What will search marketing and search engine optimization (SEO) look like in 2021, and where will it take B2B marketers and brands when a post-pandemic world eventually arrives?
To help answer these questions and more we've gathered 12 top B2B search marketing insights from both industry experts and our own team, and present our annual look at SEO predictions and search trends for 2021.
When I first went online in 1984 operating a 300-baud bulletin board system, it would be six years before Archie's FTP site search arrived in 1990, followed three years later by Excite and the other early web search engine innovators, and if there's one aspect of search that has remained constant throughout the ensuing decades, it's been unending change.
The search marketing landscape has always been one of rapid changes, and keeping up-to-date with ever-shifting SEO machinations and technical search intricacies can be more than a full-time job for top B2B SEO professionals. Luckily, for 2021 we've got a wealth of SEO insight from 12 of the world's leading search subject matter experts that you can use to hit the ground running as a new year of search unfolds.
Let's jump right in and see how top search marketing practitioners expect 2021 to change the way we do business, and why it could quite likely be a groundbreaking year for search.
1 — A Greater Understanding of Search Intent
Founder, Search Engine Roundtable
In 2020 we really saw advances in search engines understanding queries better and the content on the page — i.e. BERT (bidirectional encoder representations from transformers) is now used in all queries. This is helping Google, as I wrote last year, in understanding voice queries and responding to those queries but also in serving better results.
I am excited to see how passage indexing rolls out and how SEOs react and adapt, if necessary, to that roll out. The Page Experience update is rolling out in May 2021, so that should be exciting to watch as well.
Search is in a very exciting place right now, we are at the verge of really being able to understand the true intent of queries and 2021 will be an expansion of that in so many ways.
[bctt tweet="Search is in a very exciting place right now, we are at the verge of really being able to understand the true intent of queries and 2021 will be an expansion of that in so many ways. — Barry Schwartz @rustybrick" username="toprank"]
2 — The Rising Importance of Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness
SEO Director, Path Interactive
Google has already provided some clues as to what they will prioritize in 2021 from a usability and performance standpoint: Core Web Vitals and the final push towards mobile-first indexation for all sites. There are also new Google products and features worth focusing on, such as Web Stories and Google Discover (the two go hand-in-hand); advancements with indexing video and podcast content; and improved experiences in Google Shopping and Images.
But from my perspective, the biggest overarching trend in SEO in recent years which will undoubtedly continue in 2021 is the focus on E-A-T: expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. E-A-T has become a necessity for sites in many categories to perform well, but especially for YMYL (Your Money, Your Life) sites, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the rampant rise in misinformation online.
[bctt tweet="The biggest overarching trend in SEO in recent years which will undoubtedly continue in 2021 is the focus on E-A-T: expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. — Lily Ray @lilyraynyc" username="toprank"]
3 — On-Page Analytics, Microsoft Clarity & Google's Forthcoming Offering
Whilst I’d love the SEO world focused on BERT in 2021 to give InLinks.net cover (As SEOs should be!) — I think the new gig in town will be heat maps and UX improvements.
Whilst these are not new ideas for Internet marketers, it looks like “Clarity” —Microsoft’s new and free UX tool — will not be taken lying down by Google, who have announced something that sounds remarkably similar to roll out in May 2021. Google rarely give us this much notice, which suggests that this will be the new SEO playground.
The Clarity tool, from Microsoft is already up and running, though, and I cannot imagine any SEO not at least taking a look. It will be interesting to see if paid tools in a similar space — such as Hotjar and Crazy Egg — will benefit or suffer from this newfound interest in on-page analytics.
[bctt tweet="The Clarity tool from Microsoft is already up and running, and I cannot imagine any SEO not at least taking a look. – Dixon Jones @Dixon_Jones" username="toprank"]
4 — Create Content with Stages of Intent to Move Beyond Keywords
Senior SEO Analyst, Cox Enterprises
Google will continue to improve and perfect the ways it determines the right results for a query. For years they have been indicating — in pretty good detail — what they are looking for and need to find in content. While keywords are important and always will be, Google has moved beyond mere keywords when they provide results.
