SEO takeaways from 2020: A review of the most unusual year for search

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30-second summary:

Google launched over 4,000 search improvements and new features throughout 2020. Baidu continued to crack down on poor quality sites with its 2020 updates its StrongWind algorithm was introduced to control aggregator content from malicious sites. Bing attempted to build on its approximately 2.8% global search engine market share by adding a Bing app to Xbox. Throughout the year, DuckDuckGo added a number of new features and made updates designed to improve the user experience while protecting privacy. GIPHY now serves more than 7 billion GIFs per day and is seen by more than 500 million daily optimizing GIFs is a great way for SEO to drive awareness and keep people engaged with your website page(s). Throughout 2020 Yandex continued to add more human elements into its search engine. 2020 was a year where search took central stage in digital marketing. Consumer behavior is still set to continue to be volatile in 2021. A list of key SEO trends to watch in 2021 – new channels for visual and image search opportunities, international SEO will rise once again, combining PPC and SEO, utilizing Marketing technology, and more.

Many an SEO will be huddled around the television or computer screen this year for New Year celebrations, muttering, “Don’t let the door hit you,” as we bid 2020 goodbye. Despite the release of several vaccinations worldwide, we still find ourselves firmly in the grip of a global pandemic with no definitive end in sight.

In this post, we’ll take a look back at how top search engines changed the game this past year, and where marketers should be looking as we head into 2021 with continuing uncertainty about the year ahead.

Key search engine updates in 2020

The latest figures from Oberlo show that Google reigns as the dominant search engine both in the US and worldwide with 88.1% and 92.3% market share, respectively. Even so, there’s a lot of traffic left on the table if you aren’t optimizing for all of the top search engines.

Here are some of the most impactful and notable updates across Google, Bing (which also powers Yahoo! Search), DuckDuckGo in 2020.

1. Google

According to Emily Moxley, Google’s Product Management for Search, Google launched over 4,000 search improvements and new features throughout 2020. Among them:

Google added the Removals report to Search Console in January, enabling site owners and SEOs to temporarily hide a page from Google Search results. In February, they made it easier to export more data from almost all reports. March saw the launch of the com/covid19 website with country or state-based information, safety and prevention tips, and search trends related to COVID-19. Other pandemic-related features rolled out in 2020 include the Exposure Notifications API, an SOS Alerts system, and a slate of new GMB features to help businesses better communicate special hours, temporary closures, and other COVID-19 information to searchers. In August, Google confirmed it had made a number of improvements designed to be “as invisible as possible” to the Search Console API. In October, the Justice Department sued Google and claimed the search engine is an illegal monopoly. Antitrust accusations are not new to Google, and this case could drag on for years. Google announced in October that BERT language understanding systems first introduced in 2019 are now being used in nearly every English-language query. The improved Crawl Stats Report came out in November with new features including detailed information on host status and URL examples showing where on-site requests occurred. Also in November, Google announced that voice search had become smarter. New language capabilities and the carrying over of context from one voice search to another meant Google could gradually “learn” more about the searcher’s true intent. Google announced late in the year that it is “refocusing the Structured Data Testing Tool and migrating it to a new domain serving the schema.org community by April 2021.” Notably, once this transition is complete the tool will no longer check for Google Search rich result types.

Notably, the timeframe for mobile-first indexing was extended from September 2020 to the end of March 2021.

2. Microsoft Bing

Bing attempted to build on its approximately 2.8% global search engine market share by adding a Bing app to Xbox, adding nearby product search to local results, and introducing image-based product search.

Microsoft’s search engine also evolved quickly to provide COVID-19 information and updates to consumers with a tally of local and global cases appearing in search results for any Coronavirus-related query.

In May, Bing gave us a look under the hood at its AI capabilities and experiences, stating that:

“Over the past few years, Bing and Microsoft Research have been developing and deploying large neural network models such as MT-DNN, Unicoder, and UniLM to maximize the search experience for our customers. The best of those learnings are open-sourced into the Microsoft Turing language models. The large-scale, multilingual Natural Language Representation (NLR) model serves as the foundation for several fine-tuned models, each powering a different part of the search experience.”

