iX POV: Google's page passages ranking update

Ornella Mignella

Senior SEO Analyst

What is it?

On 15th October Google announced that later in 2020 it will be launching a series of algorithm updates that may dramatically impact rankings and will create more variety in search results. Arguably the most important of these updates is passage-based indexing which will improve results for very specific search queries.

Passage-based indexing will allow the search engine to make relevant page content visible where the answer to a very specific question is buried deep within the content.

As Google stated:

“This technology will improve 7 percent of search queries across all languages as we roll it out globally.”

What does passage-based indexing mean?

The passage-based indexing divides each page up into smaller sections and compares these with the searched query.

By understanding the relevancy, not only of a page, but also of a specific passage of that page, Google can “zoom” on the particular piece of information that matches the users’ searches. Once the answer is found, Google will populate the search results with the pages that contain the relevant passage.

In other words, to serve better results and meet users’ informative needs in the best possible way, Google is now able to:

“find that needle-in-a-haystack information you’re looking for.”

What will change

As Google can now rank a specific passage for a query, this update should allow different pages, to get surfaced in search results. For example, we expect to see visibility improvements for buried pages or pages featuring long pieces of content in which the passage that is relevant to a user’s query is hidden or the relevancy is diluted as this is not the core topic of the page.

Google did not state which ranking signals relating to the individual passage will be strongest, however it is likely that the header tags for sub-headings will be considered more relevant.

Google provided an example of how the results for these specific questions will be displayed in the SERP:

This shows us that the length of the passage and its ability to make sense out of the context of the page are likely to impact it showing in results and the click through rate (CTR) on the result.

Although Google have referred to this as passage-based indexing they have confirmed that there will be no change in the way Google indexes pages. Instead it is concerned with how Google matches passages in its index to searches.

Finally, due to the similarity of the visuals provided by Google to Paragraph Featured Snippets, it’s important to make clear that these updates are not related, though, as discussed later, optimisation for both result types is likely to be similar.

Opportunity or threat?

There is a clear opportunity now to rank for a wider range of long tail, lower search volume terms without having to create dedicated pieces of content. For sites that have created these kinds of pages however this is a threat as the number of pages deemed as being relevant increases, other ranking factors therefore become more important.

Furthermore, we expect that the updates will have a negative impact on the CTR, as users will have displayed the answers directly on the SERP, without having to click on the link. While this may increase CTR, relative to other results without this snippet showing, overall less users will click on any result from SERPs.

How to optimise websites for ‘passages’ and monitor impact

We advise site owners to optimise existing content and new content for the passage-indexing into roadmaps and identify those terms relevant to ‘passage indexing’.  

For each term, identify existing content to rework and gaps which may mean new pages covering multiple passages or adding new passages to existing pages (and benefiting from existing authority on these URLs).

Implementing the recommendations for passages will also benefit the optimisation for Paragraph Featured Snippets and Voice Search, as passages are likely to have similar requirements.

Best practice for passage optimisation will include:

  • Optimising sub-headings (H2, H3 etc.)

  • Ensuring that passages are keyword optimised

  • Ensuring passages answer searcher’s queries within 50 words

  • Passages should stand on their own out of the context of the wider page.

As this update rolls out, we recommend site owners monitor ranking performance to check how this update is impacting website visibility and keyword position changes. We also recommend monitoring the differences between mobile and desktop searches, searches related to different intents and other factors in order to better understand which types of queries are most impacted by this algorithm change.

We are proud to be six-time winners of Best Search at the Drum Recommends Digital Awards and specialise in helping clients sustain visible brands with effective search marketing strategies. Please contact us if you would like any assistance with passage-based indexing or if you have any other digital marketing questions – we would love to help!

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