After much talk, Google passage ranking is now live in US English search results. According to Google, this will affect 7% of ALL search queries. Therefore, it’s not something we can ignore.
Back in October, Google said that it was developing a new system to rank web page passages. The new system is now here, and it is called ‘passage ranking’. This system currently applies to all search queries in US English.
For those with a confused look on their face, let’s get back to basics. What’s passage ranking? For the longest time, Google has struggled to help users with specific searches. As a Google user yourself, you may have experienced this problem. With incredibly specific searches, you’re shown web pages that talk about the topic but aren’t niche enough to answer your problem. Google says that often the important information searchers need is hidden in one sentence among lots of conjecture and other information.
Previously, Google could only index web pages, which caused problems for specific searches. With the new feature, Google can now assess specific passages rather than just the web page as a whole. Google understands the relevance of the web page, but it also understands the relevance of smaller passages (even if they deviate slightly from the page itself). This is great news for marketers because it means that a single page can have several themes rather than gearing the whole article in one direction.
Rather than discounting a page assuming that it doesn’t contain the right information, the search engine can now dig even deeper and look for the relevant information within the content itself. Currently, the new system is active across all US English searches. As a business or marketer, you may have noticed a change in ranking performance, and this is potentially the reason. When active across all languages, Google says that a total of 7% results will differ as a result of passage ranking.
You may have also seen the phrase ‘passage indexing’ in various places around the internet. It is important to note that this is just the previous name given to passage ranking by Google.
In February, the company announced that the new system was active and that it was called passage ranking now instead of passage indexing. For us, this is a sensible name because it better describes the process.
Handling the Change as Advertisers and Marketers
After hearing of this new change, you probably want to know how this affects you as a business or marketer. With some changes, we often encourage marketers not to worry too much and to get back to their day. However, this change requires some attention (sorry!).
So far, Google has released example images and videos of how it all works. To summarize, it helps users with niche searches to find the answer they need even if it’s hidden deep within a page of content. The company has admitted that some searches are difficult, which causes problems not only for users to find their answers but for marketers to rank in the right areas.
Consider this change similar to a digital camera. For many years, the algorithm was limited in how far it could zoom - it was stuck assessing whole web pages. Now, the new algorithm opens up further zooming capabilities. The search engine zooms into specific passages on the web page to find the right answers for users. The required passage could be present on the same page as before, a different page, or even a comment on a forum.
Previously, the algorithm would search for a relevant page. Other pages would get ignored if the rest of the content was irrelevant, even if it contained the answer to queries. The new algorithm means that specific passages will now show in search results regardless of what the rest of the article contains. The passage is also highlighted so that the user can skip straight to the answer. This means that the searcher no longer needs to read through irrelevant content or walk away frustrated.
What does this mean for indexing? As soon as we heard this news, the concern that we had was whether Google now indexes specific sections of web pages or the whole thing. In this regard, it still indexes the full page, but now Google considers the relevance of smaller passages too.
With this in mind, it makes sense that Google changed the name from passage indexing to passage ranking. As a marketer, you’ll experience no indexing changes, but you may see a difference in ranking.
As we all know, the aim of the search engine for Google is to show the most relevant content to answer the questions of users. The more relevant the pages, the better the experience for the user. We think about businesses using search engines, but the search engine itself is a business and needs to keep customers happy. If users get the right answer in seconds, they’ll return to Google again (something the search engine has built a reputation for over the years!).
To provide the right answer, Google normally considers headings, page titles, and other signals that suggest the nature of the content. Although these remain important, Google now considers the individual sections of content which could bring subheadings and similar features into prominence. The whole page could be irrelevant except one paragraph, but Google will now show this paragraph if it means answering the query correctly.
Even as we write this article, we appreciate that it sounds like Featured Snippets, the feature that shows an excerpt from an article in an attempt to answer a query successfully. The problem with Featured Snippets is that they originate from content already deemed the most appropriate overall – this means that the best content is already ignored in many cases. Therefore, Google chooses the most relevant web page and then chooses the most relevant snippet from this page.
With this new algorithm, it can identify relevant passages before assessing the web page as a whole. Featured Snippets do not have this ability because they only find sections from pages deemed appropriate for the query (as we’ve seen, this considers the whole page rather than passages alone).
So far, Google has been careful with details, so we’ll have to discover what works and doesn’t work alone. Though the new algorithm suggests a reliance on header tags, Google hasn’t confirmed or denied this fact. The Google search engine has been a mystery to businesses and marketers for decades, and there’s no reason why it will open up about the process now.
This being said, now that the algorithm can look deeper inside an article, it makes sense to accommodate the technology. We can achieve this through subheadings, a clear layout, and clearly-defined sections. Over time, we recommend experimenting with different techniques and seeing what yields the best results. Either way, don’t be afraid to offer niche information regardless of the article’s theme. Even if all the other content is irrelevant, Google can now pick out key details when users make specific queries.
This new feature is designed for those who find that their customers are constantly getting search results that don’t actually answer their questions. While they might get results that discuss the topic, they don’t get the specific piece of information they seek. This is because Google used to consider the value of the overall page. Now, the search engine algorithm can wade through the irrelevant content and find the specific information required.
If the feature proves successful for US English, we’re sure it will roll out across all other languages. On the whole, this is great news because users get more accurate results, and content creators get rewarded rather than punished for covering various topics in one article.
Remember, this feature is expected to affect 7% of all search results once all languages are included. If you’ve noticed a fall or rise in performance, determine the affected pages and keep learning how to take advantage of the new feature. If you ignore passage ranking, you could be one of the people affected most. With less traffic, you generate fewer leads, fewer sales, and less revenue!
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