How SEO is changing in 2021 and what it means for your business

A glass building featuring the Google logo

How SEO is changing in 2021 and what it means for your business

Significant changes are coming in 2021 to the world of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). Some are already here. These changes will directly impact how your website ranks in search results. We take a look at the steps you can take to protect (and increase) your ranking as the year goes on.

One of the biggest search-related announcements Google have made in recent years is about SEO changes. Announced in 2020, they call it the Page Experience Update. This states that User Experience (UX) will become an SEO ranking signal from May 2021.

This means that when you improve the UX of your website, you will also indirectly be working on your SEO. That’s a great way to gain an advantage over competitors and improve the experience for your website visitors at the same time.

In this article, we provide some details on the upcoming changes that will affect your search engine rankings and make recommendations for adapting your approach to Search Engine Optimisation in 2021 as things evolve in the world of search.

It’s about the experience

As of May 2021, you should expect what Google calls “page experience signals” to be a ranking factor for your website. Page experience refers to how people feel as they use your website to achieve their goal.

So, what contributes to how people feel when browsing your site? Things like this:

  • Its mobile-friendliness
  • How secure the site seems (for example, does it use HTTPS?)
  • How content is presented
  • How quick it loads
  • How often their visit is interrupted with unexpected content (for example, advertisements and pop-up windows or boxes)

A screenshot of a website with content blocked by a cookie notice

A screenshot of a mobile website with content blocked by a cookie notice

Why is this change happening?

Google is focusing on providing the best possible experience to its users, i.e. the people searching for the right website using their Search service. Even Google has to work hard to keep customers happy.

Despite the fact that Google Search is free – we do, of course, provide Google with useful personal data and receive targeted ads as some form of compensation – they still need to continually improve their customer experience and ensure they aren’t losing people to Bing, Duck Duck Go, and other search services.

Google can provide a ‘best-in-class’ service by ensuring they only serve up websites that provide relevant information, products or services. Websites that load fast, are easy to use, easy to read, don’t irritate people, and don’t use ‘black hat’ techniques.

Black hat techniques are like trying to cheat your way to achieve a higher ranking and more page views, writing your website content in such a way that puts emphasis on achieving a higher ranking, rather than writing content that people are looking for and would find interesting and easy to read.

How Google will measure page experience

To help measure the page experience, Google is introducing ‘Core Web Vitals’ to combine with their existing search signals. These three user-centric metrics will try to determine the quality of the user experience (UX).

Measurement #1: Loading times

What’s the worst possible experience for a website visitor, other than the page failing to load completely? When the website is noticeably and frustratingly slow to load. You may have heard of the expression ‘buffer face’.

Google aims to discourage websites from inflicting this kind of pain on visitors by measuring how long it takes for a page to load its main content (which is different from the whole page loading).

A diagram illustrating the Largest Contentful Paint metric

They will measure loading performance using a metric called the Largest Contentful Paint (LCP). To provide a good user experience, LCP should occur within 2.5 seconds of when the page first starts loading. A fast LCP helps reassure the user that the page is useful.

Need some help slimming down your page sizes and boosting load times on your website? We’re here to help with our website development service.

Learn more about Largest Contentful Paint (LCP).

Measurement #2: Interactivity

You need your website to make a great first impression. And Google wants to measure this first impression to make sure you’re doing a good job.

This isn’t an easy thing to measure as first impressions can take a lot of different forms. For example, you can have first impressions of a website’s design and visual appeal, and first impressions of its speed and responsiveness.

To try and measure first impression, Google will measure interactivity using their First Input Delay (FID) metric. To provide a good user experience, Google says pages should have an FID of less than 100 milliseconds.

A diagram illustrating the First Input Delay metric

This measurement will also look at how responsive your site is when visitors try to interact with it. For example, does clicking or tapping the menu button reveal or expand the menu in a reasonable amount of time? Or is there a delay significant enough to irritate the visitor and make them question if their actions had any effect?

Learn more about First Input Delay (FID).

Measurement #3: Visuals

Google will measure your website’s visual stability using a metric called Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS). This metric helps quantify how often users experience unexpected layout shifts.