Examples of AI at scale in Bing include Yes or No summaries to straightforward questions in search, the expansion of intelligent answers to more languages, and a new NLR-based model for understanding complex or ambiguous queries.

3. DuckDuckGo

DuckDuckGo’s intense focus on privacy makes it more difficult to optimize for, as user data is not tracked. Even so, 0.5% of the global search market share (and 1.7% in the US) still makes it one of the world’s top search engines.

Throughout the year, DuckDuckGo added a number of new features and made updates designed to improve the user experience while protecting privacy. In October, DuckDuckGo launched private walking and driving directions powered by Apple’s MapKit JS framework

In October, we saw the punchy small search engine take a direct shot at Google in regards to its antitrust lawsuit. In an open letter, DuckDuckGo pointedly asked,

“So, Google, given that you’ve often said competition is one click away, and you’re aware a complicated process suppresses competition, why does it take fifteen+ clicks to make DuckDuckGo Search or any other alternative the default on Android devices?”

4. Yandex

Yandex, Russia’s largest search engine announced early in 2020 “Vega” as its new algorithm. This included 1,500 enhancements to Yandex Search. Throughout 2020 Yandex continued to add more human elements into its search engine.

Andrey Styskin, head of Yandex Search, stated, “At Yandex, it’s our goal to help consumers and businesses better navigate the online and offline world.  With this new search update, users across the RuNet are helping us do just that”.

According to research from Mikhail Volovich and Olga Yudina of Ashmanov & Partners and reported by Dan Taylor differences in ranking factors between Yandex and Google include;

Lesser effects of links within Yandex compared to Google “On mobile, site speed appears to be more important to Google than Yandex, but in Yandex, the number of Turbo pages has increased greatly (outside of the top 3 results).” The research also predicted mobile search will see an increase in both AMP and Turbo pages.

5. Baidu

The leading search engine in China, controls over 74% of searches, and ever since the 2017 release of the ‘Hurricane’ algorithm continues to focus on content quality.

As it continues to crack down on poor quality sites with its 2020 updates its StrongWind algorithm was introduced to control aggregator content from malicious sites.

Baidu SEO 2020 update, the content has become king in the Baidu algorithm. The Baidu spider focuses on enhancing the user experience. Like Google, Baidu has vigorously diversified, and provides dozens of services from maps to cloud storage – and its search engine backs up the whole ecosystem.

SEO trends to watch in 2021

SEOs take heart! Google launched a new blog series in 2020 designed to showcase the value of SEO to businesses. The first post was an overview of how a Korean company used SEO to double its web traffic. While Google has historically shied away from association with the optimization of sites for its search algorithms, it seems SEO is no longer a dirty phrase. Let’s hope this trend continues.

Here are some other areas to watch in 2021 and beyond:

1. Brands adapt to rapidly shifting consumer behavior

The first pandemic experience of our lifetimes has changed the way people search, shop, communicate, and work. Just how long these changes will hold or how consumer behavior will evolve over this next year is a giant question mark on business and marketing plans the world over.

Here’s what we do know: anxiety, stress, and public health concerns drove massive changes in consumer behavior in 2020. We saw dramatic shifts in search interest and conversions, with very different impacts across verticals. And in the absence of historic data to guide marketers through such an event, insights from search data became our closest approximation of real-time voice of the customer.

While we don’t know what 2021 has in store for us, it’s clear that the best place to track consumer behavior changes as they happen is in your search data. Business leaders will be looking to SEOs to bring them these insights in relatable, understandable ways that can be put to work immediately driving intelligent business decisions.

2. Core Web Vitals gain importance

As Google explained its April 2020 Web Vitals explanation, “Core Web Vitals are the subset of Web Vitals that apply to all web pages, should be measured by all site owners, and will be surfaced across all Google tools. Each of the Core Web Vitals represents a distinct facet of the user experience, is measurable in the field, and reflects the real-world experience of a critical user-centric outcome.”

