Why plan? If the Social Media circus is anything to go by, you could be forgiven for asking how are we meant to plan for 2021 if we couldn’t predict the Coronavirus pandemic?
It is unlikely that 2020/2021 will go down in history as the time strategic planning died. However volatile 2020 was, one could argue that evidence suggests the act of planning for contingencies has been justified. Those countries who had plans to deal with pandemics in place appear to have been able to move faster and suffer lower cases and fatalities.
While Digital Marketing agencies may be somewhat of a hostage to fortune to global events such as those in 2020, Strategy and strategic planning is still relevant. We do not plan to cope with every eventuality, but instead plan so we have more resources to adapt to the unforeseen. Planning comes in all shapes and sizes. A part of this planning process may be simply taking the time to get a sense of the prevailing wind or to reflect on other observations of the year gone by.
This year we have sought to seek a range of views to get a global view on SEO and digital marketing, with a range of submissions from quick thoughts to longer pieces of analysis. We open with one of last year’s contributors – Ross Tavendale, who looks at digital marketing trends and a possible return of conflict between AI assisted SEO and Search.
Ross Tavendale Managing Director at Type A Media @rtavs
Since the advent of the pandemic, we are seeing extreme swings in the core updates with each one being more aggressive than the next. And the reason? Machine Learning.
The search engine is reacting faster and more accurately to user search behaviour, and with users search behaviour changing massively, so will the search results. It’s not that Google is penalising more sites or changing the goal posts on “what good looks like”, searchers are changing “what relevant looks like” and the engine is adapting accordingly.
The adaptations causing volatility are not due to sites rising and falling in the same SERPs, it’s due to the physical structure of the SERPs, completely changing to match the new intent. We will see more and more traditional “10 blue link” SERPs turn into something that looks closer to universal search with news, video, images, PAAs and more jumping in and out of the SERPs as the engine understands the context shift.
How do we thrive in the new normal?
So, to survive and thrive in the new normal, the recommendation is for content diversity that is delivered as fast as humanly possible.
With Google giving us a pre-warning about Core Web Vitals, this is another huge area that we need to focus on.
When it came to ranking a site in Google, I previously used the analogy of a speeding car on the motorway. If it passes you at 100mph, you need to go at 120mph to catch it. So, if a site is aggressively marketing, winning great links and building content that satisfies the users query – you need to consistently outperform your competitor over a long stretch of time just to catch up. This meant that sites that have been around for a long time do better than new sites with a great deal of investment needed to achieve parity with incumbents. However, with ML and the rankings boost given to sites that can deliver on speed optimisations, that is now changing. It’s likely we will see more diversity in the SERPs in 2021 and beyond leaving lots more space for startups and challenger brands to win business from Google traffic.
ML reacts to user behaviour and is likely to use signals such as brand searches and brand/generic co-occurrence to help rank sites. Therefore, a smart upstart brand (keep an eye on the Brewdog co-founder, Martin Dickie’s CBD brand to see a masterclass in guerilla PR) is likely to more easily disrupt a marketplace as Google sees the consistent spikes in links, citations and brand searches as an indication that they should start to rank. Furthermore, when we look at large incumbent websites, they all have one thing in common – technical debt. Large organisations will find it much harder to optimise their codebase for speed and efficiency than smaller brands due to corporate red tape and technical debt built into their legacy enterprise systems. As a result, the more nimble websites that can deliver their customers a blazingly fast user experience are going to start carving out market share as Google starts to favour their technical implementation.
What does the future of search look like?
Wild diversity. Rewards of tech-first businesses and erosion for slow incumbents.
Jenny Halasz President at JLH Marketing @JennyHalasz
If I had to pick one thing that changed about search in 2020, it would be the willingness of consumers to engage with AI, or more accurately, machine learning and bots. With the craziness of the pandemic, people flocked to online shops, grocery delivery, and Amazon for their needs, both essential and non-essential. The average consumer engaged with chatbots (not counting social media bots) once per day! (Source: https://outgrow.co/blog/vital-chatbot-statistics)
The reason this matters for search is that machines are getting extremely good at understanding natural language, and that is going to evolve to a great deal of machine-generated content on the web. I believe that in 2021, we’ll see fewer content writers and far more content editors, with the latter being responsible for editing machine-generated content for tone and style. This will continue to grow throughout 2021, and we may even see factors like “accuracy” or “consensus” become more significant in search ranking, even though today those are not measurable values.
