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What Matters Now in SEO & Where to Focus Next [Survey Results]

Where should you focus your SEO strategy next? Discover emerging trends and ranking factors from the State of SEO 2021 survey report.

State of SEO: Emerging Opportunities

Where should you focus your SEO strategy in the next year?

What are the emergent factors you can leverage to get ahead of the competition?

You might have guessed that many feel that Core Web Vitals is the predominant emerging factor that will impact SEO.

But what other up-and-coming factors should you pay attention to, and where are the differences in priorities between B2B and B2C niches and agency vs. in-house brands?

Having insight into what is coming down the line in SEO and which areas to watch enables you to build them into your strategies for the coming year.

In Search Engine Journal’s recent State of SEO 2021 survey, we asked over 2,800 SEO professionals to share the most important factors that contribute to SEO success and what they intend to focus on over the next twelve months.

Read on to find out:

  • What are the most important factors for ranking?
  • Emergent SEO trends and factors.
  • What SEO professionals are focusing on for the next 12 months.

What are the Most Important Factors for Ranking?

Ranking factors are a contentious issue! There are varying opinions across social media about what impacts ranking and what doesn’t, including the validity of studies trying to measure ranking factors.

Correlation or causation – it’s the eternal question.

We asked our audience of SEO professionals what they thought had the most impact on ranking.

These results are a reflection of what 2,800 working SEO professionals have experienced over the last 12 months.

Ranking Factor Percent Volume
1 On-page (meta titles/descriptions, H1) 32.8% 763
2 Organic user behavior (CTR, bounce, time on site) 30.9% 720
3 Depth & accuracy of content 24.6% 572
4 Structured data (schema) 21.1% 490
5 Content freshness 19.0% 442
6 Mobile-friendliness 17.9% 417
7 Brand awareness 17.8% 413
8 Topic relevance 17.5% 406
9 Links 17.4% 404
10 Site speed 13.8% 320
11 Internal linking 13.7% 318
12 Domain authority 12.4% 289
13 Site security (HTTPS) 11.9% 278
14 EAT 9.4% 218
15 Social signals 7.1% 164

(Q. From the last 12 months, what do you think had the most impact for ranking? Up to 3 options could be selected. Open to all respondents, 2,325 answered. 1.81% selected ‘don’t know,’ 0.60% selected ‘other.’)

The most important factors for ranking are still considered to be meta titles, descriptions, and H1s on the page.

Over a third of respondents thought on-page factors were the most important factor for ranking.

Barry Adams, founder of Polemic Digital agrees that on-page is key to SEO:

“Recently Google seems to rely less on off-page ranking signals (i.e., links) and has put more emphasis on relevancy and quality of content, so I agree with this consensus that on-page is now the single most important area of SEO.”

Echoing Barry’s comment, in our survey, brand awareness was considered more important than links as a ranking factor.

Jamie Indigo from Deepcrawl also believes that on-page is important as it supports your site being indexed:

“That which does not render, cannot rank. If your site is properly indexed (read as: all pages [and only those pages] intended for index are indexed), then yes it seems quite reasonable that on-page factors are the most important!”

Thirty-one percent thought that user behavior such as click-through rate (CTR), bounce rate, and time on site is the second most important factor.

There might be divided opinions on the impact of CTR and bounce affecting ranking, but just under a third of SEO pros thought it counted.

Just under a quarter of survey respondents thought that the depth and accuracy of content made a difference to ranking.

The quality of content is an important factor in SEO and Google is making strides towards favoring accurate content, especially in YMYL SERPs.

Mindy Weinstein from Market Mindshift told us:

“The depth of content around a topic is a big deal. If you want to rank for a particular topic (i.e., keywords), you should provide detailed, relevant content to satisfy the searcher’s query. I also think technical factors, such as speed, crawlability, etc. are pretty high up there on the ranking factor list.”

Barry Adams also thinks that relevancy is absolutely crucial, and said:

“Google wants to rank the best answers for any given question someone may type in, so a website’s content needs to answer those questions as best it can. The dynamic needs to change from ‘how can I maximize my profit from search’ to ‘how can I best help my audience.’ Rankings need to be earned.”

Structured data was the fourth most important factor for ranking, according to our survey. Jamie Indigo shared:

“SEO is a vast field. One of my greatest strengths is acknowledging what I don’t know. I get sites to the index. In my experience, strong semantic markup and ARIA attributes make a page easy to understand. A well-executed piece of structured data markup goes a long way as well.”

Surprisingly, E-A-T was only considered to impact ranking by 9% of SEO pros. Despite the connection with the accuracy of content and Google’s drive to push for credible content producers, E-A-T still has more traction to gain.

Izzi Smith of Ryte thinks that brand awareness, relevance, and being able to satisfy the users’ needs are more important than chasing ranking factors. She said:

“Relevance, satisfaction, brand awareness, uniqueness – I’m sorry, these are nothing you can directly measure! But these goals are much more important to strive for than an arbitrary ranking factor. Google tries to serve the best possible resource for a query, and I will always aim to be that resource,” she told us.

