SEO

Changes in SEO Through 2020 & 2021

November 19, 2021 | By: LaneTerralever | 8 min read

How often is the Google algorithm changed and released? Daily.

Google’s algorithm is changing every day — some Search Engine Optimization (SEO) experts estimate that several updates occur every 24 hours. Unless you’re employed by the search engine giant, uncovering ranking factors – the variables and best practices that get Google’s attention – is a never-ending, trial-and-error experiment.

Don’t worry if you’re not a full-time growth hacker, though.

The core ranking factors most marketers already know like writing great content and human-focused user experiences are still at the heart of SEO trends in 2021. As you navigate contemporary challenges in your business growth and marketing this year, these are the core updates you need to be aware of in the world of Google today.

Contents:

Google Search Algorithm Updates Are More Extreme

According to SEMrush, the SEO software of choice for over 7,000,000 marketers worldwide, Google search results are 28% more volatile on desktop and 84% more volatile on mobile this year than in 2020.

SEMrush’s volatility scores track how much website rankings shift around down to the minute. Big fluctuations like these are an indicator that there are some important changes going on across the web. In a consistently volatile year, we saw a huge spike happen in July, following an announcement from Google that they had made a large update to their algorithm.

 

So, what industries are being impacted the most?

Since July, we’ve seen the biggest Google ranking volatility occur in the Food and Drink, Law and Government, and Internet and Telecom sectors.

There is an Overwhelming Focus on User Experience

On-page user experience is more vital right now than at any point in Internet history. But enough buzzwords and hot takes — what is user experience specifically and why does it matter to SEO?

Page experience is more vital to SEO right now than ever before.

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Better rankings occur at the intersection of quality content and quality customer experiences. In Google’s eyes, the quality of a customer’s experience on your website pages is a collection of measurable metrics with a mechanically precise scorecard. Together, these measures form a set of critical behavior signals that describe each website visit beyond the keywords that make up your educational and commercial content.

First announced in May of 2020, this proprietary Google scorecard for page performance called Core Web Vitals focuses on three core aspects of the user experience: loading performance, interactivity, and visual stability. Rollouts began in June of 2021 and are accelerating this year.

There are three scales for each dimension:

Largest Contentful Paint (LCP). This metric describes the loading performance of a web page. To provide the best user experience, Google has set a rule that the largest piece of content on a webpage ought to load (or “paint”) within 2.5 seconds on a smartphone.

First Input Delay (FID). This measure describes the interactivity of a web page. Every website is designed to be tapped, clicked, and scrolled through. In Google’s eyes, at least one of these interactions should be possible in 100 milliseconds or fewer.

Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS). This metric describes visual stabilityhow much does the page “jump around” before it has finished loading? We’ve all had experiences where we click on an article, start reading and scrolling, and then the page “resets” to the top of the article. Some shifts like this are often unavoidable, but Google’s CLS scorecard aims to keep them small. Jumps should be 10% of the page or less.

(loading), (interactivity), (visual), LCP, FID,

How Google Generates Results is Changing Based on User Experience

Google is taking the focus on user experience beyond Core Web Vitals to the Search Engine Results page — where the customer journey begins.

Google; keyword

In practice, the search engine giant is also taking up more screen real estate with its own content blocks. That means your hard-earned rankings are competing with both your competitors’ search engine results and Google’s own feature-rich snippets of information.

From frictionless commerce to easy-access information, these content blocks called Rich Results are full of eye-catching, interactive pieces of content that empower users to find what they need more easily — plus, Google’s results pages will always pass a Core Web Vitals test.

Some of these features include a top-of-page carousel news, sports, or blog article. Others include links to event listings with easy-access bookmarks and links to Google Maps, so the user won’t get lost on the way.

While the business value of rich results that load a “how to tie a tie” tutorial in fewer than 100 milliseconds may be difficult to measure, some features like easy-access event listings or a swipe-able bookstore are niche, instant bottom-of-funnel marketing wins that make commerce happen faster. Align these results with phases of the buyer’s journey, and it’s easy to see how each content type could guide Google’s users gently and helpfully towards your brand over time.

But that’s not all that’s changing on Google’s search results page.

In general, the contents of each listing on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) includes title tags and meta descriptions that most SEO experts and marketers will optimize with keywords and calls to action. These manual Title and Meta tags aren’t always modified with the best user experience in mind, though, and Google is starting to take control of more and more of the contents of each results page.

When Google started rewriting meta descriptions over 70% of the time on its first results page, it was big news for SEO professionals. The idea behind this feature was to provide more specific content that better matched search intent — each meta would not only be a better match for content, but they would also use precise language to clearly mark why and how the webpage was relevant and useful.

Google also applied this feature to Titles, but after some public (and frustrated) feedback, Google has reported this feature has been scaled back by about 7% (from 20% rewritten to 13%) when it comes to Titles.

As Google takes more and more control over fields like title tags and meta descriptions, this re-enforces what digital marketing experts have been saying for years — great content is more important than outdated SEO tactics like keyword stuffing.

If you are describing a topic in depth in a way that helps the reader apply the information into real-world action, Google will easily pick up on these cues and rank your content higher. In short, writing for rankings looks a lot like writing human-centric instructions.

