Google’s Passage Ranking Update: Everything to Know About ItRead Time: 7 minutes

Google updates. You know they’re important. You know you have to future-proof your site against them. And you know if you don’t stay on top of them, they could hurt your rankings. Google’s most recent algorithm update, Passage Ranking, is aimed at not only getting users to the best page for their search queries, but to the specific text, or “passage,” on a page.

What is the Google Passage Ranking update?

Announced in October 2020, the passage ranking update further improves search relevancy by ranking not only pages, but specific segments of text, or passages, on pages. Google claims this will improve results for 7 percent of all search queries by further enhancing pertinency.

More specifically, this new form of indexing boosts searchers’ ability to successfully find the answers they need to those “needle-in-the-haystack” inquiries, according to Google.

For example, search results for the longtail keyword phrase, “how can I determine if my house windows are UV glass,” look like this:

Think of Google passages like this: you’re at the library; the information you’re looking for is on a specific page within a specific book. Sure, you can easily find out which books have the information you’re looking for, but you need to know the page numbers — and ideally exactly the lines on those page numbers — that have the information you need.

How’s that for a needle in a haystack?

In this context, the Google passage ranking update is the equivalent of an exceedingly knowledgeable librarian who would be able to tell you, “Go to aisle X, look in book Y and turn to page Z. The information you’re looking for is on the second line of the third paragraph.”

Pretty impressive, right?

So, how does it work?

The passage update can be boiled down one word: specificity.

To understand the passages update, it’s important to remind ourselves of Google’s core mandate: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Web pages can be long. They can explore a variety of topics. For searchers to be able to accurately and easily find the information they are looking for, Google needs to ensure that they shine guiding lights for their users that will help them get to where they want to go.

This is exactly what they’re looking to accomplish with the Google passage update.

Keep in mind, this is not a core update (but there is one on the way). Instead, this update is aimed at providing information in search engine results pages related to users’ search queries so they get the information they’re looking for instantly — or so they can at least verify that a passage on a particular page is relevant to their search query before clicking on that page.

In other words, Google isn’t updating the factors used to determine search rankings; it’s merely providing users with more information on search results pages.

Optimizing Content for Google Passage Ranking

First and foremost, you don’t have to navigate these algorithm updates alone. Marketing agencies are constantly churning out content related to algorithm updates to help businesses prepare and adapt once they’re released. And, in the case your organic search is hit particularly hard by an algorithm update and you’re not sure how to recover, you can always partner with an SEO agency in order to get your organic search back on track. That being said, due to the nature of the Google passage ranking update, it shouldn’t significantly impact performance.

But that doesn’t mean you should sit idly by and not make adjustments. In fact, by making the proper adjustments, you’ll be able to take advantage of the passage ranking update.

To better optimize your content for passage rankings, you’ll need to think critically about not only your overall content strategy, but also how you execute the creation of content.

The Link Between the BERT and Passages Algorithm Updates

In order to develop a content strategy with Google passage ranking in mind, it’s important to look at the passage ranking update in a historical context. Let’s travel back to 2019 and look at the BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) update.

Developments in machine learning and natural language processing have made it easier for search engines to provide users with relevant content. That’s what the BERT update did.

More specifically, the BERT update improved Google’s understanding of natural and conversational language used in search queries.

Before the BERT update, users may form search queries based on how Google’s search ranking algorithm, instead of how a human, would interpret it. But now, searchers can use more colloquial language in search queries without worrying about Google misinterpreting them.

The Google passage ranking update is similar in the sense it’s aimed at refining the search experience more than it is overhauling it — i.e. it’s more about getting users the information they’re looking for faster than it is getting accurate information to users.

How Google Passage Ranking Affects Content Strategy

Ranking for specific passages presents a unique opportunity from a content perspective: it gives you the chance to set yourself apart from competitors in the SERPs.

But how?

Regardless of what users are searching for, they’re more likely to click on a result they know is relevant versus a result they think is relevant.

By earning a passage ranking, you’re giving users the opportunity to confirm your page is relevant — otherwise, all they have to go off of is a page title and a description.

So, how does this affect your overarching content strategy?

It’s all about top-of-funnel (TOFU) content.

Passage rankings are — again — about specificity. In order to provide information related to specific queries, you need to get specific with your content. And that means creating more top-of-funnel content that’s less focused on selling and more focused on providing useful information to users who aren’t ready to buy just yet but will be soon.

This is how you get users into the sales funnel — asserting authority in your industry by demonstrating your expertise  — without pressuring them to pay for anything. That way, when they’re ready to pull the trigger, your business is already top of mind.

How to Optimize Specific Passages

In addition to focusing on more TOFU content, you should also make adjustments to how you execute the creation of content in order to fully take advantage of Google passage ranking.

More specifically, you’ll need to be more thoughtful about how you target keyword phrases in the body copy on your pages.

Because search results now include body copy snippets, it’s more important than ever to include targeted keyword phrases in the body copy on pages, specifically in passages that summarize the overarching theme of the piece — phrases you would call out or bold.

Let’s go back to the passage ranking example provided by Google.

The page title is, “How Can I Tell if I Have UV Protection.” And the passage that’s ranking for the longtail keyword phrase, “how can I determine if my house windows are uv glass,” is as follows:

But you can tell if your windows have a LowE coating, which is what you need to help block the UV energy. When it is dark, hold a lit match or a lighter close to the glass in your window. Look at the reflection of the flame in the window and you should see either two or three flames in the reflection.

The words in bold are the ones Google believes are relevant to the search query. The phrase, “tell if,” is synonymous with “determine if,” and the word “windows” is used three times.

But, perhaps even more important, the passage that’s ranking clearly and concisely explains how users can determine whether or not their house windows are UV glass.

When you’re creating content for your site, you want to try and accomplish the same thing – whatever the topic is, it’s important to include at least one sentence that captures the theme.

Don’t Navigate the Google Passage Update Alone

Algorithm updates are nothing new. But that doesn’t make them any less intimidating.

These updates can feel like an uphill battle for businesses — constantly keeping up with and adapting to an ever-evolving landscape. And, in some cases, it can even feel like you’re taking one step forward only to take two steps back the next time an algorithm update goes live.

However, if understood and responded to effectively, algorithm updates can be leveraged to help you get your content and your brand in front of the right users.

And, whether you’re unsure of the best way to navigate these updates or you simply don’t have the time or resources to make it happen, you don’t have to go it alone.

Partnering with an expert SEO agency that’s already navigated countless algorithm updates is a great way to ensure you’re getting the most out of your content and out of the online aspect of your business, in general. Book a free SEO strategy session with Sure Oak today.

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