Social signals were at the bottom of the list, with just over 7% thinking that it is an important factor for ranking.

Kevin Indig was surprised to see that even a small amount of respondents thought that social signals were the most important ranking factor. He commented:

“I thought we left this behind us. Maybe it’s a sign that some beliefs are hard to eradicate in SEO.”

Although the impact of social media as a ranking factor is questioned, social does help SEO in many ways.

When we compared B2B and B2C insights from our results, we found that:

  • 18% of B2C SEO pros think internal linking is an important ranking factor compared to 11% B2B.
  • 19% of B2B SEO pros think links were an important factor compared to 14% of B2C.
  • 24% of B2C SEO pros think structured data is an important factor compared to 19% of B2B.

Data also revealed that in-house SEO professionals are more focused on content production and on-page elements.

Agencies are more focused on the technical and potential of structured data.

  • 37% of in-house SEO pros think on-page factors are important compared to 30% of agencies.
  • 24% of agencies think structured data is important compared to 17% of in-house.
  • 21% of in-house SEO pros think content freshness is important compared to 15% of agencies.
  • 24% of freelancers thought site speed was an important factor compared to 11% of agencies.
  • 23% of freelancers think content freshness is a factor compared to 15% of agencies.
  • 11% of freelancers think social signals are a factor compared to 6% of agencies.

SEO Emergent Factors to Watch Over the Next Two Years

The foundations of SEO are built on understanding what a user wants and delivering an experience that answers and satisfies their needs. A website should support ease of use, make itself visible and offer trustworthy information.

“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).”

– State of SEO Survey respondent

Sounds simple. But achieving this involves the sum of many parts.

We all know there are still ways to game the search engines. However, to ensure sustained visibility and a viable organic search presence, it’s important to pay attention to what Google wants.

Everything that Google is striving towards is based on the user having the best experience they can — and most SEO trends are an extension of this.

The big development this year has been Core Web Vitals, and there is no surprise that right now this is the most important emergent factor in SEO.

However, industry opinion is divided on how much impact this is having on ranking and visibility.

We asked our audience: In the next two years, what will be the most important emergent factors in SEO?

Ranking Factor Percent Volume
1 Core Web Vitals 36.6% 850
2 Structured data 25.4% 591
3 EAT & trusted sources 24.9% 580
4 Machine learning/AI 23.9% 557
5 Voice search 22.8% 531
6 Mobile SEO 20.9% 487
7 Google Discover 19.1% 445
8 Automation (tools) 18.2% 424
9 Site security 14.8% 344
10 Knowledge graph and entities 14.6% 340
11 SERP features 13.9% 324
12 Video search 13.3% 308
13 Google Passages 13.2% 307
14 Don’t think there will be any 1.8% 42
15 Other (please specify) 0.8% 19

(Q: In the next two years, what will be the most important emergent factors in SEO? Up to 3 options could be selected. Open to all respondents, 2,325 answered. 0.82% selected ‘other.’)

Kevin Indig of Shopify was surprised to see CWV at the top of the emergent factors and had this to say:

“​​That’s a shocker! From experience and early analyses, I think it’s fair to say that there is no indicator that CWV have even remotely the same impact as content, links, or even meta titles.”

Barry Adams also shares Kevin’s opinion and said:

“I think Core Web Vitals is overhyped and doesn’t play as big a role as some might think. There has been a lot of fuss about CWV for very little effect. Voice search has also proven to be a bit of a dud and doesn’t seem to have any impact on how we do SEO.”

However, Izzi Smith does believe CWV is a factor to pay attention to. Not necessarily as any impact on ranking but considering the user perspective.

She said:

“I’m still not convinced that the ranking impact will be game-changing, but I think the focus on performance and website UX is.”

If we consider that only 9% currently think that E-A-T is a ranking factor, yet a quarter (25%) think it’s emergent, this is an area to watch for growth.

Barry Adams shares this opinion and told us that:

“Proving your E-A-T as a website will continue to become ever more important. There will be various new ways websites can showcase their authority, which we as an industry haven’t yet considered. Individual expertise and authorship is an interesting area that I think will be more prominent.”

Mobile SEO is considered an important emergent factor by nearly 21% of SEO professionals and Jamie Indigo sees this as the area for Google’s expansion:

“Google is going to continue its push for the next billion users. Those users are on mid-range mobile devices that *cannot handle* the obscenely bulky scripts we ship on every page. The most important emergency factor in the next few years? It’s going to be ‘can real humans actually use this page?’”

Indigo also recommends working on your site to meet Page Experience requirements that will benefit the move to mobile:

“While Google brands it as Mobile-First, the Mobile-only index is coming. Googlebot inherits core requirements from its web rendering service, Chromium. Your site has to meet these requirements — which have been delightfully packaged together for SEOs as Page Experience.”

Mindy Weinstein expected to see machine learning and AI higher on the list and said:

“I think machine learning/AI is going to be one of the stronger factors over the next few years and it will touch many aspects of our work as SEO professionals, such as identifying search intent, determining relevant keywords, and informing an SEO content strategy.”

