A guide to Google Passage Ranking

1 Apr 2021


Nick Boyle

Nick Boyle

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Oh, another thing to know about Google!? What now? Don’t panic, this one is simple and easy to get your head around. Stick with us.

Hold up, what is Google Passage Ranking?

Google Passage Ranking, aka ‘passage indexing’, refers to the search engine giant using individual passages of a web page in its ranking.

So, it’s about indexing, right, hence ‘passage indexing’? Well, no, it’s about a ranking change and has nothing to do with indexing. Stop being confusing, Google!

The goal for passage ranking is to help diluted and long-form content rank better for more specific queries so that Google can give better answers to specific questions. 

You may have already been noticing this when searching for something on Google, where you’ll find the search engine has helpfully shown you a relevant answer (normally in a featured snippet). Sometimes, the link will take you to a highlighted section on a web page, like so:

Screenshot to show a search query on Google with a featured snippet showing

NASA Science website page on the Mars Exploration Program

Notice in the link, Google has ‘#:~:text=’ followed by the passage link, so you are taken to the most relevant section from the search result link: https://mars.nasa.gov/news/8796/nasas-curiosity-takes-selfie-with-mary-anning-on-the-red-planet/#:~:text=NASA’s%20Jet%20Propulsion%20Laboratory%2C%20a,taken%20can%20be%20found%20here.)

Under featured snippets or top search results, Google also shows related questions to a search query, where you can use the drop-down arrow to find a snippet of text answering that question.

Google showing a passage from a website to answer a question on Google's search engine results page

What SEO is needed for passage ranking?

Very little right now! As this is one of the smaller changes within Google and is internal, you or your SEO agency do not need to optimise for this specifically. It’s more about Google sifting through your content (that should follow normal good SEO practices) to show relevant passages to certain queries. 

When will this passage ranking change roll out?

As of 11 February 2021, Google Passage Ranking was launched for queries in the US in English. Google says: “It will come for more countries in English in the near future, then to other countries and languages after that.” So only time will tell for the rest of us!

Understanding Google passages

A Google passage relates to a passage of text on a web page that Google separates from the web page it appears on as a whole to analyse. The passage ranking then allows Google to find those passages and subtopics within a content piece to show for those more specific questions. Sometimes a searcher may ask a particular query to find that broader but still related guides or topics come up. With Google passages and the ranking (or indexing) of them, some snippets from guides that may be about a relatable topic and have the answer will start to show up to the surface. 

What kinds of web pages will benefit from passage ranking?

As it’s about Google finding the ‘needle in the haystack’ (so to speak) that would provide the more accurate answer to a query, pages that cover multiple topics will welcome this. 

Google is also looking out for big pieces or guides, ones that cover general topics to find where key info or passages can be cherry-picked to be presented. 

Pages that haven’t had the touch of an SEO expert (think poor structures, lacking paragraphs, headers and subheadings) can also benefit from Google passages. This means that Google can also apply its passage reading system here, but that obviously doesn’t mean the content will make it to the top, as you need to make it easier for them to read, as well as produce excellent, presentable content they’ll want to show! 

Content that’s diluted with no main focus on the overall topic it’s covering will also appreciate passage-based ranking. Again, avoid this where you can, but Google is understanding that long-form content is out there and it needs to highlight areas where it may be of interest to searchers. 

What about websites as a whole, how will they be impacted?

Both small and bigger websites will benefit from passage ranking. But in what way?

Think about a small blog on the topic of fishing, for example. Let’s say this website isn’t the most optimised for search engines; the blogger is just keen to share their insights and it’s a hobby for them. The blogs are typically updates of what they’ve been up to around the topic of fishing, so the content is a bit scatty with no specific focus. However, there are some pretty good tips in there, you just have to find them, and for Google, they want to do just this. Blogs will definitely reap the benefits.

Now an example of a bigger website. Let’s go with one that is owned by a well-known brand that specialises in security. They’ve got blogs and guides coming out weekly covering various, related topics, from how to decorate your home to guides on moving house. Many of these general guides may go through quite a bit of information with many subtopics. A searcher may ask ‘how do I get my bungalow prepared for a makeover?’ – pretty specific, right? Google’s passage ranking can help it to find a part within a guide that may answer that query, maybe a passage mentions how to prepare for decorating bungalows – Google thinks ‘perfect’!

How will passage ranking actually look on search results?

There won’t be too much of a change. You’ll still see snippets of texts that point to the relevant information under blue links or the ‘people also ask’ section. And it’s in this spot that – if there is a passage within a longer piece of content that answers a query better – Google will display it onto the results pages. Here’s their visualisation:

Google showing how passage ranking will work

Is passage ranking the same as featured snippets?

Passages and featured snippets are different in some ways but the same in others. With a featured snippet, Google finds a self-contained piece of information that answers a query or question in the most concise way. With passages, they look out for a section of a typically long content piece that may be more elaborate (not necessarily self-contained) but that’s relevant to a certain query. They are two separate systems, as Google Developer, Martin Splitt, points out.  

He also gives an example where you might be asking about ‘calories in a cupcake’. Google may find a concise answer to show as a featured snippet. However, there may be a page about the really long history of cupcakes around the world, with more elaborate information. Google sees this page has a lot going on, but notices there’s this part that has potential to relate to the query; it’s not concise, but you may be interested in it. Google has different systems to pick up on passages and featured snippets.

How many searches will Google’s passage ranking affect?

Google has stated that this will improve 7% of search queries of all languages, as they roll it out globally. 

So, what can you do now for passage ranking?

As Google has already stated, content creators don’t need to worry too much about this change, as it’s more about them analysing good content already out there to do a better job of surfacing relevant content, particularly within long-form content. Still, you should think about how your content or future content could help Google with passage ranking.

If Google assesses and crawls through a web page in its entirety to figure out how relevant it is to a query, it really does pay to be meticulous about what you plan to write about and how you will present it. For example, one thing the search engine points out is the slight issue of diluted content, where a web page may be pretty long, covering a few topics. This makes it harder for Google to know how it can present parts of the page in search results for particular queries. 

Even though their new technology will help to deal with this by being better at separating a page’s content – its passages – to answer search queries rather than just considering a web page as a whole, you need to get into the habit of making your content as relevant and honed in as possible. 

Stay on topic as best you can and keep it niche and engaging. Avoid going off on tangents or covering too much in one piece of content and always keep your content presentable and sectioned with specific headers to be easily readable – both for search engines and users.

What can you expect to do in the future?

Since this change will be impacting quite a lot of the search landscape, many websites will benefit, and they can expect to see gains in traffic flow if their content is getting a chance to shine or be pulled by the passage ranking. 

Right now, it’s too early to tell about the future impact, as we need more data and results. But, we can expect for the future that you’ll need to:

  • Not be complacent with your content. Just because Google will be better at pulling out information from long-form content, it doesn’t mean you should let your SEO slide
  • Not be afraid to be elaborate in your content. Google and machine learning are getting cleverer every year, and with changes like this, you can afford to be creative
  • Maintain readable elements. Your content should follow good SEO practices by having it structured into readable elements with a layout that sections your content into a nice flow. Read more about how to improve your technical SEO: accessibility and crawlability 

It’s certainly easier said than done and nothing should be put out on a whim. Just speak to our friendly content marketing agency team for help; they specialise in creating strategic and rankable content daily. Get in touch to see how your website can become friendlier with Google.

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