What We Learned About SEO in 2021: Everything You Need to Know

Updated October 6, 2023

For SEOs and digital marketers, 2021 was a year full of surprises. From an array of Google updates to controversial overhauls of key SEO features, last year brought a slate of new opportunities and challenges for search engine marketers.

As we turn the page and embark on another yet that’s sure to be filled with just as many twists and turns, let’s take a look back at what we learned about SEO in 2021. Below, I’ve provided a retrospective that summarizes the key updates and changes that impacted SEOs last year.

SEO Presence

2021 Google Core Updates

In 2021, we saw the release of three substantial updates to Google’s PageRank algorithm. These augmentations to Google Search revamped certain SEO best practices and changed how organic SEO is conducted. Let’s take a look at each of these three core updates.

June 2021 Google Update

Google’s first core update of the year arrived on June 2nd and finished rolling out about ten days later. Fortunately, most sites did not see their rankings impacted by the June update.

There is ample evidence that this update (alongside the subsequent July update) was heavily based on page speed optimization. Of the websites that improved their ranking performance in the aftermath of the June update, the lion’s share of them were outperformers in page loading speed. At present, the average page loading speed for top-ranking websites is less than 3 seconds.

July 2021 Google Update

The following month’s core update was, in essence, a continuation of the previous month’s. This update finished rolling out on July 12th. While this update caused certain niche websites to experience lots of volatility (particularly within the health, science, automotive, and travel niches), the update was mostly geared toward cutting down on spam and phishing.

In particular, Google made an effort to penalize (or nullify) websites with “poor” or suspicious links, both inbound and outbound.

In 2020, Google delisted at least 40 million spammy pages and this trend is presumed to have been continued with the June and July 2021 updates. Therefore, any content containing spam material (including keyword-stuffed content) has likely felt negative effects from this update.

November 2021 Google Update

November’s update saw far greater volatility than the summer updates in June and July. Websites within the “health” niche saw the greatest volatility in their ranking performance, likely in an effort to crack down on COVID-19 misinformation. In fact, health-related websites saw 41% more volatility than other niche domains.

There’s no doubt that the November update shook up ranking charts, but these effects were mostly limited to health websites containing dubious information. Legitimate, high-value websites in the health sector were largely unaffected or they saw their former rankings restored within several days of the update taking effect.

Other Google Updates and Trends

Aside from the three core updates, we also saw a number of key SEO trends carried forward from previous years. Below, we’ve touched on the main trends, updates, and developments to Google Search over the past year.

Valuing Expertise

Likely in an effort to combat misinformation, Google has promoted product review content that emanates from known “experts or enthusiasts” who are well-versed in their field. Therefore, writers who have a long history of publishing relevant, high-value content under their name are now far more likely to rank than content written by unknown or novice writers.

Continuous Mobile Scroll

Nearly 60% of Google Search queries come from mobile devices, which makes mobile SERPs more valuable than desktop. Although mobile and desktop SERPs are largely the same, there are now some subtle yet important differences.

Beginning in 2021, Google introduced “continuous” mobile SERP scrolling. As a result of the update, searchers can now scroll through SERP pages without having to click to navigate to the next page as in the desktop experience. This makes it more likely that users will see “second page” result results, thereby making these rankings more valuable to SEOs.

User Intent Matching

Building on previous years’ trends, Google Search results are increasingly based on user intent. Whereas search results were once strictly a function of keyword utilization, density, and Google keyword trends, these days Google’s PageRank algorithm privileges content that’s hyper-specific to the intention behind the search.

In other words, content that’s tailored to the searcher’s intent is more likely to rank. For instance, if you write an article centered around the keyword “personal finance tips” but spend 75% of the article discussing how to apply for a mortgage, you’ve lost the user’s search intent.

A winning SEO strategy in 2022 is one that will account for the searcher’s intentions rather than merely looking at metrics such as volume and difficulty.

Featured Snippets on the Rise

Selected excerpts of rich content (called “featured snippets”) are becoming increasingly popular. They occupy the first position on SERPs, and their click-through rates are significantly higher than other top-ranking results.

About 12% of search queries include featured snippets, and this number increases every year. To secure a featured snippet, focus on creating content that directly answers the searcher’s question somewhere in the beginning of the article (within the first two subsections, or 1-4 paragraphs).

SEO Lessons Learned in 2021

Let’s summarize what we’ve learned so far about SEO best practices in light of the previous year’s slate of updates.

  • Minimize keyword spam (i.e., keyword stuffing)
  • Minimize link spam (i.e., including bad or paid-for inbound or outbound links)
  • Avoid content containing COVID-19 health-related information
  • Reputable expert writers is a stronger ranking factor than ever before
  • Page two SERP results are more valuable with the introduction of continuous mobile scroll
  • Content must be tailored to the searcher’s intent
  • Directly answer your searcher’s question to secure a featured snippet

2021 At A Glance: Website Optimization is King

Looking back on the year, all we can conclude is that the pursuit of a better, more valuable, and more user-friendly website is still the best strategy for SEO success.

At IronMonk, we specialize in digital marketing and have served as one of the premier SEOs in Toronto for over a decade. Our team of digital marketing experts create SEO-friendly content at scale, while also handling technical website optimization.

As we saw last year, SEO is always changing. To stay on top of the game, consider hiring expert SEOs to assist with your business strategy by increasing your long-term, organic online visibility.

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