Google’s New Passage Indexing Explained for SEO Beginners

So, what was the last thing you Googled? Whether you’re following the US presidential race or keeping up with events here in Canada, there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes at Google than you might think. 

When looking something up on Google or any other search engine, you might presume it does this automatically by going through every site possible all at once. Although this would be a pretty impressive feat (especially since Google likes to show just how fast it searches), Google has a much more simple solution to getting you the information you want: using its index. This massive database contains most of the information on the web and is enough to answer pretty much any question asked. 

But this database requires frequent updates, not just in how fast it collects data, but also in how it is arranged. Earlier this month, Google announced a new update coming to its indexing process, known as passage-based indexing. In today’s post, Let’s Get Optimized will explain exactly what this is and whether or not it’s important for your site.

What is Indexing?

Before we explain a bit more about this change to indexing, we first have to fully understand what indexing is and how Google does it. 

Search engine indexing is a process used by Google and other search engines to collect and store information about websites and their content. Much like how indexes appear at the end of books storing a long list of topics and where they appear in a book, Google has its own massive database of indexed websites and the information they contain. And when we say massive, we mean HUGE. Google reports its database is well over 100,000,000 gigabytes(!). To visualize how much that is, you’d need roughly 200,000 game consoles or 31 million iPhones to store that much data. 

Indexing Starts with Crawling 

Part of the indexing process involves crawling. This is the stage where Google scans and records all the details about a website by reading through the code and data it contains. Websites following good SEO practices won’t have a problem getting their data collected by Google, which will allow them to appear in search engines. 

It’s worth noting that not every website gets crawled. In fact, you can even (accidentally) tell Google to ignore your site using a snippet of coding. This is sadly a common sight for many businesses wondering why they can’t be found online for months, if not years.

There is also another problem when it comes to crawling that can stop you from being indexed. If your website does have technical errors that prevent Google’s crawler from doing its work, then your site will never appear in search engines no matter how much you try. This is why LGO prioritizes technical SEO audits for all our clients to make sure they’re not falling at the first hurdle. 

Much to many SEOs annoyance, Google is still perfecting its algorithm with plenty of changes and new additions, which is why you might have heard about updates such as the page experience update or the free shopping listings update, as well as the new passage-indexing update we’re talking about now. This also highlights just how essential it is to stay on top of your SEO or choose a reliable SEO expert who can do the work for you, otherwise your website will quickly fall behind on rankings. 

Search Engines Take Results From Its Index

When you go to search for a word or phrase in Google, the search engine starts scouring through its index to find you all the possible results for your query. The challenge for search engines is that there are typically hundreds or thousands of potential pages that could have the answer you’re looking for and Google cannot expect you to waste hours searching for each one equally. Instead, search engines are equipped with a complex algorithm (a large set of rules) that determines the best and most suitable results for your search. 

This is where Search Engine Optimization companies like Let’s Get Optimized come in. We’re here to make sure your website ticks all the boxes so that search engines prioritize you over your competitors. 

The Passage-Based Indexing Update

As part of Google’s desire to improve its services for us searchers, the search engine has unveiled a new update to its indexing, known as passage-based indexing.

There has been some confusion in the SEO community about what this means. In fact, the update was initially misunderstood to mean Google will only index passages from a page rather than the whole thing itself. For many worried SEOs, this meant a very confusing approach that would make optimizing a page nearly impossible. 

Thankfully, Google has clarified its stance. Pages will still be indexed, but the update means the changes will be in how it analyzes and ranks the content on your website.

Passage-Based Indexing vs Featured Snippets

A lot of these changes sound similar to another technique used by Google, known as featured snippets. You might have heard about featured snippets before, and it is highly likely you’ve encountered them when Googling something. 

Featured snippets appear at the top of search results as a short excerpt from a website that attempts to answer the question you’ve typed in. We say “attempt” because sometimes this isn’t the exact answer we’re looking for, and sometimes we prefer to look at the search results listed below the featured snippet instead. Getting your website optimized for featured snippets is a great achievement, because it shows Google recognizes your website as a quality source of information.

So, surely passage-based indexing is the same as featured snippets? Wrong

Based on a Q&A with Google conducted by Search Engine Land, “systems determine the relevance of any web document via understanding of passages. Featured snippets, on the other hand, identifies the most relevant passage in a document we’ve overall determined to be relevant to the query.

What does that mean? Here’s a breakdown for you:

Featured Snippets: Find the best information based on a webpage it feels is answering your question.  

Passage-Based Indexing: Gets a better understanding of a webpage by looking at the passages or sections of information it contains.

What Does Passage-Based Indexing Mean for SEO?


Passage SEO is unlikely to be a (legitimate) SEO tactic that we will be adding to our own toolbox. This is because the update is geared towards helping quality website content reach its audience, something we already prioritize here at Let’s Get Optimized. 


The Winner for Passage-Based Indexing

That being said, the big winner from this update is a certain type of content. Until now, the easiest way to earn a high ranking on Google’s search results for a particular term or keyword was to create niche content (e.g. a long blog post) that is very specific and dense in information. Meanwhile, content that is very broad but also has a passage containing the answer a person is looking for would rank poorly in comparison.  

For those already involved in SEO, this might mean header tags/subheadings and the content below them will play a bigger role than they did previously. 

An Example of How Passage-Based Indexing Might Work

Here’s a light-hearted example to explain how the new passage-indexing might work. Let’s say you have two pages:

A: 3 Funny Reasons Why Your Dog Barks at Sirens’ (750 words)

B: A Guide to Dog Behaviour By Dog Experts (2000 words)

At the moment, if you asked Google ‘why does my dog bark when it hears a siren?’, Google will likely choose a blog post specifically made for that question. This is because Google is trying to give you the most accurate information based on how it views these two pages as a whole unit. So it would interpret ‘3 Funny Reasons Why Your Dog Barks at Sirens’ as the best answer to your query.

Meanwhile, page B which is broader in scope and is focused on dog behavior would be less preferred, even though it has a passage telling you exactly why your dog barks at sirens. This is because Google is judging the best result based on the web page itself rather than the passages it contains.

But with the passage-indexing update soon being released, Google is balancing this out by sorting answers to questions like dog behaviour with relevant passages it has gathered from sections of web pages. If both pages are well-optimized, then they should have a more equal chance of ranking for the question asked than they did before.

Get Ready for the Passage-Indexing Update

There has been no fixed date for the upcoming update, but it is expected to be rolled out globally for English language audiences by the end of this year. 

Here at Let’s Get Optimized, we’re keeping ahead of the game by making sure our clients are well prepared for any ranking changes. Once again, we continue to champion the mastering of both technical SEO and content optimization that will ensure our clients reach their audience ahead of their competitors. If you are looking to team up with Canada’s best SEO company, get in touch with us today!

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