Finally, as all of this machine learning begins to come to a head in 2021, I believe we’ll see more upheaval in search listings; more updates like the December Core update that had big winners and losers. As the algorithm is refined by Google, it’s bound to make some significant mistakes in areas like healthcare. I predict we’ll see more lawsuits against Google as a result and that by the end of 2021, Google may look very different than it does today.
Judith Lewis Founder of DeCabbit Consultancy @JudithLewis
Optimisation will move even further towards utility for the searcher with ‘passages’ dropping searchers at just what they were looking for.
Sante J. Achille Search Marketing Consultant, Majestic Ambassador @sjachille
Sante Achille is a regular contributor to Majestic and leading authority on schema. Sante is based in Italy, one of the European countries first to implement widespread lockdown as a response to Coronavirus. Sante reflects on 2020 as a pivotal year for uptake in distributed working and e-commerce.
2020 has been a “particular” year. Looking back at the last twelve months, never would we have thought so much could happen in so little time – yet it did. We have witnessed unprecedented changes in search, and I believe we will remember 2020 as a pivotal year. The pandemic has fuelled change across the world with people in Smart Working Mode and relying on Ecommerce more than ever.
In a recent survey conducted in Italy, 70% of those interviewed who had used online services for the first time declared they would continue using them. Such an increase in audience will put pressure on both paid and organic search.
We can expect the rate of change in search to increase exponentially. The more machines learn, the faster they learn: intelligence breeds intelligence also in cyberspace.
Both organic and paid search will require highly skilled and extremely competent digital marketers to deliver results, because we are all competing for first-page rankings.
With Core Web Vitals set to become ranking signals, web design must evolve as well. Compliance to Core Web Vitals requires an essential look and feel to deliver content in the blink of an eye and meet the users’ expectations.
Branko Kral Director of Content and Analytics at Chosen Data @brankofosho
Branko Kral Is director of content & analytics at Digital Agency, Chosen Data. Branko suggests that the increased competition in digital highlighted by Sante will result in far greater challenge for SEO Agencies. Branko highlights how his agency tackles this increased drive for excellence.
Our team at Chosen Data predicts that all aspects of SEO will continue on their path to becoming more and more expert. Good work will truly not cut it at all, great work will be the minimum viable level of delivery even more than now. Every SEO leader will need to be proficient in UX, website structure, analytics, and content creation. This expectation is based on the observation of the maturing SEO industry, our industry that has seen the same trends continue for years, trends such as UX as a ranking factor that has only become stronger during the ups and downs of 2020.
To make the claim more specific, an example of a practice that’ll be key is SEO testing, as described in this guide. We now apply it on all the content SEO projects we work on. The CTR optimizations we run and the content upgrades we execute all go through a round of SEO testing before they’re called final. This removes opinions, albeit expert, out of the equation, and reinforces a data-driven culture inside the team. Every CTR opt and content update we make these days is certain to bring growth — because we don’t consider the task done until our SEO tests show us that there was indeed an improvement. We couldn’t recommend practices such as SEO testing enough. SEO does not stand for Snake Essential Oils, it stands for the thorough, expert, systematic practice of optimizing for search engines.
Nichola Stott Founder of Erudite Agency @NicholaStott
Every update, change or development in the past few years has been driven by providing a better experience for search users. We’re expecting more of the same and in fact experimenting with UX and what might be considered accessibility features as rank correlated exercises. It makes sense as a continuation of CWV.
Andor Palau International SEO Consultant, Majestic Ambassador @andorpalau
Core Web Vitals
Although this is an obvious one and we have talked about it within the search industries for long, I think this will, at least till May, be one evergreen topic. You already see it on several industry agendas for 2021 and I’m pretty sure even more tutorials, webinars and so on will follow. Well, it is definitely not bad to work towards a better user experience and to improve site speed as well, but it seems that for some it goes into a direction of “working against a score” again – and this is where people will be eventually misled. Yes, Google will launch it on May 21 as a signal, but don’t forget it will also be combined with other things like Mobile-friendliness and Safe-browsing or HTTPS-security. So, be prepared as best as possible, do your job but please don’t forget the other things you have to take care of, for example, working towards an autosuggest strategy (article here) or something else.
