Search Engine Optimization: 5 SEO Trends That Will Matter Most in 2021
Never has there been a time, like the present, that marketers need to be nimble and adapt their strategies quickly and precisely. With political unrest, a cooling U.S. economy, and a world-wide pandemic, Bonsai Digital Marketing sees the need for marketers to step up their game for their clients. With our own client portfolio we see that the business that can be flexible in the face of adversity will be best positioned to stick around, grind it out, and not just survive, but thrive, in 2021.
Search Engine Optimization is the ever-evolving moving target with trends that marketers need to stay ahead of. Bonsai has noticed some SEO trends that promise to be more than flash-in-the-pan changes. Events like COVID-19 could have lasting effects on SEO, but bigger long-term trends are the vital movements marketers need to pay attention to. We’ve compiled 5 SEO trends that will matter most in 2021.
1. User Experience
User Experience (UX) is here to stay as an SEO standard. The customer, and how they experience and interact with digital offerings is not just to make the customer happy, but is now becoming central to ranking factors for search algorithms. Google Search factors “UX signals” into its rankings. Core Web Vitals are a “set of real-world, user-centered metrics that quantify key aspects of the user experience,” according to Google Webmaster Central. Core Web Vitals measure facets of usability like load time, interactivity and content stability while loading. In 2021, UX will be vital to maintain rankings for on-page/off-page SEO.
The thinking behind this shift is this: why would Google want to rank pages that give customers a bad experience? A brief survey of data shows that SEO won’t matter if the customer ain’t happy:
- 25 percent of mobile apps were only used once in 2019 (Statista).
- 50 percent of people won’t purchase from a brand that has a poorly designed mobile site (Think With Google).
- 33+ percent of smartphone users will immediately go to another company’s site if they fail to get what they were looking for (Think With Google).
- For every $1 invested in UX, you get $100 in return (Forrester).
54 percent of people experience more frustration when mobile load times increase (Think With Google).
- 60 percent of smartphone users have contacted a business directly using the search results (Think With Google).
- 39 percent of smartphone users are more likely to browse or shop a mobile app because it’s easy and fast to make purchases (Think With Google).
These stats tell us that people expect speed, ease and convenience wherever they are, on whatever device. To be hassled or inconvenienced means they move on, and Google is adjusting the algorithm to favor the user.
How to Prioritize UX in 2021
Company’s websites must prioritize UX which will require a greater emphasis on off-page and technical SEO strategies making like better, faster and stronger for visitors. The UX signals are here to stay so major players to secure the best user experience in order to rank well are:
- Easy to use and find. Site structure and intuitive navigation matter, as well as SEO.
- Accessible across all devices and platforms. Bumps in the road bump a customer away. Tools like BrowserStack to audit your site revealing the bumps, securing a more compatible, bug-free experience on any device.
Based on Google's latest updates, we’re confident that sites delivering high-caliber user experience will be rewarded with better search visibility.
2. Semantic Search
Moving forward, SEO will be shaped by how people search on the internet. A seemingly simple concept, rooted in something more complicated: semantics. Semantics is the study of the relationships, intent, and meaning in specific contexts. With semantic search, search engines will use data to determine the context, intent, and meaning to retrieve the most relevant content for the user. The Google algorithm will take incomplete, grammatically incorrect, a seemingly random garble of a search query and find exactly what the seeker is seeking. The search engine now takes the burden upon themselves to interpret gibberish, fragmented language, and obscure questions, instead of the user needing to get it right. It’s easy to see the connection between UX and SEO with semantic search. The user speaks in gibberish but the search engine produces spot-on information making the user a happy user.
Semantic Search By the Numbers
As humans continue to deepen their relationships with the digital, people are increasingly treating search engine experiences as conversational. Whether they are web-based, mobile or voice-activated people use normal, conversational language rather than Google keyword speak. It becomes the responsibility of the search engine to discover the meaning. This Google data supports the shift toward semantic search:
- There has been an 85 percent increase in mobile searches starting with “can I” (Think With Google).
- There has been a 65 percent increase in mobile searches for “do I need” Think With Google).
- There has been a 65 percent increase in mobile searches for “should I” (Think With Google).
These are the tender beginnings of great conversations, which of course require the consideration of voice assistants: Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Siri—these virtual assistants are at the axis of the broader shift to semantic search. Voice assistants are designed to interpret and respond to searches spoken in the common vernacular, not in typical keyword web searches. It’s easy to see how search behavior—influenced by how we use our virtual assistants—is directly influencing search algorithms.
How to Prioritize Semantic Search in 2021
It’s an on-going effort, but a few questions are important to ask. First, and most importantly, how and why do your users search for your content? What answers, information, content and even experiences are your target audience looking for? How can you create authoritative, enriching content to meet the demands of these prospects, customers, clients and partners?
- Content that answers questions. A blog post or website page might be dedicated to a specific question your target buyer commonly has. FAQs and interview transcripts add valuable information to inform your customer. Search engines reward thorough, accurate and authoritative content.
- People-optimized content. Don’t compromise good structure, flow and enjoyability for keyword ranking. Don’t stuff keywords—it smacks of tackiness. Shoot for easy-to-understand sentences, bulleted and ordered lists, a skiable hierarchy of headers and images and video that enhance not detract. You’ll probably want to leave these tasks to the professionals and hire a specialized content copywriter. It’s worth the investment.
- Structured data. If you have the website resources and expertise to execute schema properly, making structured data part of your strategy can help search bots find and understand your pages.
- Internal linking. Linking between your own content not only makes it easier to navigate to related content, but it creates a structured map of content around a central topic or search term making it more visible for search engines to crawl, index and serve up your site as a search result. Certain software integrations, such as Yoast, will automatically suggest relevant content to link to on a given web page.
- Topic optimization (vs. keyword optimization). Build out clusters of valuable content around high-level topics, also known as the “skyscraper” or “topic cluster” method. A topic cluster around semantic search, for example, might include subtopics dedicated to things like schema and writing for voice assistants.
3. Search Intent
We firmly believe that the marketers who understand their audience’s intent, and the questions they’re asking, will achieve better organic search rankings. In 2019, Google rolled out its BERT update dedicated to understanding people’s searches better and Google Fellow Pandu Nayak touched on it, “ with the latest advancements from our [Google’s] research team in the science of language understanding—made possible by machine learning—we’re making a significant improvement to how we understand queries, representing the biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of Search.” With this massive update, the Google search experience became more conversational. The updated algorithm can now interpret intent from all kinds of natural language queries, long and short. Somehow Google can satisfy your curiosity—even if it’s a ridiculous hunt for an obscure one-hit-wonder from the ’90s from only the first three notes.
The search intent focus is evolving within the search engine experience to accommodate the growing popularity, and use, of voice assistants and voice search. These conversational AI platforms are becoming powerful search engines. The preference for “searching the way we speak” will continue to grow stronger, and Google is adapting to meet this need. Which begs the question: is your content optimized for the no-touch, voice-powered search experience?
Search Intent by the Numbers
If marketers can find a way to optimize for the intent behind what our clients’ audiences are searching for, we can tap into a significant lift in organic search rankings. A few search-intent stats to support the claim:
- Comprehensive retail keyword analysis revealed four primary “intents”: informational; commercial; transactional; and local (Moz)
- Brands see 80+ percent brand metric lifts for intent-based targeting compared to demographics-based targeting alone (Think With Google)
- Brands have achieved a 677 percent increase in organic traffic to a landing page after optimizing for search intent (Ahrefs)
How to Prioritize Search Intent in 2021
- Build content based on your target customer’s intent. It’s important to use clear, concise sentences and write the way people talk. If a target segment has demonstrated commercial intent, write content that answers that search. Ideally, it nudges them toward a purchase decision.
- Publish FAQs around natural queries. Using schema for your FAQs sends a stronger signal to Google that this authoritative content needs to rank. Google loves to pull FAQs, or portions of them, and puts them into a zero-click answer in a search result.
- Bucket your target keywords based on the four intents. Help inform your SEO strategy by indicating a certain type of intent (informational, commercial, transactional and local). What need does your target audience typically need to be filled? Ahrefs provides a handy breakdown of keyword “modifiers” to spark some ideas.
- Research intent-based content needs. People who want to buy something are looking for product reviews, walk-throughs, and reviews, for example. Others prefer dedicated landing pages or blog posts with details, stats and information. Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) will reveal a lot about the content people want, based on their intent.
4. Zero Click Search Results
Many times Google serves up a quick answer not requiring the user to click on anything to see it. It may be a YouTube video, snippet and knowledge graph, but it’s all about what the user wants, and they want it fast and without hassle. A “zero-click” search result provides the answer or information without having to spend any time clicking through a website. As of 2019, zero-click searches account for more than 50 percent of all Google searches. Google is getting really good at giving their users everything they need on a single SERP page through featured snippets, knowledge graphs and video carousels.
Example of Zero-Click Searches
- A knowledge graph for a particular health condition. When you search for “migraine headache,” Google will display an interactive knowledge graph with an overview, symptoms, treatments, and specialists.
- A simple calculator for a common calculation. When you search for “mortgage interest calculator,” you’ll be presented with an embedded calculator. Input the numbers directly in the SERP.
- A movie or album carousel. When you search, for instance, “movies by Sofia Coppola,” Google will produce a tidy horizontal panel including all of the esteemed director’s films.
Zero-Click Searches by the Numbers
There’s a dark side to the zero-click search. With Google’s innovative new ways to enrich SERPs and answer the user’s question directly on Google, the more effective Google gets at delivering zero-click search results, the less likely people are to click through to your website. This could result in lost traffic and potentially, conversions.
