What Really Matters to Google in 2021

Posted by Emery Ross on Mar 4, 2021 11:00:52 AM

SEO lesson

Keeping up with Google can sometimes be tricky—the search engine giant is constantly updating in an effort to improve searcher experience. They are not always forthcoming about what sorts of changes are in the works, nor do they give away any behind-the-scenes info that illuminates why or how they evaluate any one specific thing. Instead, we get the occasional blog post about core updates or changes to Ads, in addition to Q&A sessions with people like John Mueller, Google's Search Advocate, or Danny Sullivan, Search Liaison. Rarely is anything concrete, and sometimes info feels contradictory to best practices or what SEOs actually see in their work. 

Be that as it may, most involved in the world of SEO can agree on some key factors that matter to Google, in many cases because of information that comes directly from Google. Based on recent Google Search Central blogs, interviews and Q&As by Google folks, and general info, here's what we're focusing on in SEO this year. 

Core Web Vitals

If you're plugged into SEO at all, then you've undoubtedly heard about Core Web Vitals. And, considering the emphasis Google is placing on this by making them be part of ranking signals beginning in May of 2021, it's a critical part of any ongoing SEO strategy. 

Core Web Vitals screenshot

Source

So, what are Core Web Vitals?

As you can see from the infographic above, currently Core Web Vitals are three components of measurable page performance that Google has deemed most important: loading, interactivity, and visual stability. Google says, "Each of the Core Web Vitals represents a distinct facet of the user experience, is measurable in the field, and reflects the real-world experience of a critical user-centric outcome."

In that same article, Google indicates that these will be evolving, so expect to see changes in the future, but don't stress about any future changes—just do what you can to address these metrics now. 

Finding Your Site's Web Vitals

There are three tools from Google that will help you see your site's performance:

Pagespeed Insights is a particularly helpful tool as it provides specific opportunities and estimated time savings for each metric. Some are fairly easy (if not time consuming), like compressing images, while others might require a developer or might not be an option depending on your CMS. 

How Will Web Vitals Impact Your Site?

It's hard to say for sure what exactly will happen when May rolls around and Google starts integrating this into page ranking, but Google folks have reiterated that it won't be an overnight, flip-the-switch-and-all-hell-breaks-loose affair. 

Bottom line? It's good to pay attention to your site's performance and the metrics within Core Web Vitals, and make things smoother and faster whenever possible, but it's not likely to tank your site the moment the update rolls through. Having said that, with this new set of ranking factors, we can say with certainty that this stuff matters to Google, and will continue to, so keep this technical stuff in mind as you implement SEO strategies in 2021 and beyond. 

Mobile Usability

Google's emphasis on mobile usability isn't new—mobile-first indexing has been something they've been working on for the past several years—but March 2021 is when we can expect to see mobile-first indexing for all sites.

What this means for sites is that anything only available on desktop will be dropped. Sites will be crawled only with a smartphone Googlebot, and anything that the bot can't see won't be indexed. For most sites already focusing on mobile usability, this shouldn't be a problem at all. But sites that are designed for desktop only, or that have images or any other content that appears only on desktop versions will be affected. 

A few key points:

  • Your mobile site will determine your rankings
  • Make sure your robots.txt file isn't blocking Googlebot 
  • Sites that have separate mobile sites (such as m.websiteurl) may need to switch to a single mobile-responsive site

Mobile usability is not just about mobile indexing—it's also about mobile users having a good experience, and that relates to performance, speed, and Core Web Vitals. Sites should prioritize mobile usability in their SEO strategy. 

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Search Intent

Google's quest to master the ability to discern search intent continues in 2021, and probably will forever. 

There are a few different categories of search intent: informational, navigational, and transactional. In the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines, Google identifies these (as well as a "website query," where someone is looking for a specific website, though that can fall under navigational). These are core to Google's aims to connect users with what they want, and it's useful to keep search intent in mind for SEO. 

Understanding search intent and incorporating it into your keyword and topic research can help you hone your content and attract the right users. Google isn't going to give up on searcher intent, so if you're not yet thinking about it, now's the time. 

Backlinks

Talking about backlinks is one of my least favorite SEO things. Do they matter? Absolutely. But "link building" in the way many SEOs talk about is ineffectual, time-consuming, and, often, against Google's Webmaster Guidelines. When someone wants to know why their website isn't ranking for the high volume, competitive keyword they want, some folks will just say "backlinks" as though that is the magical formula for getting on the first page of the SERPs.

However, Google does care about backlinks. They (as in, folks like John Mueller) talk about them all the time. But it's important to hear what they actually say, and what they're talking about when they talk about good backlinks. 

Here's the ideal scenario. You create a fantastic article full of unique information, maybe some interviews with thought leaders, perhaps a useful infographic. A Popular Website links to your article in its own piece about that topic, and the text that links to your site is descriptive. Congratulations! You just earned a good backlink that Google will likely value. 

It's hard, of course, for small sites to gather backlinks from big sites. That's why outreach is a key factor in any backlink strategy. If you share your content with others (whether that's through social media, or contacting other sites, or finding communities within your industry and sharing your stuff there), you have a better chance of earning valuable backlinks. 

Google has said that the number of backlinks don't matter. What matters is the quality of them. Having hundreds of links from random sites won't do much, but one link from a site with high domain authority can make a huge difference. 

Content

Shocker, right? Google still cares about content. But actually, it cares about GOOD content. 

Gone are the days of keyword stuffing, spun content, and other shady means of putting words on a website. Google algorithms are constantly refined in order to better understand both search intent and what content on any given page is about. It's more important than ever to be creating quality content that focuses on what users want and gives them a quality experience.

Here are a few important points to note about content:

Conclusion

Google cares about connecting users to the information they need, when they need it. Everything we cover about the various pieces all relate to that specific aim, so whatever approach you take to SEO should be user-centric. 

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Emery Ross

Written by Emery Ross

Emery is an inbound marketing specialist in search engine optimization and content writing. She earned a Master of Arts in rhetoric and composition from Boise State University. In her free time she writes about birds (mostly geese).

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