Google updates its search algorithm several thousand times per year. Most of these updates are too small to notice, although there are always a couple of big ones as well. So the rules of search change all the time, which makes search optimization a bit of a moving target.
Except, not really. If you are familiar with the history of Google updates, then you probably know that they follow a fairly predictable pattern. Bit by bit, Google is getting better at finding truly relevant content. This means it’s getting harder to manipulate Google with black-hat and gray-hat SEO tactics. This means that content is now actually king.
As usual, this trend makes people wonder whether SEO still matters, and this year we’ve seen a fair share of articles claiming that SEO may finally be dead. I wouldn’t go quite that far. True, some parts of SEO are being reabsorbed by other divisions of digital marketing and other parts of SEO are becoming obsolete altogether. At the same time, entirely new areas of SEO emerge, things like structured data, and entities, and increasingly complex local search optimization. Far from dead, SEO is getting more competitive, technical, and nuanced.
1. New user experience metrics will impact rankings
Google has recently announced that Core Web Vitals will become official ranking signals in May 2021. When it happens, these metrics will be used as more of a tie-breaker rather than a strong ranking signal. So, for example, if there are two pages with equally relevant content, of similar quality and authority, then it will be up to user experience metrics to decide which one to rank higher.
2. Mobile-first indexing will be forced on all websites
Google has been checking each website to see if it’s mobile-ready and made the switch only if the website passed the test. Additionally, all newly registered websites were indexed mobile-first by default.
3. Artificial intelligence will rule all search
Starting with RankBrain in 2015 and culminating in BERT in 2019, Google has made a huge leap in using AI to interpret both queries and search results. In just one year since BERT was launched, it went from being used in 10% to being used in nearly 100% of all English language queries.
BERT has proven incredibly effective in identifying the exact intent of a query. It can resolve lexical ambiguity, learn new words, correct misspellings, find synonyms, and account for previously disregarded stop words.
4. Entities will be used on par with backlinks
What’s more important is that Google now has the technology to discover new entities on its own (not just borrow them from Wikipedia). It uses AI to follow the syntax around known entities and see if they lead to any new ones. These new entities are then logged as related to the old ones. It’s an oversimplification but it’s basically how it works.
So, instead of having a web of pages connected by backlinks, Google will soon have a web of entities connected by their relationships — a model of the real world. This model will tell Google which companies are trustworthy, which authors are experts, and what content truly deserves to be ranked higher.
5. EAT factors may play a bigger role
Expertise, authority, and trustworthiness (EAT) factors are a controversial topic in the SEO community. Some say EAT is a ranking signal, others claim there is no way Google can even measure EAT with its algorithm.
6. Local SEO will grow increasingly complex
Not that long ago Google used to suggest local businesses based on proximity to the searcher. But, over the past couple of years, we’ve seen Google move away from the proximity factor and slowly increase its reliance on quality and relevance. This means that businesses now have some wiggle room when it comes to influencing local rankings.
And Google is happy to supply the tools. Google My Business (GMB) keeps adding new features to its listings. Businesses can now publish posts, answer questions, add products and services, offer reservations, and set up messaging — all from their listings. In fact, the listings are now so advanced that the searchers barely need to visit the actual websites.
And with the onset of COVID-19, Google was quick to equip GMB listings with even more options.
7. Structured data will become unavoidable
Structured data is not exactly a new trend — we’ve been talking about it for years now. But even though its importance keeps growing, structured data is not yet a widely adopted SEO tactic.
8. Google will go to greater lengths to satisfy intent
Create your content with a featured snippet in mind. Use parallel syntax for your headings — Google may turn them into lists. Add FAQ schema to your pages — Google may use them for question-like queries. Mark key moments in your YouTube videos — Google may show smaller segments of your video to satisfy highly specific queries.