An unexpected layout shift refers to pop-up ads, banners, or any other content that the visitor did not request disrupting the core experience of consuming the main content on the page. It refers to any content that suddenly loads in or interrupts the visitor in some way. It includes cookie notices, newsletter promotions, and those irritating ‘exit intent’ banners that pop into view when you try to leave a website.

A diagram illustrating the Cumulative Layout Shift metric

We have probably all experienced that unpleasant sensation when reading a news article as something suddenly loads in above and we need to scroll to find our place again. It’s even worse when we try to tap on a link and miss it due to something loading in (or even tap on the wrong link). This ‘jolting’ behaviour on a page is very frustrating, and something Google is trying to detect and discourage with this metric.

A low CLS helps ensure that the page provides a ‘delightful’ experience for visitors.

Learn more about Cumulative Layout Shift.

Need some help with making the right first impression with an attractive, memorable website? We’re here to help with our website design service.

For each of the above metrics, Google says to ensure you’re hitting the recommended target for most of your users, a good threshold to measure is the 75th percentile of page loads, segmented across mobile and desktop devices.

Mobile matters more than ever

Have you ever tapped on a Google Search result on your mobile phone, only to find yourself looking at a page where the text was too small, the links were tiny, and you had to scroll sideways to see all the content? This usually happens when the website has not been optimised for mobile phones.

Google has been assessing and rewarding mobile-friendliness in one way or another since around 2014. However, April 2021 will see Google starting to use mobile-first indexing as the default option for all websites. Mobile-friendliness will become an official ranking signal.

A person starting a new Google search on an iPadThis change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and significantly impact Google search results. Google say this change aims to help people get relevant, high-quality search results that are optimised for their devices.

Need some help optimising your website for mobile or creating a new mobile-first website? We’re here to help with our website design service.

Content is still royalty

Great content still plays a crucial role in how you optimise your site and how well it ranks. High-quality content became a decisive factor for your website’s rank popularity a long time ago, and it still should be first in terms of what you optimise.

You need authentic, original, useful content

It’s no surprise that Google still wants websites to provide original, useful content in 2021. It will always expect your website to offer content that’s relevant to visitors who arrive on your site from results pages.

There are many thousands of pages of competing content on the same topics indexed on Google. If you were to produce a piece of content similar to existing content already ranking on the web, why would Google rank your piece above the original piece? Why would people look past the top-ranked results? This is why your content must be authentic, useful, and add value to your brand voice and language.

Authentic content is essential for businesses and goes beyond just branding. Unique content that has not already been published somewhere else and meets its audience’s needs will be important in 2021 (and probably forever).

Content tip #1: Invest in long-form content

We recommend investing in long-form content. While content length is not a ranking factor, and short-form content can rank perfectly well, the fact is that long-form content consistently earns more links and shares than any other type of content on a website.

Content tip #2: Look into Schema, known widely as Schema, is a semantic vocabulary of tags (or microdata) that you can add to your HTML to improve the way search engines read and represent your page in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

Schema-based results from a Google search for how to boil an egg

Structured data like Schema can be used to mark up all kinds of items from products to events to recipes. It is most often used to provide additional information about the following things:

  • Properties
  • Jobs
  • Books
  • Courses
  • Events
  • Organisations
  • People
  • Places
  • Products
  • Energy consumption details

You can find the full list of items you can mark up with Schema on their website.

Schema helps search engines understand your site’s content better and you’re more likely to get attention-grabbing ‘rich results’ to increase Click Through Rate (CTR).

Content tip #3: Use more headers

Break up your content with relevant, keyword-rich header tags (specifically H2 and H3 tags), and you will be optimising your content nicely for search. These will help your website rank for more featured snippets. And earning a featured snippet means that you rank for position zero, which is the highest-ranking spot possible without advertising.

Content tip #4: Diversify your content

There are so many text-heavy and text-only pages out there, meaning it’s difficult to stand out from the crowd. Businesses often use images and infographics to try and stand out. But, in 2021, videos are a promising frontier and a great way to communicate with your audience after catching their wandering eyes.

After all, YouTube is the second most popular search engine after Google, with over 1 billion users.

Content tip #5: Prepare for voice search

Voice search was virtually non-existent just five years ago but will become more prominent in 2021. The popularity of Alexa, Google Assistant, and other voice assistants over the last few years has exploded, presenting challenges and opportunities for SEO.

