Google Rankbrain – Soon to be the World’s Greatest Semiotician

On October 26, 2015, Google announced that it had been utilizing machine learning and artificial intelligence as part of the Hummingbird Algorithm. This subsystem algorithm known as Rankbrain was also revealed as the third most influential ranking factor in Google’s SERP (search engine results pages).

When a search is conducted and processed through Rankbrain, the AI treats the input as an entity and not as a string. This is done to help figure out the context of each search in an effort to display the most relevant results. The best way for a business to leverage Rankbrain, or SEO in general, is to understand how Google works and how it finds meaning behind queries. One way to do this is through the lens of semiotics.

SEMIOTICS in 60 seconds

For those unfamiliar with semiotics, it was originally an academic pursuit that focused primarily on words (linguistics). It then expanded its focus and began looking into human behavior from both a psychological and anthropological perspective. This naturally led semioticians to try to understand culture, society and its by-products, such as art, literature, and films.

The current form of semiotics primarily focuses on research and analysis of consumer behavior and brand communication. A modern and simplistic definition of semiotics would be the study of why things have meaning. Semioticians look at symbols, images, words, relational structures, and much more to figure out what these signifiers mean and what the human cognitive construct of this item is. At its very core, semiotics is made up of three subgroups:

  1. Syntax: The arrangement of words and phrases
  2. Semantics: The meaning of words, phrases, and symbols
  3. Pragmatism: The practical application of language, communication, and its context

Marketing/SEO Application

How does this relate to a website and online marketing? Let’s say that you are an attorney who focuses on personal injury cases and your primary signifier, or keyword (in search marketing lingo), is “car accidents.” In the past, many marketers have misused this base-level signifier by utilizing black hat tactics (cloaking, keyword stuffing, etc.). It worked when search engines were still in their infancy. However, this is no longer the case. Search engines have evolved and they want to figure out what the overarching concept is.

How does this sign/keyword fit in the grander scheme of your page? This is where context and relevancy come into play. Search engines crawl your entire website and interpret the data that is present. It can now figure out that the information on your page is related to an attorney, a specific geographic location, and the legal industry.

If all of your information is properly optimized, then your site has communicated the concept that you are an attorney who handles car accident claims in a specific location. This allows the search engine to know if your site is relevant to the query that the user has input. A concept, although simple, has now been communicated and the AI is happy.

Feed the Machine

feed-the-machineUnderstanding a simple concept is only the beginning. With artificial intelligence and machine learning being utilized by Rankbrain, more information will need to be supplied so that a more holistic understanding can be attained. This is where pragmatism and Charles Peirce’s concept of triadic relationships come into play.

His premise basically boils down to wanting more information about the signifier. The signifier/keyword needs to convey what the thing is, some sort of representation of it, and an idea of who or what it is for. (Ex: car accidents, attorney logo, legal service for victim). This is where SEO practitioners can make an immediate impact utilizing schema markup.

TIP: If you are not familiar with schema, I would highly recommend checking out Tony Edwards’ article on Search Engine Land.

Schema is a great way to better communicate with search robots. However, this is only a tactic. These tactics are aimed at getting better search rankings and feeding the robot what it wants. Marketers and businesses need to move beyond tactics and shift their focus to the larger picture.

Insights & Application

Although Rankbrain is still learning how to interpret the context for complex search queries, it is quickly on its way to becoming the world’s greatest semiotician. It will eventually move beyond purely syntax and semantic learning into an incorporation of all three semiotic elements, with a specific focus on pragmatic interpretation.

Because of this, it is important that businesses and marketers take the time to understand their audience and personalize content to those markets. This moves beyond using tactics and into the importance of developing strategy. This can take on many forms. Here is a list of some action steps:

  • Identify your best customers
  • Review your branding (make sure your messaging is connecting with your ideal customer)
  • Personalize your message
    • Use culturally relevant examples both visually and in content
    • Include metaphors and humor
    • Test multiple landing pages for your audiences

It is important to realize that every single human is already a semiotician. We are constantly interpreting the meaning of signs and symbols around us. This is done both consciously and subconsciously in our everyday interactions. We decipher everything from traffic lights, the design of beverage packages, to country flag colors, and much more. All marketing decisions should come down to your intended user. By better understanding their thought process, you will be able to connect with them in a more meaningful way.