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What is the Google Passages Algorithm? – What it Means for SEO

What is the Google Passages Algorithm? – What it Means for SEO

Near the end of October Google made announcements for a number of big changes that it had introduced or rolled out into its search engine. They included the search algorithm’s use of language processing, subtopics, and its new “passages” feature.

Google’s passages algorithm is especially interesting to a lot of businesses and marketers. But what exactly is Google’s “passages” algorithm? And what does it mean for SEO?

This new feature of the search algorithm is mostly of interest because it represents a pretty big change in the way that search results are displayed and how they are handled by the index. However, to understand what it is, it’s important to understand the differences between “indexing” and “ranking” in search engines, and it’s important to understand that different algorithms handle these two separate processes.

The new “passages” system will become part of the algorithm at the end of 2020 and should affect about 7% of searches. It will most likely be rolled out completely later next year, and then marketers and businesses will be better able to focus on Google passages SEO.

What is Google’s passages algorithm?

According to Google here’s what it means: “With new passage understanding capabilities, Google can understand that the specific passage is a lot more relevant to a specific query than a broader page on that topic.”

They first announced the passages algorithm in this post from their blog The Keyword, where they described how and why it works:

Very specific searches can be the hardest to get right, since sometimes the single sentence that answers your question might be buried deep in a web page. We’ve recently made a breakthrough in ranking and are now able to not just index web pages, but individual passages from the pages.

It does this by isolating a part of the page’s content that it thinks is most relevant to the search topic and then it determines the ranking of the page based just on that. The hope with this update is that it can help give more accurate results to searchers by displaying results with “passages” that most precisely answer their search – instead of just whole pages that generally answer their search.

Their public search relation team claims that “by better understanding the relevancy of specific passages, not just the overall page, we can find that needle-in-a-haystack information you’re looking for.”

So here’s what it means. Basically the search engine will be able to treat just one part of a page as if it were a whole page at it’s own URL, and from there it would determine how to rank the page (the whole page) accordingly. So for instance, here’s the example they give, if a user searches for something like “how can I determine if my house windows are UV glass” the search engine will try to rank results based off of URLs with “passages” of content that answer precisely just how to do that, rather than a page that just generally describes the differences between regular windows and UV glass windows.

Here’s what that example might look like for real:

Google example of a passages algorithm search result

How the Google passages algorithm works

Some are describing this as an “indexing” update, but it’s actually a “ranking” change. This update does not change the way pages are indexed, but the algorithm may rank pages differently if it thinks passages of the page are more relevant to search rather than the page as a whole.

Even though Google originally referred to it as “passage indexing” it does not actually change the way the search engine does “indexing” (the process of crawling and indexing with bots). Google is still indexing the full page. Otherwise search engine results pages (a.k.a. the SERP) could potentially be filled with multiple blocks of content from just one page.

Instead Google’s passages algorithm works by isolating the snippet of text it thinks is most relevant –then ranks the whole page based off of that.

This whole system is different from Google’s existing “featured snippets” because according to Google: “[with passages], systems determine the relevance of any web document via understanding of passages. Featured snippets, on the other hand, identifies the most relevant passage in a document we’ve overall determined to be relevant to the query.” That suggests that the order of operations is being flipped a little bit here, featured snippets will determine rankings the old-fashioned way by ranking the page as a whole (which is a big oversimplification by the way) and then they’ll pull the text and display it in the SERP, like in the image below. Google’s passages algorithm goes the other way around by finding and determining the most relevant snippet of text/content and then ranking the page.

An example of a featured snippet in Google

A few months back, Google also rolled out the “scroll to text” feature of search results. This is specifically for rich results snippets as well, where after clicking on the results link, users are taken straight to that specific block of text, which is also highlighted yellow.

Although it’s unclear right now, there’s no reason to believe that “featured snippets” and Google’s passages algorithm can’t work together or function simultaneously for the same results. Similarly, “passages” do not replace featured snippets.

Google’s passages algorithm + natural language processing

So why would something like the Google passages algorithm even be needed?

Truthfully only Google’s development team will know. But it does fit with Google’s broader goal of improving search and providing ever more accurate results. In fact, every day it processes 500 million searches, but up to 15% are new queries it has never seen before. Longtail search queries that are so unique and specific that the algorithm isn’t able to effectively dig up good results.

Google has already begun to fine-tune it’s ability to “understand” queries by ramping up the importance of AI based “natural language processing” (or NLP) with algorithms like BERT which it released in late 2019, or its famous Hummingbird update from 2013. It’s possible that these complex models for processing/understanding human language are being used in some way to power its passages algorithm. In fact, at the same time that the Google passages algorithm was announced, they also announced that BERT was now being used for 100% of all English-language searches.

This fits with the search engine giant’s goal of better being able to understand search language the way a human would, and to understand queries the way that human beings do. NLP updates to the algorithm might not only be able to help with the accuracy of passages results, but also with translating the intent/meaning/grammar and overall nuance of searches.

