November has brought with it a couple of significant announcements from Google. The first has to do with a major core algorithm update that’s planned for next year, and the other has to do with a minor tweak to the current algorithm. Both can have major implications for your website’s visibility on search engine result pages.
THE PASSAGES UPDATE
Unlike next year’s planned Page Experience Update (which will be a core algorithm update), the Passages update uses Google’s AI engine (BERT) to help the current algorithm better rank sections of content within a page. According to Google’s John Mueller:
“[Passages] is not a core update…It’s more about ranking these passages from existing pages rather than indexing them individually…It’s really more about understanding the page and the different parts of the page and being able to recognize which of those parts are relevant for users query.”
He went on to say:
“…if you want a search engine to recognize a part of your page, then you should structure your page properly, that it’s easy to recognize.”
The important takeaway from this John’s statement is that instead of only ranking web pages that are well organized and explicitly about a given topic, Google can now rank a bigger or more comprehensive article that contains the answer to a User’s query in a section. This has the effect of broadening the pool of candidate pages, and that means your website might have a better chance of getting its content ranked than it previously had. It can also mean that you’ll have less of a chance since the pool of candidate pages is so much larger.
The bottom line is that Passages will be a bit of a mixed bag and an excellent reason to monitor your search engine visibility on an ongoing basis as a way of maintaining your competitive advantage.
THE UPCOMING PAGE EXPERIENCE UPDATE
Back in May of this year, Google announced that they’d be releasing a “Page Experience” update to their core algorithm sometime in the future. You could be forgiven for not noticing the announcement, given that the country was dealing with the first spike of COVID-19 cases, last week, on November 11th, they got a little more specific with the timing. The Page Experience Update will go live in May of 2021. Exactly when is unknown, but our advice is to plan for May 1st.
The impact of the Page Experience Update will be significant, for three reasons:
First, the Page Experience Update specifically looks at 7 non-editorial “signals” Google uses in it’s ranking algorithm: load time, time to first interactivity, mobile-friendliness, whether the content is served from a secure (HTTPS) server, whether the browsing experience is safe, whether you’re using intrusive interstitials – aka popups – that might block the browsing experience, and now also layout shifts (another way of saying does your content adjust to the device resolution and orientation). The image below, cribbed from Barry Schwartz / SEO Roundtable illustrates what’s involved:
Second, Google will be testing out a series of visual indicators on the search engine result pages which will highlight pages with a great page experience. Google has tested visual indicators that highlight pages in search results that have great page experience before. They wrote,
“…we believe that providing information about the quality of a web page’s experience can be helpful to users in choosing the search result that they want to visit. On results, the snippet or image preview helps provide topical context for users to know what information a page can provide. Visual indicators on the results are another way to do the same, and we are working on one that identifies pages that have met all of the page experience criteria. We plan to test this soon and if the testing is successful, it will launch in May 2021 and we’ll share more details on the progress of this in the coming months.”
Here are some of the indicators Google’s used in the past:
|Sponsored||Instant||Slow to load|
These indicators typically appear above the page title next to the URL on the search result listing or under the title in front of the meta description text. They may be icons or bolded text, or in the future, possibly highlighted with colors.
Third, Google announced the Page Experience Update a year in advance. That doesn’t happen often. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times Google has done this (and still have a couple of fingers in reserve). This is Google with a big giant megaphone telling website owners, “Hey – this is coming, it’s going to be huge (just like the mobile-first update in 2018) and y’all better start gettin’ ready now.” For me, this is probably the most significant part of the announcement.