Everything You Need To Know About Google Passage Ranking

In October 2020, Google announced a change that, for a brief period of time, sent the SEO world into an absolute tailspin, with speculation quickly veering to “prophet of doom” territory. Was SEO about to change forever?

Well, not exactly.

The change we’re talking about is what Google called “passage indexing” – which later turned out to actually mean passage ranking, a far less apocalyptic shift to the search engine (and SEO) as we know it.

So what is passage ranking? Who, and what is it going to affect? And most importantly, what should you do about it? We’re going to delve into all of that (and more) in this piece.

What is Passage Ranking?

Passage ranking is a new feature Google is rolling out in 2021. The search engine will now be able to rank not only web pages, but passages – sections of text – from those pages. 

Basically, Google is now able to understand web pages on a more granular level than it ever could before. Instead of simply interpreting what a page means and how that page might adequately answer a given query, Google can now parse out whether or not a particular passage from that page can respond to a query.

Ostensibly, passage ranking will allow Google to serve up more useful answers to very specific queries. Let’s say, for example, you’re looking to answer the question: “why is my car making noise when I go over 50 kilometres an hour?”. As it stands presently, Google will try to find pages that answer that specific question. With passage ranking, Google might instead serve up a specific piece of text from a sprawling, 20,000 word page titled “Everything you ever needed to know about cars”.

How will Passage Ranking Look?

According to Google, passage ranking won’t look like much of anything at all. It’s a ranking factor, not a visual change to search results. Basically, passage ranking is a way for a page to rank based on specific passages even if the broader page wouldn’t otherwise rank well for a query.

Passage Ranking vs. Passage Indexing

Okay, this all seems pretty standard so far – Google introduces new ranking factors all the time. Why all the calamitous talk? 

Well, when passage ranking was first introduced, it was called passage indexing – actually, it’s still called passage indexing, a bit of a faux pas by the Google team (they’ve had a couple with this particular rollout). 

Passage indexing would imply that Google was planning on indexing passages separately from web pages. You can imagine the reaction – were we going to have to start doing passage SEO? Could backlinks to specific passages influence their PassageRank? 

Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about any of that. It seems that to the extent passages are indexed, they’re indexed in relation to the page they’re on – which isn’t really a change at all. You should really forget it’s called passage indexing at all – it’s a ranking factor, and that’s why you’ll see most everyone refer to it as passage ranking.

Passage Ranking vs. Featured Snippets

Google plans on singling out specific passages of text that they deem useful for responding to specific queries – that sure sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

That’s because it is – Featured Snippets seemingly does the same thing, right? Well, not quite. Remember, passage ranking is a ranking factor, while Featured Snippets are a visual change to regular search results. 

If a page gets a Featured Snippet, it’s because Google has deemed that the page is particularly good at answering a query – the Featured Snippet is simply a highlight of what Google deems to be a relevant passage of text on that page. 

Hypothetically, a page that ranks based on the strength of a particular passage could have that passage appear as a Featured Snippet, but that won’t always be the case. 

Why is Google Incorporating Passage Ranking?

For the same reason Google incorporates any change to its ranking algorithm – because they believe it will enable them to serve up more relevant results to users.

More specifically, passage ranking is an attempt to improve Google’s ability to answer very specific queries (in other words, long-tail keywords). When a query is hyper-specific, Google might have a hard time finding a page it deems relevant to the query. Passage ranking helps boost pages that aren’t necessarily optimized for that query rank if there’s a particular passage that answers the query in a satisfactory way.

Passage Ranking and other Google Systems

Much of the information we have about passage ranking stems from a very interesting conversation between Google’s Martin Splitt and three well-respected SEO professionals – Bartosz Góralewicz, Cindy Krum, and Tomek Rudzki. Some of this conversation focused on how passage ranking interacts with other Google systems – specifically, BERT and subtopics.

Splitt’s response was fairly succinct: basically, that you can expect almost all of these systems to interact at some level, and understanding how they interact is incredibly complex. BERT is a language model that Google uses for natural language processing – given that passage ranking attempts to rank pages based on content that isn’t necessarily keyword optimized, it’s pretty obvious that it plays a role in passage ranking.

