Before we start talking about the biggest Google changes in 2020, let’s talk a moment to accept how important Google’s search engine is for your business. As you would know, a lot of businesses, irrespective of their size, rely on Google to get new customers. Whether it is to be found or picked over competitors, Google’s search engine plays a key role. This is why whenever the Google search algorithm goes through changes, it makes news.
In early 2020, Google made a core update. Danny Sullivan, Google’s Public Search Liaison, tweeted about the update. He said, “We (Google) do updates all the time.” While it’s true that small changes happen throughout the year (Google made over 3,000 updates and changes to its search engine last year alone, wow), this update once again brought to light the fact that Google search engine also keeps constantly evolving.
As a business owner, you need to update your knowledge of how the search engine works by keeping up with Google changes. SEO in 2021 is going to be all about your site’s E-A-T, which stands for Expertise-Authoritativeness-Trustworthiness. So for your content to have a high ranking in search you need to be an expert on the topic (think tons of relevant content), you need to be able to speak with authority (think well-researched content that adds value) and you need to be trustworthy (think backlinks and citations). Sounds easy, right? If the content on your site abides by these three rules, you have nothing to worry about.
While that’s easier said than done, the first time in the process is understanding the changes. Before you rush to work on your content, let’s understand Google Changes in 2021 and what you as a business owner need to know.
Changes in the Google search algorithm
Google’s search engine is constantly evolving and getting smarter. In late 2019, Google updated its algorithm based on BERT (or bidirectional encoder representations from transformers, phew now there’s a mouthful). BERT uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and a massive data set to help understand what people are searching for. Where a few years ago it only caught keywords in search, today the search engine also understands relevancy. Each update and change makes the algorithm smarter. This is so that the search engine better understands the end user’s (your customers) search intent.
Pandu Nayak, Google VP of research, said “This is the single biggest … most positive change we’ve had in the last five years and perhaps one of the biggest since the beginning.”
What about ‘local’ and ‘near me’ searches?
Studies show that 92% of customers choose businesses on the first page of search results. Google said that the number of mobile searches checking for local businesses grew by over 250% between 2017 and 2019. According to Google changes in 2020, there are three factors that matter when it comes to ‘near me’ searches: distance, prominence, and relevance.
Reviews, reviews, reviews: No such thing as too many reviews
Reviews will continue to have an important influence on the ranking of the website. Businesses with positive reviews will continue to rank higher in regular and local searches. Websites that get reviews and comments will also rank higher in searches.
Think of the bigger Schema of things
We couldn’t resist the pun. Simply put, schema helps search engines understand what content is present on a page. SEO experts swear by Schema.org and your in-house SEO guy will agree that it is extremely helpful in getting those SEO results. Schema helps Google understand if there is a list or a survey or an image on a page so that it brings up the appropriate search results. On January 21, Google announced that starting from April 6, 2020, it will go all-in with Schema.org and will no longer support data-vocabulary markup (another type of code) for rich results.
Changes to links and user-generated content
When you add links to your content, you are telling Google to ‘do-follow’ or ‘no-follow’ the link. Sponsored (think ads!) and User-Generated Content (UGC – think reviews, comments, photos and much more) are considered no-follow links. No-follow links are links with a rel=”nofollow” HTML tag applied to them. When a link is a no-follow, it just tells search engines to ignore that link for PageRank. From March 1, 2020, Google said that it will read these links and start considering these links as hints. This is a big change from Google’s stance on the matter.
Talking about this, which is one of the big Google changes in 2020, which Google insists is a ‘choice’, the company said: “Links contain valuable information that can help us improve search, such as how the words within links describe content they point at.”
Keywords will boost your Google My Business page
Earlier this year, a change in Google My Business (GMB) usage came to light — GMB profiles that use keywords in descriptions will rank higher. Responding to this change Google said, “The information in question is accurate. While it’s not guaranteed to improve the ranking, it could, depending on other factors, as well as information that is found online associated with the business.”
Letting go of rich snippets
Previously, Google allowed businesses to use review schema to show the business’s overall star rating in their search result through a rich snippet. These rich snippets helped businesses stand out in comparison to their competitors in search results.
In late 2019, Google has banned “self-serving reviews”. Google has defined this as “reviews of a business on the business’ own site”. This means that websites with schema “LocalBusiness” or “Organization” will no longer be able to display rich snippets in search results. Remember, self-serving reviews are reviews posted by a business on the business’s own website. Third-party sites, like Birdeye, will still be able to display rich snippets.
The way forward is mobile-first
In 2020, the mantra is to build mobile-first websites and then adjust them for desktop. Mobile devices account for 53% of paid-search clicks and this number is only set to increase. Users typically bounce off a page with low speed. By building mobile-first websites, your website is also winning in the speed game. In recent years Google has made it clear that page speed is an important ranking factor.
Changes to how Google Ads show up
After their recent update, search results and Google ads now look quite similar to each other. Talking about the change Google said they would now be “presenting site domain names and brand icons prominently, along with a bolded “Ad” label for ads.” This is definitely good news for publishers and site owners since users need to be paying close attention to know if they are clicking on the content they are searching for or ads.
Featured snippets to count as a web page listing
First, what are featured snippets? They are a format of content, in which the answer to the user’s search question appears directly and concisely. A featured snippet comes up right on the search results page. The user doesn’t have to click through to a specific result.
In February, Google also decided to de-duplicate featured snippets. This means that featured snippets are counted as first position results (as opposed to position 0 they enjoyed till now) and will now be a part of the main organic search results. Speaking about the change Danny Sullivan, Google’s Public Search Liaison, said, “If a web page listing is elevated into the featured snippet position, we no longer repeat the listing in the search results. This declutters the results & helps users locate relevant information more easily. Featured snippets count as one of the ten web page listings we show.”
Images are not deduplicated if the image URL is different from the text. Image carousels, listings, and top stories are not deduplicated either.
On-site SEO: It is all about what’s on the page
On-site SEO is an umbrella term for every detail on the page. This includes metadata, video, image tags, amount of text on the page, interlinking, keyword use, H1s/H2s, among other things and is still pretty important. Yes, Google algorithm has gone through a ton of changes and is much smarter about picking up relevant information but on-site SEO is still key.
In their own words, Google’s ‘How Search Works’ report states, “The most basic signal that information is relevant is when a webpage contains the same keywords as your search query. If those keywords appear on the page, or if they appear in the headings or body of the text, the information is most likely to be relevant.”
Conclusion: At the end of the day what do these Google changes really mean?
Keeping up with Google’s changes in 2021 and beyond is important. You want to make the search engine work for you and your content. But, that doesn’t mean that you change your content strategy every time there is a change. The biggest learning from Google’s changes in 2020 is that content is king, indeed.
Google wants you to create good quality content that provides value to real people. Gather and respond to user-generated content (reviews, comments on social media, etc.), post this content on social media, manage all your listings for consistency and accuracy and reap the rewards of your efforts. Don’t create content for the search engine. Create content for your customers and end-users. Google will find you.
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