Natural Language SEO and Passage Indexing. What Does The Future of SEO Hold?


Upon gaining a firm understanding of,Google’s recent announcements on its expanding use of natural language understanding algorithms, it appears to be indicative of a major shift in how it search engines such as Google determine which content ranks more favorably in the SERPS. And consequently, how, these natural language algorithms will affect best prectices for content and optimization going forward..


Ranking passages in search results.

Google is implementing passage-based indexing, which will enable it to pinpoint specific passages on a page and analyze them in order to determine which is the most relevant for a given query — this holding true even if they are not on the primary subject of the page. (Google doesn’t actually index passages separately.) Googlers have said that this will apply to 7% of search queries across all languages when it’s fully implemented..

BERT’s influence will grow from 10% to nearly 100% of all search queries.

natural language

BERT is a neural network-based technique for natural language pre-training that Google and Bing have been using to better discern the context of words. BERT now powers almost every English-language search performed on Google — a dramatic increase from one in 10 queries when Google first announced the use of BERT in October 2019.


The wider adoption of BERT and it’s natural language interpretation is projected to improve Google’s comprehension of web content and search intent. In-depth information on precisely what BERT means for language processing in search can be found in this post by SearchEngineJournal FAQ: All about the BERT algorithm in Google search and A deep dive into BERT: How BERT launched a rocket into natural language understanding.

Misspelling improvements.

For SEOs who were actively attempting to rank and optimize for misspellings, this change, (projected to roll out by the end of October 2020), means that their efforts are officially squandered and it is time to focus them elsewhere.

According to Google, one out of every ten queries entered in search are misspelled. To improve accuracy for those queries, Google will also be applying advancements in language understanding to better identify common patterns in misspellings to understand the intended entry, such as when context may be required to identify a misspelling or in cases where words are drastically misspelled.

What this ultimately means for SEO and the direction search is headed

More freedom to focus on audiences, not search crawlers.

The technology powering passage indexation allows Google to zero in on pages that have one individual section that matches a query especially well, even if the rest of the page is not relevant.

“If anything, these updates move us toward an internet where we can focus more on end users and not worry as much about bots and tricks, from a content and ranking perspective,” as quoted by Dr. Pete Meyers, marketing scientist at Moz, who added that making your site friendly for GoogleBot to crawl it will still be important from a technical SEO perspective.

“As Google rolled out Featured Snippets and became more focused on topical authority, there was a movement toward much more focused content,” Meyers said. Search engines’ preference for topical authority and focused content may have cornered SEOs into a mindset in which users and search engines exist on equal footing as priorities when creating content.

“If the algorithm can understand the relevance of passages, we can hopefully relax a bit about this and not go overboard,” he said, “We don’t need a page for every question a visitor might ask, for example.”

The flexibility to move away from organizing content for search engines should afford SEOs more freedom to instead create content that matches the searcher’s intent, in the form that makes the most sense for the subject matter and the audience, whether that is long-form or laser-focused.

What’s good, what’s bad and what to watch out for.

Some may interpret the way Google is presenting passage indexing as another milestone of the zero-click search trend.

“The better display of passage-related information on Google SERPs means the probability of users clicking on the search result would reduce,” said Kaushal Thakkar, founder and managing director of 2020 Search Engine Land Award-winning agency INFIDIGIT, “Since the passage listed will provide additional information to the users on the SERP itself, not requiring them to visit the source page.” However, the overall trend of increasing query volume each year means that, for many businesses, any decrease in traffic may go unnoticed, Thakkar added.

“As an SEO, I’d pay more attention to search impressions data in Search Console,” said Hamlet Batista, CEO of RankSense, recommending that SEOs also monitor their clickthrough rates, engagement and the quality of their traffic as these algorithms impact search results. Unfortunately, at this time there isn’t a specific report in Google Search Console showing traffic from passage indexation, but you may see a rise in page impressions if those passages start ranking for queries.

“I wouldn’t abandon [keyword research], but adapt it to intent research,” he said, adding that the same intent can be expressed using various keywords. Google’s expectation is that only 7% of queries will be improved by passage indexation, which means that keyword research will remain an important part of SEO, at least for the foreseeable future.

“Glass-half-full SEOs see this as people searching more as [search] engines become more useful,” Batista said, noting a potentially positive outcome of these algorithm updates. In addition to potentially greater search volume, these updates may also lead to higher quality traffic as results would presumably be more relevant to users.

Looking to the future.

These advancements also speak to the shortcomings of search engines in their current state, as well as the direction that Google is taking in order to address them.

“First of all, [passage indexation] illustrates one of the big challenges with search, which is the vast array of types of information that people might be looking for,” said Eric Enge, general manager at Perficient Digital, “Many times this is information that is so specific, yet we already see Google reporting that it impacts 7% of all search queries. Chances are, as this algorithm gets refined that 7% number will go up significantly.”

“In addition, this highlights the challenges we all face as SEOs (and digital marketers),” Enge said, referring to how businesses must create a broad range of content to answer users’ questions and address their needs, which are often more complex than we initially anticipate.

If search engines continue to prioritize focused content the way they have been, then providing a complete user experience while aiming for high visibility in the search results may result in tradeoffs. For example, it might be necessary to create a large amount of single-keyword-optimized pages to address your users’ various questions while still adhering to search engines’ preferences for focused content.

This may result in creating pages about very similar topics or an excess of content and pages that are hard to maintain and difficult for users to navigate, ultimately hindering the experience you were trying to improve in the first place.

If Google can continue to advance its natural language understanding, then it’ll be better equipped to gauge relevance, so SEOs won’t have to approach content in such a rigid manner. Google’s recent, and future, applications of natural language processing and AI will be aimed at removing those tradeoffs so that it can serve relevant results, no matter how obscure a query might be or where on a site that information lives.

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