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What is Passage Indexing and how to use it for positioning?

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Table of Contents:

  1. How does passage indexing work?
  2. Google BERT update
  3. Passage indexing benefits in positioning
  4. How to prepare a page for passage indexing?

More and more people dealing with positioning pages are also focused on passage indexing (also known as passage ranking). It is the Google search engine used to present users with matched fragments with the answer. As a result, the Internet user does not have to open the website to get the answer to the question asked. Through passage indexing, the Google search engine analyzes the content of individual fragments of the website and then, based on them, generates a response tailored to the user’s intentions.

How does passage indexing work?

Passage indexing works on the basis of the Google BERT algorithm that uses machine learning. The search engine system divides one text into several fragments, and then displays the individual parts in the search engine to users as an answer to a specific query. This mechanism allows Google to verify any sections of the content and evaluate them independently of the rest of the content on the page.

In 2020, Google announced that the passage indexing function will be introduced into the search engine algorithm. The first major implementations – mainly in the English-speaking market – took place in February 2021. The response fragments generated in this way differ slightly from the featured snippet, but both of these functions are based on completely separate systems and algorithms. Passage indexing is one step further compared to paragraph snippets. Thanks to the new mechanics, the user receives a complete and independent answer to his question. The featured snippet, on the other hand, shows the proposed fragment with the answer from the website – usually you need to open the website to get it. According to Dannie Sullivan (co-founder of Search Engine Land), featured snippets in the USA are already used only for voice search,

Through the passage indexing mechanism, the search engine’s algorithm can display a section of the page as a response, which has a slightly different subject than the main content. The robots analyze the URL not as a whole, but small fragments, where each part of the content relates to a different topic. For example, this text is divided into several headings. Each of them presents the user with different information – Google robots are able to analyze it separately, and then present a fragment of the text as an answer to the Internet user’s question. Passage indexing does not take into account the overall relevance of the page, only the relevance of fragments to the search term. Algorithms are getting better and better to “understand” the content of websites. The Google search engine regularly receives new upgrades, to best match your ranking to the intentions of the user who wants to receive an answer to a specific query. That is why in 2019 Google implemented the BERT update, which creates the foundations for the passage indexing function.

What is Passage Indexing and how to use it for positioning?

Google BERT update

In October 2019, Google announced that the search engine algorithm will be enriched with an update to BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers). This is the biggest change since the implementation of RankBrain four years earlier. BERT’s task is to better match the results to user queries, which will positively affect the UX of Internet users when using the Google search engine. Users use ever longer and more complex queries to get a response from the search engine. The website ranking system before the BERT update had many shortcomings, as Google itself knew. Due to the changes from 2019, pronouns (e.g. how many, which, who) are even more important. At the same time, the search engine is able to prepare a fragment with the answer (featured snippet or passage indexing) even for complex queries, which was a rare phenomenon before. Google conducted extensive testing in 2019/2020 to ensure that the changes made by BERT were the most helpful in showing relevant search results. Thanks to the update, the search results are not only closely matched to the user’s intentions, but also much more readable. More and more often Google selects the meta description for web pages on its own, instead of using the one assigned by the website owner. Then the internet user will find the right answer to his question much faster. Thanks to the update, the search results are not only closely matched to the user’s intentions, but also much more readable. More and more often Google selects the meta description for web pages on its own, instead of using the one assigned by the website owner. Then the Internet user will find the right answer to his question much faster. Thanks to the update, the search results are not only closely matched to the user’s intentions, but also much more readable. More and more often Google selects the meta description for web pages on its own, instead of using the one assigned by the website owner. Then the internet user will find the right answer to his question much faster.

What is Passage Indexing and how to use it for positioning?

Source: Google Blog. Search results before and after BERT update.

BERT uses neural networks to better understand the content and rank the pieces of content on websites. While Google indexes the entire site, its individual parts can be analyzed separately. BERT uses the NLP (Natural Language Processing) system, therefore it verifies each user’s query in order to build connections of different words and relationships between them. The algorithm verifies content in context, so it is able to distinguish the meaning of a specific word, even when the phrase has several meanings. An example of this phenomenon in Polish is the term “zipper”, which can simultaneously mean a building, door element and part of trousers. The implementation of BERT allowed for the preparation of the passage indexing mechanism, which since the beginning of 2021 has been constantly expanded with new functions and supports new languages. By updating BERT, the search engine understands synonyms even better. When a user searches for “dentist” on Google, the results may show pages optimized for the word “dentist”. In addition, neural networks together with machine learning make the search engine able to capture the meaning of the user’s query even if it is not complete. For example, for the phrase “Polish match schedule”, Google displays the table for the upcoming matches of the Polish national football team – not volleyball or handball. This is due to the popularity of a specific issue, therefore the algorithm discreetly completes the user’s query so that the accuracy of the results is higher. BERT knows we have a “loaf of bread” and a “mobile-phone”. Just open the search engine and enter the phrase “media post” in it and Google will complete the query itself with the word “social”. The algorithm learns by analyzing millions of queries every day.

