According To Tomek: Passage Ranking

Passage Indexing - Hero Image
quick summary

Recently, Google announced they are planning to identify key passages on a page and display them in the search results.

But what does that really mean?

Up to this point, Google has always checked if the entire page is relevant to a given query when displaying pages in the search results.

In some cases this is straightforward, but when the page is long and contains information on multiple topics, it’s difficult to determine the main topic of the page. 

With the recent announcement, Google is planning to evaluate pages in a more granular way.  It will be able to rank pages based on individual passages independently of the rest of the page’s content.  

So, even if a page as a whole is not considered relevant to a query,  Google may still detect that some key passages are relevant. And, as a consequence, a page can still rank for that query. 

Passage Indexing - Before and After

Below you can find a couple of tweets by Danny Sullivan explaining the topic. 

Topic detection

Google clearly states there is no separate index for passages. 

Trying to connect the dots, I went back to our webinar with Martin Splitt from August this year. 

He said that Google is detecting the main theme of a page as well as other topics.

We might say: This page is for [topic] A and somehow, for B. Topic A is definitely the main thing, and then there’s topic B and somehow also topic C somewhat in there.

We’re indexing it all, but we’re kind of labeling it as “this is definitely for A, which means that it’s not showing up for B and C. (…)

Just don’t expect us to treat this page equally for A, B, and C. Understand that we are treating it as mainly about A.

It seems to me that this may change with passage ranking. Google might label a page as related to topic A (first passage), topic B (second passage), topic C (third passage). topic ABC (collection of passages) and check if these passages are relevant to a given query. 

When does passage ranking go live?

The specific date is not yet announced. The update won’t go live before next year, so we can expect it in 2021 at the earliest.

How many queries will be affected?

“This will be a global change improving 7% of queries”. 7% may not seem like much, but comparing it to some updates from the past, this is likely a very significant change.

Are the passages ranking independently of the pages?

No. According to Google’s announcements, all the information Google has about a page will be taken into consideration when ranking a passage from the page.

Wrapping up

Passage ranking seems like a good change in that it will potentially allow content creators to more freely shape the content on their websites. On the other hand, it is likely to contribute to the growing problem of “zero-click searches”.

As a summary, I prepared a table showing what will change.

Now In the future
Google detects the main theme of a page (topic A). Also, it determines secondary topics (B, C, D). However, it’s difficult for a website to rank for secondary topics. A page will be able to rank for multiple topics if passages are relevant to a query.
Google evaluates all content on a web page to determine if it is relevant to a query. Now Google will be able to judge relevancy to a given query on a more granular level – passages. 

“With our new technology, we’ll be able to better identify and understand key passages on a web page. This will help us surface content that might otherwise not be seen as relevant when considering a page only as a whole.”