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New year, new search trends. We’ve done our research and are providing you with the top 10 search engine optimization (SEO) trends to watch for this year. Ensure that your 2021 marketing plan accounts for emerging ranking factors that will impact your discoverability in search.

1. Page experience is more important than ever

Last May, Google introduced the concept of three Core Web Vitals, which is a set of metrics that measure real-world user experience for loading performance, interactivity, and visual stability of the page. Core Web Vitals, along with existing search signals — such as mobile-friendliness, safe browsing, HTTPS, and intrusive interstitial guidelines — will become the official ranking signals as of May 2021, when the Google Page Experience Algorithm Update rolls out.

When the update occurs, these metrics will begin to serve as a tie-breaker versus a strong ranking signal. For example, if two pages have similar quality and authority and equally relevant content, then the page experience metrics become a deciding factor in which page ranks above the other. Additionally, Core Web Vitals will also be used as qualifiers for Google’s Top Stories. Google has indicated that it may mark results with a good user experience, similar to the way AMP pages are currently marked with a lightning bolt icon. 

To ensure that you are prepared for the latest ranking update, Google has provided a checklist for measuring, monitoring, and optimizing your page experience.

2. Continued emphasis on mobile-first

Google placed an increased focus on mobile when it announced a new mobile search engine results page (SERP) last year. Google’s latest update has its own mobile SERP layout, which includes organic results appearing below ads and rich content. Combine this with the fact that nearly 60% of searches occur on mobile devices, and 2021 is the year to shift your focus. Look to improve that experience for your users by ensuring that your website performs optimally on mobile.

3. BERT is here to stay

In 2019, Google made its biggest change to its search system since introducing RankBrain more than five years ago. It came with the introduction of an open-sourced neural network-based technique for natural language processing (NLP) pre-training called Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, or BERT.

In short, BERT helps computers understand language more like humans do. It recognizes nuances, semantics, and context of words so that the search engine can deliver more relevant results. For example, Google now takes into account prepositions like “for” and “to” that can have different meanings depending on the search query. Additionally, BERT has significant impacts on the quality of featured snippets on a global and multi-language scale.

Google reported that 10% of queries are impacted by this update. With search engines continuing to trend towards more advanced NLP, semantic search optimization should be a key priority in your SEO efforts. BERT favors content with highly relevant and related primary and secondary keywords, especially of the long-tail variety.

4. New quality standards focus on E-A-T, YMYL, and beneficial purpose

The most recent set of Google Quality Rater Guidelines defines page quality by E-A-T: expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. The guidelines also emphasize content with a user-focused purpose that benefits them in some way. And it considers Your Money Your Life (YMYL) topics that impact a user’s happiness, health, safety, or financial stability.

Google’s advice for achieving high-quality, rankable content? Think about the topic of the page and the expertise required for the page to achieve its purpose well. Of course, the standard of expertise depends on the topic of the page.

5. “Position 0” is the new “position 1”

Featured snippets, also referred to as position 0, are selected results that are featured in a box at the top of the organic results on a SERP. Featured snippets answer the user’s question right away, often without having to click through to the web page. Sites that show up in the featured snippet no longer show up as a standard result on page one.

With mobile and local searches rising, Google is moving towards utilizing featured snippets whenever possible in the SERP to most efficiently get users the information they are looking for. In fact, a recent Ahrefs study revealed that 13% of all searches now have a featured snippet, and 8.6% of all clicks on a results page happen on a featured snippet. 

While the exact method of getting your web pages to rank in the featured snippet are not spelled out by Google, there are several featured snippet optimization strategies that you can put in place to increase your chances of ranking in the coveted position.

6. Voice search is changing queries

General web searches completed via voice are expected to surge as smart speaker adoption and voice assistant usage continues to climb in 2021. This steady shift in behavior will deepen the impact on the structure of search queries. For example, a person might voice search, “What are the new SEO trends for 2021?” but type the words, “new SEO trends 2021”. And while we know Google continues to expand AI technologies to make these searches synonymous, it is important to remember that the primary focus of this technology is not to help your information or business be found. It is to get the user the right information with minimal effort — to both the user and the bot. 

This makes it vital to include optimization strategies specific to voice search in your 2021 marketing plans. Voice search SEO tactics should include a focus on long-tail keywords, structured data, and concisely answering questions, while placing a priority on optimizing for featured snippets.

7. Local search is evolving

While we continue to work through the much larger impacts of COVID-19, one shift that we can assume is here to stay is the rapid movement to digital channels as the primary source of information throughout the entire buyer journey. Local search behavior was one area clearly impacted by this shift. Data from the first six months of the pandemic showed a strong spike in local search traffic and views driven by “near me,” “by me,” and “open now + near me” search terms.

When it comes to local search, also keep in mind that more than 50% of Google searches end without a click to another website. This zero-click search behavior, coupled with the increase in local search volume, makes optimization of your local listings and utilization of listing features, specifically on Google My Business, more important than ever. Customers are likely to make purchase or visit decisions without ever visiting your website.

8. Visual search is on the rise

Platforms from Google to Target are placing a focus on enhancing search options through the use of images. This search technology continues to get smarter at understanding and breaking down components of the image, making it possible for users to simply take a photo to purchase the product or find similar items. Some platforms, including Pinterest and Bing, even allow the user to further refine their image search by selecting a portion of a photo to focus on one specific item within the image.

As the technology and adoption continues to expand, so should the focus on capturing high-quality product images and properly tagging and optimizing them. This includes a renewed focus on standard SEO best practices like using descriptive naming conventions, adding titles, and using optimized alt text, while also expanding image search strategies to Pinterest and internal inventory systems.

9. Video will continue to dominate

Video trends continue to evolve, but the growth and consumption of this media format remains strong. Video is projected to surpass all other content forms in terms of consumption, according to Cisco. Google is further amplifying this growth by delivering more video content within featured snippets and featuring YouTube on SERPs more than almost any other domain. 

To capture more eyes from these featured snippets and within the YouTube platform, do a deep dive into SERPs. This will help you understand where you might have an opportunity to answer a question or search query via video. From here, develop a keyword-driven script to ensure that your video captions are packed with priority terms. Continue to focus on keyword-optimized video titles, descriptions, and tags. Also consider adding clickable timestamps, especially if your video is long or answers several questions.

10. Long-form content is positioned to win

High-quality long-form content has been a strong determining factor in your site’s rank health for many years. And while we know content is king, we are learning more about the impact length and user experience will continue to have moving into 2021. According to the State of Content Marketing Report, articles with 3,000-plus words get three times more traffic, not to mention four times as many shares, as shorter reads. These longer pieces also receive three and a half times more backlinks.

As we noted, earlier page experience and factors like E-A-T will become increasingly important throughout 2021. As you explore longer content, don’t lose sight of content quality, digestible sections, overall user experience, and functionality like mobile-friendliness. 

Ready to enhance your 2021 marketing plan with these SEO trends in mind? We're here to help you uncover organic search opportunities and develop an optimization plan to meet your business goals.