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Lessons Learned from 2021 – RankUp with Ben, Edd and Liv

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2021 was a big year for SEO. We had multiple algorithm updates, Core Web Vitals became a ranking factor, SERP layouts changed, Google messed around with title tags…the list goes on.

In this episode, RankUp’s regular hosts Ben Garry, Olivia-Mae Foong and Edd Wilson sat down to break down 2021 and look ahead to 2022.

But we didn’t want to give you a wooly new year episode that just rehashed what you already knew from working in SEO last year. Instead, we focused on the practical tips that came out of last year’s changes, and where you should be focusing if you want to see success in 2022.

To listen to the full episode you can click the player at the top of this page or go to your podcast app of choice, or you can read highlights of the conversation below.

Quick round of of big SEO headlines from 2021

Ben: We had the Page Experience update in the first half of the year, as well as the June 2021 and July 2021 core updates in a short space of time. It was a very difficult period for us to know exactly what was going on or where our sites would end up.

We also saw Google moving away from AMP pages for mobile optimisation, there was a big storm for a few weeks around Google rewriting title tags, as well as layout changes in search, such as a skew towards more visual results.

And, while E-A-T (expertise, authority, trust) has been important for organic performance for a few years now, we saw Google revise its Quality Rater Guidelines and expand its scope for what is considered YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) content, which is particularly under the microscope when it comes to quality.

Later in the year, we also had news of another broad core algorithm update in the run-up to Black Friday – a real treat for SEOs working on ecommerce sites – and a product review update in December that targeted product review and comparison articles, especially those in the affiliate sector.

Be kind to yourself when big news breaks

Liv: Though we do need to mention how many algorithm updates there were in 2021, we also need to think about how it affected the people working in our industry.

Typically, news of an update would break and you’d go to Twitter and see loads of memes or people panicking. When you’ve been in the industry a little while you know that a lot of it is just joking, but we don’t think about newcomers to the industry – people who perhaps started remotely during the pandemic –  and how reactions like this could be affecting their work-life balance or mental wellbeing in general.

We need to pay attention to these updates but there’s no use in panicking when we can only control what we can control. As SEOs working agency-side, all we can do is inform our clients and let them know that we’ll be tracking performance. You want to be the first person to inform your client if something does change, but ultimately there’s not much more you can do.

Edd: The thing that helps me is not reacting too quickly. It can cause a lot of stress when you see your website dipping, and it makes you want to rush into changes, but algorithm updates are actually rolled out over a three to four week period.

I’ve seen websites’ traffic dip in that time, only to go on to return without any changes shortly after. It’s important to monitor your data during that period and keep stakeholders informed, but don’t rush into decisions. I would only start to build an action plan after that initial setup period for the algorithm update.

Liv: When people ask for advice on what they should be doing, we wouldn’t suggest implementing big changes around the time of an update because you won’t be able to work out whether your change has caused swings, or if it’s fluctuation following the update.

And whenever you see Google tweet about these updates, they always link back to the same blog that’s reiterating good practice SEO and going back to the fundamentals.

What can we learn from the Page Experience update?

Edd: There were big expectations for this update. When it went live, we had a month or two of the rollout, but we didn’t see much of a shift. We’ve analysed websites across the board, including producing a report on publisher sites to analyse the results, but I would only now advise investment in this area if you’re in a significantly bad place, with really low scores.

I would always advise people to use the actual CRuX (Chrome user experience) data so that you can understand what real users were experiencing for the different Core Web Vitals metrics. But actually, I’ve mostly had feedback from people who invested in this area from an average starting point that they saw no returns from it.

Also, for enterprise websites with a huge tech stack, scoring highly on these metrics is unrealistic. There’s so much that you would need to invest in. I’ve seen websites completely tear up their whole infrastructure just to move the needle slightly into the green.

I do think it’s an important area to assess and monitor, but I wouldn’t invest huge resources just to nudge the needle. Review your CRuX data and make sure that your users are having a good experience. If it’s okay, that’s fine and you can just improve over time. I certainly wouldn’t build my strategy around shifting needles slightly into the green.

What should we look out for in 2022?

SERP changes

Liv: We’ve seen infinite scroll in the US, but I imagine that we’ll see it rolled out further afield this year. It will be really interesting to see how it’s going to affect click through rate, which could be a really nice thing to share with clients.

A lot of the time, when we talk about SEO we’re only really looking at page 1. We’ll still need to look at ranking positions, but we might be able to change how we look at our reporting and performance from slightly lower ranks.

And regarding Google editing title tags, we shouldn’t get too stressed about these sorts of changes. You just need to be strategic in how you deal with them. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket by hoping that sharp title tag targeting will be enough to rank well – there’s a lot more to consider if you want to see your websites improve.

Edd: I think we’ll also see more visual SERPs, which started as a trend in 2021. I’ve certainly seen this more in the UK when searching for product-based terms, especially in the home and garden space.

In the next few years, I think we’ll see a rise in more visual SERPs to help buyers navigate through products, rather than text, with more product images appearing directly in the SERPs.

Savvy companies will be able to create multimedia content, which Google will be able to understand more thoroughly. I think it’ll be wise to invest in creative content – not just text, but supporting it with audio, visual or video content.

The rise of AI content

Edd: I think AI content will continue to rise. It might not see a lot of SEO success, but I think more tools will come out to make it easier to generate.

Ben: Yes, and I may not like it, but I actually think that 2022 will be a year when we start to see AI content appearing in search results as something we need to compete against. 2022 may be too early for that to be widespread, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some of it.

Winning with search intent analysis

Ben: If 2021 was the year where everyone because aware of search intent and every SEO tool started rolling out features for it, 2022 is maybe where we start to see more nuance.

There’s a lot of ground to be gained at the moment by not just taking the intent labels that tools can give you, but to see that search intent is more nuanced and can even change over time, which is something that Rejoice spoke about in the last episode.

Search intent can change, and you can make gains from going back and optimising content that you’ve already created when you recognise that something has shifted. It’s also important to recognise that, in many cases, search intent is more complex than the single label that a tool will give you. There are search results that include guides, comparison pages and product pages all in one SERP.

You’ll start to see more value if you do your research to see where your business can offer something unique and valuable in that space, as long as it’s still consistent with what a searcher may realistically be looking for.

I think that there’s a lot of room for people who put the time into work like this to see some great results from it.

Join the conversation

To hear all of the content from our 2021 wrap and 2022 preview, listen to the podcast episode using the player at the top of this page, or find the RankUp SEO Podcast channel on your podcast app of choice.

We’ll be back in the new year with a new episode of the RankUp podcast. In the meantime, you can find the RankUp team on Twitter at @BenJGarry, @EddJTW and @seoliviamae.

If you’re interested in being a guest on the show, please reach out to us on Twitter or via email.

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