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.
In this article, I will go over some of those new-ish SEO trends — ranking factors that have emerged over the past couple of years and are expected to gain weight in the near future:
In May 2020, Google introduced the concept of Core Web Vitals — three new metrics to be added to the way Google measures user experience. All three metrics are more or less about perceived page speed: how fast it loads, how soon it becomes interactive, and how stable it is when loading.
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.
On top of that, Core Web Vitals will serve as qualifiers for pages that want to appear in Google’s Top Stories. Previously, only AMP pages could appear in Top Stories, because they were reliably fast. Now that Google can measure speed using Core Web Vitals, this opportunity will be extended to all pages with a high enough optimization score.
Finally, Google is considering some kind of identifier to mark search results with a good user experience. Similar to the way AMP pages are marked with a lightning bolt icon. If implemented, users will be able to spot fast pages in search results and will probably favor them over slow pages.
Core Web Vitals can be measured using any number of Google’s tools for web developers: PageSpeed Insights, Chrome UX Report, Search Console, Chrome DevTools, Lighthouse, and Web Vitals Chrome Extension. Most of these tools will also make some suggestions on how you can improve each metric, so follow the advice until you are satisfied with your score.
As far back as 2016 Google had started switching websites to mobile-first indexing. Meaning the website is ranked based on its mobile version rather than its desktop version.
So far it has been a rather slow process. 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.
Four years later, the process is almost complete, but there is still some share of old-timey websites that haven’t managed to adapt to the mobile screen. To these websites Google says enough is enough, they will be forced into mobile-first indexing whether they are ready or not. Currently, the transition is scheduled for March 2021.
If you are one of those websites that are still holding out on mobile optimization, then Google has prepared a detailed checklist of everything you need to account for when making the transition. Don’t worry, the bulk of the work can usually be done by simply switching to a responsive theme.
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. Here is just one example of how BERT has improved search results from semi-relevant to completely spot-on:
BERT is also the algorithm responsible for so-called passage indexing. What it does is it can pull a relevant passage from a largely irrelevant page:
AI also helps Google find relevant pieces of video and identify songs from humming, among many other seemingly impossible things.
Now that BERT has a deep understanding of natural language, the content that we publish doesn’t need as much assistance from SEO. We can switch from writing for search engines to writing for actual users, which means fewer awkwardly placed keywords, no pressure to include close keyword variations, and more freedom to exercise good writing habits if you have them.
To date, Google’s knowledge graph has collected over 5 billion entities and 500 billion entity properties. Which is not that much, considering that entities are not just notable people, but also books, songs, movies, companies, concepts — literally anything.
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.
A good place to start would be one of our recent posts on entities — what they are, how they are used, and what you can do to leverage them for SEO. Some of the things you can try include building an entity out of your brand (via explicit syntax and frequent mentions), claiming your GMB profile, using structured data, and researching relevant entities to mention in your content. In essence, it’s a lot like what we used to do with backlinks and keywords, except a tad more complicated.
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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.
To be fair, Google probably can’t answer many of the EAT questions directly. It can’t check whether the information is scientifically accurate or whether the author is actually an expert. But, Google can still check for indirect EAT signals. For example, if the page mentions all the right entities associated with the topic, then it’s probably accurate. If the name of the author is well established on the web, is associated with other thematically similar platforms and profiles, then the author is probably an expert.
These capabilities are improving by the day. With the help of AI and an ever-growing knowledge graph, it’s safe to assume that Google will soon be able to measure EAT with some confidence. Which is an increasingly pressing issue, considering the prevalence of spam, conspiracy theories, and fake news.
Don’t worry, it’s not all about entities and artificial intelligence. In fact, many of the indirect EAT signals are fairly familiar and easy to demonstrate. Good old-fashioned backlinks are still a signal of authority. A secure protocol is still a signal of trustworthiness, as is a good user experience. Check out this guide for more accessible ways to demonstrate EAT signals.
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. You could mark your business temporarily closed, add alternative business hours, collect donations, sell gift cards, and activate special attributes to highlight safety options:
An interesting pandemic-related update was Google allowing telehealth listings on GMB, whereas previously no online businesses could register. Some in the SEO community see it as a possible start of a wider policy change.
The best thing you can do for your local SEO is to optimize your GMB listing. Treat it as if it were your second website, explore all of its features (posts, Q&As, attributes, etc.), and keep a close eye on your reviews.
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.
The most immediate application of structured data is to create rich snippets, which are absolutely essential if you want to rank for things like recipes or news articles:
Another application of structured data is to use it for local SEO. There is a type of schema called “local business” and it allows you to mark your company, its address, and key contact details. Once applied on your website, local schema tells Google where your business is at and improves your chances of appearing in local search results.
Finally, structured data helps you create entities. Even though Google can now recover entities from unstructured data, you can speed things up by using structured data to mark important places, people, and companies.
Structured data sounds like it is something too complicated to attempt on your own, but it’s really not. It’s just bits of HTML to be added to some of your content. You can do it manually or use a Structured Data Markup Helper to do it for you. Please consult our structured data guide for more information.
Thanks to BERT, Google can now retrieve not just pages, but small pieces of pages — to satisfy the exact intent of the searcher. For example, if I want to know whether elephants can jump, Google will pull up the exact paragraph answering my question and I won’t have to read through or even visit the page.
And if I want to know how to sharpen a knife, Google will skip the slow parts of the tutorial and instead offer me to watch the very action:
That’s on top of providing a variety of rich answers, knowledge graph panels, lists, and tables:
What it means for SEO is that more and more queries will be answered from position zero and the pace is going to pick up right about now, when BERT has been given full access to search.
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.
It looks like SEO is settling into more of an assisting role. In the past, SEO was the main driving force and you could use it to rank a page regardless of whether it was actually good or not. Today, you definitely have to have great content first, and then use SEO to make sure that Google takes notice. Going forward, this job will grow increasingly complex, especially since rich elements are becoming more common in SERP and it becomes more about being featured rather than being ranked.