What is Passage Indexing and how to use it for positioning?

Passage indexing benefits in positioning

Passage indexing, like the featured snippet, allows you to display a website in the Google search engine at the so-called zero position. This is the area at the top of the list that has the answer to your question. In some situations, reaching zero position can result in an increase in organic traffic, which is the primary benefit of positioning a page under passage indexing.

Achieving a zero position requires proper website optimization. Only then will the algorithm make the content of the site appear to users in this way. The dedicated fragment with the answer is not always assigned to a website that is in the TOP 3 or TOP 10 search lists for a specific keyword. Often, the algorithm, through passage indexing, presents a fragment from a website that could have been much lower in the search engine, but its content is a perfectly matched response to the user’s intentions. Based on BERT, the Google search engine analyzes the query and then sets the zero position. The advantage of passage indexing in positioning is a greater number of visits to the page, i.e. higher organic traffic. However, this principle only works when when reaching the answer to the question asked by the user requires greater involvement (e.g. in the case of a specialized issue). 

Then the surfer not only reads the information displayed by passage indexing, but also opens the website to learn more. It’s hard to drive traffic for a query like “What Caffeine Dose Is Lethal?” As Google will show you a clear and precise answer. The user will get to know it and close the browser window without looking at the website. Passage indexing is an opportunity for websites that deal with complex issues. This is how, first of all, excerpts from blog articles are displayed, so it’s worth creating such content. If the answer to the question is satisfactory, but still too short for the recipient, probably an internet user will open a website to get to know the topic better. The advantage of the mechanics of passage indexing is also building greater recognition on the web. Even if the user does not open the website – because the displayed answer will be complete – there is a high probability that the recipient will remember the domain name from which the text fragment comes. This phenomenon creates an image of an expert in the industry.

What is Passage Indexing and how to use it for positioning?

How to prepare a page for passage indexing?

Passage indexing can occur naturally, without the need for special page optimization for this mechanic. However, there are a number of techniques that increase the chance of a website showing up in zero. For this purpose, qualitative content in line with the ETA principle should be created. Such texts should be:

  • valuable for the recipient,
  • comprehensive, i.e. touching a specific issue in depth,
  • created by authorities in the industry,
  • properly formatted according to SEO principles.

The key issue is not only to prepare valuable content, but also to optimize the entire website. Google’s algorithm is reluctant to visit websites with technical errors, long loading times, poor UX design and a spammer link profile. Optimization helps to get better results in terms of search engine rankings and increases the chance of getting answers in passage indexing. So you should:

  • title and describe subpages according to their content,
  • take care of the site structure,
  • avoid adding too many ads,
  • take care of the responsiveness of the website,
  • publish content in the form of AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages),
  • remove any errors on the website.

After the BERT update and the implementation of the passage indexing function, the headings in the body became even more important. When analyzing the content, the algorithm takes them into account, as well as the text directly below them. A long article is divided into smaller fragments and from their context Google tries to prepare a response to the user’s query. An important part of optimizing the content for passage indexing is bolding the key parts of the content, not just phrases.

What is Passage Indexing and how to use it for positioning?

Bottom line: Does passage indexing seriously affect SEO ?

Websites with useful, long content, thanks to passage indexing, can see an increase in the rankings of the Google search engine – and therefore also in organic traffic. Creating high-quality content has always been and will continue to be a key part of SEO activities. Estimates on the implementation of the passage indexing mechanics indicate that this technology will change about 7% of search results in all languages. Positive changes affect those websites that focus on substantive content created for users, not Google robots.

Appropriate website structure, errors on the page, correct URL addresses – such issues significantly affect the effectiveness of positioning, therefore the skillful creation of redirects on the website should be one of the important elements of the positioning strategy. However, you should remember about moderation – the lack of redirects is a serious problem, but their excess can also weaken the website. Correctness and optimization of implementation are important in developing User Experience. The smoother, more convenient and easier a given user browses a website, the more time he or she will spend on it and the more likely to return to it. Redirects affect not only website traffic, but conversion as well. Consider online stores – each time a potential customer encounters a 404 error, the chances of it being that he will decide to continue browsing the assortment and the final transaction. It is worth regularly monitoring the operation of the website and checking if all redirects are functioning flawlessly, then we increase our chances of quickly detecting any errors and fixing them before it has a negative impact on the operation and effectiveness of the website.


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