A new year has dawned and SEOs, agency operators and marketing managers alike are wondering what's going to change in 2021 in search engine optimization (SEO)? Which trends will shape SEO in 2021? Which ranking factors are likely to play a major role this year and how can you prepare for them? This article will help you with all these questions.
Review: 2020 from an SEO point of view
True to the motto "only those who know the past can understand the present and shape the future" - let's first take a look back at 2020 from an SEO perspective.
Confirmed core updates in 2020
The following core updates were made in 2020 and have been officially confirmed by Google. If you want to go back one more year in Google history, you can read about all confirmed updates in the article Core Updates from 2019.
13.01.2020 - January 2020 core update
We were only a few days into the new year when Google already announced the first core update and rolled it out a few minutes later.
04.05.2020 - May 2020 core update
The coronavirus pandemic did not stop Google releasing another core update in May. Sistrix has analyzed in more detail which domains were among the winners and the losers for this update too. Find more information here.
03.12.2020 - December 2020 core update
Nearly six months after the May core update and shortly before the end of the year, Google surprised once again with a third and final core update for 2020. Google also pointed out with this core update that it can take up to two weeks until the updates are fully rolled out and recommends the following document as a guide for webmasters.
This "Christmas gift" from Google changed in particular the way the search engine giant treats dictionaries and encyclopedias. These were among the obvious losers of the update.
Search Console API update & Request Indexing feature
The Search Console API received an update and thus got fresh data and new filters. Among other things, Google presented:
- More up-to-date data and a new filter function
- Domain property support in the Sitemaps API
- Guidelines for migration of the Discovery doc.
According to Google in a Webmaster Hangout, it most recently revised some features to improve the Search Console, including disabling the "Request Indexing" feature.
Much to the delight of many SEO managers, this function has recently been reactivated in the Google Search Console. Now website owners are free to inform Google about new subpages of a domain and to accelerate the indexing of new websites.
Google Core Web Vitals
First things first: May 2021 should be marked on everyone's calendar. Why? Google announced the new "Core Web Vitals" as a ranking factor under the umbrella of page experience. Google had already included the user experience as a ranking factor in the algorithm. But exactly how remained a mystery for a long time. With the planned update in May 2021, however, Google now provides concrete and measurable KPIs in the form of Core Web Vitals.
What metrics are included in the Core Web Vitals and what do they mean?
The Core Web Vitals are made up of the metrics Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), First Input Delay (FID) and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS). Put simply, the new metrics answer the following questions:
Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): How long does it take for the main content of your website to load?
There's a variety of different methods and ways to measure the loading time of a website. The metric First Contentful Paint, for example, indicates when the website displays content for the first time. On the other hand, the metric LCP (Largest Contentful Paint) measures the loading time in a much cleverer way. It measures how long it takes for the main content of the website to load. If you follow Google's Quality Rater Guidelines, the main content is the content that serves the purpose of the respective website.
LCP, FID & CLS are the first Core Web Vitals
Find out exactly what's behind these three acronyms, how and where they can be measured and why it's best to start looking at Core Web Vitals right now in this blog post.
First Input Delay (FID): When can a user interact with the loaded website for the first time?
You visit a website, it starts to build up and while loading, you try to click on a button or something else. In some cases, not much happens in the process because the website hasn't fully built itself yet. This is bad for the user experience for one thing, and with Core Web Vitals coming in May 2021, it's also bad for rankings. Specifically, Google provides a detailed guide on how to improve FID.
Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): How is the visual stability of your website?
Everyone's been on websites where elements shift all over the place or build up on top of each other during loading. That such websites don't provide the best user experience is pretty obvious. Google also shares this view, which is why the metric now flows into the assessment of the user experience as part of the Core Web Vitals.
The starting point for calculating the metric are the impact fraction and the distance fraction. The former clarifies what percentage of the screen is moved during loading. The latter provides information about how far content moves during loading in relation to the viewport.
Basically, the new metrics are considered part of the page experience. All three of the metrics above have been added to the previous signals for page experience (https, mobile usability, safe browsing, non-intrusive interstitials) as illustrated in the following diagram from Google:
Which are ideal scores for my website and which scores need improvement?
