SEO Trends for 2021: A Complete Guide

by | Dec 4, 2020

To get your content to land organically in the top results for relevant online searches, you have to optimize your website and content to fit the demands of major search engines (like Google). Things are changing faster than ever when it comes to the best practices for search engine optimization (SEO), and companies have to get on board or risk being left behind. Organic search makes up 53.3% of trackable web traffic. And, 75% of users on search engines aren’t moving past the first page of results. So, how can you improve your SEO strategy for 2021?

15 Major SEO Trends On the Horizon…

This complete guide to SEO trends will guide you through what’s changed and what’s staying the same for 2021. Use this to help build a stronger SEO strategy to move up in the organic search rankings to draw in more qualified traffic.

  1. AI is Growing in Importance
  2. Core Web Vitals Demands Better UX
  3. Voice Search is Becoming More Prominent
  4. Mobile Continues to Gain Importance
  5. Increase of Semantic Search and Intent Optimization
  6. COVID-19 Will Leave a Lasting Impact
  7. Local Search Rises in Popularity
  8. Use and Analytics to Boost SEO
  9. The Google EAT Content Principle is Critical
  10. Long-Form Content Performs Better on Search
  11. Prepare for Zero-Click Searches
  12. Beat Out Competitors with Featured Snippets
  13. Google Discover Indexing
  14. Including Video Content
  15. Optimizing Images for Search
How Google Uses AI in Search

1. AI is Growing in Importance

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going to be playing a larger role in search rankings moving forward. Google revealed its algorithm RankBrain a few years ago. RankBrain is able to learn and go beyond the plain data to provide better insights. Rather than require a programmer to make adjustments, RankBrain has been able to teach itself to do things. This is useful for the new search queries that require relevant results that have never been gathered before. RankBrain is able to solve the problem of gathering those new sources and ranking them for results relevant to the user’s query.

Of course, Google doesn’t reveal details about their algorithms, so it leaves many guessing on how to best appeal to RankBrain. RankBrain has been active for over five years now, so it continues to learn user behavior and adapt to preferences. Knowing your target audience is going to be a key part of meeting the requirements established by the AI to rank by relevance and value. Learn more about how Google uses AI in Search.

Google Search Core Web Vitals

2. Core Web Vitals Demands Better UX

Google makes hundreds of changes to its algorithm every year. Normally they don’t announce these changes, because they are small and adaptations for their own system to improve. When they do announce a change, it’s because they want webmasters to alter how they are doing things for SEO best practices. The announcement for Core Web Vitals notes:

Core Web Vitals are a set of real-world, user-centered metrics that quantify key aspects of the user experience. They measure dimensions of web usability such as load time, interactivity, and the stability of content as it loads (so you don’t accidentally tap that button when it shifts under your finger – how annoying!).

Google is pushing webmasters to consider loading speeds and offer a better user experience (UX). The announcement for Core Web Vitals projects a change in how they will measure Experience Page signals, which are metrics beyond content alone. These values will look at things like whether your intrusive popups interrupt experience or your site is formatted for mobile. This change will affect rankings, but it is going to especially affect who lands in the Google Top Stories.

Voice Search 2021 Trend

3. Voice Search is Becoming More Prominent

From Siri to Alexa and Google Assistant, there are more and more options for voice search technology. As this continues to grow in popularity, expect your users to be searching by voice. This hands-free option is highly convenient for users who are busy or even driving.

To optimize for those who are using voice search, you should focus on longer conversational phrases. Your longtail keywords should sound natural since voice changes how people search. Instead of a typical typed search keyword phrase (like “top SEO trends 2021”), a voice searcher might say something more along the lines of, “What are the top SEO trends to follow for 2021?”

Google Mobile Search Update

4. Mobile Continues to Gain Importance

We’ve been screaming this for years now—adapt to mobile with a responsive design! If you haven’t already, it’s past time. In 2019, the Google algorithm changed to see mobile a the “primary” version for ranking (over the desktop version of the site). Most developers and webmasters are building their sites on desktop, but around 73% of internet uses are accessing those sites through a mobile device.

One important note: Google isn’t going to load content that requires clicking or swiping. And, if you are using infinite scrolling, you need to use paginated loading—this enables scroll sections to have links Google can use, sending users to a specific point in the content rather than the top of an infinite page.

search intent optimization categories
Source: MarketingLand

5. Increase of Semantic Search and Intent Optimization

It used to be a strict focus on exact keyword matches was important for high-ranking content. But, Google didn’t like a lot of the keyword stuffing that resulted—leaving users with pages of fluffy keyword-filled garbage. With the algorithm changes, the value is now placed on content intent matching the user’s search intent.

This means you need to use those secondary keywords and semantic search to write with the full range of terms that match the intent of the search. The best way to approach this is to approach subjects your target audience is directly searching for. Optimize for content topics rather than placing the focus on keywords. With the increase in AI, it makes sense that content should be written for people and not bots. The bots are learning to look at content like their users will.

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6. COVID-19 Will Leave a Lasting Impact

If we learned anything during COVID-19 in terms of content, it should be the importance of accuracy. Companies that shared inaccurate information carelessly were penalized across search and social media.

And, without question, the pandemic and stay-at-home orders caused a surge in online activity. Ecommerce skyrocketed by over 32%.

