It’s time to take our annual look at what’s ahead for SEO professionals in 2021.
If you want the TLDR, here it is via Lily Ray, SEO Director, Path Interactive:
“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 (especially on mobile).”
But there’s much more to dig into when we’re talking SEO in 2021.
So what SEO strategies and tactics will work and help you dominate in the SERPs and earn more revenue in 2021?
This is the question we ask every year here at Search Engine Journal.
This year, I asked 42 of today’s top SEO professionals for their thoughts.
Here are the top 10 trends you need to know in 2021, according to the experts.
Want all the SEO trends now? Download our new ebook: SEO Trends 2021.
Trend #1: Focus on User + Search Intent
In 2021, it’s time to focus user and search intent.
While this is hardly a new trend or concept, every year it’s important to refocus because searcher intent and behavior is changing all the time. Especially after the year that was 2020 when so much rapidly changed.
“At the core, Google (and other search engines) is a place to go when people want to answer a question or to learn more about something,” said Jenn Mathews, SEO Manager, GitHub. “When we understand the nature of why people search and help them with content that provides the answers they are looking for then our business benefits from it.”
So what does this mean for your SEO efforts in 2021?
According to Britney Muller, SEO Consultant & Data Science Student, Britney Muller LLC, it means SEO pros will need to transition away from traditional best practices that will hold less value as the algorithms get stronger (e.g., trying to write meta descriptions for every single page) and focus more on better understanding what’s happening within the SERPs/searcher intent.
“Google houses the world’s information and they know what the majority of people searching ‘x’ seek,” Muller said. “Paying closer attention to search results will give SEO pros a leg up in creating competitive content in the way that searchers desire to consume it.”
And many other of our SEO experts agree with Muller. This includes Andrew Dennis, Content Marketing Specialist, Page One Power.
“Google is already showing you which results it thinks serve users’ intent, use this data for your own strategy,” Dennis said. “For me, SERP analysis will be an important practice not just in 2021, but moving forward as search intents change and Google continues to become more sophisticated to keep up.”
It’s clear to Marie Haynes, CEO, Marie Haynes Consulting Inc., that if you want to win at SEO in 2021, you’ll need to do a stellar job of providing information to users.
“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,” Haynes said. “The SEO pros who will be successful in 2021 will be those who can truly understand how to meet a searchers’ needs.”
Here’s advice from Adam Riemer, President at Adam Riemer Marketing:
“Brands are going to need to forget about themselves and cater to their visitors.
- Copy that addresses the visitor’s needs and concerns and not copy that talks about your products, your company, or why your product is good.
- A quick website that renders and stabilizes fast.
- Not making people work to find your content or to spend money with you. No forced pop-ups, registrations, etc.”
With Google focusing more on satisfying user intent, Steven van Vessum, VP of Community, ContentKing, said it’s more important than ever to focus on learning what a user is looking for.
“In terms of the actual answer – but also their preferred content type (e.g., video, podcasts, or PDF),” van Vessum said. “Because figuring out queries’ user intent by hand is very time-consuming, keyword research tools that let us quickly do this at scale will overtake those that do not.”
Alexander Kesler, CEO, INFUSEmedia, offers some additional advice on understanding the search intent of your ideal buyer and driving meaningful revenue for your organization.
“Analyze the search data and on-site journey of any organically acquired leads – not just the search terms that they used to find your content, but also on-site search and highlighted keywords for all pages that they visited,” Kesler said. “Aggregate that data and map it to a content journey.”
Trend #2: Customer Analytics, Retention & Lifetime Value
SEO used to be (mostly) about driving traffic. But SEO has evolved into much more.
As Miracle Inameti-Archibong, Head of SEO, Erudite, noted, in 2021 you will be pushed more and more to make the traffic you have to work harder in order to close the gaps in revenue and demonstrate ROI.
So, in 2021, data on behavioral analytics will become the hottest commodity.
“With Google evolving faster and faster to give instant satisfaction, taking responsibility beyond visits, as well as marrying up UX, conversion, and revenue have become even more important,” Inameti-Archibong said. “Keyword volume will take a back seat and it will be more behavioral analytics – what your customer is doing, how they are doing it, and how we can get them to do more of it quicker – and reverse engineering that to the content you produce.”
John McAlpin, SEO Director, Cardinal Digital Marketing, agreed. He pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that keyword research isn’t always helpful when the world is in constant flux.
“In order to differentiate ourselves, we’ll see SEO pros dialing back keyword research and elevate first-party user research,” McAlpin said. “ This research unlocks hidden opportunities with service offerings and content ideas that keyword research may not tell us.”
