After all the noise about RankBrain being one of the top three signals in the Google algorithm for ranking organic search results, a Google rep confirmed on Friday what the other of those top two are in response to a direct question.

They are links pointing to your site, and content. Shock horror etc…no surprises there. And no, it isn’t in that order either. “There is no order” to ranking signals. Fair enough.

It’s still well worth listening to the rest of the discussion though, because Lipattsev actually clarifies what he means by “top ranking signals” and even mentions that the idea of RankBrain being in the top three is a “hotly contested issue.” If nothing else I suppose it’s good to know that Google engineers have their own internal politics like the rest of us mere mortals. I’ve had a shot at transcribing this section of his dialogue because there are a lot of hidden gold nuggets of information in there – not least the fact that Google has a debugger console you can apparently pull up to see which algorithmic factors played a role in producing a particular SERP!

“If you look at a slew of search results, open up the debugger and see what has come into play for such-and-such a query, for such-and-such a page, certain things pop up more or less often. So certain elements of the algorithm come into play in fewer or more pages, in fewer or more cases. And so I guess if you do that then you’d see elements of RankBrain having been involved in here, in rewriting this query, applying it like this over here, and so you’d say “here, I see this like two times as often as this thing, and half as often as this other thing, so it’s somewhere around number three.” It’s not like having three links is x important and having five keywords is y important, and RankBrain is some z factor that is also somehow important, and you multiply all of that. That’s not how this works.

I think the way we can look at it in a useful way is that we are trying to get better at understanding natural language, and at applying machine learning and saying okay, so what are the meanings behind the inputs. In particular when you think about the fact that…it’s too early days, we cannot claim that typed queries, whether mobile or desktop, have reasonably subsided or are going away, but more and more so people are interacting with their devices using voice, so we can expect they use stop words, and words…like “without,” maybe other operators of this kind, a lot more often than you would. People still tend to be a lot more mechanical, and kind of overthink their queries a little bit, as I tend to anyway. I tend to think “so what is a query,” and it’s completely not human in nature, that sounds like what the machine would understand.”

This is fascinating stuff. It’s nice to see Google not shying its reps away from any discussion on the mechanics of its algorithm for a change, and this glimpse of insight into the ingredients of a SERP – through the eyes of a native engineer, no less – is probably one of the most valuable that the search engine has ever given us as marketers. Here are my key takeaways based on this information.

Cut Out That Link Building

While on the surface this may seem mad – but the Google man just said links to your site are one of the top three ranking factors – if you follow through the rest of that particular slant of discussion you’ll also note that Lipattsev also mentions that “it’s not like having three links is x important and having five keywords is y important…that’s not how this works.”

Is it important that people link to and cite your website to show that your content (that other “top three” factor) is authoritative and worth it? Yes. But the best citations – and the ones not likely to also earn you a penalty slap from Google for bad behaviour – are those that arise naturally from good content, good brand presence and generally holistic marketing and commonsense audience engagement. You’re not going to get anywhere in the long term if you just go off merrily building links and ignoring every other possible ranking signal that could affect your website.

Invest In Your Content (And Markup)

Lipattsev discusses quite a bit about query inputs and how serving results that answer user questions – however they may be typed or phrased – is the primary aim for Google and something they are actively trying to improve. So it naturally follows that if the content on your website – blog, product copy, service information, whatever – is organised, written and marked up to be easily readable by the algorithm and useful to users then you’ll be showing up favourably in the organic SERPs. That also involves making your site technically crawlable and easy to parse for robots – the less effort Google has to put into figuring out where the heck your copy is, the more it can put into understanding all the nuances of the queries your brand could be a potential answer to.

Keywords Aren’t Dead, but use them sensibly

I was genuinely surprised that Lipattsev even mentioned the term “keywords” but given his subsequent explanation of how user behaviour is still to some extent driven by thinking “how can I phrase this so Google understands what I want” it makes a certain amount of sense. That’s not to say we should all roll back ten years and start keyword stuffing the life out of all our content, but in my mind it does show that a certain level of “query sensitive thinking” at content and merchanidising touchpoints is still immensely beneficial. Yes, the branding department may have decided to call your new product a Horizontal Sweeping Mechanism, but if everyone who could use it is going to be looking for a broom then maybe you should rethink that one.

The full video of the Q&A session is below, set to start from the timestamp where the discussion of ranking signals begins.

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