What were the biggest SEO changes in 2020, and what impact did they have? Exposure Ninja’s experts share their views.
It’s been the strangest of years, and extremely challenging in almost all areas of our lives, including work. One moment we were happily (or perhaps not) working away and the next, everything was closed and the global economy came to a halt.
The pandemic forced companies to devise innovative ways to operate and stay in business, while others — mainly those reliant on in-person footfall — were unable to do much apart from waiting it out.
Suddenly, companies and organisations that never dreamed they could, or should, work remotely were doing just that, and many were thriving. It meant the digital realm became more vital than ever, including for shuttered bricks-and-mortar firms that could keep on trading by taking orders via their websites.
All this meant that search engine optimisation (SEO) and digital marketing was also more essential. Because in the crowded and hotly competitive online marketplace, you need to do everything you can to not only stand out from your rivals and be seen but to get far ahead.
As SEO, just like many aspects of digital life, is constantly changing and evolving, implementing new developments and ditching old practices can make the difference between real progress and stalling or even going backwards and seeing online conversions and sales fall.
Exposure Ninja’s SEO wizards are constantly monitoring what search engines are up to, what rollouts they’re planning and what it can mean for our clients. Here, some of our experts look back at SEO changes in 2020 and the impact they may have had.
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An Overview of SEO Changes in 2020
Pandemic-linked Behaviour, UGC and Sponsored Content, Voice Search
Exposure Ninja Founder and Head Ninja Tim Cameron-Kitchen told us that the most significant SEO changes in 2020 pivoted not around technology but people’s behaviour, as the pandemic meant new ways of doing — and getting — things. Some companies, he said, were better positioned to take advantage of the tumultuous and sudden changes, while others floundered.
“The biggest one was actually nothing to do with algorithms or websites, but user behaviour resulting from the pandemic and lockdown — huge changes in search volume for lockdown-related terms, whether fitness, home tuition or financial terms and changes in device usage too,” said Tim.
“As the world grappled with these almost overnight trends, we really got to see who was able to pivot their digital marketing strategy and make sure they were able to capitalise on any positive impact.”
What about tech changes during the year? Were there any significant SEO updates in 2020 that could impact businesses, negatively or in a positive way? Tim pointed to changes Google made in how it treats user-generated content (UGC) and links that are sponsored, or paid for by companies to improve their rankings in search engine results pages (SERPs).
In March, Google made one of the biggest SEO changes in 2020. The world’s dominant search engine — controlling over 88% of the global search market — said it would no longer ignore UGC or sponsored content links — or no-follows — but instead use them as a hint to what the link and content are about. Although Tim said, the significance of this change wasn’t because it “made a difference but because it shows Google’s intent.”
Tim explained that the “impact is yet to be felt, and there’s an argument that they’re simply training the algos to recognise what sponsored and user-generated content looks like, so it can be more easily ignored when not marked up in the future. Who knows, but it’s interesting to see Google trying to finally get a hold on the sponsored content landscape.”
But, Tim said, this was still something of a grey area and not always possible to know who was playing by these new SEO rules.
“It feels like a massive elephant in the room and a situation where neither publishers or buyers have any incentive to ‘hand themselves in’ and reveal the arrangement to Google. So given that we expect usage of the new attributes to remain low, we wait with bated breath to see what Google’s next move is.”
What didn’t happen with SEO updates in 2020? Predictions that voice search would be big again fell flat.
“The biggest non-change in 2020 was, as we predicted last year, the continued irrelevance of voice search for the vast majority of businesses,” said Tim. “Yes, the number of voice searches might be large, but these are primarily functional and there are still very few opportunities for product or service discovery. Whether voice will ever be the next big thing that it has always promised is another story.”
SEO Updates 2020: Search Losing Its Voice?
Exposure Ninja’s resident SEO guru, Andy Tuxford, who heads our SEO department, cast his steely eye back on SEO updates in 2020 and also landed on voice search failing to catch on during the year. He pinpointed trust as one of the issues in searching online by talking to a virtual assistant.
“This has been on the SEO trends for a while — at least as long as I’ve been an SEO — and I don’t think it’s as big or will get as big as many predict, but it has been growing,” he told us.
