With so much of our lives, particularly in the realm of commerce, abruptly shifting online, search volume has proliferated and become a crucial window into evolving consumer preferences, needs and habits. Google has made new search marketing tools available for free to aid businesses, and in a major move, turned Google Shopping into a free-to-list environment, beginning with the United States and rolling out to the rest of the world as the year progressed.

Cash-strapped businesses have relied more on organic search optimisation for visibility as advertising budgets have been pulled, which has lent a new prominence to the role and skills of the SEO. Add to that the announcement and impending rollout of Google’s new ‘Page Experience’ update that will take various user experience signals into account, and search marketers look to have their work cut out for them as we move into 2021.

What do our expert contacts in search marketing and SEO see on the horizon for 2021? Here are their predictions for the near future of search.

UX and SEO: An ever-closer union

In the wake of the May announcement from Google that it would soon begin taking a number of metrics related to ‘page experience’ into account in search rankings – including Core Web Vitals, which assess a webpage’s speed, responsiveness and visual stability – many of our experts predict that 2021 will see a much closer union for user experience and SEO, now that the former has a major role to play in the latter.

“Google has a concrete idea of how a perfect user experience has to look for different industries,” says Björn Darko, VP of Product at Searchmetrics. “And in 2021 and beyond, I believe SEOs and marketers will need to focus even more on getting the user experience right for their particular vertical. In fact, some people believe that the leaking of a variety of best practice internal playbooks for different verticals (like this one for ecommerce) – which are thought to be for use by Google’s internal search teams – may actually be intentional – i.e. Google is trying to get the message out about the importance of optimising the user experience!”

Darko points out that all of Google’s recent core updates have been about tackling the overall user experience of a website, including how user-friendly a design is, and how seamlessly it allows visitors to achieve their goals – for example, with a smooth and hassle-free checkout process. “So increasingly, if you want your site to perform well in search, you need to get to grips with what users want to achieve on your site – and for other sites in your vertical – and make those things as straightforward and easy to do as possible,” he concludes.

“Of course, Google’s big announcement that Web Vitals will be a Ranking Factor also plays into the importance of a good user experience broadly across all verticals. This takes account of issues such as delivering content without delays, fast interactivity and avoiding layout shifts while the user is already interacting with the site – which are all important to get right regardless of which vertical industry you operate in.”

Joe Comotto, Director of Search Experience at NMPi by Incubeta, believes that 2020 marks the end of an era for SEO. “2020 will see the end of SEO as we know it, and usher in a new era for Search Experience,” he predicts. “This due to the string of announcements Google made this year, which will change how the user experience is optimised.”

“Google also confirmed it would be conducting tests to highlight directly on the Search Engine Results Pages (SERP) sites which offer a good experience, which is expected to start in early 2021,” Comotto continues. “This goes beyond the traditional SEO components and analyses of user experience on a brand website and will cross what in the past have been two very different and distinct fields of expertise – making sites that value organic traffic to sit up and take note.

“Google wants a faster and better web and I don’t expect them to stop there. It’s highly likely the importance of these updates will become even more prevalent when fully released next year,” he concludes. “Core Web Vitals is here to stay, and we may possibly see additions to the already existing Page Experience metrics.”

Lyndon White, SEO and Audience Manager at Xeim, is particularly curious as to what effect Google’s page experience ‘flagging’ – in which Google will visually highlight results on the SERP that have met all of its page experience criteria – will have on clickthrough. “I saw some audiences get a definite sense of ‘covid fatigue’ in 2020 and it feels like an environment in which every click-through has to be fought for and utilised. To that end, I am more than curious to see what ‘flagging’ system Google adopts as part of its Page Experience update in 2021,” he says.

“While I take the point made by many in the SEO community that Page Experience ranking signals are already being used by Google and the overt effects may be minimal, we are not in a ‘normal’ environment and I would be cautious about anything that has potential to impact CTR.

“However, this looming update will also have a positive side in that it means SEOs can positively foreground issues of page speed and the like with their dev teams.”

The evolving role of SEO

The twists and turns of 2020 have, in many cases, led search optimisation and its specialists to take on newly prominent roles, as pressure mounted on organisations to slash ad budgets and marketers sought ways to build visibility through unpaid channels.

