There are always new trends popping up in SEO – and with every new trend, a new way to approach your online strategy. An effective SEO strategy is one of the best ways to improve your website’s ranking in search results, increase brand awareness, and grow your customer base. As search engines evolve to give users exactly what they’re looking for, what makes a good SEO strategy is subject to change.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at the evolution of SEO, why it’s always changing, and the top SEO trends of 2021 (so far).
What is SEO, and why does it change?
SEO is search engine optimization. Search engine optimization refers to the combination of strategies you can use to improve your website’s rank in search results, thus increasing visibility online. An SEO strategy is vital to build a strong online presence and to help you or your business reach your target audience.
Although SEO has been around in some form since the 1990s, it looks very different today. Many factors over the last 30 years have impacted the evolution of SEO, but there are two primary driving forces behind these changes:
1. Changes in Google’s algorithm: algorithm updates change how Google decides what ranks in search results. Google rolls out updates to target all kinds of issues, but the primary goals behind Google algorithm updates are: 1) to limit how much people can “game” the ranking system, and 2) to give users the best results for their query by cutting down on spam or content that is only ranking due to SEO.
These updates can reward or penalize certain sites, and as a result have had a huge impact over time on what are considered SEO best practices. For example, keyword stuffing – including your target keyword or keywords heavily in content and copy – used to be a foundational and intuitive SEO strategy. However, Google has implemented several updates to combat spammy content, partially by penalizing websites who use keyword stuffing as an SEO strategy, rendering that strategy no longer effective.
2. Changes in user behavior: early on in SEO, optimizing for the search engine was the goal. Now, websites, profiles, and content that prioritize the user are what rank supreme. Over time, how users interact with search engines and search results has changed, and search engines have responded to these changes accordingly in algorithm updates. Increases in mobile search, voice search, and users with access to the internet at all have all resulted in shifts in what is considered a strong SEO strategy.
Of course, these two forces interact, and impact each other significantly. Google updates its algorithm to improve user experience, and lets user experience and action in Google search impact these updates.
Why staying up-to-date on SEO trends matters
In the world of SEO, utilizing outdated tactics and strategies can not only be a waste of time, but can actually have a negative impact on your efforts. As we said earlier, Google has gone so far as to penalize certain strategies that used to be foundational to an effective SEO strategy.
In 2021, it’s not good enough to generally be up-to-date, either. There are billions of Google searches being conducted every day, and nearly 2 billion active websites online – but roughly 91% of pages get no organic search traffic from Google search.
Before this scares you too much, keep in mind that millions of web pages do get organic search traffic. Still, with the top three spots in Google results earning over 75% of clicks, it’s not enough to have a pretty good SEO strategy. You have to have the best – or close to it – and one way to do this is staying on top of new SEO trends.
First things first: Google algorithm updates in 2021
As we touched on earlier, Google’s algorithm updates can have a significant impact on where websites rank and, as a result, SEO best practices. An algorithm update refers to a change in the processes that determine how Google ranks a website in results, often to improve user experience, relevance to query, and quality of results. While some updates can go by nearly unnoticed, others can have a major impact on what you see in results.
2021 has been a big year for Google algorithm updates, perhaps most notably due to the June Page Experience update. This update, originally slated for April/May 2021, aimed to highlight pages in search results that “offer great user experiences.” This rollout included Core Web Vitals – loading, interactivity, and visual stability – new metrics that will be used to measure user experience, all accessible in Google Search Console (GSC). Put a bit more simply, this update targeted page speed and usability, rewarding sites that operate well in this way.
Other notable 2021 updates include:
- Passage Indexing: this update, rolled out in February, introduced a new way for the Google search engine to display content by pulling passages from content relevant to certain search queries and displaying them in results as a featured snippet.
- Product Reviews: this update confirmed that Google would be rewarding or prioritizing in-depth, longform product reviews over shorter, less thorough reviews.
- Core Updates: in June and July of 2021, Google rolled out two related core updates. Though Google did not go into specifics, these updates seemed to cover a lot of ground, and included a focus on content quality.
While this is no means a comprehensive list of Google’s 2021 updates (as Google has confirmed several updates this year), this provides a bit of insight on how often (and how significant) Google’s updates can be.
Other top trends we’re seeing in 2021
While Google plays a major role in influencing SEO trends and best practices, it doesn’t have the only say. Here, we’ll take a closer look at how user trends, technological advances, and, yes, Google’s updates, have impacted the most important SEO trends in 2021.
