UPDATE: On Friday December 4th, I joined a Google SEO Hangout with John Mueller from Google to ask him if he thought my strategy for leveraging Google’s passage indexing, by focusing information on one page, instead of many, in order to build links to one single page instead of multiple URLs, could make sense. He seemed to think it was plausible and recommended that I should test it out. Pretty cool!
ORIGINAL: Google has been publishing some really great content lately, showcasing more how it uses AI and Machine learning. I recently covered a great video they did called “Trillions of Questions, No Easy Answer” where they go into depth about the evolution of search, spam and even machine learning & BERT. More recently on October 15th, Google published some information about AI and search where they touched on a topic they called “Passages” or “Passage Indexing”. This new ranking factor will roll out in December 2020 and will enable Google to rank specific passages from a given page, in search, rather than the whole page itself.
They have mentioned that this update will effect about 7% of queries, which is a pretty big update. Because of this potential massive shift in ranking, I wanted to dig in a bit more on what exactly passage indexing does, how it works, when Google will use it and if it can be leveraged to rank better in search.
How Does Passage Indexing Work?
One thing that is really important to remember about passage indexing, is that it is actually less about indexing and more about ranking. Confusing given the name, but don’t think that google is capturing passages and paragraphs from pages and storing and indexing them separate from the page itself. That is not what is happening here. Instead what they are doing is giving content that exists on pages that are already in its index, a greater chance of ranking in search. And the content more likely to be eligible for passage indexing, is quality content that exists on page where it is not necessarily topically relevant to that page.
For example, a great article may have been written about dogs and 95% of the content on the page is about dogs, but one small, useful paragraph exists about cats that may relate to the article being written, but is essential a topic all on its own. Google is very good at picking up signals on what the page is about and they rightfully assume that page is about dogs, not cats. Previously the cat content would have likely never ranked in search because its topic and value was diluted by the primary pages topic, and therefore Google’s understanding of the page. Now with Passage Indexing, Google is able to block out the noise of the page and focus in on that single passage itself and rank it in search if they deem its content to be relevant for a given search query.
Why Does Google Want Rank Passages?
Google very much wants to avoid “content voids” or “data voids” when it is returning results for a users search query. This is an area where they have gotten into trouble in the past. Once about Vitamin K not being good for kids, another about the Holocaust not ever really happening, and a few other times as well. Google wants to ensure that it is always returning the best possible answers for a given search query and Passage Indexing enables them to broaden the amount and variety of content it is able to return, thus filling in some of those “content voids”. They liken it to being able to find a needle in a haystack.
Can You Leverage Passage Indexing to Rank Your Content Better?
Although Martin Splitt mentioned several times in his AMA with Search Engine Journal that Passage Indexing is more of a ranking “lifeline” for poorly formed content or content that is topically diluted in a page, I can’t help but wonder what more we could do to leverage this new ranking factor.
The first thing that comes to mind is reversing a common strategy many SEOs do with businesses and their service pages. It is very common when taking on a new non-SEO’d website that there exists a single service page for all the businesses services. Most savvy SEOs will take this page and split it out into multiple, topically focused service pages that can rank and stand alone. With passage indexing however, perhaps maintaining one single, long form service page, may be better from an SEO stand point.
The big advantage to managing one URL vs many, is the consolidation of authority and link equity. With only a single URL to use for link building campaigns, it allows that page to rank higher and faster. And with Passage Indexing, we won’t have to worry about if Google understands the topic of the page, given it contains many different topics, our individual passages for our different services now can rank in search instead of the page as a whole.
Do you think consolidating content is the way to go? Or are you going to stick with creating single focused topical pages? I am curious to see what will happen when Google roles out Passage Indexing later this month.