With Google’s confirmation last Friday that passage indexing is finally rolling out to search results, webmasters and SEOs will be eagerly analysing key metrics to see if the latest update has had any impact on rankings for their most important pages.
The new ranking system is a notable change for Google, but its impact will not be seismic, with only around 7% of searches expected to be affected when it eventually goes live for all languages and markets in the coming weeks and months.
To clear up some of the confusion about the new passage-focused ranking, and to provide further information about how it will be implemented, Google’s Martin Splitt sat down virtually with three leading SEO professionals for a roundtable.
Will passages help long-form content?
Google wants the new algorithm to find passages that may have been overlooked in the past, and this is obviously more relevant for long webpages with higher word counts. Splitt noted that the “core” was finding and indexing smaller sections of articles with useful information to help users.
However, he said that the new update should probably be termed “passage ranking” rather than “passage indexing”, as it is primarily a ranking change.
Is there any need to optimise for passage ranking?
Google says that the latest update is “purely internal” and that there is not anything specific that can be implemented to prepare webpages for passage ranking. This means that it is not necessary to make any changes to your previously published articles or blogs or to your schema markup.
Splitt added: “There is no special special thing that you need to do. It’s just us getting better at more granularly understanding the content of a page, and being able to score different parts of a page independently.”
Do headers need to be reviewed and rewritten?
After being asked a question about heading elements and whether they are crucial for informing Google about the make-up and structure of a page, Splitt agreed but said that changes for passage ranking are not required.
He added that Google’s automated systems look at title tags and headers to understand how content comes together, but that the new ranking system will still be able to see if a particular part of a page is relevant to a query, even if headers are not optimised correctly or present.
Is passage ranking something that SEOs need to think about?
Splitt is adamant that the new rankings are geared primarily towards pages that are lacking in structure and are very “diluted” due to the length of the content.
He noted that anyone who is actively optimising for SEO or knows how to structure content is unlikely to benefit when the update goes live.
Splitt revealed that “lots of people” are still creating really long pages that are struggling to rank for any keywords or terms, and that passage indexing could help those to increase their visibility somewhat.
Will passage ranking impact product pages?
The impact for product pages will be minimal, according to Splitt, as ecommerce copy “doesn’t really benefit” from passage ranking. This is because long-form content is the focus and it is rare that a product page, even a comprehensive category one, would have sufficient content.
When asked about ecommerce, Splitt answered: “Unlikely because normally there isn’t that much content around the specific bits in the category that we would consider a passage.”
Is passage ranking similar to featured snippets?
SEOs regularly optimise content to improve the chances of blogs and articles being surfaced in rich results, but this process is entirely different from passage ranking, according to Splitt.
Featured snippets are short blocks of text that are presented at the top of SERPs to provide short, concise answers and solutions to queries. This information is pulled from a webpage and is shown as a list, table or snippet of text.
Splitt says that this contrasts to passage indexing, which targets long pages that are unlikely to be concise in tone or nature. He added that featured snippets and passage ranking operate in entirely different systems and are not similar at all.
Will there be a testing tool?
Google provides tools to test and analyse important signals such as Core Web Vitals, but Splitt said that this would not be the case for passage ranking as it is not something that you can take direct action on.
He added that there are no technical aspects of passage ranking that webmasters can control, and as there will be no changes to rendering or crawling, it is not something that can be quantified with relevant feedback.
Can poorly optimised sites rely on passages?
Splitt stressed again that websites that rank well do not have to think about passage ranking because it is designed to help those struggling.
However, he said that any publishers with pages that are not structured in the right way should not sit back and think that passages can bail them out. Relying on the new system to get pages to rank is also not advised.
Splitt added: “If you have good relevant well structured content, I would be surprised if a random passage on a really long page is magically so good that it outranks you.”
Is there anything else of note about passages?
It appears that the main thing that will change is the way that Google identifies and looks at content on a page moving forward. Splitt revealed that Google used to look at things to see what a page was about and that was usually limited to a single topic.
Referencing an example, he said that in the past, Google’s more restricted language understanding would rank a page talking about different vegetables purely as vegetable-related, but it will now also be able to hone in on a specific paragraph that is about tomatoes or carrots, for example.
The good news is that for those already deploying content marketing and SEO best practices, the new system will have a negligible impact on overall rankings, and everyone can continue to focus their efforts on publishing excellent articles and blogs, and optimising webpages for search.