Google passages SEO strategy

So what the strategies businesses and marketers can use to get the most from passages, or to ensure that their existing SEO isn’t negatively affected?

As always Google never reveals exactly what signals are being used and won’t say what best-practices there are for passages SEO. But the best bet for internet brands and websites is to use the same technical SEO and on-page SEO best practices that they already use to focus on improving keyword rankings – that includes making content that’s high-quality and indexable, and understanding the psychology in Google search intent marketing.

These all mean normal SEO strategies like keyword-research, meta-data optimization, content-optimization, and back-links – but they also mean focusing on detailed and thorough content (where needed) that answers all questions your target audiences could have, and that addresses the long-tail search keywords that are most likely to trigger Google’s passages algorithm.

Keyword research

Keyword research is already an important part of Google search optimization. And for SEO it’s basically the first step toward improving rankings, organic traffic, and revenue.

Keyword research lets businesses discover what sort of search keywords are important to them and lets them make a plan for where these keywords can best work within their website’s content. It usually involves using popular SEO keyword research tools like Google’s Keyword Planner, or Search Console.

After this business owners and marketers can decide where to put valuable high-traffic head-keywords in their top-level pages, as well as what sort of long-tail keywords they can target with landing pages, product URLs, or blogs. In fact, for something like Google’s passages algorithm, building content from the ground up – with a focus on specific keywords (including long-tail variations) is probably the best approach.

Intuitive content structure and H-tags

H-tags already play a small roll in SEO – and it’s possible that they could also play a role in how search engines understand the way content is broken up into sections, blogs, and subtopics.

H-tags or “header tags” include the H1 through H6 tags that are often used in web page HTML. Usually they are used for on-page titles and sub-headings.

H-tags are already one of the more than 200 ranking signals used by Google, though their strength as a signal is minor, being only slightly greater than just regular text content. It’s possible that the “structure” that h-tags give a page’s content can make it more likely to appear in rich-snippets (like in the image below). Plus h-tags can also have a sort of psychological benefit in that they can make content easier to digest for visitors, make it easier for readers to find what they are looking for, and introduce clarity – all of which could reduce site-exits, reduce “bounces” and improve click-through-rate (CTR) and conversion rate (CR).

An example of when an h-tag is also used in a Google rich snippet

For example, have you noticed the H2 tags used in the blog you’re reading now? These hopefully make it easier for readers to understand how the blog is broken up into topics – and they might also help search engines understand separate “passages” within the blog.

The overall topic of this blog is “Google’s passages algorithm” but, what if someone searches: “do h-tags play a roll in Google passages?” We want to produce expert and authoritative content that answers precisely that.

Quality content that’s EAT

High-quality content is most likely to play the biggest role in how Google’s passages algorithm functions. Since the content itself is what’s being “indexed” and then algorithmically broken up into passages.

For Google passage SEO content should not be vague, confusing, or meandering. And for the purpose of passages specifically, avoid having specific ideas being spread out and broken up throughout the text. Create content that is clear and that addresses specific subtopics and concepts concisely.

EAT content stands for content that is “expert, authoritative, and trustworthy” and comes from Google’s internal documentation for its search quality evaluator guidelines. This gives businesses guidance on what good content is and provides an idea on how to write and optimize content for their website (note: that EAT is not specifically a ranking-signal or metric).

For SEO in general, businesses should always aim for EAT content that doesn’t just help their visitors, but stays in line with Google’s webmaster guidelines:

  • Make the content primarily for users, not just for search engines.
  • Don’t deceiver your visitors or customers.
  • Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
  • Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.
  • Don’t skim content from other sites, don’t “generate” content with programs, and avoid duplicated content on multiple pages. Content should be unique and specific to each individual page’s topic.
  • Think about the words users would type to find your pages, and make sure that your site actually includes those words within it.
  • To help Google fully understand your site’s contents, allow all site assets that would significantly affect page rendering to be crawled: for example, CSS and JavaScript files that affect the understanding of the pages.
  • Make your site’s important content visible by default.

Search intent

Writing content that’s high-quality and detailed will be most important for Google passages SEO. But The whole concept of the passages algorithm hinges on the search engine’s attempt to more easily get searchers to their intended goal.

Search intent is key here and it’s a concept in digital marketing that’s increasingly important since the best path to growing your business online organically means really concentrating on what your audience actually wants and then helping them get it. Google’s passages is the same thing: the goal is to help searches find exactly what they want.

Search behavior, and the intent behind common search habits, breaks down into 4 main categories:

  • Navigational search queries
  • Informational search queries
  • Transactional search queries
  • Visit-in-person search queries

Thinking about the visitor’s ultimate goals, and curating your SEO around them is important. Being optimized for Google passage results will mean using all the search strategies that are already well known, including: good content, intuitive navigation, friendly UX, honest/accurate meta data, and well optimized anchor-text links (ATLs).

On-page SEO with good keyword research, content keyword density, h-tags, and well thought out content structure is a good way of moving your audience along the SEO marketing sales funnel, as well as for improving organic traffic via greater CTR from search results pages.

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