2021 SEO Themes
January 04, 2021
With 2020 coming to an end (finally), 2021 presents a new opportunity to refocus. Last year seemed to be so much about survival for most companies—doing their best to find their way through, whether they faced a decline in revenue or a surge. With any luck, 2021 won’t bring a new catastrophe for us to survive and endure, but instead will bring an opportunity to take what we’ve learned from 2020 and grow. To help encourage that growth, at least where organic search is concerned, here are three broad themes that should be part of your SEO strategy in 2021.
1: Core Web Vitals & User Experience More Broadly
Google’s Core Web Vitals (CWV) initiative will become part of their ranking factors in May. This initiative is a new approach to speed and also introduces a new concept of measuring how much a web site shifts. How large or small an impact CWV will have on ranking remains to be seen, though many are speculating it will have a sizable impact on organic search rankings.
That means, you need to focus on and improve the three CWV metrics for your website. Those metrics are:
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) – how long does it take the biggest item on the page to load?
- First Input Delay (FID) – how long does it take until your website is ready for people to interact with it?
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) – do elements on your website move around or remain stable?
While the immediate focus is on improving CWV metrics, it is also important to look at the broader trend highlighted by the CWV initiative. First, think about speed. Google has previously relied on other speed metrics as part of the ranking factor and those metrics were decent. However, LCP and FID are new metrics that Google hopes will better reflect the way speed affects the user experience. The trend, then, is that we shouldn’t necessarily focus on these metrics to the exclusion of all others—rather, we should, like Google, consistently find the better ways to measure the things that affect the user experience.
Another emerging trend is layout shift. Google has put a lot of time, money, and brain power into figuring out the best way to measure layout movement. Prior to this, everybody knew layout shifting was annoying and could point to that as a problem. However, Google has now found a way quantify this shift and do something about it. the better thing to be thinking about is what other user experience issues are out there that maybe can’t be quantified just yet? You know Google is going to figure out how to quantify those issues at some point. While we, of course, need to focus on CLS, it is also important to find those other problems on your website that can’t be quantified right now and fix those too. Chances are Google is working on that already, so doing this for your own website can help you get ahead of the curve while also making your website better in the process.
Finally, CWV is really the next logical step in Google’s continuing effort to make user experience a part of their ranking factors. Along with CWV, Google has used or is using other metrics to evaluate user experience, including speed metrics, mobile usability factors, the use of SSL certificates, and measuring how intrusive pop ups and interstitials are. All of these represent some aspect of user experience. Here again, while we need to focus on CWV specifically this year, we also need to be thinking about is what other user experience issues are out there that we can improve.
2. Site Quality Matters
Another continuing theme in Google’s ranking factors is the effort to prioritize higher quality websites. While there are plenty of examples where Google fails on this by punishing high quality sites and boosting low quality sites, in general Google is doing a much better job now understanding the nature of a website than at any time in the past. Part of the quality evaluation relates to E-A-T: Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness. Part of the quality evaluation is a more general review of the website.
The May and December algorithm updates last year didn’t specifically address E-A-T or quality, but it seems likely when you review the winners and losers that this is exactly what Google is trying to do: they are trying to programmatically determine which websites are of any overall better quality than others. In most cases, websites that made substantial improvements in their overall quality, whether related to E-A-T or other areas, saw gains in the December algorithm update. However, that hints at another part of quality: while you might see gains from improving your site quality or E-A-T factors at any given time, you are more likely to see gains (or losses) following an algorithm update. Keep this in mind when evaluating the results of making changes to your website—a lack of immediate results doesn’t necessarily suggest the change failed.
In your 2021 SEO strategy, you want to make sure that in every way possible you are doing what you can to show your website is of the highest quality—certainly of a higher quality than your competitors. That means:
- You need to review your content and confirm that it reflects your organization’s expertise and authority. If some content doesn’t, you need to rewrite or remove that content from your website. As one way to understand your content quality, consider interviewing your customers and users to see what they think of your content, how it is organized, and where the content can be improved.
- You need to find and fix all the technical and structural issues present on your website—duplicate content, thin content, broken content, orphaned content, mobile usability issues, redirect errors, rendering issues, URL structure, server quality and more. Some of these may seem like old and dated SEO factors that shouldn’t apply any longer, but they still matter. To put that another way: just because canonicals aren’t the latest hot topic on SEO sites doesn’t mean fixing issues with canonical won’t improve your website’s SEO performance.
- You also need to review your backlink profile since Google relies heavily on backlinks to understand your website, including your website’s E-A-T factors. There are some, including me, who speculate that Google is also relying on unlinked mentions of your brand too as a way to understand your company’s reputation and, by extension, your website’s reputation. As you review your backlinks and unlinked mentions, you want to remove any that might associate your website with bad, spammy or otherwise low-quality areas of the web.
3. Natural Language Processing > Keyword Targeting
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Google is using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help evaluate, understand, and organize all the text, images, videos, and other content that exists on websites. One subset of that is Natural Language Processing (NLP). NLP, to oversimplify, offers a programmatic way to understand the meaning of language. Long gone (long, long, long gone) are the days where Google relied on keyword usage as a way to understand what a page is about. Instead, Google is feeding content into a variety of models and using those models to determine the nature of the page. One of the more popular and more advanced models is BERT (which stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers). With BERT, Google is able to better understand words in context and that allows them to, among other things, answer questions more effectively (and, on at least one test, answer questions slightly better than humans).
None of this is to say keyword research isn’t beneficial or still useful—it can be. But keyword research needs to be conducted as part of a bigger research effort to understand what type of content you need on your website and what types of topics that content needs to address. If your 2021 SEO strategy only includes keyword research, then you aren’t going to be as successful as you could be (and maybe not successful at all). Certainly, if your SEO strategy involves any form of keyword stuffing, you are definitely not going to succeed. As a result, your 2021 strategy needs to think more broadly about what topics to address, how those topics relate to each other, and what pages may or may not be needed to speak to those topics in a way that users would prefer. Once you have that understanding, you can use keyword research to help guide you on the right words to use to address those topics.
However, I’d also recommend that your SEO strategy include evaluating your own website by feeding your content into various NLP models. What types of themes, terms or topics jump out within a specific page? How does the model summarize your page’s content and is it accurate? How does one page relate to another page on your website? What does your competitor’s website look like? Sure, your engineers may not have the sophisticated AI-knowhow like Google’s engineers, but even a rudimentary evaluation can help highlight potential problem areas you’ll want to fix. As well, as you begin using these types of models, you may find ways to generate content as well, speeding up the ability to write titles, descriptions, headlines, and excerpts.
The main action items, then, are:
- Improve your website’s performance specifically on Google’s Core Web Vitals (CWV) but also find other ways to measure and improve other areas of your website’s user experience.
- Find ways to improve your website’s overall quality. One aspect of this is by better demonstrating your company’s expertise, authority, and trustworthiness (E-A-T). But the other aspect to this is improving the overall quality of your website’s structure and content.
- Start paying attention to things like Natural Language Processing (NLP) and how that is changing Google’s understanding of a page. Where possible, start finding ways to use these technologies within your own organization for evaluation and to help with particular tasks.
To say the least, SEO is challenging and there is a lot to do to perform well in search results. If you need help, subscribe to Elementive’s YouTube channel, check out the free content on this website, or take my course on Tech SEO Fundamentals. Or, if you’d like to have Elementive help with the items discussed in this article along with another part of your website’s SEO performance, please contact me today.