Every year, Google makes updates to its algorithm, ranging from hundreds of minor adjustments to a handful of major updates. In the last year, Google made core updates rewarding up-to-date and relevant content, trustworthiness, and link quality along with a multitude of other tweaks that can affect how a website or page ranks. More often, when a large or sweeping update is going to be made, Google will pre-announce to allow hosts/webmasters an opportunity to update their websites. Below, we’ll discuss what the most recent change and Google’s latest announcement mean for SEO and, more specifically, how ranking will be affected.
What changes is Google making in 2021?
While it may feel as if the year just started for many of us, Google’s made sure we feel the time pass. They’ve already completed one major update (after sneaking in one unannounced one in December) and announced another on the way. In February, Google rolled out passage-based ranking, which was previously announced in October 2020. This brings forth a focus on excerpts from a page, as Google flexes its ability to index and rank based upon specific, relevant excerpts. And Google, never one to take a beat to relax, has announced a coming page experience ranking signal for May. So, what do these updates fully entail?
Completed: Passage-based ranking (February 2021)
First announced last October, Google enhanced its ability to find and display specific passages within a webpage. But it’s important to note that this is not a change in how they index a page. Google will still fully index a webpage, but as a result of passage-based ranking will now pull the relevant excerpts from that indexed page to answer a given query. It’s possible the answer to a question or the pertinent information for a query is buried deep in one single sentence on a page; this allows Google to put that information front and center for a user, regardless of if the rest of the page is relevant or not to the topic — although this would not be the norm. Important to note is that this is different than Featured Snippets in which the entire indexed page would be relevant to the query and then the most relevant excerpt from the page would be featured.
So, what does that change really mean for future content and SEO efforts? Establishing a content hierarchy while utilizing proper headings (H2s and H3s) will be more important now, with specific topics needing to cover specific questions and smaller subheadings becoming key to answering those questions. Longform content on one main topic that happens to cover a lot of smaller subtopics may end up placing well in rankings for subtopics, despite the fact the entire page is more dedicated to a different focus. This could mean Google ends up rewriting meta descriptions more often (currently, they rewrite 63% to better match queries).
Coming soon: page experience ranking signals (May 2021)
In May, Google will roll out a new page experience ranking signal. This will elevate user experience as a ranking factor by combining Core Web Vitals and other UX-related metrics. Specifically, Core Web Vitals — which measure key aspects like page load time, interactivity, and stability — will be used alongside signals like HTTPS security, mobile friendliness, and safe browsing to determine rank.
The forthcoming updates place a large emphasis on the user experience, and if a page falls short, then it risks the ability to appear in organic search. Google has stated that if a website adheres to these new standards, visitors are 24% less likely to abandon the site. So, while a stronger focus on user accessibility and friendliness may cause some ripples of changes in your website, you can rest assured that taking the time to make those updates will be worth it.
What’s our take on the Google Algorithm Updates?
Google is constantly making changes to its algorithm; it’s just par for the course in the world of SEO. These changes affect how digital marketers prioritize SEO efforts, adjust site architecture and page layout, and attack content development and optimization. Staying current on algorithm shifts makes it possible to proactively update websites and minimize issues with site performance.
The latest batch of announcements signal two primary conclusions:
Robust and informative long-form content is more important than ever. Now is not the time to shrink the volume of content on a site; it’s the time to enhance it. We’ve seen the content needle pointing in this direction for years, and passage-based ranking is just the latest example of how large a focus Google is placing on it. For that reason, this likely won’t trigger a huge shift in strategy for most brands, but it will act as an additional proof point in conversations around the importance of quality content.
Onsite user experience is finally becoming a ranking factor. Again, this is something Google has consistently been working toward, but the forthcoming May updates make investing in user experience unavoidable. To mitigate decreases in rank, now is the time for brands to take a hard look at their website and optimize related elements (page load time, mobile friendliness, etc.) accordingly.
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