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As a digital marketing agency, we’ve sat in the front row watching evolving SEO trends for the last 15 years. Following the rollercoaster year of 2020, complete with three Google core updates, the importance of technical optimisation and the creation of relevant, helpful content are crystal clear. Read as we demystify ever-evolving SEO practices, weigh in on SEO trends for 2021 and suggest where to focus your SEO for 2021.

A Sneak Peek at SEO Trends for 2021:

  1. Create E-A-T content for ranking success
  2. Focus on search intent
  3. Consider changes to the SERP
  4. Prioritise long-form content
  5. Optimise for Local SEO
  6. Make sure your site is mobile-friendly
  7. Gain quick wins by capturing featured snippets
  8. Prioritise user-friendly design
  9. Develop your video marketing strategy
  10. Don’t ignore titles and meta descriptions
  11. Understand Google’s RankBrain
  12. Get to grips with Core Web Vitals reports

The Evolution of SEO in 2020

Google core updates focus on improving the quality and relevance of Google search results by rejigging the rankings of pages as they show up on the SERP. With each core update, the formula for ranking changes slightly, so we analyse the impact of the updates by keyword winners and losers as pages move up and down the SERP. In 2020, there were three Google core updates, occurring in January, May and December. Here’s what we saw:

January 2020 Google Core Update

Following the January 2020 Google core update, we said goodbye to the coveted Position Zero, and we met featured snippet deduplication. This update re-organised the SERP and removed the URL listing of the featured snippet from the first page, for efficiency purposes. Now, the SERP contains just ten unique URLs, indicating the importance of targeting featured snippets as part of your SEO strategy.

May 2020 Google Core Update

Despite the global pandemic being in full swing, Google didn’t let up on the core updates, and in May 2020 we saw a broad core update. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed people’s online behaviour, with searches for information about the virus, where to buy things online, physical store opening hours and policies on the increase. In fact, more searches have been conducted about coronavirus than any other topic in history, according to Google Search Liaison. When combined with Google’s strife to provide the most relevant result, it’s no wonder that we saw changes to the SERP over 2020. Travel, real estate, health and pets all saw the biggest fluctuation in rankings, according to a SEMrush analysis of the core update, indicating that Google was playing catch up as the pandemic continued to unfold across the globe.

A Tweet by Google SearchLiaison About the Number of Searches for COVID-19 on Google

December 2020 Google Core Update

The December Google core update came as a shock to the SEO community, for one because it was rolled out at the end of the year, following the madness of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, but also because they actually announced this one on Twitter and, after the previous core updates, SEO experts everywhere were wary. 

So, what happened?

Like May, the pandemic was still in the forefront of people’s minds, shown by a blending of transactional and informational terms in search as the start of the buying journey shifted online, with the closure of brick and mortar shops. We also saw an increase in non-purchase product queries leading to editorial content rising in rank in a few areas, such as the medical sector. Find out more about the December core update in our blog.

For the most part, though, Google’s advice remained the same: focus on creating quality content, improve your technical SEO and ensure that your keyword targeting is relevant.

Off the back of these updates, then, what do we see in the digital marketing crystal ball, in terms of SEO for 2021?

SEO Trends for 2021

1.      Create E-A-T content for ranking success

According to Google, quality content is paramount to ranking success. But how does Google determine the quality of content? That’s where the E-A-T principle comes in: expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness. A combination of numerous E-A-T factors present on your page improves your ranking on Google, with depth, expertise and holistic content some of the most important. There is no guidance on how many or which factors to prioritise, but the more the merrier.

So, how do you create the quality content that Google is looking for?

Expertise

While there is nothing technical you can do to send a quality signal to Google, having relevant expertise can show Google your authority. But is having expertise essential to improving your rank? Well, yes and no (and it depends on your industry). Certain industries may benefit from a quality check feature. For example, “Your Money Your Life” industries like financial and healthcare may benefit from a fact-checker, to boost the page authority. If your business has won any awards or you have been recognised for work in your industry, this may indicate to users the trustworthiness of your site, prompting them to click on your page and send Google a sign that your site is relevant. 

That being said, freelancers and copywriters can also write content that ranks. So, what we know at the moment is that there is no sure-fire way to measure a publication’s expertise under E-A-T, so you should focus on creating good content that is relevant to your potential customers.

Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness

Create quality, original content that’s worth linking to and encourage other websites to link back to your page. A link back to your site shows a vote of confidence for your site to Google and is another way to hit the E-A-T mark. While there is no exact science to E-A-T, link building is considered one of the most important factors in how Google ranks web pages. So, developing your link strategy and outreach is a good place to start if you want to let Google know that you mean business.

A Lightbox that Reads "Think Outside the Box" on Top of a Black Chair

2.      Focus on search intent

The core updates in 2020 focused on search intent, as we’ve seen in evolving SEO updates over the years. Findings from the December update indicate an increase in non-purchase product queries. Potentially due to the changes in the buying process caused by external factors like the Coronavirus pandemic, customers are now more reliant on online shopping than ever before. This makes it much harder for Google to differentiate the intent behind a search query and its relation to the sales funnel. Here are some of our Zelst top tips to get you started on targeting customer search intent:

Target the start of the buyer’s journey

Experts at Searchmetrics suggest investing in long-form content to target potential customers at the top of the sales funnel. Due to queries changing search intent, more searches are appearing at the top to the middle of the sales funnel, with a blend of informational and transactional search queries, so targeting head key terms allows you to capture a wider audience.

What shows great promise is that smaller businesses can compete more readily with larger e-commerce sites as a result of these changes. The evidence suggests that helpful, relevant content which supports the buying decision can improve your rank on Google. Also, ‘how-to’ content, content that answers consumers’ questions and content relevant to trending topics, for example, the health impact of continued use of hand sanitiser, are rising the ranks.

Create buyer personas

To match your content to your customers and potential customers’ needs, we suggest creating buyer personas for your main customer base. A buyer persona is your way of reaching out to ‘real’ people, in a way that they will understand and find helpful. Plus, buyer personas help to guide your content to keep it relevant to your readers. Creating buyer personas is particularly important for B2Bs, allowing you to communicate with your customers with relevant content that addresses their problems and uses user-friendly language. Check out our step-by-step guide to creating buyer personas for your business.

Utilise the SERP

Consider People Also Ask questions when brainstorming your content. The more Related Queries on a SERP, the higher the degree of uncertainty in search intent, so Google doesn’t know how to match the query to the content. So, help Google out. Tell Google what your content is about using these questions as prompts to guide and structure your content. The result – content which is relevant and helpful to your users that actually answers their questions.

Team Meeting Brainstorn

3.      Consider changes to the SERP

Changes to SERP queries

Google always seeks to provide the best answer to a query, but what is the best answer Google can provide? Well, that changes based on search intent. 

If a user searches for ‘wig shampoo’, they are probably looking to buy something, and so over time Google understands this and modifies the SERP to show commercial search results, somewhere that you can buy a product from. This is known as transactional search intent. There are two other key types of search intent: informational and navigational. Informational search intent (for example ‘how to put on a wig’) tends to bring up longer-form content that is information-rich. On the other hand, navigational search intent is a query entered with the intent of finding a specific website, e.g. ‘Zelst’.

Always check how Google interprets the search intent of the keyword that you want to rank for to know what format you need to produce your content in. You can check this by inputting your keywords into a Google search during your keyword research phase. So, the “best” answer to a query is dependent on context. 

Physical changes to the SERP

On its mission to deliver the most relevant search result, Google changes how the SERP looks, depending on what it deems necessary to answer a query. Different SERP features appear on Google, depending on the intent of the query, and there are 16 of them to wrap your head around. From the knowledge panel, which shows up if your brand is authoritative in your field, to the image pack, or, if Google interprets a query to require Google Shopping Results, there are plenty of opportunities to improve your on-page SEO and rank for many SERP features.

Always match your keyword intent to the page intent when writing your content. In this world of ever-evolving SEO, understanding this concept and creating a search intent-based marketing strategy can really boost your online visibility.

4.      Prioritise long-form content

SEO trends for 2021 indicate that long-form content is king. Before, we worked on the guidelines that any piece of content over 500 words was sufficient to rank. Now, it seems that Google favours content of 3,000 words and above. According to SEMrush, articles of this length get triple the traffic and four times more shares! Long-form content can achieve over three times more backlinks than articles between 901 and 1,200 words. So, how do you create long-form content that is helpful, relevant and maintains the quality signals favoured by Google?