The user of voice search in the home has skyrocketed during the Covid-19 pandemic as people spend more time there.

When it comes to voice search, getting the first position is much more important than with traditional text searches. Devices like Alexa read out the first result, not all of the top ten results. That’s why you need different approaches to capitalise on this emerging and increasingly important area of SEO.

You should evaluate your existing content for places where you can provide short answers to questions your audience is asking. You can do keyword research to figure this out.

Need some help optimising your website for voice search or any other aspect of SEO? We’re here to help with our search engine optimisation service.

Security is tightening

Security – or the absence of security – may seriously affect your SEO in 2021. Non-compliance with website security best practices can cause low rankings or even penalties. One of the main requirements is to have a valid security certificate (HTTPS) for your site. Sites that don’t will suffer (and so too will their visitors if they share personal data).

People have become more aware of their security and safety on websites. Private data should stay private by all means necessary. This is especially important if you collect personal data or perform financial transactions on your website.

The main consequences of low website security are:

  • Being ‘blacklisted’ (banned) from search engine results pages
  • Malicious bots interfering with the crawling process, lowering your ranks in the process
  • Spam attacks on your website

Make security checks part of your SEO strategy or your general Quality Assurance processes, and you won’t have to worry about being penalised for poor website security ever again.

Accessibility is more important than ever for SEO

Web accessibility has always played a role in SEO. After all, what’s the point in people being able to find your content if they can’t consume it. With Google paying so much attention to the experience people have when visiting your site, they will know if some visitors are struggling to read your content or use your functionality.

People with disabilities or impairments like blindness, colour blindness or dyslexia will leave your site pretty quickly if it’s obvious there has been no consideration to their needs and their experience is a poor one.

An accessible website is naturally very easy to use and understand. An accessible website typically has the following features – features that benefit every visitor:

  • A layout that avoids complexity and is easy to understand
  • Highly-readable content that is written in plain English using main short sentences
  • A good content structure, with the most important content first and the least important content towards the bottom of the page
  • Good use of images and headings to group content and break up large sections of text
  • Good contrast between the foreground text and the background
  • Links that are descriptive, easy to distinguish from other content, and easy to activate (e.g. tap with your finger)

Need some help making your website accessible? We’re here to help, just contact us to get started with an accessibility expert.

The little things add up

From meta title to the structure of your page title, there are lots of little details to get right when optimising your site for search. And they all add up to matter even more in 2021.

You probably have more online competitors than ever before. There are certainly more websites online than ever before. And that growth shows no sign of stopping, even once the pandemic is well past. That means more competition, which means more search results for people trying to find something (e.g., a particular product, information, a supplier).

Page (meta) title

Although the days of spending hours optimising your meta title are long gone, it is still a contributing factor in ranking above your competitors and attracting more visitors to your site from the results pages.

Meta titles are often used on search engine results pages to display preview snippets for a given web page and are important both for SEO and social media sharing.

Your titles should be descriptive and accurately describe your page. Your title shouldn’t be too long (up to 60 characters, ideally) or not too short, and it should be unique across your entire site and be presented in a consistent format.

Meta description

The little details like ‘who has the most convincing meta description on the search results page’ matter more than ever.

[screenshot example of good vs bad meta description, “Who said it best?”]

Around 30% of businesses don’t even use meta descriptions on their website. The meta description, when combined with the page title, is part of the advertisement for your page. By putting some effort into the description and title, you will already be ahead of 30% of your competition.

…and many others

There are many other aspects of SEO we’re not covering here (there’s enough on that topic for a whole series of articles). There are many other little things you should optimise, from internal links to your URL structure.

Please get in touch directly if you want to hear more.

When will all these ‘page experience’ changes take place?

Page experience is set to be introduced as a ranking factor in May 2021.

Many of the other areas we have talked about, like security, accessibility, and voice search, have already been relevant in terms of SEO. They are just now coming to the fore in 2021.

Need expert SEO support?

If you need to bring in an SEO specialist to assess and improve your website so you can adapt and thrive in 2021 and beyond, look no further.

We have helped hundreds of businesses and organisations like yours to optimise their website and bring the right kind of visitors to their site. If you want to be next, simply start by saying hello.

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