Google itself communicates the following ranges for orientation: a loading time of the main content (LCP) of less than 2.5 seconds is considered good. Scores between 2.5 and 4 seconds require improvement. Anything above this is considered bad and such websites should expect ranking losses.
If you don't want to be negatively affected by the upcoming update in May, your users should be able to interact with the website after 100 ms at the latest while it's loading (FID). You should also aim for a CLS score of less than 0.1.
Where can I view or measure the Core Web Vitals scores?
There are several ways to measure the metrics of a website. On the one hand, the values can be retrieved via the Chrome User Experience Report. This provides empirical values about how real Chrome users experience different websites. However, the easiest way for webmasters should be to retrieve the data from PageSpeed Insights.
Alternatively, website operators can retrieve results by adding a "Core Web Vitals Report" to the Search Console. The three scores can also be retrieved quite quickly via the Web Vitals extension.
Google itself provides a comprehensive guide with frequently asked questions (FAQs) around the topic of Core Web Vitals. Moreover, Google mentions that websites meeting all usability criteria may be indicated in a different way in search results.
This may well be a similar function as used in AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages). These are displayed with a lightning bolt in front of the search result in the mobile search, to signal a fast loading time to the user in advance.
Voice Search: increasing importance & influence on search queries
Thanks to inventions such as Siri, Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, most households are now able to enter voice commands or searches. It's hardly surprising that the importance of voice commands will continue to grow in 2021, especially with regard to SEO.
All the voice assistants mentioned above enable searching in Google & Co. in a way that is fundamentally different from a conventional search. Essentially, the search query itself is the main difference.
While someone using Voice Search might say a search query as "Hey Google, what are the SEO trends for 2021?", someone using search engines in the traditional way with text is more likely to type in a search query like "SEO Trends 2021".
It's clear that much longer and natural search queries are relevant for voice search. In order to optimize website content for Voice Search, it's therefore recommended to use precisely these complex questions and natural phrases instead of short search queries.
So if it makes sense for your industry, products or services, you should definitely prepare content for voice searches.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) & RankBrain
With the development of Google's AI algorithm RankBrain, artificial intelligence has found its way into the Google algorithm for the first time. RankBrain is sometimes suitable for providing relevant search results even for new, previously unanswered search queries.
One of the key developers of this technology based on machine learning and AI is the scientific director of Google, Greg Corrado. He emphasized the learning ability of the algorithm already during its development. We can thus expect it to improve with every search query.
In the area of search engine optimization, likes and shares are referred to as social signals. Especially for users who see the content on social media, they serve as a signal for authority and expertise. Social signals can also serve Google as a signal, for example, to classify content that's frequently shared on Facebook, Twitter and Co. as particularly relevant.
If your content is shared frequently on social media, you appear to other users as an expert in a certain subject area. Google sees this very similarly and rewards you with better rankings where appropriate.
EAT principles for better rankings
While we're on the topic of authority and expert status, it makes sense to take a look at the EAT score. Content that expresses expertise, authority and trustworthiness is what Google has called EAT content. Especially in industries or topics that are considered YMLF (your money, your life) such as finance, investment and health, this type of EAT content is crucially important.
The factors underscore the importance of high-quality content for Google. Considering the fact that Google is ultimately most interested in delivering the best possible search results for users, EAT content should continue to gain importance in 2021.
Optimization for mobile devices
The importance of Mobile First indexing, first introduced in 2019, continues to grow. With this introduction, Google laid the foundation for the primary optimization for mobile devices. The search engine considers first and foremost the mobile version of a website instead of the desktop version.
The importance of Mobile First optimization is also likely to continue to increase in 2021. On the one hand, this is due to the continuing increase in the number of users of mobile devices in relation to desktop devices. On the other hand, John Mueller (Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google) announced that a complete switch to the Mobile First index will take place in March 2021. In plain English, this means: From March 2021, Google will ignore content from websites that are exclusively visible on desktop.
