Search engines have come along way in the past several decades. Even so, finding precise answers to your questions can still sometimes feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. But new artificial intelligence (AI) functionality from Google is targeting this too-common problem. 

What’s the tech giant doing to make search better? In a nutshell, Google is striving to know exactly what people are seeking by using AI and machine learning to understand the nuances of human communication. Then, Google aims to provide specific answers at the top of search results pages.

Sound intriguing? Read on to learn more about Google’s new passage indexing functionality and find out how:

  1. Google Aims to Understand the Meaning Behind Search Queries
  2. New Google Breakthrough Ranks and Presents Passages to Answer Queries
  3. You Can Take Steps Now to Target Google’s Passage Index Functionality

With this knowledge, you’ll be ready to revitalize your content approaches and attract more traffic to your website.

#1: Google Aims to Understand the Meaning Behind Search Queries

Google knows that understanding the language in a search query is essential to deliver relevant results. That’s why the company has invested in its neural-network technique for natural language processing, dubbed BERT (for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers). 

Simply put, a transformer is a way of processing words based on their relationships to other words in a sentence. Using transformers was a vast leap forward over prior practices that only understood words in order. BERT helps understand the context of words in a search string to match queries to results more accurately.

Today, Google uses BERT in nearly all of its English language queries. You’ve seen BERT in action with Google’s featured snippets. These snippets are selected results that address questions and appear at the top of a search results page, like this one:

Example of a Google featured snippet that addresses the query "parking on a hill no curb."

Clearly, the snippet approach made finding answers more straightforward for search users. And it brought benefits to companies that earned a coveted high-visibility spot in search.

But Google’s newest search enhancements take this concept a step further, with its passage indexing capability.

#2: New Google Breakthrough Ranks and Presents Passages to Answer Queries

At Search On 2020, Google announced a new capability called passage indexing. Although not yet rolled out as of this writing, passage indexing has enormous potential to revolutionize the search world.

What is it, and how does it work? As Google explains, its team has learned how to move beyond ranking pages and start individually ranking passages within pages. In other words, Google can understand the relevance of web pages AND passages within them to deliver the best possible results for your searches. 

Google can understand the relevance of web pages and passages within them to deliver the best possible results for your searches.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes view of what passage indexing will look like. The example on the left shows a traditional search engine presentation. But the one on the right shows a passage excerpt that directly addresses the user’s search query.

Side-by-side comparison of traditional search display and passage index functionality from Google in October 2020.

Google estimates that the new passage indexing functionality will improve seven percent of global searches. That may seem like a small enhancement. But given that recent stats show Google processing over 12 billion searches a day, passage indexing promises to offer a massive upgrade in search quality: 

Chart showing the number of global daily searches on Google and search engine competitors in July 2020.

The Google SearchLiaison Twitter account provided more details on the new passage indexing functionality:

  • Making Results More Relevant: Traditionally, Google considers all the content on a page in its rankings. But this approach has its shortcomings in helping users find what they need in search. Some pages are long, complicated, and cover multiple topics, so the relevant parts of a page are hard for users to find.
  • Helping Users Find Fast Answers: The new functionality lets Google index passages and present them on a search results page to help users find answers with ease.
  • Page Ranking Isn’t Going Away: Google will still be indexing pages and considering all page content in ranking. However, passages from pages will be an extra ranking factor.

#3: You Can Take Steps Now to Target Google’s Passage Indexing Functionality

According to Google, you don’t need to do anything special to target passage indexing. “Continue to focus on great content, says Google, and let the search engine work its magic.

Tweet from Google SearchLiaison on how to content creators can respond to new passage indexing functionality.

Yes, having excellent content throughout your site is critical to earning high rankings in Google. But you can apply some smart strategies from the world of featured snippets to help you construct passages that get indexed and ranked by Google. 

Here are four things to do now to make the most of passage indexing:

  1. Consider the Questions that Bring People to Your Site: Since the goal passages indexing is to provide direct answers to search queries, you should put yourself in your audiences’ shoes. Ask yourself what types of questions bring people to your site. Then, develop brief passages that provide the answers.
  2. Use Strategic Formatting to Help Your Passages Stand Out: Make your passages clear, concise, and easily identifiable by Google. One strategy to try is asking a question in a section with a subheader tag (such as <H2> or <H3>). Below the subheading, provide your answer in a short passage.
  3. Elevate Your Rankings with Strong On-page SEO: Since passage indexing seems intimately tied to page indexing, you should follow proven on-page SEO approaches. Select high-value keywords and apply proven best practices to boost your rankings.
  4. Use Backlinks to Build Authority: High-quality backlinks remain a top search ranking factor. You can acquire backlinks from authoritative sites by writing exceptional website copy, in-depth guides, helpful checklists, and other types of compelling content. Also, you can proactively seek backlinks through outreach to publishers or positioning yourself for guest blogging opportunities.

Boost Your Site’s Visibility with Passage Indexing

Google has been hard at work on ways to improve the search experience for its audience. Since Google dominates the search engine market with nearly 90% of the world’s users, the new improvements can ultimately benefit billions of people around the globe.

Chart showing market share for Google and nearest competitors in July 2020. Google dominated the market with nearly 90% market share.

Succeeding with passage indexing can be a big win for your business. Why? Being on the first page in search can bring significant traffic to your website. Estimates vary, but industry experts note that sites on page one in Google rankings gain between 70% and 90% of traffic. And the second page? Ranking there captures just 6% of traffic for a query.

No doubt about it: The new passage indexing capability is one of the most exciting search developments in recent history. Passage indexing can be the fastest path to the top of a search engine results page.

You can get ahead of the curve by staying on top of emerging trends and news from Google. And you can start to create content with strong passages that earn you top search rankings, surges in traffic, and new business.

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