When Google announced in October 2015 via Bloomberg that it was making use of machine learning techniques from artificial intelligence research, the search world went mad with excitement. Since then, however, there’s been a lot of confusion and disinformation flying about over what Google’s RankBrain is, what it means for search marketing and what (if anything) brands need to do about it.

Let’s start with what RankBrain isn’t, because there have been some truly madcap ideas on that front.

RankBrain Isn’t An Algorithm Update

This is absolutely critical to realise first and foremost – RankBrain is not an “update” to Google in the manner of Panda or Penguin. There’s no deadline to worry about, no potential penalties or recoveries to be had. Instead RankBrain is a new factor built into the core algorithm’s DNA; another cog in the big Google organic ranking results machine. It’s a business-as-usual bonfire element, not a stand-up-and-scream fireworks one.

RankBrain Isn’t New

This is pretty important to note too – as of the Bloomberg announcement last October, Google said RankBrain had already been in use for “the past few months,” meaning at time of writing it has been an active component of Google’s method of serving search results for well over half a year.

RankBrain Isn’t Skynet/Cylons/GlaDOS

The problem with the word “artificial intelligence” is that it tends to get those of a science fiction bent rather overexcited, but while RankBrain is indeed built on the foundations of AI research the core of its functionality is based not on “intelligence” as such but the principle of machine learning. Simply put, this means that it has the ability to teach itself how to improve Google’s search results for the better, rather than relying on humans constantly tweaking and improving its programming.

This self-learning capability is focused around improving itself at the task it was built for, however, not at generally increasing its intelligence to human levels. Sorry, no Google-powered Terminators (yet).

RankBrain Isn’t “How Google Ranks Things” Now

This announcement isn’t the new be-all and end-all of Google results sorting. The input from RankBrain is just one of many hundreds of data points and signals that Google uses to decide what order it ranks organic results in.

So, we’ve established that RankBrain isn’t going to revolutionise (or decimate) your organic traffic, suddenly spring new ranking criteria on us or hunt us down with murderous intent. What is it, then?

RankBrain Is An Interpreter

The main purpose of RankBrain, according to Google, is to act as an interpreter for queries that can’t be understood because they are very complex or have just never been seen before. This is around 15% of daily Google searches at the moment – most commonly complex conversational relationships (the sort of thing that will also bring into play the Knowledge Vault, Google’s big database of Everything Ever, to understand what the things are that feature in the query).

Google RankBrain Query Handling

The purpose of RankBrain as a signal and as part of the larger Google machine, therefore, is to help the search algorithm understand what the user is actually asking for – especially if the query they’ve entered has never been seen before. This means it is a critical part of Google overall. Not surprising really – understanding what someone has actually asked for is pretty important for a search engine!

For more FAQs about RankBrain we recommend the excellent article on the topic over on Search Engine Land. Just remember: RankBrain isn’t anything to panic about. All the announcement from Google really did was confirm that they are using machine learning techniques in order to better understand complex search queries given in conversational human language.

Again, there are no Cylons in your SERPs. Please put the flamethrowers down.