How Local Businesses Can Survive and Thrive in the Age of RankBrain

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Google’s ability to deliver search results has changed exponentially since Larry Page and Sergey Brin first created the engine in 1997, and a significant recent change to the platform has been the addition of RankBrain, which, as its name forewarns, is a machine learning AI system.

Introduced in the past year, RankBrain is probably one of the most influential creations on the Internet, an omniscient presence that reaches across millions of computers, mobile devices, and servers, filtering the mass quantities of information to learn and grow – and we’re definitely starting to see the impact on the advertising efforts of local small and medium-sized business (SMBs).

One step backward to state the obvious: Google is the gate to knowledge. The consumer who wants any local service will use Google to find whatever it is they seek, examine the results, and choose the one that best suits their current situation. As such, being sufficiently noticed by Google can mean the difference in success and failure for a small business.

The chief way to get noticed by Google is via search engine optimization. RankBrain, however, injects an extra layer of complexity into search that could prove to be very difficult for SMBs to survive, let alone manage.

There are a number of ways SMBs can manage their SEO. The most obvious would be where the SMBs deal with their website and Google visibility themselves — the downside is that this distracts from the SMB’s core business and may not produce the best results. SMBs can also work with a reseller or a local agency and rely on them to drive their SEO.

RankBrain is not only the machine, but a gatekeeper to Google that decides whether or not your SMB even merits an appearance in the search results. RankBrain’s power to change Google’s algorithm artificially will make SEO more complex, prompted by arcane changes to code that are invisible to the naked eye, which are difficult for a small business with few marketing resources to meet head on.

What is required is to deploy a machine that fights that machine – SMBs will need to find a way to leverage machine learning tools that will seek to understand RankBrain, and change whatever is necessary in order to continue to rank high in Google search.

There’s a counter-argument to this worry, of course. It goes something like this: if the SMB has a site and it is well-built, relevant and creates strong engagement, it will rank fine and nothing changes. But, unfortunately, surveys suggest that around half don’t.

If we choose to discount that, how can we even know what counts as “well-built” in the eyes of RankBrain? Based in machine learning, RankBrain chooses how to define “well-built” and Google won’t reveal the details of its process.

Another argument goes that with enough advertising, it’ll work out fine for the SMBs anyway. But there is a “real estate” crunch in advertising. Mobile, for example, is even more restrictive for organic results than desktop, as the screen is much smaller. There’s also the limiting of results by changes in the display of ads, so things get dicey.

In order for local businesses to be able to combat that machine from the future, they need to have access to the tools, techniques and firepower to meet it on more equal footing.

In combination, a great site with proper titles, tags and meta descriptions alongside good and relevant ad copy, and an intelligent approach to drive the maximum number of relevant clicks, is the best defense for the local business against the self-awareness of the RankBrain machine.

Put all of these things together with machine learning, and SMBs may be able to stay one step ahead of — or even just in step with — the machine.

David-McInichDavid McIninch brings nearly 15 years of marketing and leadership experience to Acquisio. David serves as Chief Revenue Officer, leading sales, marketing and account management, having spent the better part of the last decade in marketing, sales and leadership roles at ADP both in Canada and most recently as the VP of Marketing for ADP’s Global Enterprise Solutions division.