Developments in search
In October, Google released some quite interesting articles around how search could develop, especially on mobile. We have already talked about the influence of BERT and machine learning last year regarding contents and intents. This article here is a good starting point regarding everything about passage indexing, subtopics, Googles ability to understand data and key moments, even in videos, or images (another interesting thing as Google is improving its capabilities on visual search). So, don’t miss this article here too. The first one is definitely something that helps Google conquer challenges in the future in search results, but both will generally help Google transform and develop their user happiness.
Data, Intents and Action
Based on the topics above I think that 2021 is, maybe again, a year where many websites will have to investigate their content strategy to understand, what is working, what maybe needs to be removed or updated. We all have seen changes in search intents over the last month and matching the right user intent will be an ongoing success indicator. Every keyword analysis shows this. Things like time on site, bounce rate and of course ctr values must be aligned in analyses and reports to better understand how content is working in the SERPs and when you need to react. Google no longer just looks at words but analyses the context. Also, think about discover and predicted search – what questions could be asked in the future you may have not considered yet. The challenge we often face is actually not gathering data alone but putting it into the right context to getting the most out of it. Atomization and execution are important here.
Maryna Bizhikian COO at Digital Clever Solutions @Maryna Bizhikian
Impact of the COVID Virus on Everyday Life
We are adapting to changing trends imposed by the Coronavirus for organizing business processes, providing services, and managing employee time.
Our greatest challenge brought on by the pandemic has been maintaining communication with clients and conducting weekly conferences. Popular video conference platforms have replaced the need for in-person meetings and unnecessary face-to-face offline communication.
Employee time management has also been resolved, thanks to time trackers (Yaware) that monitor each worker’s productivity, making it possible to identify underproductive and weaker employees and take actions to strengthen or replace weak links. By detecting the least productive members of our team based on the tracker’s data, we have helped them to reach their potential and have increased the entire team’s productivity by more than 25%.
With the tracker checking for real productive time, we discovered that our employees gained more than 40 hours of free time per month. That means over 20% more time to spend with family, take care of household chores and get needed rest for better productivity. As a result, productivity has increased by more than a quarter, while employees gained 20% more personal time.
The marketing strategy of our company has also undergone some changes. An increased online presence has become one of our main targets, with the goal to cover as many advertising channels as possible, to keep in touch with our audience during the lockdowns, and to support those who need our advice. Our social network pages are being updated weekly to provide our customers with high-quality articles about digital marketing and related topics. The purchase funnels have been adjusted to attract readers of our studies and articles and invite them to video conferences for further collaboration.
The shift to remote work will require changes to the service economy. Some services will become obsolete, while others will become more in-demand. This is the perfect time to enhance your professional skills and impress your clients with in-depth knowledge of current trends in business. No matter how the COVID virus affects our lives, business owners who are skilled and resilient enough will be able to overcome challenges and thrive in the post-COVID world.
Dixon Jones CEO at Inlinks.net, Majestic Ambassador @Dixon_Jones
I have two big predictions for 2021. I was delighted to see Google’s talk about moving from page level indexing to passage level indexing. Well, that might not have been exactly how they describe it, but I think the knock on effects will seismically move the industry. It’s GREAT for Majestic, by the way. For those that pay attention to their “topic context” charts, you’ll spot that Majestic already “chunks” pages into 40 sections. But for the wider industry, this might change the focus from long form content to being able to accurately communicate a complex idea in as many words as it takes and no more. Let’s see…?
My other prediction is a renewed focus on UX altogether. Microsoft’s new “Clarity” analytics is not only free, but is an innovation challenge that I doubt Google will ignore. It’s a pretty cool piece of kit.
We hope you found these opinions thought provoking and helpful. Your comments are welcome below. If you are interested in contributing to articles like this in future, please do get in touch via our contact form with a short bio, examples of previous work, and your specialities.
We wish you all a happy holiday period and all the best for the new year.