What Is Passage Ranking?

Google Algorithm Updates

The algorithms that Google uses to serve hyper-relevant results are complex and ever-changing. Updates to their algorithm are Google’s attempt to provide the best user experience possible, ensuring that queries are answered by only the best pages with the most relevant content. Google’s algorithm ranks sites to determine which ones are most relevant for a given query. Although there are a variety of factors impacting ranking ability (which we address in this post), the most important factors are content and keywords.

Google issues algorithm updates pretty often. In fact, Google makes thousands of slight changes every year – however, most of these changes aren’t noticeable enough to discern. There are other instances, though, where Google does release larger updates. It’s not uncommon for Google to announce updates ahead of time; this is usually the case if the update is expected to have a larger effect on rankings or if it’s a new feature and/or new way of ranking. The frequency of these larger updates, often called core updates, varies. However, several of these updates are typically rolled out each year. The most recent core update was in December – which resulted in a large rankings flux for some. The specific algorithmic intention here is uncertain, although it can be assumed that Google didn’t think its platform’s ranking system was optimized properly.

What Is Passage Ranking?

Fast forward to February 10th, 2021 and Google introduces its passage ranking update. Initially only launching in US English SERPs (but expected to eventually roll out globally), Google’s passage ranking update is an interesting take on how Google sifts through and ranks long-form content. In short, passage ranking is a new way Google ranks passages on a web page. It’s a more effective way of examining long-form content on a page and determining the context of given passages. It gives Google a better understanding of the page’s content, ultimately helping them provide a better user experience by populating SERPs with the most relevant results (i.e. better answers). Passage ranking allows Google to differentiate the topics of different passages on the same page and rank them separately.

For instance, let’s say you wanted to search “how to set up your AT&T router.” Originally, top ranking results might’ve predominantly been articles that provided a general overview of the topic. Now, with passage ranking, there is a higher likelihood that Google may rank other articles higher who answer this question succinctly, and in just a section of the page (rather than throughout).

The rationale behind this new update is simple: sometimes the best answers are hard to find. These answers may not be written in a way that is completely optimized, or be mentioned throughout the page. In some instances, the best answers may be condensed to just a sentence and found in the middle of a 3,000-word blog. In Google’s words, “By understanding passages in addition to the relevancy of the overall page, we can find that needle-in-a-haystack information you’re looking for.”

How Passage Ranking Works

Originally, this update was coined as passage ‘indexing,’ however, given that this didn’t accurately resemble the true nature of the algorithm, and since Google didn’t want to confuse users, it was ultimately changed to passage ‘ranking.’ Initially perceived as a change in how Google indexes pages, it’s instead a new way Google ranks certain pages.

Again, Google’s end goal is to provide the best experience to the user. If Google believes that the passages on a page are more relevant to a query than the overall content, they’ll rank these pages differently. From what we know, Google will isolate the sentence, phrase, paragraph, etc. that it deems most relevant, and will then rank the page based on that specific content.

As odd as this may seem to some, it sounds very similar to something Google already utilizes – featured snippets. Featured snippets are passages from pages that have been selected to be spotlighted at the top of SERPs (i.e. position ‘zero’). These passages are “snippets” of content that Google has pulled from that particular web page because it seems to be the most relevant text for that particular search.

These snippets are opportunities for sites to increase their brand exposure, grow organic traffic, and attain higher CTRs, even without high domain authority. However, Google has stated that passage ranking is different from featured snippets. Featured snippets is an older tool that uses alternate systems (not passages) to pull the text.

Google’s Intentions with Passage Ranking

In addition to the aforementioned reasons (i.e. better answers may live in harder to find locations), it can be assumed that this update is yet another small step toward Google’s larger goal: being 100% effective and accurate, 100% of the time. Or, understanding the user wholly while serving the best search results, always.

And Google is proving continuously that nothing is ever perfect; anything can be tweaked or optimized. This is especially true for search engine performance. It’s reported that there are over 3 billion searches each day on Google alone. These searches need to find and sort the content of nearly 1.2 trillion websites currently in existence.

To What Extent Will This Affect Rankings?

From what we’ve seen so far, there hasn’t been too much of an impact on rankings. There is a chance that passage ranking will only really affect sites that utilize long form, unstructured content, giving them an additional slight boost in SERPs. Does that mean passage ranking won’t particularly affect other sites? Perhaps. Or, at least the impact will be too small to worry about. At the same time, Google has said that this update will affect approximately 7% of all search queries across all languages. Since passage ranking hasn’t rolled out globally, though, this impact may not be visible yet.

