SEO, or search engine optimization, is perhaps the most consistent and valuable marketing channel at every marketer’s fingertips. In fact, as recently as 2019, according to Merkle’s 2019 Digital Media report, SEO drove 22 percent of all website visits.
Despite what many have heard, SEO is not dying, and, as you can reference from above, it’s actually growing. SEO is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean what you know of SEO today will be the same SEO you see over the next few years. That’s why it’s pivotal to stay up to date and know exactly what Google will be throwing at you in 2021 and beyond. As such, if you want to drive more organic traffic to your site, don’t ignore these top SEO trends in 2021.
SEO Trends in 2021
- User focus
- Search intent and conversion
- Page experience and core web vitals
- Adapt quickly
- Content depth
- Internal linking
- Local search
One of the best SEO leaders I ever worked with preached a simple, yet profound expression when it came to SEO: “What’s good for the user is good for SEO (and Google).”
This phrase was true 10 years ago, and it’s still true today. Google wants to provide users, or searchers, with the best possible experience. Therefore, when Google sends a user to your site via their search engine results page (SERP), they want that user to be satisfied. If they are, that user will come back to Google the next time they have to search for something.
Lily Ray, SEO director at Path Interactive, summed up this entire mindset perfectly in an interview with Search Engine Journal: “Above all, a great SEO strategy should start by putting yourself in the user’s shoes and asking yourself if the content is truly valuable, the brand is trustworthy and the website is easy to use.”
Search Intent and Conversion
When your content or SEO teams sit down to write a new piece of content, they’d better be looking at the search engine results page (SERP). Before you look at SEMRush, Google Search Console (GSC) or any other SEO tool, go to the SERP. The SERP tells you what Google thinks are the best results that match the user’s intent. Google is telling you the type of content that you need to create when going after that query or related search terms. If you don’t learn how to match this intent, you are surely falling behind.
Marie Haynes, CEO of Marie Haynes Consulting Inc., agrees. “Google will get even better at recognizing when a searcher is looking for expert advice and will rank those posts above articles written by content writers who are lacking E-A-T,” she told Search Engine Journal. “The SEO pros who will be successful in 2021 will be those who can truly understand how to meet a searchers’ needs.”
By meeting those needs, you’ll get more conversions when the user is ready. The goal of SEO is to not only get more organic traffic, but more leads for your business. A site is worth nothing if it can garner millions of sessions without any monetization. Therefore, when a user lands on a lower funnel page, you need to make it as easy as possible to get them across the finish line by ensuring that your funnel is simple and quick to use. If a user conducts an informational search and lands on an article, don’t push the funnel too much, as they’re likely not ready — and you could lose the lead forever. Once you know the user’s intent by page type, use that information and guide that user to the next most logical page in your product funnel.
Page Experience and Core Web Vitals
Last year, Google announced that page experience and their Core Web Vitals will be ranking factors for Google’s algorithm as early as May of 2021. If you’re unfamiliar with these, a great place to get started is at the Google Search Central Blog. Long story short, Google will be officially using site speed as a ranking factor.
If you ask any experienced SEO, chances are they’ll say site speed is already a direct ranking factor. After all, it’s clearly an indirect ranking factor in the fact that, if you have a slow site, a user will bounce and go back to Google. Google calls that “pogo-sticking,” and that, my friends, hurts your SEO rankings.
The Core Web Vitals, a report you can find in your GSC account, will focus on three key metrics:
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): Measures the speed at which a page’s main content is loaded. It needs to load under 2.5 seconds.
- First Input Delay (FID): Measures the speed at which users are able to interact with a page after landing on it. This needs to occur within 100 milliseconds.
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): Measures how often users experience unexpected layout shifts. CLS needs to be less than 0.1.
Google’s John Mueller, one of the top SEOs at Google, recently said all three Core Web Vitals benchmarks must be met to qualify for the ranking signal boost. Mueller later went on to say that Google may even show badges in the SERP for faster sites. If you search in Google and were debating between two identical listings, wouldn’t you click the one with a speed badge?
If you’re not already, go check GSC and see what your Core Web Vitals look like, especially on mobile. If you have any page types in the yellow or red, tell your product and dev teams right away and move it up your SEO roadmap. Google gave SEOs nearly a year to work on site speed. For a company that keeps a lot of SEO changes close to the chest, that advanced notice could signal a big shift.