“Search in 2020 for me was about organisations partially rediscovering the benefits of organic search,” says White. “With marketing budgets cut as coronavirus took a grip, people started re-emphasising the benefits of ‘free’ SEO in firing up high positions in the organic slots as against paid strategies and, in my case, this meant foregrounding some of the more traditional optimisation skills in the SEO toolbox.

“With an economic depression, I think this seems set to remain in place for 2021 and beyond.”

“[In 2020], SEO became critical for companies looking for the most affordable and cost-effective ways to maximize the shift to online,” agrees Lemuel Park, co-founder and CTO at BrightEdge. “The acceleration of digital transformation meant brands looked to SEO not just as their most valuable digital channel but also as an incredible customer insight source to inform action across the whole business.”

In order to get the most out of SEO in 2021, Park believes, marketers will need to lean harder on technological innovations like artificial intelligence and automation. “SEO is now front and centre of digital marketing strategies – spanning channels such as paid media, local, mobile, video, email, and across verticals like Amazon and e-commerce.

“As a result, next year, more than ever, marketers will need to exercise their agility and utilize technology that gives insights with breadth and depth and allows them to execute digital campaigns with speed and high precision. Marketers need to be prepared to respond to conditions in an instant and leverage machine learning and automation for immediate response, free up unnecessary resources, and scale.”

“It would be amazing to see the investments Google made in Search Console in 2020 continue into next year,” says Stephen Kenwright, COO and co-founder at Rise at Seven. “To me it’s felt more like the SEO industry is beginning to be seen as collaborators in increasing web standards, rather than spammers that must be contained.

“The Core Web Vitals update coming in first quarter of 2021 is a good indication of that too – and the biggest difference we saw over the last 12 months was an increased willingness to equip us with exactly what we need to make the changes necessary. Technical SEO is now viewed by the whole industry (including the search engines) as optimisation of the whole customer experience, which is exactly where we want to be!”

Despite the many benefits to be found in search visibility and optimisation, there are drawbacks, too. Will Critchlow, CEO at SearchPilot and SEO Partner at Brainlabs, predicts that the increasing amount of content that Google pulls onto the search results page will become an even more acute pain point for publishers in 2021 – perhaps leading to a new dilemma for search marketers.

“The trend of Google extracting “answers” and other one-box-style results from around the web will continue, and tests they have done with sourcing bits of answers from different places and combining into their own answer will expand to be much more common,” he says. “When an answer is sourced from multiple places, the attribution becomes harder, and even when there are attribution links, they get less visibility and fewer clicks.

“As a result, the prisoners’ dilemma situation that already exists with structured markup will become more acute, and more publishers will find themselves having to weigh up carefully the increased short-term traffic with the long-term downsides of providing that content to Google in machine-interpretable form. None of this is brand new, but it will become an increasing pain-point in 2021.”

SEO and retail

With the phenomenal growth in online shopping that took place in 2020, beginning with the initial lockdown period early in the year in which consumers turned to online channels in droves to obtain essential items, retailers have gained a newfound appreciation for the benefits of search data, which allow them to keep abreast of evolving trends.

While this has been taking place, Google and Amazon have been squaring off, each doing its best to one-up the other and become the go-to destination for finding and buying products. In the midst of it all are marketers and retailers, who are simply looking for the best way to attract customers to their online store.

“During the first lockdown, my local delivery driver said he was breaking Christmas records every day for more than five weeks,” recalls Sam Silverwood-Cope, Director and Global CGO at Pi Datametrics. “Online purchasing grew massively. The ONS stated that online accounted for 33% of all retail sales in the UK – the highest it’s ever been. Even in October 2020 it was 10 percentage points higher YOY.

“During lockdown we were going crazy. According to our data at Pi Homeware searches were up 75% YOY, and Electrical Goods up 65%. We were searching for Hot Tubs (up 754%), Hair Clippers (up 2,000%) and more recently fire pits (up 286%). That period was terrible for a lot of people, but possibly the best ever for a select few.

“Whatever anyone tells you, organic search still takes a huge proportion of attribution for most ecommerce sites, and it’s slowly taking more of its fair share of the budgets too,” says Silverwood-Cope. “SEO is definitely here to stay, and the correlation between the sites that invest in the discipline and those that succeed has never been more apparent.”