Tip: test your mobile optimization
If you're not sure whether your website is sufficiently optimized for mobile devices, you can use the free test for mobile devices from Google. Alternatively, just take a look at the Search Console under the tab "Optimization for mobile devices".
Zero-click searches & Structured Data
The increasing number of so-called zero click searches, i.e. search queries that don't result in a click from the user, has been worrying some SEOs and website operators in recent years. This has gone so far as some parties claiming that "SEO is dead".
As you can see in the diagram below, the number of zero-click Searches already increased in the period from 2016 to 2019. On mobile devices, both the percentage and the increase of zero-click searches is stronger compared to desktop search.
But why is that? If you search, for example, for the weather or want to see the time in a certain country, you'll receive a direct answer from Google via the OneBox. On the one hand, this increases search convenience, but it also reduces traffic to relevant websites. Furthermore, a large proportion of search queries can already be answered by rich snippets (i.e. expanded search results) in Google.
However, this should not deter you from giving structured data a wide berth - on the contrary. They help Google understand your website better and usually lead to a higher CTR(click through rate).
Long content still performs better
The old adage "content is king" still applies in 2021. Long and especially in-depth content will continue to perform better than short and uninformative content. It therefore goes without saying that you need to keep publishing high-quality content to achieve top rankings in the search results (SERPs).
But is the length of my content the only determining factor? No. Various studies have found a correlation between long content and good rankings, but not a causality. In plain language: long content isn't necessarily high-quality and informative and it doesn't mean it will automatically appear in the top positions in Google.
However, it's highly likely that a 2000-word article will be far more informative than a 500-word article. Therefore, focus on creating quality and informative content rather than solely considering the length of your texts.
A study by Backlinko supports this statement. It says that long content achieves far better positions in the SERPS than content that is less long.
According to the research, the average length of the top 10 search results is 1,447 words. Hubspot, on the other hand, recommended a content length of approximately 2,100 - 2,400 words for 2020. Again, a similar study by SerpIQ provides different data, as the following graphic illustrates:
How long your content will be in the new year is, of course, up to you. However, the basic message is clear: longer and more informative content will inevitably perform better. Backlinko's research also found another advantage: The longer the content, the more domains linked to a given article. This in turn leads to better rankings. So there is nothing to be said against putting a little more effort into content creation and treating a topic in depth.
Semantic Search & Search Intention
A few years ago, we mostly only concentrated on the focus keyword of a text. The result? These texts were often over-optimized and unnatural. Nowadays, it should be clear to everyone that things like keyword stuffing are no longer appropriate let alone useful.
In 2021, the significance of search intent and semantic search will also increase. It will therefore be much more important to question the objective of the searcher and provide relevant answers.
Especially with the increasing importance of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, it makes far more sense to write texts for humans - not machines.
Google works hard to understand and interpret texts in the right context. In order to make your texts as relevant as possible, it makes sense to use WFD*IDF tools in addition to keyword research to find keywords that are in the context of the respective topic. Semantic keywords in particular can be read out simply and easily using a tool such as the LSIGraph tool.
Another tool that I believe is ideal for the data-driven optimization of text content Surfer. This takes into account both the ideal length of the content mentioned above as well as other relevant keywords.
Such tools should only serve as orientation and not as strict guidelines for the text to follow. After all, texts should be written by people for people.
Other recommendations for the year 2021
John Mueller (Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google) gave his estimates for 2021 at SMX Virtual at the end of 2020, which SEO expert Glenn Gabe (columnist at Search Engine Land) summarized on Twitter:
Accordingly, the upcoming Core Updates will be much more difficult to explain, as they focus on general aspects such as quality and relevance rather than on individual, clearly definable things.
At the same time, John Mueller announced that technically optimized websites will have a significant advantage over non-optimized websites. So technical SEO in particular needs to be considered in 2021.
At the same time, one of his statements was that some upcoming updates will also have advantages for not explicitly optimized websites. Reason to rejoice for all those who've not yet started on the topic of SEO themselves.
It looks like the changes, innovations and developments coming our way with SEO in 2021 will continue to be exciting.