For too many months of 2020, the whole world seemed to slow down. Movie theaters were closed, once-bustling tourist attractions were empty and nearly all travel screeched to a halt. But the internet is never closed, so SEO continued to evolve like nothing happened.
In fact, many online businesses and websites flourished—with more people home and browsing the web than ever before, the digital world was (and is) the place to be. Things never stopped moving for SEO pros, and the same will likely hold true in 2021. If you want to get ahead, then you need to know about the seven most prominent upcoming SEO trends:
- Mobile-Only Indexing
- Core Web Vitals and Page Experience
- Advancements in Artificial Intelligence
- Quality over Quantity
- Passage Ranking for Long-Tail Searches
- Video, Video and More Video
- Increased Visual Search
Mobile-first indexing isn’t exactly a new SEO trend. Google first announced it toward the end of 2016, and in July 2019 enabled it by default for all new websites. As Google explains it, mobile-first indexing means that the search engine predominantly uses the mobile version of a site’s content for crawling and indexing.
But starting in March 2021, Google will only use the mobile version of a site’s content for crawling and indexing, regardless of whether the site is new or old. While this still technically falls under the category of mobile-first indexing, mobile-only indexing might be a more appropriate name.
In fact, Google Search Advocate John Mueller seems to agree:
It has to be in the (rendered / sstatic) HTML to be indexed.
I’m thinking we should just rename it to “mobile-only indexing” to make it clearer 🙂
— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) October 14, 2020
For SEO practitioners, the lesson is clear—make your site as mobile-friendly as possible now or risk lower rankings in 2021. To start, you can try:
- implementing responsive design;
- increasing page speed;
- avoiding long walls of text;
- ensuring quick and easy navigation;
- enabling quick searching and shopping;
- reducing pop-up ads;
- picking an easy-to-read font; and
- using Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test to make sure your efforts are paying off.
Core Web Vitals and Page Experience
Google’s page experience update is coming in May 2021, so all SEO practitioners need to get ready for a whole new set of ranking signals.
One of those signals comes in the form of Core Web Vitals, a group of standards first announced in May 2020 via the Google-sponsored open-source project Chromium. They consist of Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), First Input Delay (FID) and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS). The first addresses load speed, the second addresses responsiveness and interactivity and the third addresses visual stability:
All three of those will be included in the page experience update, as will four pre-existing signals:
- the presence of Safe Browsing protections;
- HTTPS adoption; and
- no intrusive interstitials.
The update will also show users whether a site adheres to all page experience standards via a visual indicator, and will finally allow non-Google AMP pages to be eligible for a spot on the coveted Top Stories carousel.
Advancements in Artificial Intelligence
Between Tesla’s famous Autopilot AI, the European Union’s acceptance of facial recognition in public places and an outpouring of corporate support for the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, it’s clear as day that artificial intelligence is only growing in scope and prevalence.
The same is true in the world of SEO too: During Google’s Search On 2020 event, some of the company’s key players explained how AI has shaped search during 2020 and will continue to do so in 2021.
For instance, the natural language processing (NLP) pre-training technique called Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, or BERT for short, is now used in nearly all English search queries. It’s being used to decipher misspelled words, index specific passages of web pages and identify relevant subtopics, all of which serve to help Google users find more accurate search results.
In fact, you’re probably already benefiting from the power of AI without even knowing it—leading SEO tools like Semrush already leverage machine learning to provide users with the most valuable data and recommendations possible.
You can expect to see even more AI advancements in 2021, from the tools you use every day to the search engine algorithms you strive to reverse engineer.
Quality over Quantity
The value of high-quality content isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) news to any SEO practitioner. Google has been preaching about its importance since its inception, and other search engines like Bing prioritize it too.
This isn’t going to change in 2021, and search engines’ focus on quality over quantity will only strengthen. To see how, just take a look at Google’s 2020 Search Quality Rater Guidelines, last updated on October 14 2020. Right on the first page, it states that the document primarily focuses on the Page Quality and Needs Met ratings:
One of the most important determinants of page quality is Google’s E-A-T ranking factor, which stands for expertise, authority and trust.