Subtopics are another search feature Google introduced in 2020 – and one we could spend another whole article on. While subtopics could interact with passage ranking, in many ways the two systems are doing opposite things – subtopics attempt to populate SERPs with a diversity of answers for very broad queries, while passage ranking attempts to populate SERPs with answers to very specific queries. 

How Passage Ranking will Affect SEO

Now that you know what passage ranking is, we can get to the question you’re all here for:

Why should you care?

Passage ranking could affect how your pages rank – that alone warrants curiosity about how it works. There’s a chance, however, that passage ranking warrants more than curiosity – there’s a chance that it warrants sustained attention.

Don’t Worry About It?

You’ll hear some rhetoric online that there’s no reason to pay attention to passage ranking for SEO. On the surface, that makes a lot of sense – passage ranking is specifically designed to help Google serve up pages that aren’t optimized for particular keywords if their content does a good job of answering the query.

Don’t worry about it is a bit too flippant for our tastes, though. It may very well be the case that there’s no need to pay attention to passage ranking because high-quality content and keyword optimization do all the work you need them to. That said, passage ranking hasn’t even rolled out yet, so it’s much too early to say whether or not it’s something that can be optimized for.

Remember, SEO is a data-based practice. If we find evidence that pages are getting the top rank for relevance based on a passage ranking boost, you’d better believe we’re going to pay close attention to it. We’ll pay even closer attention if there’s evidence that it’s easy to get a passage ranking-based boost.

Long story short, it’s too soon to know how much attention you should pay to passage rankings.

Long-Tail Keywords and You 

Given that passage ranking is an attempt to better answer very specific queries, we can assume that as a ranking factor, it will almost exclusively come into play for long-tail keywords. 

In fact, we’ve got a pretty good idea how many English language queries passage ranking will affect: about 7%. That might seem like a small number, but it’s important to remember that long-tail keywords are particularly valuable – they convert at higher numbers than the most common keywords.

For a look at why long-tails are so valuable, I highly recommend reading “Why focus on long-tail keywords?” by Yoast. 

Which Pages will be Most Affected by Passage Ranking?

Given that we don’t know exactly how passage ranking will affect optimization, it might be helpful to look at the kinds of pages the change is likely to affect. Fortunately, Google has quite clearly expressed the types of page it’s targeting with this ranking update, so we’ve got a pretty good idea what we’re dealing with.

Long, Disorganized Pages

Imagine if this page was called “Everything Google changed in 2020”, and we spent as much time on each change as we’ve spent on passage ranking so far.

This article would probably be a 100,000 word monstrosity.

What query would a page like that answer? Anyone searching as broad a topic as the one we just proposed is probably looking for a succinct summary of changes, not a treatise on each one.

That doesn’t mean the page isn’t useful, though – Google might see the content you’re reading right now (this is getting meta, I know) and decide it’s a great answer to the query “which pages will be most affected by passage ranking”. This makes pages with a lot of content a likelier candidate for the passage ranking boost.

The passage ranking boost can also go to pages that aren’t particularly well-organized. Imagine, again, reading this article without headings – it would be a pain for you, and it makes it harder for Google to understand context. Passage ranking aims to ameliorate this to some degree.

This isn’t to say that disorganized pages are more likely to be boosted by passage ranking – rather, it simply means being well-organized isn’t a prerequisite for passage ranking.

Pages with Subpar SEO

One of the primary goals of passage ranking is to promote pages with useful content that aren’t necessarily SEO-optimized. In fact, in the aforementioned interview, Splitt says “…really it is just a smaller change where we try to help those who are not necessarily familiar with SEO or are how to structure their content or content strategy”.

In other words, pages that aren’t properly structured and pages that aren’t doing any keyword targeting may be the most likely candidates for passage ranking.

This is why so many SEOs are simply saying “you don’t need to pay attention to passage ranking” – in all likelihood, the pages passage ranking will affect are those that aren’t currently optimized. 