SEOs and marketers need to be smarter and invest the time and money to create solid pieces of content with intent and stages of intent in mind.
With the indexation of passages, it is important to have content that is organized, comprehensive, and authoritative. Google didn't take the time to breakdown all aspects of E-A-T, YMYL, and Needs Met for no reason. Anyone that is creating or commissioning content and is not considering everything I mentioned above will struggle in the future. That being said, you don't always have to have a huge article to meet all these requirements; sometimes a proper explanation or definition is enough.
[bctt tweet="SEOs and marketers need to be smarter and invest the time and money to create solid pieces of content with intent and stages of intent in mind. — Melissa Fach @SEOAware" username="toprank"]
5 — Adapting Keyword Research & Content Creation Practices to Include Intent Signals
Consultant, former Yahoo VP of Search, Overture, FAST Search & Transfer, Inktomi
Search engines have and will continue to understand the intent of queries and categorize content to match the intent of a user’s query. We as SEOs must better align with these new practices by evolving our keyword research and content creation processes to better integrate these intent signals. We must add intent categorization to our keyword research process so once we have conducted our keyword research to figure out what searchers are looking for we should then attempt to classify the intent of these queries by looking at the top 30 results.
Once the intent has been determined we need to incorporate intent into the keyword mapping exercise by matching keywords with the right intent to the right document. We will also find that there are keyword/intent pairs that are not being fulfilled currently on the web site, and these will be seeds for our content creation roadmap.
It is also good to look at ranked documents that are classified with transactional/informational/navigational intent and understanding what they provide to create “templates/instructions” for content creation for each intent type.
[bctt tweet="We need to incorporate intent into the keyword mapping exercise by matching keywords with the right intent to the right document. — Tim Mayer @timmayer" username="toprank"]
6 — Prioritizing Content Optimization Efforts
International SEO Consultant & Founder, Orainti
A few trends within SEO I see getting much more importance next year are:
Search Features Optimization: With an expanding inclusion of features within Google's search results, it has become a key aspect within the SEO process to maximize a brand's search engine results post (SERP) visibility and market share. It's now an additional criteria to prioritize our content optimization efforts (eg. if we should also leverage video or images), structured data implementation (eg. for carousels or snippets inclusions) or even leverage further Google integrations (eg. merchant center for eCommerce sites or jobs feeds).
Search intent analysis and understanding: In the last few years we've seen how Google has become more dynamic and sophisticated in the way they show and blend results to better connect with users' intent. Integrating intent analysis in keyword research has become a must now to identify not only the type, structure and format of the content we should create and optimize, the search features to leverage, and which are the queries that are satisfied directly in the SERPs and which we should push forward to target to bring visits from.
Video search: Video carousels are included more and more and beyond purely informational queries of certain sectors on one hand, and most of these are being pulled from YouTube, which is the second most used search engine. I expect more SEOs and marketers will become more aware of this and better leverage video content as part of their content optimization efforts.
[bctt tweet="It has become a key aspect within the SEO process to maximize a brand's SERP visibility and market share. It's now an additional criteria to prioritize our content optimization efforts. — Aleyda Solis @aleyda" username="toprank"]
7 — A Return to Performance
Growth Executive, Former CEO, Searchmetrics
In 2021, Google will return their focus to performance — speed and user experience — ranking factors. In connection to Core Web Vitals, Google will expect websites to improve quality signals essential to a great user experience.
[bctt tweet="In 2021, Google will return their focus to performance — speed and user experience — ranking factors. In connection to Core Web Vitals, Google will expect websites to improve quality signals essential to a great user experience. @jtkoene" username="toprank"]
8 — Optimize For Sales & Reexamine Longstanding SEO Rituals
Independent, Search Engine Journal
Some in the SEO community have commented on how it seems like Google search results are randomized. What they are seeing are sites ranking as a result of algorithms that kind of side step ranking factors like links.
