Google Passage Indexing
An update that Google launched in February 2021, passage indexing came with the purpose to surface hidden content in search that wasn’t optimized for search engines.
The update has been largely discussed in forums and SEO publications like Search Engine Land, and it’s supposed to impact 7% of the search queries. It goes without saying that the SEO and webmaster community expect its effects to be massive.
The idea behind passage indexing is to help webmasters rank their pages better, so it’s definitely a good kind of update from Google.
Let’s learn more about it.
What Is Passage Indexing?
Passage indexing — or more correctly, passage ranking, because it’s about ranking, not indexing — is an internal ranking update that uses natural language processing to rank passages of a page that answer a user’s ultra specific query.
“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 better understand the relevancy of specific passages. 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.”
This happens every time a passage in a page “is a lot more relevant to a specific query than a broader page on that topic”.
As an example, for the query “where do I find good shoes for knock knees” Google might return the subsection of a “best of” article that talks about shoes for knock knees based on the content of that subsection, not only its heading, and even if the rest of the page talks about different kinds of shoe needs.
Google also provides a visual example of how passage ranked results should appear in search:
Although the purpose of the update appears straightforward, there are a lot of misconceptions about passage indexing/ranking around the Web.
See below for clarification.
What Passage Indexing Is NOT
Passage indexing is not Google indexing sections of a page, or passages.
As always, Google indexes whole pages. What changes is how Google’s algorithms look at the content of the page (its passages) to return relevant text that answer’s a searcher’s query.
Also, passage indexing is not a Featured Snippet, which is a portion of text that Google displays in the SERPs to answer a searcher’s question in a quick way, without having the user click on the result.
With passage indexing, you get regular results but based on a passage or a subsection rather than the full page with its main heading. In other words, passage indexing is about ranking, not display.
Finally, there are no penalties linked to this update: it’s simply a ranking change that has the scope of helping users discover content that’s hard to find due to poor optimization.
Suggested SEO Improvements
Passage indexing exists to bring useful content hidden in a page to light, so ideally there’s nothing to optimize for, but you can make Google’s work easier — and up your chances to rank better, especially for your less optimized pages — by using a few best practices.
Don’t create a lot of pages on similar topics. Rather, prefer long form content with comprehensive subsections, where you say all you have to say about a subtopic.
In fact, unless what you have to say requires a lot of space, expert insight and illustrations/graphs/screenshots, you can compress it into a subsection of a long form article (think a 3,000-wordsguide, for example).
Content planning will help you decide what topic to write about in a comprehensive way and what other related topics (again, not similar topics) you can cover so that users can find all the information they need on your site, by following links in the article they’re reading.
For example, you can create a long form guide on “content marketing strategies” and cover each strategy in subsections, then create case studies and expert interviews about those strategies, and cross link the guide and the cases/interviews.
Think about the search intent of the topic you’re covering and even the search intent of each subsection: how can you optimize your content so that each subsection, and not only the article as a whole, stands on its own?
That will make it easier for Google’s algorithms to rank your subsections for specific search queries.
As an example, the “Goodreads groups” subsection of an article on your book blog about getting free ARCs of books may rank for “free arcs goodreads” and users would be sent directly to that subsection of your article, skipping the rest:
Headings and Subheadings
You may want to pay special attention to headings and subheadings in your page and make sure they are meaningful and descriptive of the content of the section or subsection they introduce.
This is especially critical if you want to rank for subsections and not only the full page. See the previous point on search intent for an example.
Table of Contents
Have a table of contents in each post or page, so that search engines can better rank your subsections (and for users to jump to the subsection they’re most interested about).
If you use WordPress, there are plenty of good free plugins you can use, including:
If you have a static HTML website, you can follow this tutorial by Tips and Tricks HQ to create a simple table of contents.
Focus On Users
With this ranking change, Google is highlighting the importance of content for users rather than for crawlers, so make sure you prioritize your content over SEO practices to be able to answer searchers’ queries thoroughly.
Naturally, that doesn’t mean you should neglect your SEO. Well-optimized content is still content that’s easier to find on all major search engines, and that’s the result you want to achieve: you want to be found easily.
But your focus shouldn’t be on SEO: it should be on bringing value to users so that they see you as a trustworthy authority in your niche.
With the passage indexing update, Google is helping webmasters with poorly optimized but quality pages rank better, which is a great thing and a very welcome update in the webmaster community because it makes it easier to rank good content for specific keywords, even if a webmaster’s SEO skills are poor.
But that is no excuse to not learn and do good SEO for your pages: the more you know about SEO, the better you can rank for more than just passages or subsections.
How did you welcome the news of passage indexing? Are you going to work on your SEO to better rank your pages?
Share in the comments below.