With fewer dollars to go around, businesses will need to focus far more on customer retention and increasing customer lifetime value (LTV) than ever before, said Stephan Bajaio, Chief Evangelist and Co-Founder, Conductor.
“Your post-acquisition content must answer the questions, concerns, and needs your customers are expressing in search and you need to show up for those terms. If not, you will risk others influencing them away from your brand,” Bajaio said. “It will be about understanding your customer best and providing them with valuable content, or risk losing them to someone who understands them better… introduced to them by their trusted friend Google.”
Izzi Smith, Technical SEO Analyst, Ryte, expanded on this idea. She encourages companies to provide stronger customer and self-support services online.
“First of all, establish a process with sales and support staff to ensure that you are aware of important and incoming questions or requests that can be resolved with help articles,” Smith said.
“Dig into your Google Search Console keyword data with common question modifiers to find relevant, existing topics that should be catered to. Make sure these are answered concisely and factually and published to a related FAQ topic page,” she added.
Bottom line, according to Smith: “Help centers and FAQ sections should be created with UX at the very forefront, and should not be a single, unmaneuverable page of questions.”
One of the keys to attracting and retaining customers comes down to a single word: value.
That’s why Julia McCoy, CEO, Express Writers / Educator, Content Hacker, said you should make value a heavy focus in 2021.
And a big part of that comes from your content.
“it’s easier than ever to lose grasp on the real reason we retain the trust and attention of our audience: by giving them value,” McCoy said. “We retain interest and build trust with our readers when our content is the most comprehensive, practical, and useful piece they’ve interacted with when searching Google. That kind of content requires focus, time, commitment, investment, to create.”
Trend #3: Brand SERP Optimization, Knowledge Graphs & Entities
In 2021, tracking brand SERPs and knowledge panels will become the norm, according to Jason Barnard, The Brand SERP Guy, Kalicube.pro.
“In 2021, the reality that entity-based search starts with Google’s confident understanding of who you are, what you offer, and what audience you serve will gain enormous traction,” Barnard said. “Savvy marketers will truly get to grips with looking at their brand as an entity and start to work in earnest on Google’s understanding of the ‘who you are’ part of that trio by creating or improving their presence in the Knowledge Graph.
In fact, Nik Ranger, SEO Specialist, thinks we may start to see personalized knowledge graphs starting in 2021.
“Google has access to so much information about you, your search history, emails, social media, and other types of user information that they have the ability and means to scale personalized knowledge graphs,” Ranger said. “Qualifying the relationships between the legitimacy of author credentials to content, in addition to the way Google perceives value from content, will be ever more important.”
What does this all mean for SEO In 2021?
It means optimizing your brand’s entire digital presence (e.g., your YouTube channel, images) and how Google features them, said Patrick Reinhart, VP for Digital Strategies, Conductor.
“These days it’s not just about your website, it’s about all of your owned properties and how they interact with one another on the SERP,” Reinhart said. “If they all come together through various snippets, does it tell a good story about your brand?”
John Shehata, VP, Global Audience Development Strategy, Condé Nast / Founder, NewzDash.com, goes further, adding that SEO pros must understand the complex concepts behind topics (entities, subtopics) and natural language processing (NLP) and how entities play a role in Google rankings.
“Forget about TF*IDF, keyword frequency, and start focusing on entities, topics and start utilizing Google Natural Language (and/or other similar SEO tools that provide NLP analysis),” Shehata said.
“Search engines are getting smarter by the day and they have a good understanding of queries to an extent beyond keywords used in such queries,” Shehata added. “Don’t get me wrong, good keyword research is still needed but it comes secondary to understanding the topics/entities related to the query and the intent behind the query.”
One place where there are no keywords at play is Google Discover.
So the only way to optimize for Google Discover visibility is by establishing your entity in the knowledge graph and honing how it is connected within the topic layer, according to Jes Scholz, International Digital Director, Ringier,
“The first step every SEO pro should take is to track their brand’s result score in the knowledge graph API,” Scholz said. “Then, work on activities outside of having great content to drive their presence in the knowledge graph.
Some of those activities to focus on in 2021, Scholz said, will include:
- Ensuring a complete and correct organization markup.
- Establishing a presence in relevant knowledge bases such as Wikidata.
- Claiming your knowledge panel to use the posts by Google feature.
- For physical businesses, setting up your Google My Business profile.