BERT, Passages and so on are changing what the SERPs look like. That has to have an impact on SEO. The Passages ranking algorithm will impact the SERPs because it broadens the amount of sites eligible to rank. Passages helps long form and poorly optimized pages rank.
Google's Martin Splitt said in the SEJ Passages Q&A that he doesn't expect the Passages ranking algorithm to push out well optimized sites. But obviously, sites are going to be pushed down or off the first page of the SERPs when that kicks in. And that's going to contribute to the sense of having the ground pulled out from underneath what is understood to be SEO. Where do you stand when that happens?
It's already happening and in 2021 it's going to intensify.
In the past people used to optimize for search engines by salting their titles, top of page sentences and headings with keywords. They used to buy links with keywords in the anchor for the search engines to consume. Those are rituals of SEO.
They performed all of these rituals to optimize for the search engines at the expense of appealing to potential customers, overlooking opportunities to build an audience because audience-building activities didn't necessarily result in SEO tangibles like links.
The focus on SEO rituals has become so bad that publishers actually needed to be incentivized with speed as a ranking factor before they lifted a finger to make a faster downloading website. How crazy is that?
SEO is so consumed with SEO rituals, optimizing for Google, that it forgets that the end game to all of these shenanigans is increasing sales.
So maybe having the ground pulled out from underneath the efficacy of "SEO Best Practices" can be a good thing if it forces people to remove the letter "S" and the letter "E" from their title and simply be optimizers. And by optimizers I mean optimizing for sales.
There are many online opportunities for becoming a destination, increasing awareness and so on. There is video, offline opportunities, podcasts, newsletters, and local type opportunities that can help increase awareness and increase sales.
My prediction is that Google is increasingly ranking sites that users want to see — sites that solve problems for consumers. That trend is going to increase. And that trend has little to do with author bios, anchor text, or disavowing scraper sites — the rituals of SEO.
The challenge for SEO, going into 2021, is determining whether sticking with rituals that seem to work less well as time goes on is a good strategy.
And if these practices aren't producing the desired results, then taking the next step to see if there are opportunities related to building sales and encouraging a dialogue with potential customers exist.
I don't think Google is purposely making links and anchor text less viable in order to thwart SEOs. But that's kind of the net effect of all these AI-based algorithms that continue to roll out.
[bctt tweet="SEO is so consumed with SEO rituals, optimizing for Google, that it forgets that the end game to all of these shenanigans is increasing sales. — Roger Montii @martinibuster" username="toprank"]
9 — You Need to EAT Your Content
Director of Acquisition Marketing & Head of SEO, Chewy
SEOs who concentrate on keywords versus a broader content strategy focused on the EAT principle (expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness) will miss out even more going into 2021. Those that will win will build content around a firm understanding of their audience’s intent and how their content might fulfill that need — not primarily researching top keywords. That approach isn’t good enough based on how algorithms have evolved and will continue to evolve in 2021. A meaningful SEO strategy requires a closer examination of your consumer personas and the typical customer journeys.
Writing content aligned with your target customer’s intent
Develop clear, natural language content focused on what your consumer wants to know. If you have a customer service team or a way to get feedback from your customers, that is a great place to start.
Researching the types of content users want and expect for a given intent
What content works best for your different personas as they are going through the purchase process? Do you need to have an optimized video strategy in addition to longer form content? Or do your buyers want to hear from your customers in a form of review?
SERPs can help you understand what consumers may want with what your competition is serving up, but you can also dive into your analytics to see what your consumers are engaging with now.
Developing FAQs that have your company stand out from the crowd
Use schema to send stronger signals for this content to rank when tied to your brand. Consider questions around your company’s offering and why it is different. What results has your company produced or what unique solutions has your company delivered? Is your company involved in philanthropy or “giving back” in some meaningful way?