Search volume trends in various verticals from 2017 to 2020, charted by Pi Datametrics, illustrate the phenomenal growth that took place in 2020. (Image: Pi Datametrics)

“Earlier this year Google implemented a series of important changes to their surfaces across Google platforms, enabling free Shopping visibility for merchants in the US,” says Herbert Knibiehly, Chief Marketing Officer at Glopal. “In October, Google then extended these changes across the UK, EU, Asian and South American markets.

“In the context of the global health crisis, this is a significant step to support SMBs around the world and allow them to gain free online visibility while their brick and mortar business might be affected by Covid-19. It could also be seen as an attempt to become a mainstream shopping destination by offering a wider selection to consumers and countering Amazon’s dominance in the ecommerce space.”

Looking ahead to 2021, Knibiehly predicts that there will be “a continued shift from primarily searching and buying domestically to a more open and global approach to ecommerce.” He points to data collected by Glopal that indicates buyer interest for merchants’ products on Google Shopping “soared” once they launched globally. “Brexit, trade wars with China and changes in European VAT regulation will generate new friction and increased complexity.”

“Several companies will step up to build new solutions to manage global multi-lingual marketing and cross-border fulfilment at scale, giving buyers new purchasing possibilities and broader choices when searching for products online,” he goes on. “Privacy-sensitive regulations will also force the industry to find alternative tracking technologies and accelerate its transition to a “cookie-less” world.”

Andrea Polonioli, Product Manager at Coveo, believes that retailers will need to continue raising the bar when it comes to product search in 2020 in order to compete with giants like Amazon who have more resources to pour into the online experience. “If 2020 has been the year of Amazon’s explosive growth, 2021 will finally be the year of relevance for many brands and retailers,” he says. “They have been witnessing surges in online shopping, yet are still struggling to live up to the high expectations in terms of customer experience that digital giants have set. In particular, when it comes to product search, Amazon has been constantly raising the bar.

“Digital business leaders cannot afford to deliver stagnant search results any longer, and the urgent need to optimize for relevance at scale will keep pushing search higher on the investment priority list,” he adds. “But brands and retailers will [also] realise that different ways to achieve relevance are needed. Amazon is achieving it by amassing and munging data from millions of daily visitors, whereas this may not suit players of different sizes. The solution will be to invest into new and sophisticated approaches that can deliver relevant, meaningful and personalized experiences even when only a few data points are available.”

Join Coveo and Econsultancy for our next webinar, 25th February, 3pm GMT – Implementing AI and relevance: challenges and opportunities. Register here.

Using search data for success

With search data providing such a valuable insight into changing consumer trends, as mentioned earlier, there is a strong business case to be made for tracking and making use of search intelligence, as our experts argue. Pi’s Sam Silverwood-Cope highlights the treasure trove of data that many SEO departments are sitting on, which can be of great use across the business.

“In SEO departments and at platform providers like mine at Pi, we’re sitting on huge amounts of search data,” he says. “As we know, there are billions of searches every day, around intent, brand, questions and much more. This search data could be critical for multiple other marketing departments including branding, planning, corporate affairs as well as mergers and acquisition and the C-suite of major corporations.”

Businesses are also beginning to wake up to the value that search data can add to their organisations, and even hire with it in mind. “Brands, media and PR agencies have moved on from simply relying on narrow data-sets from Twitter to analyse brand sentiment, trends or reach,” says Silverwood-Cope. “I even know of one global PR agency that’s actively hiring a VP for Share of Search. They need multiple data-points within their global tech-stack and search is a major indicator to brand performance and audience demand.

“Using search alongside that of online surveys, social, SEM and more gives a more accurate triangulation of outputs. Additionally, M&A and planning teams are now using search intelligence to create business cases to penetrate new markets. These teams know little about SEO, but they’re using search data to predict future business opportunity and to penetrate new markets.”

BrightEdge’s Lemuel Park notes that, per data from BrightEdge Marketing Insights, most industries saw an increase in search interest in the six months to October 2020, compared with the same period last year. Some categories, such as pet products, exercise goods, gaming equipment, and grocery experienced an initial spike that has since levelled off – but demand still remains higher than it was pre-Covid-19. Others, such as pet adoption and garden & patio, have reportedly enjoyed higher demand throughout the year.