Trend #4: Core Web Vitals & Page Experience Optimization
With Google introducing Core Web Vitals as a ranking factor in 2021, page experience metrics can no longer be ignored, according to Areej AbuAli, SEO Manager, Zoopla.
“Websites and businesses need to prioritize for them to ensure they don’t fall behind their competitors,” AbuAli said. “Make the most out of insights provided via tools such as Lighthouse and Crux API. Everything from page speed, mobile-friendliness, rendering, image optimization, and security protocols need to be optimized for.”
In addition, Rachel Costello, Technical SEO Consultant, Builtvisible, said we should be looking at how a page makes a user feel, not just whether the page is accessible and comprehensible to a search engine crawler.
“This will involve us taking a user-centric approach with our optimization efforts, including a keen focus on:
- How quickly and smoothly pages load.
- How soon pages become responsive to user interactions.
- How easy a website is to use and navigate on mobile devices.
- The safety and security of a site’s connection as users are browsing through it.
“Incorporating page experience into your SEO workflow will not only help to future-proof your website’s performance and rankings ahead of the upcoming algorithm update, but it can also help to improve UX and conversions now,” Costello said.
You also need to make sure that Google can access the best content on your site from everywhere – and make sure your site has a measurably better user interface than your competitors, noted Jess Peck, Senior Analytics Consultant, CVS.
“Measure, test, and use machine learning to look at your content – this will give you a huge leg up,” Peck said. “Google’s focus on Core Web Vitals shows that they’re starting to measure how annoying sites can be, so give your users a pleasant experience and Google will do the same for you.”
Trend #5: All SEO Is Mobile SEO
Ensuring your content/website performs well from a mobile perspective should also continue to be a focal point as this is where the majority of searches are being conducted, said Jeff Riddall, VP Product and Customer Success, Mintent.
“What type of experience do your users have when accessing your content and trying to find answers on their mobile devices?” he said.
That’s why Brock Murray, Co-founder, seoplus+, said a big SEO focus in 2021 must be mobile device user experience (UX)
“The best thing you can do when it comes to mobile UX is to think about the user first,” Murray said. “Simplicity in your design is the key. Also, be sure to personalize the website content and elements based on your user.”
But there are many more reasons all SEO is now mobile SEO, as explained by Shelly Fagin, SEO Director and Founder, Highly Searched, Inc.
“Google will essentially be ignoring your desktop site. Your mobile site will determine your rankings,” Fagin said.
So if you’ve been focusing on meeting the bare minimum requirements to be considered mobile-first, 2021 is the year to shift your focus to improving that experience for your users.
“Don’t just settle with getting passing scores and consider it a job well done,” Fagin said. “It’s time to closely review your pages and make sure they are intuitive for your users, are easy to navigate, and you aren’t hiding valuable content and images on mobile devices.
“It’s OK to have a different experience between desktop and mobile, but It’s important to know that Google will no longer be ranking your desktop and mobile experiences differently,” she added. “If you still have a separate mobile site, now might be the time to reconsider migrating to a mobile responsive site instead.”
Trend #6: Assess, Adopt & Execute
In 2021, prepared to work harder than ever before to assess, adopt, and execute, according to Motoko Hunt, President & International Search Marketing Consultant, AJPR.
While the basic skills and knowledge are still important, your brain needs to be flexible to adapt to the rapid changes.
“Thinking outside the box will be more important than ever. The business opportunities are still out there. If it’s not where you normally look, you just need to find where they went,” Hunt said.
It will also be important to be proactive in 2021, said Corey Morris, Chief Strategy Officer, Voltage.
“Maybe this is more of a theme or mindset than a trend – but seeing it as a recognized need and something many are arriving at makes it a trend for me,” Morris said. “Now is the time to get organized, build a plan, develop a process, and get ahead.”
A shift to more strategic SEO will be critical to stay relevant and stay top of mind for consumers’ attention in 2021, said Andy Betts, Search and Digital Advisor & Consultant. He recommends pivoting your approach from a singular focus on just consumer behavior to a dual process that involves understanding the market in which these consumers operate first.
“Take a more strategic and blended approach to understand what’s happening in the market, where demand has shifted historically, and where it is changing in real-time,” Betts said. “Take a consultative approach to understand how economic, sociological, and psychological factors impact search demand and then look at understanding consumer behavior and intent at a granular level. Utilize all tools, platforms, and sources of business intelligence at your disposal.”