On its face, Google’s CWV update is a reinforcement of what we already know to be best practices for user experience. If you want to take a deeper dive into the research and methodology driving this update, Defining the Core Web Vitals metrics thresholds by Google software engineer Bryan McQuade is a good read.

Google also promises that the definitions and thresholds of Core Web Vitals will be stable and that marketers will have prior notice of updates, which will have a predictable, annual cadence.

3. Image and visual search

As brands compete for consumers’ attention and as image and visual content optimization continue to gain SERP real estate, new channels are opening up beyond just YouTube. Brands, looking to stand out in 2021 should be utilizing combinations of images and videos to inform and educate customers as they spend more and more time online. Beyond Google niche (non-traditional) vertical optimization opportunities may just be opening up.

Below are two brief examples.

Vimeo

According to Cisco, video will make up 82 percent of all internet traffic in 2021. While YouTube still dominates more and more platforms are opening up, presenting more opportunities to optimize content.

Vimeo, the video-sharing platform originally created by filmmakers is building a large community of creative marketers producing content. Although opportunities to rank are less there are still opportunities for marketers in this niche.

“In the last seven months we’ve welcomed over 30 million new members, seen over 60 million new videos created and uploaded, and powered millions of live events that went digital for the first time — more than the prior 3 years combined,”

Vimeo CEO Anjali Sud.

No doubt COVID-19 has fuelled the growth in demand for more creativity in video production and as IAC (its owner) looks to spin it off as a standalone public company in 2021 time will tell where and if this fits and sits for SEO.

GIPHY

Everyone likes a good image, especially if animated. Facebook (Instagram) owned Giphy is allowing more and more marketers opportunities to make their content engaging. This is especially true with younger generations. A search engine in its own right, optimizing for Giphy presents new opportunities to optimize for intent and rank on their own site.

Now serving more than 7 billion GIFs per day and seen by more than 500 million daily optimizing GIFs on Giphy (and in general) is a great way for SEO to drive awareness and keep people engaged with your website page(s).

For SEOs, standard image optimization best practices can work well on Giphy, but the competition is intense, and optimization nuances exist. For brand marketers (in particular) Giphy and GIFs can be an awareness channel in itself.

4. PPC and SEO converge

In increasingly rich and diverse search results, it is imperative that marketers have a solid grasp on how their paid and organic search strategies work in tandem to achieve the best business results. As the lines between paid and organic continue to blur, it makes less and less sense to have these two channels as distinct departments or teams competing over budget.

Successful search teams will work together more seamlessly in 2021 to monitor both paid and organic results, determining from a more holistic point of view where the brand’s greatest opportunities lie—and which tactic is key to achieving the greatest visibility and conversion from search. Together, paid and organic teams will strategize how to use tools like Dynamic Search Ads and Discovery Campaigns, bidding automation, and AI-driven content optimizations to drive brand awareness and content promotion in both types of results.

5. Brands demand ROI and mastery of martech solutions

2020 provided us “The Great Pause”, literally stopping the world in its tracks. It gave us a chance to slow down, take a breath, and take a critical look at what’s working—and what is not. Even before the pandemic struck, it was clear that stacks cobbled together of point solutions not designed to integrate were problematic, but the full extent of their shortcomings became clear this year.

Consumer behavior changed so rapidly, and completely that real-time insights were elevated from “nice to have” to life or death. Brands that only knew how to rely on the performance of previous months or years found themselves lacking a sense of direction and unable to pivot. Going forward, brands are looking for platform solutions that not only automate but do so intelligently with AI and machine learning. Moreover, they are looking for agile marketers capable of getting the best possible output from these martech solutions.

What does 2021 have in store for the business world? Only time will tell. However, SEOs are among those best-positioned to lead in the face of uncertainty and should expect stakeholders across the organization to look to them this coming year for guidance. This is true both regionally and internally as interest in International SEO rises once again.

Now is the time to ensure you’re set up with the right tools and skills to deliver.

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