1. Consider User Experience
As we saw with the Page Experience update, user experience is a major focus of Google when it comes to algorithm updates. If your website doesn’t load, isn’t formatted for mobile, has a lot of pop-ups, or just doesn’t answer the question that brought them there, users will leave your site as quickly as they came, impacting your bounce rate (the percentage of visitors to your website who navigate away from after viewing only one page), which can harm your website’s ranking in search results.
User experience encapsulates several elements of SEO, from how your site runs to the relevance and quality of your content. To improve your site’s user experience, visit the site yourself – on both desktop and mobile – to see how it runs. Take note of any pages with wonky formatting or slow loading times, and pay attention (with GSC or Google Analytics) to the pages that users bounce from the most. You can also utilize tools like Google’s PageSpeed Test or the Mobile Friendliness Test to find the pages that need improvement. When it comes to content (which we’ll get into more later), make sure your page titles and target keywords are relevant to the content itself, and avoid publishing or posting content that is fluffy or filler.
A positive user experience can impact far more than your SEO. Websites that prioritize user experience can help you grow your audience, retain customers, and build a strong online presence and brand. And the same goes for websites with poor user experience – beyond being penalized in search results, these sites can be considered spammy or unhelpful to users, turning them away before they can even see what you’re about.
2. Growing Focus on Search Intent
Search intent is one of the most important influences on SEO. Google has done a lot to factor in intent when it comes to search, beginning with the 2013 Hummingbird update, which moved the search engine away from simply vocabulary matching when it came to populating results for a query. In 2019, Google released the BERT update, which improved the search engine’s understanding of nuance in words used in search queries and results.
The purpose of these updates has been to get users to the content they’re actually searching for, and to avoid users needing to specify or refine their search. The impact of these updates, and search intent in general, has been a shift in content being written for users, as opposed for search engines.
When it comes to your own SEO strategy, go past face value – consider why people are searching for what they are searching for. When users search for a term that can lead them to your business, what are they looking for?
Think like your audience, and consider customer feedback when determining what your customers are truly looking for. Suggested and related search can also be valuable tools when it comes to determining context for a particular search query, as well as the Google Trends tool.
3. Spoken Search Queries
More and more, people are using voice search when looking for something on Google. Google has reported that over 25% of the global population uses voice search on mobile devices. In households with smart speakers, this number is closer to 50%. By 2025, the percentage of American households predicted to own a smart speaker is 75%.
As more people speak their queries instead of typing them, the language of search queries is changing. As the language of queries changes, the language in your content will have to change, too. Voice search queries tend to be framed as questions, long-tail, and extremely specific, and many voice search queries are related to shopping or local search results.
To account for this, incorporate phrases such as “near me” into content and page titles whenever relevant. Include questions in your content, and consider incorporating an FAQ page on your site to target common customer queries. Consider how spoken language differs from written language when you write content for your site, socials, and blog, and, similarly to search intent, consider what variety of queries could send a user to your site, as opposed to simply targeting the most straightforward keyword.
4. Mobile is Your Friend
There are approximately 3.8 billion unique smartphone users worldwide. This is a 1.3 billion increase from 2016, and is anticipated to grow to 7.5 billion by 2026. And people are using their phones to search. Nearly 55% of website traffic in 2021 alone has been from mobile devices.
But mobile users interact with search engines and results differently than desktop users. While the #1 result in Google receives nearly 30% of mobile user clicks – as opposed to only 19% of desktop user clicks – there is a greater drop off in clicks between results #1 and #2 from mobile users, with the second position only receiving 9% of clicks. This means that, for mobile users, position #1 is three times more valuable than position #2, emphasizing the importance of a mobile SEO strategy.
From the Mobilegeddon update in 2015 to the Mobile-First update in 2019 – as well as the exponential increase of mobile users – Google has prioritized mobile user experience and cemented the importance of mobile-friendliness in any SEO strategy. Make sure your website is properly formatted for mobile users (again, Google’s Mobile-Friendliness tool comes in handy) and consider mobile search when optimizing your content.
5. Define Your Brand Online
Branding is vital to any business. A well-defined brand helps customers understand who you are, what you’re about, and what you can offer them. Online, this isn’t just about identifying your brand, but linking your owned assets together to ensure that Google and other search engines understand your brand as a whole.
To build a strong online brand, ensure that any information about your business online is accurate and consistent across your owned assets. Define your business, your offerings, your message, and your brand clearly and consistently to make it easier for search engines to understand what you do and what queries should send users to your website.