Trend #7: More Automation
If we look back at the increasing number of SEO tasks that we are able to automate in 2020 (structured data generation, quality content, etc.), the possibilities for 2021 will be mind-bending, said Hamlet Batista, CEO, RankSense
“Expect the quality and quantity of the AI-generated content to increase dramatically. It will definitely create a bigger challenge for search engines to keep spam out of the index,” Batista said. “Human-in-the-loop automation to make sure the value is high for search users will be the main focus to avoid penalties and remain competitive.”
Jesse McDonald, Global SEO Strategist | Optimization Lead, IBM, believes one of the biggest trends in SEO for 2021, especially within in-house roles, is the continued focus on creating more scalable solutions for optimization utilizing automation.
“Over the last couple of years, more and more of the industry-leading tools that many SEO practitioners use in their day-to-day work have been releasing automated functionalities to roll out site changes. It’s almost like adding another member of the execution portion of the team,” McDonald said.
“The implications of this are particularly interesting for in-house roles because it can help implement low-hanging fruit elements without having to justify the importance of the change to move to the top of the sprint schedule,” he added. “Thus, freeing up the SEO to focus on additional strategic elements for improving site performance.”
Trend #8: SERP Layout & Functionality Changes
Dave Davies, Duke of URL, Beanstalk Internet Marketing, expects to see a big change to the entire way content is viewed and laid out on websites change – thanks to Google Passage Ranking.
“Why have a page on a general topic, and sub-pages on specifics, when you can have one long page for it all and know that Google will drive the user where they need to go? Isn’t that the best of both worlds? And they’re doing similar in video.
Cindy Krum, CEO & Founder, MobileMoxie, has been talking about this – what she refers to as Fraggle optimization – for a good while now. And she said doing things to help Google identify and rank passages will be a big new SEO trend in 2021.
“Fraggles (or passages) are important because they really improve Google’s ability to find and lift exactly the information that users are looking for,” Krum said. “Strong page and schema structure help with Fraggle/passage optimization, but it will likely also be important to have text that is easy for natural language processing to evaluate and has a high readability score.”
Trend #9: Long-Form Content
Ron Lieback, CEO/Founder, ContentMender, said one trend to help you outrank your competitors will be consistently publishing longer-form content that appeals to Google’s E-A-T guidelines, as well as emotion.
“Throughout 2020, I consistently witnessed blogs over 2,000 words dramatically outperform blogs of 1,000 words or less,” Lieback said. “Expect this long-form content trend to continue in 2021, and as more and more websites follow this trend, the length will get larger – maybe even toward that 2,500-3,000 mark for a blog to rank well over others.”
Trend #10: SEO Scalability
2021 should be your year to build scalability into your SEO if you’re going to get ahead of your competition, according to Mark Traphagen, Vice President of Product Marketing and Training, seoClarity.
Traphagen shared these three tips:
- List all the tasks, processes, and workflows you do on a regular basis. Determine which steps in those could be automated or better handled by use of a tool.
- Set up an alert system that monitors significant changes to things like rankings of your important keywords, flip-flopping URLs ranking for the same keyword (URL cannibalization), page content changes, URL changes, etc.
- Establish SoPs (Standard Operating Procedures) for any regular tasks you can’t automate so your team isn’t wasting time reinventing how to do them each time they need to be performed.
Get More SEO Trends & Insights for 2021
This only scratches the surface of what you’ll find in our new ebook, SEO Trends 2021.
Ready for all of the trends?
You’ll get more uncensored and unfiltered insights and tips straight from these SEO experts on how to succeed at SEO in 2021:
- Areej AbuAli
- Stephan Bajaio
- Jason Barnard
- Hamlet Batista
- Andy Betts
- Jackie Chu
- Rachel Costello
- Dave Davies
- Andrew Dennis
- Shelly Fagin
- Upasna Gautam
- Marie Haynes
- Adam Heitzman
- Motoko Hunt
- Miracle Inameti-Archibong
- Alexander Kesler
- Jeremy Knauff
- Cindy Krum
- Ron Lieback
- Jenn Mathews
- John McAlpin
- Julia McCoy
- Jesse McDonald
- Corey Morris
- Britney Muller
- Brock Murray
- Jess Peck
- Chuck Price
- Nik Ranger
- Lily Ray
- Patrick Reinhart
- Jeff Riddall
- Adam Riemer
- Alexis Sanders
- Jes Scholz
- John Shehata
- Cyrus Shepard
- Izzi Smith
- Aleyda Solis
- Mark Traphagen
- Steven van Vessum
- Mindy Weinstein
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Featured Image: Paolo Bobita