“The main point holding it back from taking over the world (of SEO) is that it’s just rubbish for eCom — would you trust voice search to find the product you want? Or do you want to see and choose the product yourself? If you want a new office chair, or mouse or kettle, would you trust voice search to get the right one for you by saying, ‘Alexa/Google, order me a ….’?
“It’s getting more important, and I would expect it to continue next year, for local SEO, but for eCom and a lot of businesses, not so much.”
Andy’s picks for the top SEO updates in 2020 are:
- Diversity Update — “Technically, it was late 2019, but Google’s change to limit how many results a single site can have per SERP was quite a big one. It blew open a lot of SERPs that were completely dominated by a few niche giants. Previously it wasn’t too uncommon to see a single site holding five or six positions in a single search’s results, but with the diversity update that’s been limited to one or two, leaving more space for other players to rank.”
- BERT — “It’s been a bit more of a fizzle than a bang. I don’t mean that as it’s not effective, but the impact it’s had has been a bit understated. In a nutshell, BERT helps Google understand natural language usage better; but in terms of impact to users, I don’t think many will have noticed much difference.”
- Impact of Coronavirus — “COVID-19 has pushed a lot of businesses to compete more strongly in the digital space. We’ve seen a ramp-up in eCom businesses — including Shopify searches overtaking WordPress ones — suggesting Shopify could be, or will soon be a more popular platform. On Google Trends, Shopify overtook WP in the US in April (see live-data Trends graph below, for the United States). The UK’s lagging a bit behind, but Shopify has significantly closed the gap. Trends gives relative popularity, not absolute search volumes.”
- Google’s Response to Coronavirus — “Including live “busyness” updates, so you can see how busy a location is before going and coronavirus safety information on Google My Business listings, which is big for local.”
- Google Updates — “Featured snippets now take you to their spot on the page. When you click a featured snippet, it now doesn’t just take you to the page it’s on, but auto scrolls to the spot where the featured snippet is and highlights it” (see below).
- AI Updates — “Google updated their AI with a bunch of changes, including a better understanding of misspelt words, being able to rank individual passages (not just pages) and subtopics.”
- Page Experience — “While not introduced yet, Google announced the upcoming page experience metrics that will be coming in May 2021.”
Exposure Ninja’s head of content marketing, Luke Nicholson, also weighed in on SEO changes in 2020, saying top-quality content would become more important than ever, as more companies and organisations realised how vital the digital space is to their survival.
There will be “increased competition to create high-level content for all kinds of target keywords, with marketing agencies and businesses getting better at creating content that’s valuable to the user and search engines better at rewarding this content,” he said.
“The kind of content that you have to create to rank for a competitive keyword in 2021 is in a completely different league to the content that could rank for that keyword in 2012. It’s not just about media formats like video and images, though that can help. It’s largely about creating expert-level content that really answers the searcher’s intent in detail.”
And there might be lots of empty digital marketing agency offices around, due to the pandemic and lockdown. “SEO agencies have largely moved to remote working rather than location-based, and many of these agencies will never move back to the office. This could have a profound impact on how many businesses interact with their digital marketing agency. Exposure Ninja’s all-remote system has gone from the exception to being the norm,” explained Luke.
Luke agreed that the heralded rise in voice search’s popularity in 2020 was the biggest non-trend of the year: “Voice search hasn’t had the impact many would have predicted.”
Shift to Online Shopping, Social Ads in 2020
What about paid search like Pay-Per-Click (PPC) in 2020? Did it have any impact on SEO, or was it the other way around? Some companies may have scaled back their SEO in favour of PPC during 2020, to quickly win audiences, and customers. Our head of PPC, Lizzie Cross, said online shopping was, unsurprisingly, big during the year.
“The biggest thing I think we’ve seen this year is the shift into eCommerce, which I suppose is to be expected. And Google Shopping campaigns are usually the quickest and most effective way of promoting eCommerce products online,” she told us.
“The purchase intent is super-high on these campaigns and therefore it’s easier to achieve a good amount of sales,” Lizzie added.
Lizzie also noted that her department saw a sizable shift towards social media advertising — especially on Facebook and Instagram. “I suppose with more people sat at home browsing, it’s easy to assume that these will be useful in targeting products to the correct audiences,” she said.
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