and saturation in the “New Zealand Hiking” SERP, pointing to this particular keyword phrase as the better choice. But before we draw any final conclusions, it’s important to analyze the sites ranking first page for each of the keyword phrases, to determine what their domain authorities are, and how our site stacks up in this space. Below is a screenshot from Ahrefs showing the first page SERPs for both “New Zealand Hiking” and “Hiking in New Zealand” In this instance, and likely because of the RankBrain algorithm, the SERPs are nearly identical with a few exceptions. Because of the SERPs similarities, it’s safe to say choose a mid-tail keyword to target for your site based purely on the overall number of results displayed contrasted against average monthly search volume – in this example that proper choice would be “New Zealand Hiking.”

Optimizing Landing Pages to Generate Maximum SERP Positions Increases Traffic and Conversion Rate Growth

Having well-targeted keywords is an important factor in growing SERP rankings, site traffic, and conversions, but without well-optimized landing pages much of your hard work can go unnoticed, and growth can be slow. Google has provided SEO Marketers with tools we can use to help the web spiders better understand what the on-page content is all about. First and foremost: SCHEMA markup. Schema markup, also known as structured data markup, is a vocabulary that is added to a wide variety of encodings – RDFa, JSON-LD, Microdata and others. Every page on your site that can have a schema, should. Depending on the type of page you wish to markup, whether it be product pages, informational content, blog posts, or anything else, schema.org provides a selection of items and associated properties that can be added to the HTML/CSS of your page to help Google’s web crawlers automatically understand the intent and purpose of the content. The better Google understand your content, the more likely it is to rank higher on SERP page 1. Below you can see an example of schema markup for a blog post from Instasize entitled “5 Ways to Utilize Instagram Stories to Boost Sales.” Notice how the markup code is nested above the <h1>, between <div> and <script> tags. Best explained by the Moz blog in a post entitled “Unlocking Hidden Gems Within Schema.org” — “When you first enter a Schema.org item type’s page, notice that every page has the same layout, starting with the item type name, the canonical reference URL (currently the HTTP version*), where the markup lives within the Schema.org hierarchy, and that item type’s usage on the web. An item type is a piece of Schema.org’s vocabulary of data used to annotate and structure elements on a web page. You can think about it as what you’re marking up. At the highest level of most Schema.org item types is Thing (alternatively, we’d be looking at DataType). This intuitively makes sense because almost everything is, at its highest level of abstraction, a Thing. The item type Thing has multiple children, all of which assume Thing’s properties in a cascading in a hierarchical fashion (i.e., a Product is a Thing, both can have names, descriptions, and images).” You can find a visual representation of schema’s hierarchy in the image below.

Image courtesy of technicalseo.com

One of the easiest starting points for acquainting yourself with schema is to use the schema generator from Merkle. Using the Merkle schema generator is fairly simple, just choose a type of markup from the drop-down menu. Once you’ve chosen a markup-type, you’ll be prompted to fill in various fields and the schema markup code will be automatically generated in the right field. Once you’ve filled in all the necessary fields, copy and paste the auto-generated schema into Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool to make sure the code is functioning properly. Then paste the code above or below the <body> tags of your page.

Targeting Featured Snippets to Rank Above First Position for Top Keywords

A featured snippet is a box that appears above all results for various questions and answer based queries. Below is a screenshot of a search for “Are dogs colorblind,” where you can see a short paragraph with an answer pulled from one of the pages listed in the SERP. (Note: Featured snippets only pull from the top 10 results of any given SERP, so you must already rank 1-10 for a specific keyword phrase to be eligible for a feature placement) With more and more SERPs for similar search queries returning similar results because of RankBrain, the chances of securing a featured snippet across multiple similar queries have greatly increased – which could create a massive traffic and conversion boon for sites with savvy SEO practitioners willing to invest time targeting featured snippets.

How to Target Featured Snippet Opportunities

Featured snippets appear for a wide array of search queries, and can increase page visibility, conversion rates, and traffic to your site, so how do you go about targeting these opportunities? Most of the time, though not all, featured snippets appear as an answer to question-based queries. Let’s say you run a food blog and have posted an article about making spaghetti and meatballs, and your targeted keyword phrase is “spaghetti and meatballs.” Of course, the quality and thoroughness of the content is a major factor in determining if Google will pull your information into a featured snippet, but how your content is organized and labeled is also very important. Instead of using the simplest of headings, try adding question format headings, so make your first H2 something like “How to Make Spaghetti and Meatballs?” As an example of this, notice the screenshot below showing the SERPs for two similar queries. The first search for “spaghetti and meatballs” returns without a snippet whereas “how to make spaghetti and meatballs” returns with a snippet pulled from a Youtube video. One of the best ways to generate question/answer based headline ideas is with answerthepublic.com. Answer the Public describes itself as a “free visual keyword research and content ideas” tool and can provide a wide range of very useful data. Entering a simple keyword phrase into the search bar returns multiple lists of related question-based, preposition-based and comparison-based search queries. Example for the search query “spaghetti and meatballs.” From this page, you can easily use the results to brainstorm a question/answer style headline and greatly increase the chance of having your content being pulled into a featured snippet. Other factors Google seems to like when pulling snippets is content built in ordered or unordered lists, HTML tables and free of grammatical errors.

Snackable Takeaways: Creating Traffic and Conversion Rate Growth with Actionable SEO Strategies

  1. RankBrain has changed the way we look at keyword targeting, forcing to reorient their focus from long-tail keywords to mid-tail keywords.
  2. As the RankBrain AI continues to learn and further understand the meaning of keyword phrases and their context, semantic variation of similar queries will matter less and less as they largely return identical results, forcing SEO’s to shift focus primarily to ensuring everything they publish is evergreen, and of only the highest quality content for their user base – chasing keywords will no longer work.
  3. Schema markup is relatively simple and in today’s SEO climate is an absolute must to remain competitive for your top keywords.
  4. With more and more SERPs for similar search queries returning similar results because of RankBrain, the chances of securing a featured snippet across multiple similar queries have greatly increased.
  5. Targeting featured snippets by optimizing your on-page content can propel your top landing pages to the very top of Google SERPs, greatly increasing your pages overall visibility, site traffic, and conversion rate.