Meanwhile, verticals associated with discretionary spending like apparel, footwear, and beauty/cosmetics are rebounding, which indicates that some of consumers’ pre-pandemic shopping habits may be returning. Park also notes changes to the way that consumers search for goods, “looking for things like contactless delivery as part of our qualifiers.”

BrightEdge data shows an increase in search interest across the vast majority of categories in the six months leading up to October 2020. (Image: BrightEdge)

Park also illustrates how search data can be a major advantage to businesses even in categories that have taken a huge hit during the pandemic, such as travel – by highlighting where opportunities are still present. “The most successful companies and brands are those adapted quickly to changing marketing conditions,” he says. They ‘operated at the speed of search’, utilising real-time data better understand their customers, meet and serve them, and address needs with instant action in terms of the content that is created and optimized. Successful companies utilized business intelligence to understand macro demand volatility in their markets while also using valuable insights found at a very granular level.

“For example, flights are way down overall. However, city-by-city changes, city-pair changes, and timing of regional lockdowns and local quarantine requirements are what marketers need to be able to see. Similarly, interest in regional flights is growing, whereas interest in international flights is way down.  Marketers need to look at a granular level, find where the opportunities are, even in a market like travel that has been depressed.”

How travel brands can inspire confidence in the sector through content strategy and SEO

“Companies that struggled did not align their search and digital strategies in line with macro market shifts and conditions,” Park adds. “They were slower to adapt and relied on historical data, which now is not a reliable guide for planning that it has been in the past. Analytics that look at a narrow range of metrics fail to capture important Business Intelligence (BI) to capture the full extent of market shifts to inform their search strategy. That’s not enough to really see the scale and breadth of what is happening in search.”

With consumer emotions “continuing to be a significant driver of demand” into 2021, says Park, “Marketers will be challenged to gain an even more in-depth understanding of user intent to truly understand their customers and use this understanding to drive engaging experiences. To keep ahead of a myriad of market changes and consumer behavior, they will need to look towards platforms that can leverage big data on a massive scale. They will have to be able to scan the entire marketing landscape and quickly pivot to dive deep to find opportunities and understand rapidly shifting search patterns.

“As consumers increase their use of search for discovery, comparing pricing and features, social proof, and evaluation, companies that can utilize a combination of business intelligence and search insights generated by all of this activity will be the most successful. Combining business intelligence with search insights and automating time consuming and laborious tasks will become the new gold standard in SEO in 2021.”

Silverwood-Cope predicts that next year we will see “pretty much the same thing” in terms of online and search demand, “hopefully minus the lockdowns”.

“This Christmas will be the biggest online Christmas ever – and next year will be bigger still,” he says. “Companies that have never mentioned SEO before will be talking about Search Intelligence and Share of Search – such as large media and PR agencies. The search teams, with their extensive datasets, will have their rightful place at the forecasting and planning tables within corporations.

“And Google will continue to release Core updates to the delight and horror of our community. As ever – SEO is dead, long live SEO.”

A new competitor in the search arena?

Finally, in late 2020 there emerged some startling signs that Apple might be gearing up to supplant Google as the provider of search results on Apple devices in the face of increasing pressure from regulators over its current multi-billion-dollar deal with Google. While 2021 might seem like a very late stage for any new player – even one with as much clout as Apple – to enter the search market, its established share of the browser and device market gives it a significant potential foothold. As Wes Parker, Managing Director at DemandMore, notes,

“There is potential for the search landscape to change dramatically, as Google’s payments to Apple of around $10 billion per year to be Safari’s default browsers come into question with competition authorities and the Financial Times has reported that Apple has stepped up its efforts to create its own search engine.

“There have already been inroads with iOS 14 where Apple has begun to show its own search results and link directly to websites, but if Apple do create their own search engine the implications could be massive as Safari accounts for 25.4% of web browser users, which could catapult Apple to being the UK’s second biggest search engine. This could create a number of opportunities for advertisers and help them reduce their reliance on Google and Facebook.”