While defining your brand can be an iterative and time-consuming process, there are simple things you can do to start defining your brand online. Link your social profiles to one another and include your socials on your website. Share blogs, news about your business, and other relevant content on your social networks. Use consistent language across platforms (but remember to not use duplicate content!) and update information on all your owned assets as needed.
6. More Zero-Click Searches (or, Fewer Click All Around)
Zero-click searches – or searches where the user does not click past the search results page – are on the rise. In fact, in 2020, over 60% of searches resulted in no clicks.
The main culprit that has contributed to the decrease in clicks is featured snippets. Featured snippets pull relevant information from search results and display them prominently for that query:
These snippets act as a position #0 result, and attempt to answer the question for the user. Often successful, the user no longer feels a need to click through to the page the content is hosted on.
While this can seem like a bad thing – fewer clicks in general means fewer clicks to your site – featured snippets can give your website and content the most prominent spot in results, even if your site doesn’t rank #1. Although over 30% of featured snippets come from the #1 organic result, snippets are often pulled from other prominent results.
Although you can’t guarantee that your content will be pulled for a featured snippet, there are some things you can do. Utilizing headers and optimizing your on-page content to answer questions in clear, concise, and informative ways can increase your chances.
7. Quality Content is More Important Than Ever
Yes, I’ve said it before, and I’m not going to stop saying it: content is king in SEO. While this has always been true, the importance of informative, unique longform content is only growing. Google has issued several updates in recent years penalizing spammy, fluffy content and rewarding high-quality content in an attempt to give users the best answers to their queries. Most recently, the Passage Ranking update will send users to the excerpt from a piece of content that best answers their questions.
However, it may be hard to produce quality content when you don’t know what that is. While what constitutes “high-quality” can be a bit subjective, Google has defined quality content with the EAT principle: expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. There is also evidence that suggests that the longer you go (within reason), the better your content will perform, with pieces between 2,000 and 3,000 words consistently outranking 1,000-word pieces.
Generally, content online starts with a question, or the query that will lead users to your piece. When addressing a question in your content, consider:
- What is at the root of the question?
- What is the pain point? How can I help?
- What unique perspective can I offer?
- Where can I get specific?
- What related searches or questions can I expand on?
I could go on and on, but I already have. Check out our content guide to learn more about how to produce quality content.
8. Videos are on the Rise
When you think about keywords and search queries, it makes sense to consider website copy and blog content – but video is not to be forgotten. Video is the #1 form of media online, ahead of written content, infographics, and images, and YouTube is the second most popular search engine after Google, with over 1 billion users.
What’s more, video content is over 50 times more likely to rank organically on page 1 in Google than written content, due at least in part to the engagement it receives, as videos have a 41% higher click-through rate (CTR) than plain text results.
When it comes to implementing video into your overall SEO strategy, you must take into consideration several of the same factors as written content: answering the question or query that will bring users to your content, providing valuable and relevant insight, and considering what you can add to make your perspective unique. On top of that, you’ll want to create videos that are visually engaging, hook your audience quickly, and aren’t too short. To learn more about creating video content, read our guide here.
9. Think Local
97% of people go online to learn more about a local business. “Near me” or “close by” type searches are growing exponentially, and 46% of all Google searches are looking for local information. For businesses that serve particular communities, or that have brick and mortar locations, optimizing for local search can have a substantial impact on your overall success.
To make sure you’re getting the most out of local results, you must first and foremost claim or create your Google My Business listing. This listing will not only provide users with valuable information about your business, but you must have a verified listing to show up in local pack results.
In addition to claiming your Google My Business listing, for which we’ve written out steps here, you can optimize your business’s online presence for local results by including your address and the location or locations you serve on your website, social media profiles, and any directories or other owned assets. Engage with your community, and consider searches that would send users to your website (such as searches containing location names, “near me,” or other location-specific queries).
10. Standing Out
We said it earlier: there are billions of searches every day and billions of websites to choose from. A strong SEO strategy does not only consist of knowing the basics of SEO and implementing them, but thinking outside the box to determine how you can stand out in search results.
To stand out online, consider what makes you or your company unique, and take a look at what else is ranking in search results. Look for gaps in results, or queries that don’t seem to have a good answer. Brainstorm and try new strategies, new ways of reaching your audience or making an impression – like when Denny’s got attention for keeping it real on Twitter.
All of this is easier said than done. If you’re struggling to find the best way to present yourself online – or you’re still learning SEO basics – consider reaching out to a professional. An SEO firm will be able to help you present yourself the best that you can online to help you grow your brand, your audience, and your business.