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SEO Basics: Google PageRank and RankBrain

Saying that Google dominates the online search market would be an understatement. When you look at search around the world, 77.61 percent of searches in 2018 took place on Google. Only 6.83 percent came from on Bing and Yahoo, combined.

Data from

This makes Google and how its algorithm determines rank a key part of SEO. Only problem is no one knows exactly what that entails. Some are convinced there are 200 factors while others are skeptical that there are that many variables.

What is generally accepted is the importance of PageRank and RankBrain as elements of the algorithm. Here’s what you need to know about both as you get started with SEO.


Named for Google co-founder Larry Page, PageRank has been around since 1997. If you really want to explore the calculations behind it, head to this article by Ian Rogers. For anyone not interested in revisiting math class, the easiest way to describe PageRank is as a score.

The score measures a webpage’s authority and how important it is. This is calculated by evaluating the quality and quantity of links that point back to it. The more high-quality links a page has, the better the rank. Not having links won’t count against you, but it also isn’t helping.

It’s Still Relevant

Until 2016 there was an online tool people could access that let you see a website’s rank. When it disappeared people wondered if it was a signal that PageRank no longer mattered.

But Tim Soulo points out in Ahrefs that a webmaster trends analyst at Google, Gary Illyes, has sent signals over Twitter and at conferences saying PageRank is still part of the search algorithm.

Attracting and monitoring links should be part of your SEO strategy. Getting high-quality links starts with great content. You have to create something that people want to share or reference online. It needs to be better than what already exists, and then you need to implement a strategy for promoting the page.


When Google changes its algorithm the goal is to give users better search results. Reportedly changes occur hundreds of times each year. Every now and then, there is a major update, like Penguin or Panda.

RankBrain was a major change, but also slightly different. Google first started using it in 2015 and confirmed its existence in 2016. However, it doesn’t impact every search.

With RankBrain, Google was trying to solve an issue: how to process searches it had never handled before. To do this, RankBrain relies on machine learning to understand the context of the search. It can then use word vectors to consider and weigh related terms and words on pages to display the right results. Based on how the user interacts with the search results displayed to them, the algorithm will adjust itself for the next user.

To put it another way, RankBrain is a tool Google developed to provide the most relevant results to every searcher, no matter how awkward or clunky the query might seem.

RankBrain in Action

One of the best examples of this might be a voice search Jon Earnshaw did. He asked Google “‘what is the name of the fat guy with the beard in the movie with the four guys in Vegas?’”

The top result? The Hangover. Right movie, wrong answer. Even though it isn’t exactly what he wanted, getting close is still an impressive feat when you consider the vagueness of the search and the number of movies involving guys, beards, and Vegas.

Why You Need to Understand PageRank and RankBrain

PageRank and RankBrain are two of the three factors Google has publicly stated are important for search. (The other is content.) Why they were developed, and how they function matters because it informs your SEO strategy.

Like we said before, Google is trying to help their users. Searchers are Google’s customers, and they want to keep them happy with the most relevant search results.

For you to rank well, you need to provide Google with the content that provides value to people. Otherwise you won’t satisfy search intent. Your site will lack backlinks and will be buried in the search results.

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