What impact will machine learning have on SEO?

Machine learning is a fast-growing field of computer science that enables computer systems and applications to progressively become more accurate using data alone, without any explicit programming. While at first glance the concept might seem like something you’d see in a dystopian movie about robots taking over the world, machine learning algorithms have been in use since the late 1950s.

Machine learning has a ton of interesting applications ranging from medical diagnosis to financial market analysis, but the one I want to focus on here is its use by search engines and the impact of this use on SEO.


Most of you are probably familiar with RankBrain, but a small refresher on it can’t hurt. RankBrain is a machine learning algorithm first deployed by Google in 2015 to better answer new search queries.

The system works by embedding historical search terms mathematically into a database and then using these historical searches to deliver the most accurate results for unfamiliar searches, such as complex long-tail keywords and questions.

The learning occurs when the algorithm interprets a user clicking on a result and engaging with it as a positive sign that it provided the right result for this previously unknown query.

Is Conventional SEO Dead?

Not exactly. RankBrain is just one example of machine learning in use by Google—there is probably much more of it going on than we know about to determine SERP positions. However, machine learning doesn’t exactly toll the death knell for conventional SEO.

It’s still important to deliver the things that have worked for a long time, such as high-quality links, relevant content, and targeting the right keywords. These are tried and tested SEO tools that will push websites up the SERPs. Due to machine learning, however, conventional SEO is not enough on its own.

Some blog posts and pages even rank number one for high-competition keywords without featuring those keywords in the main body of the content. This is where optimizing for RankBrain and other machine learning algorithms becomes helpful.

Ranking For Machine Learning Algorithms

As an SEO, I wouldn’t be doing a good job if I didn’t update my tactics and strategies in line with what works in the prevailing SEO landscape. In terms of machine learning, I think two things are important:

  • Providing content that people click on and engage with
  • Ensuring content is accessible across a range of devices and formats

Both points relate to user engagement. Firstly, when thinking about content engagement from an SEO perspective you want to consider click-through rates and dwell time. You need to ensure your clients deliver content that is really useful for target audiences, as opposed to content that is merely optimized to appear high in search engines. Web pages should load fast when people click them, otherwise, they won’t stick around, and the machines will punish you.

The second point boosts rankings by attempting cater for the needs of different people. There is a good reason I film a video alongside most of my blog posts beyond my enjoyment of the process. I understand that not everyone likes reading and that if such people visit here, they’ll more than likely stay here if I can make my content accessible to them via as many mediums as possible. I’m sending a positive ranking signal to algorithms like RankBrain that people want to engage with my website.

Wrap Up

To summarise, machine learning will soon take over the world, condemning humans to become mere slaves of super-intelligent robots is revolutionizing SEO by focusing even more on what visitors want when they search for things on the Internet. Successful modern SEO combines conventional ranking metrics with the idea that Google’s machine learning algorithms will rank the content that people will engage with higher up in SERPs.

Adapt your SEO strategy by making your clients’ content accessible across many different devices and ensuring rapid page loading speeds across all devices. Try to cater for different audience needs by delivering content in multiple formats. All of this will help you get the results your clients pay you for.

If you need any help with your SEO campaign, do get in touch today!



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Craig Campbell

I am a Glasgow based SEO expert who has been doing SEO for 18 years.

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