“There will be some lasting impacts from the pandemic that will fundamentally change how people shop,” said Insider Intelligence Senior Forecasting Analyst Cindy Liu. “For one, many stores, particularly department stores, may close permanently. Secondly, we believe consumer shopping behaviors will permanently change. Many consumers have either shopped online for the first time or shopped in new categories (i.e., groceries). Both the increase in new users and frequency of purchasing will have a lasting impact on retail.”

COVID-19 is going to have a lasting impact on how users behave and how sites are ranked. Search engines are sure to respond to these things. Companies that aren’t double-checking content accuracy need to be more diligent. Update incorrect and outdated content. And, companies that don’t have options for online ordering should really consider the integration of ecommerce and automated booking.

Local Search

7. Local Search Rises in Popularity

Without question, you are addressing a global audience when you post content online. But, with so many people turning to search via a mobile device, there are a lot of users looking specifically for local results. If you are out driving and decide to run an errand, your quick Google search is going to be limited to the local results near you. Not all users are looking at your site for the ecommerce factor.

If a user wants to know nearby store hours, for example, they might search for the grocery stores nearby. The SERP (search engine results page) is going to include a list with store hours, and the user can make a plan without ever clicking on a link. Or, if a user is considering their options, they might be checking to see what your reviews look like on Google—are you close to 5-star? Companies should create a Google My Business page to ensure they have a spot in those local results.

Focus on local keywords for some of your landing pages. Write content that is solely targeting local users by writing about local events, policies, or industry news. Take advantage of this audience that is going to be much more focused on your solutions because of proximity—this is one place where you won’t have to compete with every other company on the web. Learn more Upgrow’s approach to local SEO.

Google Search Console for SEO

8. Analytics to Boost SEO

You aren’t going to be able to adjust to reality if you don’t have a clear insight into what’s going on. Data is going to tell you a lot about your audience, top buyers, and campaign successes. Analytics will help you see which messages are working, what links are getting clicks, and user experience factors—like page loading times.

You can measure and wade through the data on your own, or you can hire an expert analytics team to help you measure and understand your data. If you are reading the data wrong, your campaigns and marketing strategy will be off. With the right team and tools in place, you will be able to improve your rank with support for technical SEO, link building, keyword research, rank tracking, and more.

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Source: CoSchedule

9. The Google EAT Content Principle is Critical

Content that expresses Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness is what Google has named EAT content. This is the kind of content that you need to create to be considered useful for higher ranking scores. If your business is a YMYL (your money, your life) type, like investments or healthcare, then this EAT principle is even more important.

Quality content comes from a solid understanding of who you are truly targeting. Look at real customers to understand behavior without assumptions. Map out your customer’s journey and complete a content audit to understand how your existing content is meeting the needs within those various stages of fulfilling the search intent of your audience. Take special note of what kind of content your users prefer—this includes format, voice, and length.

As you create content, back up your claims with authoritative links and cited research. Reputable “.edu,” “.org” and “.gov” links are going to help show Google you are meeting EAT criteria.

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Source: SerpIQ

10. Long-Form Content Performs Better on Search

The content that does best in search is usually in-depth and high-quality. Most findings show that long-form content gets more clicks and shares than shorter content. Brands need to focus on writing longer content if they want to land in top search results. But, focusing on length alone would be a mistake.

“Data does not prove that a large word count produces higher rankings. Instead, we can show that large word count is correlated with higher rankings,” says marketing guru Neil Patel. “You can’t expect to simply write more content and get all the good stuff — higher ranking, more backlinks, increased social sharing, and enhanced social engagement. Instead, you need to write better content. ‘Better’ content is typically longer, yes. But it’s more than just length. In fact, the real reason for high-ranking content isn’t the length of the content at all.”

While longer content is better for SEO, fluffed-up content written to hit a certain word count is not going to do well. Write the kind of content your users want to read. When you are addressing a cornerstone or evergreen piece, take the time to do the research and create a longer article with valuable insights. HubSpot recommends aiming for around 2,300 words on these longer posts of high-value.

Zero-Click - Featured Snippets Example

11. Prepare for Zero-Click Searches

The rise of zero-click searches is growing. Part of SEO ranking strategy should include those searches that are never meant to pull up content for clicks. Users are getting the information they need right from Google itself—never clicking on a page.

And, Google is shifting to make these zero-click searches even more common by displaying answers right on the search page when possible. The search engine is trying to make it as fast and easy as possible for users to get information. Google knows if a user wants to click a link for more, they will certainly do so.

Understand, Google isn’t trying to kill your traffic, but it is doing anything it can to encourage search. If you search for the weather in your area, do you want to click through weather pages or have an easy-to-read graph pop up right there in the search results? If you want to check a game schedule, should you have to go to the team website and navigate to the correct page, or can Google display the information? Embracing zero-click means moving past the top-level content (fast, easy answers or basic facts) to dive deep into those answers your users are looking for. This is one of the reasons long-form content is on the rise for top performance.

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12. Beat Out Competitors with Featured Snippets

Have you ever seen a big, beautiful box come up in Google that shows images, an article blurb, and a big title right there for clicking? These snippets are a key way to get onto the front page and push your competitors down (literally).

Earning a Featured Snippet requires answering specific questions with high-quality content. In many cases, Google will grab part of your content to display for the users in an effort for zero-click search potential. But, showing you answer the question gives you the upper hand in snagging the click as the user decides to dive deeper. There isn’t a formula for this placement, but Google-friendly content formatting is important.