Will Google turn the natural search landscape upside down in 2021? I doubt it. Although change is inevitable, you can survive or even gain an edge with a little vigilance.
But don’t expect any relief from the merciless trend of organic results moving way down the search engine results pages (SERPs). Like any good content marketer, Google is focused on the needs of its audience – searchers.
Eager to produce relevant results, the search engine constantly enhances its technology and relies on artificial intelligence to support results. Google’s BERT, for example, focuses on natural language processing (NLP), including searcher intent and the context of search queries.
Fortunately, marketers still see traffic from Google and other major search engines. Organic searches accounted for 53% of website traffic in 2019, according to BrightEdge data. I don’t expect that number has changed much since 2019.
To help you manage your SEO efforts this year, I created 21 quick-hit SEO tips and reminders. Use the tactics and insights that best match your goals.
Before I get into the full list of advice, keep this in mind: However Google readjusts its formula, the ranking factors always add up to 100%. If something new emerges, that means another variable’s weight, such as content headers or backlinks, has shifted (even slightly).
1. Get ready for more fanfare about Core Web Vitals
In May, Google is expected to combine its Core Web Vitals with other user-focused signals like mobile-friendly websites, safe browsing, intrusive interstitials, and HTTPS security. For marketers, that means Google’s spotlight will shine brighter on website user experience.
Core Web Vitals are website development standards that evaluate the users’ website experience (including its speed, visual stability, and overall responsiveness). You can use Google Search Console and related extensions to see how your site measures up with Core Web Vitals.
Google says the page experience ranking factor “will join the hundreds of signals that Google considers when generating Search results.”
Translation: You won’t know the effect of your page experience. But since it’s among hundreds of signals, any positive or negative ranking impact may be nominal.
According to Google Search Central: “While page experience is important, Google still seeks to rank pages with the best information overall, even if the page experience is subpar. Great page experience doesn’t override having great page content.”
Remember Google is all about what people see on mobile (i.e., its Mobile First Index). Poor user experience can be detrimental to SEO. Even with the Mobile First Index, the essentials are really what matter most for rankings: relevance, prominent use of keywords in page titles, headers, backlinks, and more.
Check your site using the Google Mobile Friendly Test.
Paying attention to your site’s core vitals and mobile experiences should be a priority in 2021.
2. Enjoy the benefits of passages
In October, Google announced that it can now index not only pages but also passages within the page.
Picture a website page with 15 paragraphs. Before this change, the 14th paragraph likely had little value in the eyes of Google. After all, it’s a small part of the content and is near the bottom of the page. Maybe, at most, it helped define the overall point of the content on the page. And yet, that paragraph may be the answer to an often-searched question.
Now Google says it can pinpoint that useful passage, which drives the page up in the rankings. Here’s how Google describes it:
“By better understanding the relevancy of specific passages, not just the overall page, we can find that needle-in-a-haystack information you’re looking for. This technology will improve 7% of search queries across all languages as we roll it out globally.”
I expect more information about the rollout in early 2021.
3. Pay attention to subtopics
Google also expects to provide better results for precise topics. As Google explained in the same announcement: “If you search for ‘home exercise equipment,’ we can now understand relevant subtopics, such as budget equipment, premium picks, or small space ideas, and show a wider range of content for you on the search results page.”
My sense is it will be tougher to rank for broad phrases and easier to rank for long-tail phrases.
To be successful with subtopics, your site should support long-tail keyword phrases. Given recent machine-learning and AI advancements, you don’t need to keep repeating the long-tail phrase in the content. Include it in the content, then support it by using similar phrases.
Maybe your phrase is “winter and cold weather running gear.” Work that into the page title, page content header, etc. But use related phrases in the content, including image names and alt text such as “jackets” and “running in the rain.”
4. Earn featured snippets
If you land a featured snippet, you have an advantage over other websites. The visibility alone could pay off for your company. Yes, some searchers won’t click when the featured snippet answers their questions, but you get the benefit of any clicks it does attract.
Different types of content, including a paragraph, table, list, chart, etc., are eligible for featured snippets.
In 2020, Ahrefs, which has more than 110 million keywords in its database, released detailed findings from its featured snippets research. One interesting finding is that 12.3% of queries return SERPs with a featured snippet. I think that means there are plenty of opportunities to earn a spot for relevant terms.
You can learn more about opportunities to capitalize on featured snippets with these resources:OK, Google: How Do I Optimize My Content for Featured Snippets? How to Optimize for Google’s Featured Snippets in 2020 A Complete List of Google’s Featured Snippets Types Featured Snippets: The 9 Rules of Optimization
5. Protect your ground
If you have pages that already rank well, guard them. Track their performance, but don’t get greedy and manipulate them to squeeze out more rankings.