So thanks to increasingly capable AI-powered algorithms, a growing emphasis on the user experience and a constantly expanding pool of competing sites, it will be crucial in 2021 for marketers to aim for quality above all else.
Passage Ranking for Long-Tail Searches
As briefly mentioned above, Google announced at its Search On event that it will soon start indexing individual passages from pages. They explain that “by better understanding the relevancy of specific passages, not just the overall page, we can find that needle-in-a-haystack information [users are] looking for.”
By their calculations, this will improve an impressive seven percent of search queries across all languages once rollout is complete.
Passage indexation will be particularly useful for long-tail search queries. Google’s provided example uses the query how can I determine if my house windows are UV glass. Before passage indexation, a loosely related (but not 100 percent relevant) result is returned first. After passage indexation, a passage that directly answers the question is automatically displayed:
Going forward, this means that SEO practitioners will need to ensure that pages answer relevant long-tail queries not just on the page as a whole, but in individual passages as well.
Video, Video and More Video
Before 2020, video content was already on the rise. But after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, video positively skyrocketed. After all, many people were spending more time at home than ever, and online video was often the most convenient form of entertainment.
As shown in Think with Google’s research from June, the average household video streaming viewing time increased by 27 percent in the first six months of 2020 alone:
Now more than ever, users are also turning to video when they want to learn something new: Between March and July 2020, there was a 50 percent increase in average daily views of videos with some variation of beginner in the title, Think with Google found.
Since this recent surge in video viewing is in keeping with a long-running trend, it’s unlikely that video consumption will inexplicably plummet in 2021.
Consider that even back in 2017, well before many of us had so much as heard the word coronavirus, HubSpot found that 53 percent of consumers want to see more video content:
The bottom line? It’s time to brush up on your YouTube SEO skills, because if video isn’t part of your 2021 SEO strategy, you’re going to miss out on one of the biggest marketing opportunities in recent years.
Increased Visual Search
AI strikes again, this time in the form of visual search: With visual search, AI allows users to search with images instead of just textual queries.
For example, a user could take a photo of an animal and within seconds see search results about its species, demonstrated here in the Google Lens app:
While visual search has been around for a while, it’s been growing exceptionally fast in the last year or two. As 2019 research from Pinterest discovered:
- 85 percent of consumers value visual information more than text information when shopping online for clothes or furniture;
- 80 percent of Pinterest users (otherwise known as Pinners) start with visual search when shopping;
- 61 percent of consumers report that visual search enhances their in-store shopping experience;
- 55 percent of consumers report that visual search is important for developing their taste and style; and
- 49 percent of Pinners say visual search helps them develop better relationships with the brands they love.
In response, visual search engines are ramping up their capabilities. At its Search On 2020 event, Google announced that Google Lens is gaining the ability to help with homework problems, more intelligently find related products and display specific car makes and models in augmented reality (AR).
Similarly, Pinterest Lens—Pinterest’s own visual search tool—got a dedicated shop tab in June 2020 to make shopping via visual search even easier than before.
Long story short, visual search is big, and it’s poised to grow even more in 2021. To ensure your site is ready for a growing number of visual search users:
- follow general image optimization best practices;
- upgrade your Pinterest SEO to target Pinners who use Pinterest Lens; and
- check to make sure your site pages are mobile-friendly.
Get Ready to up Your SEO Game in 2021
2020 was an undeniably fraught year, and we’re guessing that few are sad it’s over. But despite all its hardships, 2020 also generated a wealth of opportunities for countless people, especially in the online space.
So if you’re an SEO practitioner, it’s up to you to seize those opportunities in 2021 and leverage the most important trends to your advantage. Now more than ever, it’s time to up your game.
Chromium / May 2020
Screenshot by author / December 2020
Google / October 2020
Think with Google / June 2020
HubSpot / November 2017