Another week, another update from Google (although this time it is thankfully about a new feature rather than a bug).
This new feature relates to how Google ranks web pages based on their content; instead of showing the entire page, Google will now show a passage of a page that is directly related to the user’s search query. This is expected to both help users access information faster and more efficiently, and also aid the SEO community when it comes to ranking content.
Google explained that “We’ve recently made a breakthrough in ranking and are now able to not just index web pages, but individual passages from the pages. 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.”
It certainly sounds like an efficient way to sieve through the sea of SERPs. So, what exactly can we expect from this latest feature?
Is Google still indexing full pages?
The answer to this is yes. Although Google will be showing only a passage of a page that is relevant to the user’s search query, it will still be indexing full pages, not just snippets. This feature just means that when Google indexes a page, it will now look at which section is the most relevant, instead of focusing on the whole page.
It is a ranking change, not an indexing change
Despite initially being referred to as ‘passage based indexing’, this feature is not actually about indexing, but rather ranking. This has caused some confusion for the SEO community, many of whom assumed this new Google feature was somehow related to the recent indexing issues that impacted their rankings in the SERPs.
As mentioned above, indexing has not changed, and Google will still be indexing whole pages. Instead, passage ranking will focus on how Google rates content based on your web pages, and focusing on specific passages will help with that.
Google Search Liaison explains in more detail:
Search Engine Roundtable’s Barry Schwartz commented on how the new Google feature will impact SEO: “Your big massive stories and articles on a topic, that covers many subtopics, will likely have a better chance of ranking for the subtopics in that article when this goes live. So if you write about iPhones and then cover all the various models of the iPhone, including the iPhone 12 Pro Max. If someone searches for the iPhone 12 Pro Max, that bigger article on iPhones might rank well for the query on iPhone 12 Pro Max.”
It is not the same as featured snippets
At first, it may seem that this new feature is just another version of featured snippets, whereby short snippets of text appear at the top of the search results in answer to the searcher’s question. However, there is a difference, at least according to Google’s Danny Sullivan, who stated that featured snippets “are already recognized utilizing completely different programs than passages”. Sullivan also implied that the passage ranking feature would not be employed in voice search, commenting that “Featured snippet are used for voice search. They’re already recognized utilizing completely different programs than passages.”
We may have to wait and see exactly how passage ranking differs from featured snippets for ourselves, but in the meantime, Google is marketing it is a completely separate feature.
What does this mean for heading tags?
Header tags may not have a major influence on search rankings – although they do certainly help – but how these tags are viewed could change following this new passage feature.
Heading tags structure your pages and help improve your overall content quality, keeping your readers on your site for longer. Of course, as we mentioned in our blog on H1 tags, Google doesn’t see a H1 tag and instantly place your site in the top-ranking spot, but they will notice if users are clicking on your page for an answer to their query. They’ll also pay attention to the amount of time those users stay on your site.
Titles help Google by providing signals when determining rankings,, so surely the heading tags are about to play a more significant role?
Schwartz commented that heading tags look set to become more influential when Google rolls out this latest update: “…I suspect while title tags are pretty important signals, headers in this case might be more important when this rolls out. Again, Google generally does not talk about specific ranking signals and Google did not comment on headers as a ranking signal.”
So, it may be the case that the passage ranking feature works with heading tags, rather than against them.
Do content creators need to do anything?
Apparently not, according to Google Search Liaison;
When does it start?
We can expect this feature later this year, starting in the US, with plans to go global:
While we can’t make too many assumptions – especially as the feature won’t actually come into play until later this year – the fact that Google are already saying that passage ranking will impact 7% of global search queries means that this feature will significantly streamline the user experience.
In the meantime, we’ll look out for any more updates.