As you focus on the SERP, make note of what’s changing. Gone are the days of three paid links and 10 blue links with a URL, title tag and meta description. Google is running A/B tests every day. Fortunately, if you subscribe to Search Engine Roundtable’s newsletter and its founder Barry Schwartz, you won’t miss a thing.
But when you see Google changing up the SERP, you must adapt quickly if you want to stay ahead of the competition. Featured snippets are still relatively new to Google, and yet, they’re already seeing if inserting a second featured snippet or adding contextual links within featured snippets creates more engagement. You must use that information and adapt your content and design strategy. If Google is doing it, so should you on your site.
Furthermore, Google is investing more and more into structured data. Structured data helps Google not only understand the context of a page, but it can also reward you with more real estate in the SERP. Today, Google only rewards certain types of structured data on the SERP, but this list is expanding fast. As such, if you have any pages that fall into these Schema.org types, I would consider adding them to your roadmap.
Google and users alike need to trust that you know your stuff. After all, EAT — or Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness — are ranking factors. But beyond Google, users need to see that you know everything there is to know about your niche. If a user is looking for information about artificial intelligence, they don’t want to jump to multiple sites to get the information they need. Consider the way Built In presents its own artificial intelligence content: Having one page with all the content available, with links out to other related content, is an ideal informational blog layout.
More often than not, to show your expertise, you need longer content. In fact, according to a 2019 SEMRush study that was just updated this month, longreads (articles with 7,000 words or more) are absolute leaders in terms of content performance, as they drive almost four times more traffic than articles of average length (900-1,200 words).
Short content does not cut it in SEO. Show your users that you know more about your field than anyone else. Returning users, Google and your organic rankings will surely feel the effects.
You won’t see internal linking on many SEO trends lists since it’s been vital to SEO for decades. However, just because it’s an old tactic doesn’t mean it no longer works. Internal linking is key in helping both your users and Google find the pages you care about. While Google can use XML sitemaps to find all URLs on your site (if it’s set up correctly), users don’t use them and, therefore, need to navigate from one page to another.
If you have a lot of content or millions of product pages with a search functionality, this can get tricky. Regardless, having a clear site hierarchy that allows users to easily flow from one page to another will help both users and Google find vital, new and updated content. To do this, try these tactics:
- Content hubs: One pillar page and articles related to that topic linked on that page.
- Faceted navigation: The filters and facets utilized by e-commerce sites allow shoppers to quickly narrow a product set by color, style, or other attributes.
- Linkpacks: Pack of links at the bottom of your product pages that link to similar products.
- Related hyperlinks: In your blogs, link to other similar content.
AI, machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) are all rapidly growing. It’s no secret that it’s expensive to write a lot of content and generate reports for our CMOs, all while performing many other vital business functions. That is why many (including Google with its BERT update) are turning to these automated tools to get it all done faster and more efficiently. In fact, 37 percent of businesses and organizations are already employing AI per Data Prot’s recent report and the AI industry is projected to earn around $118 billion by 2025.
Now is the time to research and try AI software for your keyword research, content writing, reporting and anything else you can think of. However, be sure to exhaustively QA it. GPT-3, one of the latest developments in AI, has shown unsafe biases.
Local SEO has historically helped traditional, in-person retailers drive more traffic. However, local SEO has rapidly expanded over the years. Just recently, Google started showing more local news in search.
Featured snippets and zero-click searches are becoming more normal every day. Many zero-click searches are local searches that show the results on the SERP in what’s been dubbed a “local pack.” Even if you don’t have a physical location, I highly suggest creating a Google My Business account and updating it as much as possible.
Other ways to take advantage of local SEO include:
- Cash in on local keywords.
- Take advantage of online business directories.
- Develop content based on local events, news stories and location-specific places — much like Built In Chicago or Built In San Francisco.
Finally, it’s time to get creative with your SEO. A key theme of this entire piece is change. SEO is not dying, but it is rapidly evolving. Much of what worked years ago will not work today. After all, keyword stuffing and content syndication used to be very profitable SEO tactics. Today, however, these archaic tactics won’t only not work, but they could bring Google penalties.
Therefore, it’s imperative you keep up with the trends and test new strategies. Don’t be afraid to test new waters. But, never go all in until you prove that your experiments work.