Again, it’s important to remember that passage ranking hasn’t actually rolled out yet, so we’re not entirely sure what its impact will be on search results, but for now it looks like it’s not likely to be something SEOs need to focus on.

Blogs/Informational Pages

The pages that are most likely to be affected by passage ranking are, therefore, blogs and pieces that are focused on information – not product pages. This means that passage ranking is much more likely to affect things like dedicated blogs and local business pages than it is to affect ecommerce pages.

What Can You Do to Optimize for Passage Ranking?

As you’ve probably gleaned by now, there’s no obvious answer to this question – we just don’t have any data on how passage ranking will change the SEO landscape yet. Moreover, the information Google has provided us makes it seem unlikely that you’ll need to do any kind of optimization for passage rank.

Seriously – Don’t Worry too much about it Yet

Until we get more information, it’s a good idea to just stay curious about passage ranking, instead of paying close attention to it. We’ll keep our ears to the ground and monitor the data as it comes in – you should do the same. Passage ranking is a ranking change, but it remains to be seen whether or not it will create a big shift in the types of content Google is likely to serve up. 

Write High-Quality Content

One thing we do know is that Google’s overall goal has never changed – serve up the best possible content in response to a given query. That means that if Google gets its way, your content will rank first regardless of passage ranking – the only thing that matters is what best answers the query.

Passage ranking may put pressure on content creators who have been relying on their ability to organize content in an SEO-friendly way without providing the most accurate and/or comprehensive answers to queries. In other words, there’s going to be more competition for specific long-tails, so you’d better have a good answer to searchers’ queries.

Do Keyword Research

While passage ranking was designed to help pieces that aren’t optimized for keywords, keyword research never hurts. More specifically, it’s important to focus on long-tails, for which there might be more competition when passage ranking goes live. 

Understanding search intent has always been an integral part of keyword research, but passage ranking might make it even more important. More specifically, it might become advantageous to think about topics that are intimately linked to a keyword that you’re targeting, but that may not get enough searches on their own to warrant optimization. In these cases, you might be able to simply answer the query in a subcategory of a broader piece.

Try to Answer Questions

Google is always trying to answer questions – every search is a question of some kind, even if the question is “What is Facebook’s URL” (in cases where people simply Google “Facebook”). 

With this update, Google is specifically trying to provide better answers to hyper-specific questions. That means that answering related questions will be even more important than it already was. When doing your keyword research, use tools like Buzzsumo’s Question Analyzer to find questions you can focus subtopics around.

You can also look in the SERPs for Google’s “People Also Asked” section – try answering some of the questions that pop up in that section in a given article if you want to broaden your net.

Optimizing for Passage Ranking?

The techniques we’re bringing up here won’t necessarily optimize for passage ranking – we don’t know how it’s going to affect things just yet, and it seems like it’s mostly going to affect unoptimized pages. Why bother, then? 

Because passage ranking is going to mean less optimized pages might rank well. That means you’ve got more competition, so focusing on the fundamentals and trying to more succinctly answer topic-relevant questions may be more important than ever.

When is Passage Ranking going Live?

We don’t know exactly when passage ranking is going live, but it will be soon. Very soon. In fact…

Passage Ranking goes Live in early 2021

By the time you’re reading this, there’s a very good chance that passage ranking will already be live. The Google team was actually hoping to roll things out in December of 2020, but that didn’t work out. It’s not unlikely that we’ll see it go live in the first couple of weeks of January – the update is important enough that we’ll notice it (and Google will probably make an announcement) as soon as it goes live.

The Quick and Easy Summary

  • Google can now understand context enough to rank pages based on individual passages.
  • This system is called passage ranking; it’s not an indexing change.
  • The pages most likely to be boosted by passage ranking aren’t SEO-optimized.
  • We don’t know whether or not SEOs should focus on passage ranking as  – right now passage ranking merits our curiosity, not our full blown attention.
  • Continue to optimize your pages in the same way you always have – write high-quality content, do your keyword research, and answer questions.

And, as always, if you need any SEO services, we’re here for you.