Infographic that Explains the Benefits of Long Form Content for Traffic, Shares and Backlinks

Create a pillar content strategy

Pillar content is a blog or a website page which contains in-depth information about a certain topic. Pillar pages tend to be lengthy to cover any given topic in detail. The purpose of creating a pillar content strategy is to become an authority on a topic, achieving the middle third of Google’s E-A-T principle. Your pillar post should be detailed, but also expandable so that you can create supportive content around the topic that you can link to, to encourage users to stay on your site for longer. Speaking of supportive content, we’ve written an entire blog post talking you through creating your pillar content strategy – check it out!

Structure your content

We know that Google bots crawl content to help determine rankings, but the user experience is equally important to consider when creating content! Organise your content so that it’s easy to digest. Use plenty of headings and subheadings to split up your content into sections where necessary, to improve your content quality and better your SEO. When your readers can find what they’re looking for quickly, they’re more likely to spend time reading the page’s content, a quality signal to Google. Including your keywords in your heading tags is good practice too, because this gives the search engine clues as to what your page content is all about, helping it to rank for the right topic.

Use infographics and images

It’s a no-brainer: make sure that attractive images, infographics and videos support your text content. Images help to break up your content and make it much easier for your readers to digest. While the 2020 Google core updates didn’t give specifics on quality signals or user happiness, we know that metrics such as bounce rate, click-through rate and time spent on a page indicate a good user experience and a vote of confidence for your site – all of which can improve your rank on the SERP!

Content Planning at a Desk

5.      Optimise for Local SEO

Excitingly, SEO trends for 2021 and findings from the Google core updates suggest that smaller sites have been doing better at a local level, especially during the pandemic. This trend is set to rise, indicating the importance of improving your local SEO efforts.

The first, and most important, step to improving your local SEO is investing time in Google My Business. Google My Business will ensure that you have a chance at showing up in a local pack in local searches. When we’re stuck at home, the visibility in a local pack is especially important as searches increasingly take place on mobile and Google prioritises search results based on a customer’s location and needs, so you’ve got to make sure you show up!

If you’re a smaller business, make sure to optimise your products and product categories so that you show up in the relevant searches, but don’t stop there. Invest some time into your company blog, particularly in long-form content. With the fluctuation of big e-commerce sites following the December update, smaller businesses can target head key terms with larger search volume to reach potential customers at the start of their buyer’s journey, as well as targeting long-tail keywords for more niche interests.

A Google Maps Local Search Result for 'Butcher'

6.  Make sure your site is mobile-friendly

SEO for 2021 doesn’t look too different from previous years, and having a mobile-friendly site is still paramount to your performance on Google. According to Google, mobile-first indexing means “Google predominantly uses the mobile version of the content for indexing and ranking.” Therefore, having a mobile-friendly site improves your quality signals like user experience, meaning that Google will likely rank your site higher. Plus, your search visibility, lead generation and shareability across platforms may also improve, so it’s a win-win.

7.      Gain quick wins by capturing featured snippets

A featured snippet is the text box that appears at the very top of the SERP, formerly known as Position Zero. A featured snippet can show all kinds of information, from short paragraphs to bullet lists, and capturing a featured snippet is a great way to gain a quick-win over a competitor without writing a longer-form piece of content.

The featured snippet has gained increased prominence over time. It’s particularly important to mobile searches where the snippet takes up most of the SERP itself, and often steals traffic from the top-ranked page. There are many ways to optimise for a featured snippet, but creating E-A-T content is certainly the most successful. SEO for 2021 predicts an increased prominence of featured snippets on the SERP, particularly with evolving SEO and the rise of mobile and voice search, so it’s important to work some featured snippet optimisation into your planning.

8.      Prioritise user-friendly design

Creating visual appeal

Everybody recognises a well-designed website, right? The ideal landing page loads fast, is easy to navigate, and, at the risk of sounding superficial, it just looks the part. You know? All of these factors can have an impact on your Google ranking. According to the latest Google core update, a user-friendly site with great content signals usefulness and expertise to Google, and can boost your site up the rankings.

Optimise your images

Use high-quality and relevant images on your website and in your blogs. Ensure that your image file is in the right format (we suggest using .jpeg) and that the file size is not too large, as this can affect page loading speed and harm user experience which may decrease your ranking. Some of our SEO best practices for image optimisation include using keywords in your image file names and using appropriate alt-text to make your images accessible and help crawlers understand images better.

