More companies today use AI in their business, and Google is at the forefront of these developments. The search giant is implementing several AI integrations to search. One of these is "passage indexing," which caused plenty of discussions when it launched.
According to Google, passage-based ranking improves queries and their understanding of pages. Google insists that this is a minor ranking change, and they also said that using the word "indexing" is inaccurate. It is not an indexing change, but a ranking change. What does passage ranking mean for website owners, though?
A Google passage is a paragraph or a section of text that the algorithm analyzes apart from the website. Passage-based ranking will help Google provide text that responds to a particular question. As a result, the search algorithm can now determine subtopics related to passages.
Typing a very specific query like "how to choose an area rug for your living room" will bring up links to websites.
This is alright if I'm browsing for leisure. If I am looking for a quick answer, though, this might not work for me. Passage-based ranking will come in handy for situations like these. Instead of showing me a link to the whole site, Google will surface the part that responds to my query.
Ranking passages is not an indexing change, despite the wording used to describe it. This distinction matters because indexing and ranking refer to different things. Indexing is the process of storing, retrieving, and crawling information. In contrast, ranking refers to the value assigned to a page and site (or, now, passage).
The term 'passage indexing' implies that Google stores and crawls chunks of data. This is inaccurate; passage ranking does not affect indexing. Google will still index webpages, not passages.
Passage-based ranking measures excerpts when responding to a query. It does not mean Google stores websites in discrete chunks. The confusion is from the term Google used to first announce this feature. Since then, they have clarified several times that they rank passages but do not index them.
This practice helps websites gain more traction. Google can take into account the meaning of specific passages and the rest of the page. That way, it can help a page rank for tangential topics.
Google's goal here is to provide the best answers to user queries. It is true that topically-accurate websites often provide decent answers. The best response could be on another site, one that isn't 100 percent related. Ranking passages can help retrieve that response and present it as the best answer for the query.
According to Martin Splitt, developer advocate for Google,
“It is just a smaller change where we try to help those who are not necessarily familiar with SEO or how to structure the content or a content strategy because lots of people end up creating these long-winded pages that are having a really hard time ranking for anything really because everything is so diluted in this long-form content”.
This type of ranking is great for certain types of websites. In particular, it helps those that talk about several things and cover general topics. Less-optimized sites also stand to gain. The size of the website, though, does not seem to matter as much. Note, though, that both big and small websites could see a positive impact from the change.
For example, suppose you have a small lifestyle blog run by one person. It is not optimized, but it has posts featuring various products and establishments. In that case, Google might surface passages on experiences with specific brands. If you have a large website, passage ranking can also help. For instance, if you have a car maintenance website with how-to's and guides, Google can take sections of these and show them in response to searches.
Although they are both short-form responses on results pages, they are different. Featured snippets are not passages. In featured snippets, Google highlights content from a page as a direct answer. It shows the most relevant excerpt from a page that, when considered as a whole, is relevant to the question.
In passage-based ranking, meanwhile, Google displays the paragraph that answers the query. The passage might also come from a page unrelated to the query.
Passage ranking is an internal change. It is not something an SEO pro can promise. Here is what Splitt says about it:
“That’s a change that is pretty much purely internal and there is nothing that you need to do. You don’t need to make any changes to your websites, you don’t need to make any changes to any of your pages, to any of your articles or to your markup. There’s no special thing that you need to do”.
As Google gets better at passage ranking, more lesser-ranked sites might come up in SERPs. They might even outrank top-rated posts with hundreds of links. If Google prioritizes understanding passages, they might become more significant in rankings. Google knowing more about a text could lessen its reliance on external signals, like links, for verifying the usefulness of a text. At present, these are all conjectures. It aligns with Google's mission, though, which is to make information "universally accessible and useful."
Google is always improving how it delivers search results. Digital marketing professionals have a duty to track these changes and adapt to them. Passage ranking will help people produce more thoughtfully-written content. Though the update won't change how people search, it is a reinforcement of larger SEO trends. As long as you provide value, cover topics related to your business, and focus on search intent, you won't go wrong.
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