When we compared responses from B2B and B2C SEO pros about emergent factors, we found that:

  • 25% of B2C SEO pros think Google Discover is a more important emergent factor than 16% of those in B2B.
  • 39% of B2B SEO pros think Core Web Vitals are important, compared to 33% of those in B2C.
  • 17% of B2C SEO pros think Google Passages is important, compared to 11% of those in B2B.

The differences for emergent factors among agenciy SEO pros compared to those who work in-house were:

  • 24% of in-house SEO pros think mobile is an important emergent factor compared to 15% of agencies.
  • 22% of agencies think Google Discover is important compared to 15% of in-house SEO pros.
  • 21% of freelancers think site security is an emergent factor compared to 12% of agencies.

Another area not on our survey list to consider as an emergent factor is mindset. Izzi Smith thinks that SEO as an industry needs to take a more holistic approach to see success:

“[We need] a change of mindset. I’m positive this is already happening after seeing that User Experience is considered the most important topic for the next year, and I’m really hoping we uphold that.

We need to take more holistic approaches to succeed in SEO, and I think it’s crucial to develop growth strategies and optimizations that consider user experience and accessibility at the forefront.”

What SEO Professionals are Going to Work On in the Next 12 Months

We asked State of SEO survey respondents what areas they intended to work on over the next 12 months, to get a true picture of what SEO pros think really matters.

Trends and emergent factors are important, but it’s important to watch what others are doing.

We asked: In the next year, what are the top areas that you intend to focus on?

Ranking Factor Percent Volume
1 User experience 34.7% 823
2 Content production 27.2% 645
3 On-page factors 26.9% 638
4 Search intent for pages 25.7% 609
5 Link building 20.9% 497
6 Lead generation 20.8% 493
7 Building a subscriber list 17.8% 423
8 Digital PR 17.7% 420
9 Workflows and processes 16.2% 384
10 Paid search 15.4% 365
11 Social media 13.9% 329
12 User journey 11.0% 261
13 Demonstrating ROI 10.5% 250
14 Better understanding the audience 9.8% 232
15 Other (please specify) 1.2% 28

(Q: In the next year, what are the top areas that you intend to focus on? Up to 3 options could be selected. Open to all respondents, 2,369 answered. 1.18% selected ‘other.’)

Unsurprisingly, user experience topped the list, which connects with Core Web Vitals and the Page Experience update.

Kevin Indig is pleased to see this result and commented:

“I loved seeing that most SEO pros will work on user experience over the next 12 months, which seems to have a growing influence on the performance of organic search and conversions.”

Also, over a quarter of SEO pros are focusing on content production. Again, this is unsurprising as the dominance of content marketing is known. However, as the production of content increases, so does the competition — maybe this could also be a threat to success?

Barry Adams is considering placing more emphasis on E-A-T, he said:

“As always, my SEO efforts will gradually evolve as Google’s algorithms evolve. I may place even more emphasis on E-A-T, content quality, and topical expertise. Beyond that, most will stay the same.”

Comparing what B2B and B2C SEO pros will be working on over the next 12 months:

  • 30% of B2B SEO pros are going to focus on content production, compared to 22% of those in B2C.
  • 25% of B2B SEO pros are going to focus on lead generation, compared to 16% of those in B2C.
  • 23% of B2C SEO pros are going to focus on digital PR, compared to 16% of those in B2B.

We found that there are differences in focus between agency and in-house SEO pros, as well:

  • 31% of in-house SEO pros are going to focus on content production, compared to 23% of agencies.
  • 21% of agencies are going to focus on building an email list compared to 14% of in-house SEO pros.
  • 24% of in-house SEO pros are going to focus on lead generation, compared to 17% of agencies.
  • 18% of SEO freelancers are going to focus on demonstrating ROI compared to 8% of in-house SEO pros.

As a final thought, other areas of focus that some of our industry experts are focusing on include UX and accessibility.

This is an area that Izzi Smith told us she will be working on:

“I’m focusing a lot on helping companies bring crucial topics together in aligned website UX strategies, and demonstrating how SEO supports that.

I also want to dedicate more time on accessibility topics, as well as supporting businesses in creating more carbon-reduced and sustainable websites.”

Jamie Indigo is continuing her Web Rendering Service education by following the Chromium updates and communities. She believes that, “The future of technical SEO won’t label itself as SEO.”

Certainly, that is something to consider.

Download the full State of SEO 2021 report with survey results, opportunities, and threats. You’ll find insights such as:

  • What SEO pros think is the most important emergent factor for the next few years.
  • Which two Google changes are considered the biggest threat to SEO.
  • What a third of SEO pros think has the most impact on ranking.
  • Where just under a half of SEO pros and agencies find new business.
  • Where SEO pros plan to focus for the next year.

Download the State of SEO Report 2021

Category Careers SEO
SEJ STAFF Shelley Walsh ShelleyWalsh.com

Shelley Walsh is the SEO Content Strategist at SEJ & produces the Pioneers, a series about the history of SEO ...

What Matters Now in SEO & Where to Focus Next [Survey Results]

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