There are few things Google likes more than updating its ranking signals. If you’ve heard about passage indexing, there’s a good chance you have questions.
What is passage indexing? Is it a significant update that will tank your website traffic? Or is it just another small change in Google’s ever-evolving algorithm and ranking factors?
Take a deep breath and ignore the doom and gloom.
There’s good news: Passage indexing is not a huge Google update. It’s a small tweak to help the search engine understand content better and deliver the best results to searchers.
There is no reason to stress about this update, go crazy trying to update your content, or spend thousands of dollars to get someone else to update it for you.
(If you noticed a considerable drop in traffic recently, I recommend using this guide to diagnose traffic drops using Google Analytics, but most likely, passage indexing was not the cause.)
However, this is not to say that this change doesn’t matter at all. There are SEO implications, which I’ll explain, and I’ll also share a few tips to help you make the most of passage indexing.
What is Passage Indexing?
Google passage indexing is an automated feature that pulls sections from pages into search engine results, even if the page covers a slightly different topic from the main one.
What does that actually mean?
Let’s look at an example: Say you wrote a long-form post about affiliate marketing. Your goal was to cover the topic in its entirety, so you included sections on how to be a successful affiliate marketer, what affiliate marketing tools to use, what affiliate marketing networks are most popular, and how to get started in affiliate marketing.
That is a ton of useful content, but it also means your entire post probably won’t rank well for terms like “affiliate marketing networks” because only one section covers that topic.
With passage indexing, Google can pull out sections of your content and rank it independently of the rest of the page. For example, your section on “affiliate marketing tools” might rank for that keyword, even if the entire post isn’t optimized for it.
See? Not such a big deal.
Here’s an example of how passage indexing impacts search results:
Notice how Google bolds certain words it deems relevant to the search. It’s looking for keywords that show the content is likely to be useful for a specific query.
Google’s Martin Splitt said he would call the changes “Passage Ranking” because it’s actually a ranking change rather than an indexing change, so you might see those terms used interchangeably.
Passage Indexing vs. Featured Snippets: What’s the Difference?
Featured snippets offer users an instant answer to short questions, which means users don’t have to click to get the answer to their question.
For example, if you search “what time is it in Paris,” Google provides the answer at the top of the search engine results without requiring you to click on a result.
Passage indexing is an entirely different system that looks at the content of a page, determines if parts of the page answer a search query, and delivers those results in the SERPs.
How Does Passage Indexing Work?
As with most things from Google, the search engine hasn’t been transparent about how, exactly, the feature works. It keeps things interesting, doesn’t it?
Here’s what we do know.
According to its blog, Google uses BERT and neural nets to understand content and rank passages better when appropriate. Google still indexes the entire page but looks for content and the meaning of passages while it crawls the full page. Each passage is annotated and can be ranked and scored independently.
Google also says the shift impacts only seven percent of search queries, so don’t expect huge changes. If your page already ranks well, passage indexing (or passage ranking, if you prefer) may not impact your site at all.
However, sites with useful long-form content that isn’t perfectly optimized may see a small boost in rankings and, therefore, traffic.
It seems passage indexing is the next step in using AI programs like RankBrain to better understand the context of content rather than looking at formulaic factors like keyword density.
Keep in mind passage indexing doesn’t impact what pages Google indexes, but rather, the ranking for specific passages.
What Is the Difference Between Passage Indexing and RankBrain?
RankBrain is a machine learning-based algorithm that helps Google process search results and provides users with the most relevant search results. Passage indexing is not an algorithm; it’s an automated system that annotates long passages of content.
How Does Passage Indexing Affect SEO?
How much do you need to be worried about passage indexing when it comes to SEO? For most websites, it will have little to no impact on your SEO. Sites that do notice a change will likely see a small uptick in traffic.
However, there are some minor changes worth paying attention to.
Long-form content will have a better shot at ranking for more keywords. That could mean sites with shorter content take a small hit in ranking as longer-form content gets a boost.