The best way to protect them? Don’t change anything on those pages. If you must change a few words or add some extra text (for purposes other than SEO), you should be fine. But I’d try to avoid changing the page content header and leave the SEO page title alone. And, of course, don’t delete the page.
If you do take a risk and alter SEO elements, watch closely to see how the changes affect your rankings.
6. Create new content with SEO in mind
New content – whether it’s one page or an entire topic cluster – gives you a fresh chance to get everything right. When you’re creating a new page, put considerable thought into page titles, page content headers, subheads, image file names, etc.
Favor long-tail keyword phrases, which typically have three or more words and give you an opportunity to connect with searcher intent. You’ll increase the odds of achieving content marketing goals like website traffic, branding, leads, and sales.
In November 2020, Ahrefs shared fascinating long-tail findings from 1.9 billion search queries: What Are Long-tail Keywords? How to Find and Use Them.
7. Go long. No, go short. Go long AND short with content length
Yes, I know the studies about how long-form content can engage visitors and attract backlinks.
Let’s be real. Not all of your website content is (or will be) long. Don’t pad your articles if they already convey your messages – visitors are likely to stop reading.
Write long when it’s appropriate and short when it isn’t. FAQ pages are a prime example. You’ve seen short FAQ pages that simply answer very basic questions (like questions about standard shipping and refund policies). Balance that short content with content that elaborates on a topic to provide more answers (think product uses, key benefits of services, capabilities, and a whole range of insights about what you’re selling). That mix of short and longer-form content serves your audience, and in turn, search engines.
8. Check your website analytics setup
I often come across websites that aren’t set up correctly. Are the goals defined? Is organic traffic getting credit for leads and sales? Google Tag Manager lets you understand how often your organic traffic led to PDF downloads or how many times organic search visitors followed website links to email addresses like [email protected] and [email protected]
9. Devote time to finding out whether Google crawls your pages
Google Search Console indicates whether Google has reached your key pages (and details other technical data). If Google isn’t getting to your pages, revisit your internal link strategy. You also should find ways to link to those undiscovered pages or sections from popular website pages.
10. Don’t freeze
Too often, marketers crank out pages, “optimize” them, and never return. While you probably can’t do it for every page, make time to optimize essential pages and any pages close to ranking on the first page of Google search results.
Here’s an example: ApplicantStack has a well-designed website. But its Products page doesn’t rank well, based on SEMrush data. Instead of leaving the content – and the page title – frozen as is, revising the title to reflect searchers’ needs (rather than the company’s name) would give the company a chance to boost its organic traffic.
Here’s how it appears now:
<title>ApplicantStack Products | Recruit and Onboard | Affordable & easy-to-use</title>
Here are two ways it could be optimized:
<title>HR Onboarding Software for Recruiters</title>
The second option isn’t as descriptive, but it’s worth testing to see which approach helps the page generate the most website traffic.
11. Revise page titles
As in the ApplicantStack example, page titles are an obvious area to look at for optimization.
Website pages can rank well with different approaches to the page title (e.g., dashes, vertical pipes, or no separators):Drip – Coffee Makers – Coffee & Espresso – The Home Depot Coffee Makers | Drip | The Home Depot Buy Coffee Makers at The Home Depot
The key is to tweak titles over time based on ranking data, keyword relevance, and search volume – and then test the variations. Only testing will reveal which works best. Some marketers prefer to avoid anything that breaks up keyword phrases. That’s unfortunate because they might miss out on better rankings from different scenarios.
For the coffee maker example, a team could try these combinations:Coffee Makers (week one) Buy Coffee Makers (week two) Buy Coffee Makers at The Home Depot (week three) Coffee Makers at The Home Depot (week four) Drip Coffee Makers at The Home Depot (week five)
12. Update page content headers
You can also easily adjust page content headers for maximum ranking benefits. If you had to write about shipping, for example, you might use this blog page header I came across – Order Management and Order Processing: Why They’re So Important for Business
Let’s assume someone involved in that content also has a stake in SEO success. Are the words “why,” “they’re,” “so,” and “important,” critical for SEO? And should the header mention “order” twice?
You can’t simplify to the extreme and just say: Order Management. A topic label is not an inviting header. But different approaches should be tested – even with some of those extra words:Order Management: Important for Business? Is Order Management Important for Business? Order Management and Processing: Yes, They’re Important for Business
13. Remember quality isn’t a guarantee of SEO success
Google has touted for years the importance of producing quality website content. In turn, marketers have championed quality as the ticket to the high-ranking universe. And yet, it’s easy to find high-quality content that doesn’t rank well. That’s because fine tuning of keywords, page titles, headers, backlinks, and more still matters.