A few numbers support that theory:
- Zero-click search results are becoming more common on mobile (Smart Insights).
- Mobile and desktop zero-click searches have grown 11 percent and 9.5 percent over the past two years, respectively (SparkToro).
- 62 percent of mobile users never click on search results (Search Engine Journal).
- Having a featured snippet reduces click-through rate (CTR) by 5.3 percent (Sistrix).
So the goal is to rank, due to great content, on SERPs, but a) the majority of mobile users never click a search result and b) earning a featured snippet actually reduces CTR to our web entities? It’s not great news, but it is something to consider while building your 2021 SEO strategy.
How to Prioritize Zero-Click Search Results in 2021
Start with knowing that you’re competing with Google. They’re doing all they can keeping search traffic on their own entities (Google Search, Google My Business and YouTube). Armed with that information, you can optimize content for both zero-click search results and related Google channels, hopefully without hurting SEO for your own web entities. That means focusing on:
- Creating well-optimized video content and publishing it to YouTube.
- Building a verified, complete and frequently updated Google My Business listing for all of your locations.
- Creating schema for your FAQs, location information and events.
5. Google My Business
Starting with the obvious: the demand for local search is significant. More than a billion people use Google Maps every month and more than five million apps and websites use Google Maps Platform products every week. Due to this demand, Google continually releases new features such as: posts, new service and product options, COVID-19 options, options for black-owned businesses and even a website builder. Google wants to make it easy for the local searchers to find: services, hours, addresses, phone numbers, menus, websites, reviews, ratings and customer photos and videos. Of course, these options create another opportunity to rank and access local markets. It also levels the playing field for smaller enterprises. Businesses can build their visibility in more localized markets instead of trying to break into the ranks of highly saturated, highly competitive, high-traffic keywords. Many business decision-makers and consumers do turn to their local markets first.
Google My Business By the Numbers
If your Google My Business listing is low on your priority list or still strikes you as a low-ROI activity, think again. These numbers might change your mind:
- 5 billion+ people use Google Maps every month (Google Cloud).
- 5 million+ apps and websites use the Google Maps Platform every week (Google Cloud).
- The average business is found in more than 1k searches per month, with 84 percent coming from discovery searches. Between Q4 2017 and Q4 2018, direct searches grew 38 percent, website clicks from GMB listings 29 percent (BrightLocal).
- 900 percent increase in mobile searches for “___ near me today/tonight” (Think With Google).
- 500 percent increase in “near me” mobile searches that contain “can I buy” or “to buy” (Think With Google).
Surprisingly, local search is much deeper than it looks. Most people start looking for what they need within their immediate vicinity. Tapping into this search-demand could provide your business a tremendous competitive advantage.
How to Prioritize Google My Business in 2021
Location-based search is built on a basic premise: when a person in downtown Chicago searches Google Maps for “Chicago-style hot dog,” they probably want to see results limited to their immediate area. Google My Business listings are strong ranking signals for Google based on the engagement and activity. This is why Google My Business optimization is important. If local search is part of your digital marketing strategy (or it’s not, but it should be), keeping your Google My Business listing complete, details and updated on an ongoing basis is important. First of all, sign up. Claim your business and verify it through the Google My Business service. The verification process can take a couple of days or weeks. Once your location is established and verified, go through your Google My Business listing and optimize every aspect of the listing you can.
- Update service availability and business hours. Save your customer the frustration of having to call by having accurate hours posted. Post your website so customers can view your menu for takeout.
- Post your COVID-19 update. Many people are verifying their favorite spot is open via search engines. Others are checking to see how COVID-19 is affecting operations. Google My Business has a dedicated space for COVID-19 updates.
- Share your review form. Reviews are vital for your digital reputation and as a local search ranking factor. Consider including a review form link in all communication with customers and on your website to encourage customer reviews.
- Add location managers for your listing. Google allows you to add managers to specific business listings to help save time and scale as your business expands.
- Publish FAQs. Answering common customer questions can streamline communication between you and the customer.
- Add photos of your business, product or services. Many people check out a listing to get the feel for the business, brand and experience. If you’re a restaurant, customers will look at photos of your space, food and menu to decide if the vibe is right for dinner.
- Share weekly posts about products, events, specials. Keep your Google-My-Business traffic engaged and informed with posts about your latest product sales, promotions and special events. Post daily or weekly and give both customers and Google a lot of content to find.
Contemplating and implementing the top 5 SEO trends of 2021 takes time, energy, and a great strategy. Sometimes a marketing-minded person is capable of applying changes and sustaining them over time, resulting in big gains. Sometimes an overhaul is needed. If, after reading about the top 5 trends in SEO, you are overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, we encourage you to reach out to Bonsai Media Group’s Director of Business Development, Don Strauch. He wants to hear about your pain points and set your business up with a plan to optimize your company in 2021.