It is also more important than ever for sites to ensure on-page SEO strategies are in place, like using the right heading and optimizing anchor text. Pages with less optimization but better content could outrank you.
If you’ve been avoiding long-form content, now might be the time to give it a go. Google shows that it’s willing to help users find useful content even if the page’s SEO isn’t perfect.
However, sites with shorter content, such as e-commerce sites, are unlikely to see any change in their Google ranking.
What Types of Sites Will Passage Indexing Impact?
The change will primarily help sites with long-form content that’s not optimized perfectly. Publishers with a well-established SEO strategy, ecommerce sites with shorter content, and sites without long-form content likely won’t see any changes.
What Are the Benefits of Passage Indexing?
Now that we’ve covered what passage indexing is, how it works, and what impact it could have on our SEO, let’s talk about why you should care. Are there benefits to this change, or is it just another small shift you can ignore?
There are a few benefits of passage indexing:
- Longer form content gets a boost: This shift will help long-form content rank higher for more specific keywords.
- Focus on users rather than Google bots: Google is once again showing us it wants site owners to focus more on creating content that users find useful rather than what the search bots want.
- Long-tail keywords are more important than ever: Long-tail keywords and related terms are likely to help trigger passage indexing, so make sure to include phrases and longer terms, just like you would for voice search.
- Could (slightly) reduce the importance of on-page SEO factors: In SEJ’s webinar, Google’s Martin Splitt stressed that this change is meant to help pages with great content that might not be optimized perfectly. Those pages won’t be penalized if they have great content, but don’t ignore on-page entirely. Sites in highly competitive niches will stand out by having great content and on-page optimization.
It’s also worth noting that this change won’t increase Google penalties or result in a huge drop in traffic for most sites.
This is a slight change intended to help users find sites with useful content that might not be completely optimized.
How Can You Optimize for Passage Indexing?
In an interview, Google’s Martin Splitt was quick to say site owners shouldn’t fall for tools or agencies that claim they can optimize for passage indexing, as it is a small change aimed at helping boost sites with long-form content.
While I don’t recommend revamping your entire website, there are a few small tweaks you can make, especially for long-form content:
- Update long-form posts with new stats, links, and resources.
- Use clear, keyword-rich (but not overly optimized) headings for each section to help Google understand all the topics a post covers.
- If you don’t have long-form content, now is the time. Make sure to cover as much of the topic as possible, answer common questions, and use long-tail keywords.
- If you have a page containing a slightly different section related to the main topic, make sure the section is clearly written and optimized for the search terms users would use to find that information.
- Spend some time doing long-tail keyword research and integrate those terms in your long-form content.
Overall, don’t go crazy trying to optimize for passage indexing. You could swing too far the other way and end up over-optimizing your site, which can impact your rankings.
Is There a Tool to Help Sites Optimize for Passage Ranking?
No, according to Martin Splitt, there will be no tool to see if your site is eligible for this change. Your best bet is to follow the suggestions above and focus on creating content that provides what users want.
How Does Passage Indexing Affect the Future of Search Marketing?
Passage indexing is a small change in Google’s ranking system; however, it’s worth paying attention to.
Google has long said it puts users first, and this is one more push in that direction. SEO matters, but users should remain your core focus.
It also shows that Google is dedicated to using AI to understand the context of a page. RankBrain, DeepMind, machine learning, and natural language processing help Google get a deeper understanding of context. This is an extension of those efforts.
For digital marketers, this is good news! Google aims to keep its search results as relevant as possible for users. However, optimization is no longer enough to carry mediocre content.
I hope by now you have a solid understanding of what passage indexing is, why it matters for your site, and how it could help increase your Google rankings.
Keep in mind that most website owners won’t need to make any changes and won’t be penalized by Google. Sites with long-form content may see a small boost in rankings and traffic.
This ranking change also provides some insight into where Google might go in the future. The search engine remains focused on providing users with the best possible user experience, which means marketers should focus their energies on users as well.
If you need help with SEO and providing a better user experience, let my team help you.
Are you planning to update your digital marketing strategy in response to passage indexing? What changes will you make?