Rich Results Are More Accessible to Marketers

While rich results are indeed taking up more space, Google isn’t greedy when it comes to filling these minimalist-style boxes with your brand’s own content. With entry-level coding knowledge, many marketers can translate their website into a structured taxonomy that Google can easily pick up and re-iterate to searchers 

By identifying, crafting, and placing pre-defined bits of code called Schema Markup (also known as structured data) at the top of matching, relevant web pages, the content within each page has an opportunity to populate different types of Rich Results.

These are some of the most common types of Rich Results available right now:

Article. These display news, sports, or blog articles at the top of search results in a carousel. Key content components like headline text and larger-than-thumbnail images are presented top of screen.

Book. This feature enables users to buy book titles directly from the search results page.

Breadcrumb. Breadcrumbs augment normal search listings with tiny, clickable navigation buttons that match your website architecture (i.e., shop > books > To Kill a Mockingbird).

Carousel. These horizontal-scrolling features display a sequential list of related “things” in a gallery.

Course. Colleges and vocational schools can get the names and descriptions of courses front-and-center when Google users are digging for a relevant course title. Classes must be associated with some type of formal certification to be eligible for Course rich results.

Event. Events rich results are an interactive calendar of organized events like arts festivals or concerts. This feature is designed to put event details in real-world, real-time context, considering dimensions like the location and time the search is happening.

Local Business. Local business rich results offer quick access to key business listing information like open hours, ratings, directions, and quick actions like booking an appointment or asking a question — this one is LaneTerralever favorite.

The list of available Rich Results is quite exhaustive, and the list keeps growing as Google seeks to optimize the user experience on its platform. Try scrolling through this complete list of results directly from Google to find the most relevant for your business!

The Continued Push for Top-Quality Content

In early 2021, Google’s Passage Ranking update to their search algorithm gained a lot of mental muscle — the algorithm has more capacity to read, understand and categorize long-form text today than ever before. But what exactly is Passage Ranking?

The blog you’re reading right now is actually a great example of how this feature might work.

If someone searched for “SEO Trends in 2021,” this article in its entirety may be a perfect morning-coffee companion for a Google-savvy marketer. Still, there’s still a great deal of useful information within various sections that could help someone trying to learn more about topics like user experience or rich results — hopefully these explanations are the best ones on their own.

The Passage Ranking algorithm solves this situation by taking long pieces of topical content, breaking them up into chunks for relative information, and ranking those chunks by utility. If an article about SEO updates in 2021 has the best-written, most useful answer for a question about rich snippets, Google will scrape the useful passage text and it directly on the results page without requiring the user to click on a link to find the information.

 

In 2021, Google added more features to this user experience. Now, when a user clicks on the passage pulled from a section of content, Google will highlight the passage in yellow and the page will load and automatically scroll to that section of content — even if that scroll breaks the visual stability rules outlined above.

So, how do you change your content to take this update into account?

You don’t! If you are writing great content, Google should easily pick up on its utility and integrate that content into this passage rank algorithm. If you’re looking for an actionable way to write better content, break up your content with headers and review each separate section as if it were its own blog post or even an encyclopedia entry.

Ask yourself:

  • Can I understand the topic of this header without doing additional research?
  • If there is a topic that I introduce but don’t expand on, are there links and graphics present that the reader could use to learn more?
  • Can I easily distill “one big thing” my content section teaches?
  • Does my content employ simple definitions with linking verbs like “is” or “are?”

So long as you are writing with empathy for your readers, your content will do just fine in the Passage Ranking algorithm update. Looking for consistent results? Practice radical empathy for the user experience (it’s what Google would do).

Local is Becoming More Prominent

Not all search queries (searches) are created equal. Some searches trigger a completely unique experience on Google’s platform, especially local searches — queries that require the context of Google’s location data to serve the most relevant and useful information.

Local search engine results provide information like directions to an address, a phone number to contact a nearby business, and even the option to book an appointment for a location-bound service — all within a rich snippet.

In practice, local SEO puts information in the context of real-world place and time. For example, if a potential customer is looking for a nearby medical service like a Chiropractor or Urgent Care Clinic, your website should contain information like:

  • The address where your business is located
  • A local phone number where you can be contacted
  • A detailed business description of your real-world surroundings to help users find you

The increase in local search in 2021 is in lockstep with the Rich Snippets feature mentioned above. What makes local search especially unique is that there are direct controls of this snippet built into Google’s user interface. These controls are called Google My Business (GMB) which is being renamed the Google Business Profile this year.

While you can control the appearance of this information using the Google Business Profile, ensuring the details in the Google Business Profile and a Schema Markup match perfectly could be a critical rankings factor — us SEO experts will let you know when after another round of trial-and-error experiments.

So, What Does it All Mean? The Past is Still the Future.

Looking at Google's pattern of updates and advice over the past two years, it's clear that the best way to optimize for Google is to optimize for the user. The line between optimizing the customer experience and getting better search engine rankings is blurring more and more each year.

As you continue to navigate  the “new normal” for your business this year and beyond, remember to keep the customer experience at heart, treat them how you would want to be treated and consider joining Google’s mission to make the web a more accessible and user-friendly place.

Need help with your SEO? Contact LaneTerralever today to get started with an in-depth SEO audit to uncover what opportunities exist on and off your site.

LaneTerralever is a full service marketing and advertising agency located in Phoenix, AZ that specializes in SEO, Digital Media, Brand Strategy, Public Relations, Website Development, User Experience Design, Content Marketing, and more.

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