Here’s an example: In 2019, Allstate won a Content Marketing Award for best corporate blog. It’s a well-designed site packed with useful content, so it’s no wonder the company earned the honor. Even with the general high quality, some of the content failed to rank well for multiple keyword phrases. The chart below shows the room for improvement with the post Tips for Maintaining Your Sump Pump:
I offer more insights into why you need both quality content and SEO optimization in this article: Writing High-Quality Website Content? Don’t Forget About SEO.
14. Find your sweet spot
Be realistic with keyword choices. Does it make sense to go after keyword phrases that are searched 5,000 times a month if your sweet spot shows your existing top 10 keywords typically are searched 50 to 300 times a month?
Your sweet spot for SEO purposes is the correlation of rankings and monthly search volume. Take a look at this example from keywords for Manpower’s site.
The site ranks in the top 10 on Google for keyword phrases searched from 90 to 4,400 times a month, according to SEMrush data.
Take the time to explore keyword options and periodically update your strategic word sets. If you must go beyond your sweet spot, creating new content is likely your best bet. Build a new page and related pages around your preferred phrases.Ubersuggest generates keyword ideas. Keyword Tool also provides keyword ideas. Google Trends tracks the popularity of a keyword phrase over time. Google People Also Ask is the bane of SEO specialists because it’s one of the SERP elements that push organic results down the page. But the questions listed in that section may prove invaluable as you explore keywords. Ahrefs Keyword Generator produces spinoff ideas such as questions with the root keyword phrase. Keyword Sheeter taps Google’s autocomplete feature and provides an assortment of ideas. Use the negative and positive filters. Answer the Public lets you discover all sorts of keyword phrase ideas by showing questions that people ask and how they position their queries, such as phrases with comparisons. Keyworddit shows the keywords people use when they’re active on Reddit. You can get a feel for search queries you never even considered. KWFinder specializes in the long-tail variety – relevant keywords that people use. Often, long-tail keyword phrases have less competition so it’s easier to rank. Also, try Long Tail Pro.
15. Focus on strategic content changes
Sometimes small changes pack a big punch. I noted a Betty Crocker chicken recipe in a past article, and the lesson holds. Here’s an example based on a Betty Crocker pancake recipe. The company’s site has a ton of recipe content but misses opportunities to boost that content in search rankings. One small strategic tweak could improve rankings. Simply adding the words “Our Recipe” to the top of its pages, as in this example I created, would help:
16. Focus on page load speed
I believe page load speed is a nominal ranking factor (many enterprise websites rank well even if they don’t appear as quickly as they should). But it’s a technical (and experience) issue you should address. Use a tool like GTmetrix or Google’s PageSpeed Insights to get a sense of your speed.
17. Pursue backlinks
The quality and number of backlinks to your site directly affect search engine rankings. Backlinko in 2020 found that about 95% of all website pages have no backlinks from other sites or pages referring to them. Ouch. You can pursue and attract backlinks through existing relationships and great content (like a video series, original research, a white paper, or useful directories).
18. Favor clean, short URLs
URLs likely still make a slight difference with search engine rankings. That’s why you should keep them short. Ensure that the few words you use have the most weight. Don’t dilute a page URL by loading it with 12 words from your headline. Searchers are more likely to click on short URLs on the results pages.
19. Optimize images, file names, and alt text
You can help website pages load quickly with small image file sizes. A simple compression tool is ImageOptim. Be sure to use keywords in the file name and complement them with alt text. For example, try a file name like “induction-heat-treating.jpg” and alt text like “heat treating is used in automotive, firearms, and many industries.”
20. Learn from internal search
It’s easy to glean ideas for keywords and SEO by reviewing what keywords people use when they’re searching within your website. First, make sure you have site search tracking enabled in Google Analytics. This is how it should look if set up properly:
Then you can run reports to find out what terms are searched on your website. Look for Site Search under the Behavior heading in the left navigation in Google Analytics:
21. Add transcripts to videos
Videos can be useful and help with website engagement. But the audible and visual content isn’t a direct optimizer. Why not boost a page’s SEO potential with a transcript as well? The extra text can be generated with third-party services like Speechpad.
That’s my take on a number of possibilities for better SEO in 2021. What are your priorities? Which SEO tactics do you think will be the most useful this year?
SEO and content marketing go hand in hand. To keep up on the latest, subscribe to our free daily (or weekly) newsletter.
All tools mentioned come from the author. If you have more to suggest, please add them in the comments.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute