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Passage Ranking and BERT Explained

If you’re into SEO, you’ve probably read about Google’s new update of passage ranking, AI advancements that influence search, and BERT language understanding. It seems a lot to take in and keep up with, but it’s less scary than it looks at first glance. After all, Google is only trying to improve its product and provide its users with an excellent experience every time they search for information online.

What hides behind these big words, and what changes should you make to keep your website relevant? Let’s see what Google’s been doing and what changes for users and website owners.

Google Understands English

It’s been several years since Google started looking into the intent behind queries to deliver accurate and relevant search results. And website owners improved their websites to keep up with every new algorithm update.

Language understanding research enabled the search engine to see the meaning of queries regardless of how users combined the words. The Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) system trained the engine using neural network-based techniques for natural language processing.

In plain English, Google uses AI to “understand” language: it processes each term you use in relationship with the other words in your query to train the algorithm to deliver relevant search results. It sees the context created by the prepositions you use in your query, for example, and breaks down the question to understand what you’re looking for. That’s why the new AI advancements are available only for websites written in English for now. The plan is to take the BERT model and adapt it to other languages to improve the search experience for international users, too.

The new features influence the search process in three significant ways:

  • The search engine is now able to understand most queries that contain misspelled words.
  • It can recognize where on an indexed page a user can find the information required.
  • Google can identify subtopics around a specific interest and suggest a wide range of content to cover more areas.

Google Can Read Individual Passages from The Page

As a consequence of understanding questions better, Google can now deliver relevant search results and even point users where precisely on the page they can find answers. Probably you’ve noticed that when you search for specific information and open a web page, you’re automatically directed to a highlighted passage that was previously shown as a featured snippet.

The new feature results from what many SEO experts call “passage indexing” and makes it easier for users to find what they’re looking for in large blocks of text. By “finding that needle-in-a-haystack information,” Google estimates to improve around 7 percent of search queries across all languages when the feature is rolled out globally.

What’s the difference? Google still indexes the page as a whole. However, on top of that, it understands how to use different passages from the page to deliver specific results. In other words, indexing doesn’t change; the way Google uses your content does, making it easier for it to rank relevant results only.

Another change is in the way Google shows the results, and that’s why you’ll keep seeing more featured snippets from now on. Until now, Google showed in snippets what it appeared to be the most relevant information on a page; now, it will illustrate the passages that are more likely to answer a specific query.

A Word on Key Moments in Videos

AI advancements can process words to identify the most relevant passages and images to point out the best moments in a video. Google can now help its users go to the exact moment in a video to see what they’re interested in.

The search engine tags key moments and presents them “like chapters in a book” to make it easy for users to find what they want inside the video. According to estimations, around 10 percent of searches on Google use this new technology.

What Does Passage Ranking Change for Website Owners?

Nothing changes if the content is valuable and responds to specific questions. Clear paragraphs that are easy-to-read and understand by search engines and readers will continue to bring in targeted traffic, just like they did until now.

While there’s no direct clue from Google, it might mean that headings and subheadings could become more important in identifying the meaning behind specific passages on your page.

If you’re a big fan of long-form content, you want to make sure that your readers can easily see a list of the subtopics you discuss on the page. You should signal correctly and clearly the various subtopics using H2 and H3 tags.

The good news is that the new approach helps you reach a more targeted audience with your content than before, indirectly improving overall SEO.

More Changes from Google

Besides the changes explained above, Google has been making significant progress in areas that don’t equally impact all website owners. Among them, here are the most talked-about:

  • Live updates. Google has introduced live busyness updates to show its users how crowded spaces are to make it easier for people to observe social distancing rules. With Google Maps, the engine now provides additional information about the safety measures you must take in specific posts.
  • Advanced search for journalists. Pinpoint is a new tool by Google Search that helps reporters process information from hundreds of thousands of documents to find information about people and organizations.
  • New features in Lens and AR in Google Search. Google’s been developing visual tools to help with learning and online shopping. Users can now see things in 3D for better understanding.
  • “Hum to search.” Do you know the feeling when you remember a song but don’t know the lyrics to search for it on Google? Now, you don’t have to live that anymore. It’s enough to sing, and AI-powered tools might recognize the song and help the search engine match your query to the right result.

It’s safe to say Google is making giant steps towards making it easy for everyone to access its services with excellent results. Indirectly, these efforts will help anyone who uses Google for business because when users are happy, they’re more likely to listen to what you have to say.

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