[bctt tweet="A meaningful SEO strategy requires a closer examination of your consumer personas and the typical customer journeys. Develop clear, natural language content focused on what your consumer wants to know. — Melanie Mitchell @MelanieMitchell" username="toprank"]
10 — Strengthen Branding by Getting Exposure from Trusted Sources
Co-Founder, Marshall Jennings PR
Few could have predicted the 2020 pandemic which has affected many businesses around the globe, yet technology continues to advance. 2021 is likely to continue that advance.
I believe there are still opportunities for marketers to make full use of voice search, both on mobile and on smart speakers. The heavyweights in the market, such as Amazon and Google have to use sources from others to supplement their systems, and marketers should put every effort into getting exposure from the trusted sources. It's great branding.
One educational topic I wanted to mention is Google's Core Web Vitals:
The page experience signals in ranking will roll out in May 2021 and combine with Core Web Vitals, and the existing search signals including mobile-friendliness, safe-browsing, HTTPS-security, and Google's intrusive interstitial guidelines.
Webmasters invested in AMP pages, but that signal benefit is now going to be leveled with the confirmation that any non-AMP page meeting the Google News policies will become eligible to appear, as long as there's what Google calls, "a great web experience", and it says this will also roll out in May 2021.
[bctt tweet="The heavyweights in the market, such as Amazon and Google have to use sources from others to supplement their systems, and marketers should put every effort into getting exposure from the trusted sources. It's great branding. @engine" username="toprank"]
11 — Growing Dependency (and More New Features) on Google My Business for Storefronts
SEO Strategist, TopRank Marketing
2020 brought many roadblocks and forced marketers to respond and adapt to unforeseeable changes. Businesses with storefronts experienced the most disturbances to their operations, with ever-changing public safety guidelines that affected if or how customers visited their locations.
We saw Google My Business features launch quickly starting in April in attempts to address businesses' new needs to communicate with customers that developed seemingly overnight. Updates included new features like a COVID-19 post type, support links for businesses (“buy a gift card” or “donate to this business”), new link options for virtual appointments, health and safety attributes, and adding secondary hours (like seniors-only hours). Food and retail business listings saw even more feature updates.
With our way of life changing unpredictably, I predict search engines will continue to create local features that allow businesses to better communicate updates and allow customers to anticipate expectations. For SEOs, this means new local optimization opportunities and new ways to help businesses connect with their clients.
[bctt tweet="SEOs will have new local optimization opportunities and find new ways to help businesses connect with their clients. — Birdie Zepeda @birdie_zepeda" username="toprank"]
12 — Increased Emphasis on SERP Real Estate vs Rankings
Director of Search & Analytics, TopRank Marketing
We've continued to see increases in both the number of search terms that yield SERP features, and new types of SERP features, and we expect that to continue. Google, for example, rapidly launched features to answer questions people had about COVID-19 directly in the search results page. Due to this continued evolution of SERPs, conversations about SEO ranking success are transitioning to talking about search results page real estate.
That means targeting featured snippets, people also ask, video, images, etc. Brands will win by creating content that solves the searchers intent for each of the different SERP features and adopting more use of schema to indicate what content is meant for those features.
[bctt tweet="Brands will win by creating content that solves the searchers intent for each of the different SERP features and adopting more use of schema to indicate what content is meant for those features. — Seth Epstein @SrirachaForAll" username="toprank"]
Putting 2021 B2B Search Marketing & SEO Trends to the Test
2021 will see B2B marketers taking SEO and search marketing into not only a new year but perhaps a new boundary-pushing era, especially among B2B brands, and although the 12 insightful predictions we've examined here are sure to play out in altogether new and sometimes unpredictable ways, they will also help your organization's own SEO efforts in 2021 and beyond.
Thanks to all of the top search industry professionals who contributed trends and predictions to our annual look at the year ahead in SEO.
Search is only one facet of a well-rounded B2B marketing strategy, yet one that plays an important role in campaigns that attract, engage, and convert. Find out why firms including Adobe, LinkedIn, SAP, AT&T, Dell, 3M and others have chosen to work with TopRank Marketing — drop us a line.
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