It was a busy week in the SEO world. Google updated its algorithms at the beginning of February, and I had a full plate working with my SEO clients.
Part of this algorithm update is passages ranking, which is now live in US and only affecting a small percentage of searches. Passages ranking is where you can rank based on passages instead of the entire page.
It’s no different from the way it ranks pages currently.
However, the benefit is that Google can understand subtopics better and serve pages for more relevant queries. This is a major plus for many plastic surgeons, as most of their content is long, educational content for medical purposes.
For example, some plastic surgeons will have pages about facelifts as long as 3,000 words or more to cover all the aspects of the surgery (e.g., procedure details, risks, benefits, costs, results, photos, etc). A long-form article can easily rank for 20-50+ keywords as opposed to just two or three like most others.
In a recent interview, Martin Splitt from Google confirmed that passages ranking will help websites with long-form content by basing its rankings on sections of an article rather than the entire article.
You might have seen results in Google where clicking a listing will jump to the section of a page that contains the answer, highlighted in yellow. This is not the same, Google confirms. But it gives you an idea of how they find sections. It wouldn’t surprise me if passage rankings will eventually behave similarly.
Should you optimize for passages ranking? Not really.
There’s no actual way to optimize for this other than to keep creating great content. If an SEO approaches you trying to sell you on “passage ranking SEO,” it may not be legitimate or, more than likely, it may be just snake oil.
Passages ranking does not have a ranking factor. The goal of this algorithm is to understand content better and to help people get better matched results.
For example, a patient searches for “types of breast implants.” You can have either an article that discusses implants specifically, or a page on the more general topic of breast augmentation (with a section about implants further down) that hopefully is ranking well for those specific keywords.
Until recently, if you had a page about breast augmentation, Google may have indexed it for, say, 5-10 keywords. None of which might be “breast implants.” If a competitor has a page about implants, or a page about breast augmentation that ranks for the keywords “breast implants,” they will outrank you.
However, with passages rankings, you can have subtopics on the same page (say a section about “breast implant types” about a third way down the page), you might rank for that term now when before you did not.
When Google crawls your site and these long-form pages, it will try to find and understand subtopics. If your page is all over the place, with disjointed content that’s unorganized or fragmented, you’re making it hard for crawlers to identify and classify the information it finds.
The goal, therefore, is to group and organize content better on the page, and to delineate those sections clearly using headings throughout. Headings are excellent signals that tell Google what the following section is all about.
If, for example, you had a section on “breast implant types” and the content follows a heading called “What types of breast implants are available?” You are accomplishing three important SEO tasks:
- You’re using a header that may be the same or similar as the query;
- You’re identifying and isolating the section that contains the answer; and,
- You’re also differentiating it from everything else (like “surgery recovery”).
It’s the reason it took me a while to write this because, after the rollout, I wanted to wait to see what some SEO analysts I follow and some ex-Google engineers would say about it and suggest we should do.
So, is there something you can do? Yes.
If your current pages have content that’s fragmented, edit or rewrite it to cluster the content around subtopics, and incorporate headers (e.g., H2, H3, H4, etc) throughout. (H1 should be for your headline.) That’s it.
Structuring your content semantically, and doing a better job at identifying subtopics in your content, will help not only your SEO but also UX (user experience). For one, people can find the exact information they want. And for another, it helps accessibility by creating “reading landmarks” on the page.
And UX is a ranking factor if not an influencer.
Plus, if a passage (subtopic) is more relevant than the parent topic of the entire page, it goes to reason that the passage makes the page more important to the user than an entire page, and therefore a more relevant search result.
One client asked me, “Should we create more content to cover all the subtopics, like writing individual blog posts? Or can we simply add to the same piece over time and grow just one page?”
I wrote about creating versus expanding content for SEO before. The answer is yes, but with some caveats and conditions. If the content is truly a subtopic and serves the same search intent, it may be a wise move to add to the primary “pillar” page, which you can expand and refresh.
Refreshed content is often better than fresh content. Now it’s an opportunity to revisit your older pages and restructure the content, too, even if you don’t do any significant rewrites. It’s an opportunity to update the timestamp and signal to Google that the content is now fresh again.
I’ve said it before: SEO used to be about optimizing content for machines, not humans. That worked to a large degree for a long time. But Google wants to give its users great content and a great search experience.
Writing for machines negates both.
Google is becoming increasingly sophisticated with its natural language processing (NLP) and deep learning algorithms (like “RankBrain” and its neural networks, also known as Google’s AI). It wants to learn how to read and understand content like a human being does.
So it goes to reason that, by optimizing content for humans (as you should), you are also optimizing it for Google. There’s no need to do passage ranking SEO. In fact, the best way to describe how to optimize for any ranking is something I read in an article on content intelligence (and I’m paraphrasing):
Structure shapes content by organizing it as objects rather than unstructured blobs. Semantics is the contextualization of content structures. They define the entities, associations, and relationships for a piece of content.
Other than rewriting content, here are ways to add semantics and structure to your existing content, which will also improve the user’s experience:
- Group content sections around subtopics or ideas.
- Stick with about 3-5 paragraphs per content section.
- Break sections up with margins and white spaces.
- Add headers throughout and before each section.
- Use shorter sentences and succinct headings.
- Keep paragraphs short (about 4-5 lines deep).
- Nest headings appropriately (i.e., don’t use H4 after H2).
- Add visuals where appropriate that relate to the subtopic.
- Provide short, subtopic-appropriate captions to images.
- Link content together with internal text and image links.
- Insert a table of contents at the beginning (see below).
- Include header anchor tags to “jump” to sections.
- Add references and resource links at the bottom.
- Identify the author (i.e., an “about the author” box).
You may have noticed a growing trend with long articles where they contain a table of content at the top, a synopsis or summary of the page, or a list of jumplinks to sections on the page by using header anchor tags.
TOCs, summaries (or TL;DRs), and section jumplinks are helpful. With long articles, they provide users with a quick, at-a-glance overview of what the page contains, but also a helpful way to jump directly to the section of interest (rather than having to wade through a bunch of irrelevant content).
Add a table of contents to long content. List your headings at the top of the article and even insert anchor links to jump to each section. For example, I use it in some long articles and some service pages, like my SEO consulting page.
But another indirect SEO benefit is that Google can display a menu of anchor links below your search engine results (SERP) listing. This will increase CTRs (clickthrough rates), which provides Google with positive feedback.
Remember that, when you increase CTRs, you indirectly inform Google that your listing is relevant, which has shown to indirectly influence your rankings.
Ultimately, even if the benefit of “optimizing” for passages rankings is not an SEO benefit in a direct sense, semantically structuring your content will help Google understand your content better. The more they do, well, you do the math.