Steps Moving Forward: Passage Ranking Strategies

Now that we’ve gone over specifics, let’s talk strategy. How do you accurately prepare for algorithm updates? In most cases, you have to optimize “after the fact” by assessing what has changed or why rankings have dropped. In other instances, Google may give you some insight ahead of time, like with the upcoming Page Experience update (addressed later). This insight could give you the opportunity to make necessary changes before the algorithm even drops.

As for passage ranking, all of the usual SEO best-practices still apply, like keyword research, metadata optimization, backlink acquisition, user experience, etc. However, with passage ranking focusing on long form content, there is more of an importance on long-tail keywords, headers, and of course, content that’s “good” – i.e., unique and relevant.

Understanding the User

At the core of effective SEO strategy is solid analysis of your target audience. Who are they? What are they looking for? Why are they wanting it? These questions go hand-in-hand with keyword ‘intent’ – a critical part of good keyword research. For a lot of keywords, particularly those that aren’t long-tail, there are multiple intents. For example, for the query “PlayStation,” a user could have multiple intents, including but not limited to:

  1. Informational (what is a PlayStation)
  2. Navigational (where is the PlayStation website)
  3. Transactional (how can I buy a PlayStation)

You’ll want to make sure that the keywords you choose have the correct keyword intent. If they don’t, you may find it harder to rank for that particular keyword. And, you may realize that you’re not getting the traffic you’d like to see on your site (conversional traffic). Usually, figuring out the intent of a keyword is pretty easy and can be done by just looking at the keyword, itself. At other times, that’s not the case. One good strategy for discerning keyword intent is to look at the top-ranking pages in SERPs for that particular keyword. Are they blogs? Are they product pages?

Creating Unique, Quality Content

Here’s the problem a lot of people have when they create content for their site: they create content merely for the purpose of having content, (i.e. only to show to Google that they have it). This strategy isn’t ideal. Google prefers content that is unique and relevant.

Google prefers content that is unique particularly because unique content is an indicator of quality. With unique content, there’s usually high consideration for the topic and the user (intent). For some sites (sites that are either not optimizing for SEO or are not fully aware how to do it correctly) it’s common to see duplicate content across a number of pages. Why? Because it’s easy. However, easy doesn’t always mean good.

As for relevancy, of course Google wants content to be relevant. They want to make sure that the highest ranking content answers users’ questions the best. Therefore, the more targeted your content is to a user’s wants, needs, etc., the more organic success you’re going to see in SERPs.

Utilizing Long-Tail Keywords & Headers

Since passage ranking primarily looks at long form content (particularly passages and sections of this content), utilizing long-tail keywords and optimizing the headings of your passages is the most effective strategy when figuring out how to take full advantage of this new ranking system.

In addition to being perfect for long form content (i.e., higher word counts, multiple topics, more opportunities for insertions without affecting readability, etc.), long-tail keywords might kickstart Google’s passage systems. Headers are also pivotal in providing an organized and easily understandable content structure for your page, making it easier for not only users to understand, but for Google as well.

There are many tools and platforms available to help conduct keyword research and easily generate content ideas. Some of our favorites are SEMrush and Ahrefs. You’ll find everything you need, including search volume, keyword difficulty, top-ranking sites, SERP features, related keywords, and more. Keyword research can be done without database assistance, however, it will be harder. Still, a great way to understand which keywords are popular, and which keywords you should target (and have a probable chance of ranking for), is to research your competitors. If done correctly, in-depth competitor analysis (direct brand competitors and competitors in SERPs) can give you enough information to lay out a solid keyword and content strategy.

What to Expect Next

The next big algorithm update is coming much sooner than you probably think. Originally announced in November of last year, Google’s Page Experience update is expected to take effect in May, 2021. This update will emphasize the importance of user experience like page speed, website interactivity, and more. It’s still difficult to tell how much of an effect this algorithm update will have. However, it’s safe to assume that by not optimizing for user experience, you have a much higher risk of noticing drops in rankings.

Make sure to keep an eye on your site’s Core Web Vitals. Core Web Vitals are one of the most important page experience metrics, giving Google quick snapshots into your pages’ load times, interactivity, and content stability. These vitals are split into three separate metrics – Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), First Input Delay (FID), and Cumulative Layout Shifts (CLS). For additional insight into your CWV’s, there are multiple tools that you can use, including Google’s PageSpeed Insights, Chrome’s User Experience Report, and Search Console’s Core Web Vitals.

Contact Acadia Digital

If you’ve recently experienced unknown drops in keyword rankings, or if you’re unsure of how to craft an effective SEO strategy, please contact our team at Techwood Digital. We’ll make sure to perform a thorough SEO audit of your site, troubleshooting for any technical hiccups as well as identifying any opportunities for keyword and organic growth. Techwood specializes in all aspects of SEO, including content creation. So, if you’re needing assistance jumpstarting your blog or other long-form content on your site, we can help!

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Hayden Roper