9.      Develop your video marketing strategy

SEO trends for 2021 predict that an effective SEO strategy will need to consider video content. As part of your overall marketing strategy, investing in video content can effectively increase brand awareness, engage your audience and generate qualified leads. Like text-based content, though, an effective video campaign must be high-quality content that is relevant or helpful and accessible to your customers and potential customers, to achieve the results you’re after.

10. Don’t ignore titles and meta descriptions

Optimising the titles and meta descriptions for your webpages is a great way to reach relevant customers. Well-constructed meta descriptions – using primary and secondary keywords that people are actually searching for – can encourage users to click through to your website. A good meta description should describe the page in one or two sentences, use keywords and contain a call to action.

Writing a good title is also vital to encourage users to click through to your site. To write a good title, include your primary and secondary keywords and keep the length under 60 characters if you can. You may also include numbers or dates in your title, which can have improved rankings for certain pages.

11.  Understand Google’s RankBrain

RankBrain is one of Google’s artificial intelligence SEO tools that helps search engines determine user queries’ most relevant results. Under RankBrain, the Google search engine analyses the context surrounding a user’s query to understand their search intent and provide more relevant search results.

More importance is placed on semantic groups and topic modelling in content under this technology, making secondary keywords as important as primary keywords to create contextually rich content.

When creating your new content, consider keyword variants and related topics, rather than keywords alone, to create meaningful content and help it rank higher in the SERP by following Google’s guiding E-A-T principles!

12. Get to grips with Core Web Vitals reports

Core Web Vitals are factors deemed important to your page’s user experience in the eyes of Google. Core Web Vitals will soon be a ranking factor, focusing on improving site speed and a good landing page experience.

Your Core Web Vitals report shows how your website performs overall, and analyses page performance based on real-time data. Your URLs are grouped by status (Poor, Needs Improvement, Good) and metric type (LCP – largest contentful paint, FID – first input delay, CLS – cumulative shift layout). URLs are also listed in URL groups that provide a similar experience, assuming that similar pages suffer from the same underlying issue. For example, a large image file size affects the loading speed of a page. This diagnostic tool lets you target and troubleshoot issues that affect multiple pages on your website. To troubleshoot for individual URLs, use PageSpeed Insights.

Getting to grips with your Core Web Vitals reports early on is sure to set you up for a successful year of SEO in 2021.

Where to Focus Your SEO for 2021:

  1. Create E-A-T content that is link-worthy and establishes you as an authority, to send a quality signal to Google.
  2. Focus on search intent to ensure that your content appears in front of the right people at the right time. Use the SERP, buyer personas, and the sales funnel to help you achieve this.
  3. Consider changes to the SERP and update your content as Google updates its algorithms to make sure your content is as relevant and helpful as it can be.
  4. Prioritise long-form content creation that is useful, relevant and maintains the quality signals favoured by Google. Best practices include creating a pillar content strategy, optimising page structure for readability and using appropriate imagery to illustrate your point.
  5. Optimise for Local SEO, especially during the pandemic when we’re all spending a lot more time in our local area. Start by setting up with Google My Business, and let us know if we can help with the rest.
  6. Make sure your site is mobile-friendly because, like you, Google prefers content that is optimised for mobile.
  7. Gain quick wins by capturing featured snippets so that you can benefit from an improved click-through rate from your number one position on the SERP. Factor this into your next content plan!
  8. Prioritise user-friendly design with optimised images, fast page loading speed and straightforward navigation to ensure smooth sailing for your website visitors.
  9. Develop your video marketing strategy to tell your brand story in a way that is accessible to a wider audience.
  10. Don’t ignore titles and meta descriptions or you could miss out on valuable traffic! Optimise your titles and meta with your primary and secondary keywords, and keep them relevant to your page.
  11. Understand Google’s RankBrain and develop your keyword targeting strategy to include semantic entities and keyword variants to help Google better understand your web page.
  12. Get to grips with Core Web Vitals reports to improve your overall site performance.

So there, our predictions of the SEO trends for 2021 in a time of rapidly evolving SEO. While you don’t need to achieve every one of these, the more ways you can signal E-A-T to Google, the better. Let us know if we’ve missed anything!

Have you been affected by the Google core update?

If you need any help with improving your SEO for 2021 or creating an optimised content strategy, please contact a member of our team for advice.