2020 has been an unprecedented year for SEO. During this year we got news of two major upcoming updates to Google search called the Page Experience and the AMP update.
With Google making all these adjustments to its search algorithm throughout the years, it can be difficult to keep your SEO strategy up to date. That's why it's important to always understand each of these updates and read between the lines of what Google wants out of your content.
That way, you're optimizing for tomorrow, not just today.
In summary, we think there will be two types of SEO ranking factors you need to focus on for the coming year:
1. Page and User Experience
2. Creating Quality Content
In this article, we'll explain why we think these two are the most important factors for SEO, and how it is supported by the major search ranking updates from Google so you can keep up your SEO game in 2021 and beyond.
Google doubled down on user experiences this year with the introduction of 2020 Core Web Vitals.
Before we dive into what these vitals are, we need to understand why Google is making this update.
In Google's internal studies, they found that page experience leads to improved user preference.
This update is in line with user experience research that goes back to 2014. It has been known for a while that optimizing the loading speed of your webpages is an important factor for driving conversions.
In a study by Cloudflare, a large CDN provider, the time it takes for your page to load can have a significant effect on your conversion rate, with pages that take more than 2.4 seconds to load dropping in conversion rate from 1.9% to 0.6%.
Other companies have also found similar user behavior. For example, Walmart found that for every 1-second improvement in page load time, conversions increased by 2%.
This simply tells us that even if it weren't for SEO ranking, you should be trying to improve your page experience. A well-designed website, by itself, is an important factor in getting conversions as it puts you in a position to attract more customers to increase your sales.
This simple insight has led many webmasters to optimize for page speed. While page speed is a crucial component of having a great page experience, Google's new Core Web Vitals takes a more holistic look at your page experience.
So what are Core Web Vitals and how can we optimize for them?
It turns out page experience is more than just the time it takes for your page to load. In fact, we have to ask ourselves - what does it mean for a page to load? Is it when the spinner on Chrome stops turning or is it when the last byte of information is received by your computer from the webserver?
With all these questions, measuring the quality of a website's user experience is not an easy task. There are many factors that can affect the user's experience on a website, such as how well the website loads, how easy it is to use, how the website looks, and how well it works.
Ultimately, we want to optimize for a better user experience. That is, unfortunately, hard to quantify as a hard metric. That's where Core Web Vital comes in to save the day.
Core Web metrics are based on real-world, user-centered metrics. These metrics measure the performance of your website. It is based on three primary metrics:
When it comes to loading webpages, there are stages of loading rather than everything appearing at once. The LCP metric allows Google to see at what point does the "main content" of the page load.
By doing so, Google can understand the "perceived page loading speed" because it measures when the most important aspect of your webpage is visible to the user.
The LCP is different for most websites and could be an image, text, or both. For Google.com, the LCP is the first few search results that appear after you type in a query. For Instagram.com, it's likely the first few images on your newsfeed.
By figuring out and optimizing your LCP, you can send positive ranking signals to Google by saying "look, users who come to our site get to see what they came for in less than 1 second".
The FID is much easier to understand than LCP. The First Input Delay just measures the amount of time it takes for a webpage to respond to a user's first interaction (click or tap).
This ranking signal tells Google that your site is responsive and easy to navigate.
As we said earlier, Google is paying much more attention to user experience and FID is one metric that determines that.
Building onto our understanding that webpages load in stages, sometimes a webpage can look radically different half-way through loading vs being fully loaded.
You may have noticed this before when a page suddenly shifts when an image is loaded late or the background loads while you're already reading the content.
Cumulative Layout Shift measures these differences.
It is simply the measure of how much content jumps when the page loads (mainly visual content).
These are the main metrics, but there are also additional metrics such as mobile-friendliness, and ensuring you have an HTTPS connection.
Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) is an important development from Google since 2017. The goal of AMP is to make it easier for publishers to load their websites on mobile devices, which are often slow and clunky on desktop computers.
While AMP isn't a direct ranking factor itself, having AMP integrated could give you better Core Web Vitals, which indirectly leads to higher rankings in search results.
AMP's main update here is not the introduction of AMP itself, but rather, what is changing is that now your AMP pages will compete with regular pages for the Top Stories section in Google. So AMP has become more important.
The good news is that, if you have an AMP page, it will probably do very well in terms of page performance metrics. But this does not mean that every AMP page is going to have great page performance metrics.
While it's too early to say how much of an impact Core Web Vitals will have on your SEO, it's something to keep in mind when building your website. Google has given us SEOs until the end of the year (due to COVID) to make sure that all of our websites are ready for the ranking update that's coming.
Our advice to those who want to prepare for 2021 is to first focus on Core Web Vitals, since it will have a broader impact than AMP. AMP currently has more uncertainty and may not be a great return on investment.
One thing you can do right now to improve your page experience is to use tools like Page Speed Insights. At Jenni, we've optimized our landing page and blogs with this tool and found that it helps with our ranking to certain extents.
Page Speed Insights is powered by Lighthouse, a suite of performance tools, which are designed to help you identify bottlenecks in your website. The performance recommendations can be quite technical, so if you're not comfortable with that, you may want to hire a professional web developer to optimize your page.
Overall, we've noticed that the central theme from Google over the years is the emphasis on creating better user experiences - with Google's introduction of Material Design and advocate for design thinking, we think that staying on top of good UX will pay off in the long run.
At the end of the day, if you want to increase your conversions, you might as well optimize for what Google thinks will give you more conversions to hit two birds with one stone.
While these updates will certainly move some sites on the SERP, if your content is of high quality and relevant, you will survive these updates.
Why is that? Well, if we look at the trend of Google's past updates, it reveals that Google still cares the most about quality content. This has been reiterated time and time again by Google.
Here are two Google updates in the past years that support this trend.
Google has been advocating for three principles when creating SEO content: Expertise, Authority, and Trust (EAT) since its update in August 2018.
It's Google's way to reduce the chance of low-quality or factually incorrect search results returned to the searcher and telling us content creators what types of content we should be producing.
That means first and foremost your content has to contain true information and it must provide value. Don't try to create spam or fake news.
To obtain authority you need links from other authoritative websites. Cite your sources so it demonstrates that your content is supported and connected with your industry at large.
Since the early days of trying to do SEO, "keyword optimization" has been the main lingo spoken about by SEOs. Looking at the trends at Google, semantics is becoming increasingly important as a ranking factor, while keywords are becoming less relevant.
That is not to say that keywords are irrelevant. They still are - but it's no longer about optimizing your content to have a keyword used exactly 17 times, Google is smarter than that.
The honest truth is that keywords are very brittle as a ranking factor and they're too easy for SEOs to game without creating quality content. Words, when out of context, can mean very different things.
That's a mouthful - but you don't need to know exactly the inner workings of BERT to do SEO. All you need to know is that it's an AI system that can be used to encode text in a way that takes the meaning/semantics of the text into account. That's where it got the name "Encoder Representations".
And if you look at the trend, in late 2019 Google applied BERT to 1 in 10 queries, but now almost every English search query uses BERT. This tells us that semantics is going to be increasingly important in the coming decade.
That means focusing on quality content will become more important than the other factors.
In terms of updating your SEO strategy to the latest updates, we generally recommend the 80-20 principle. Invest some effort in improving your user experience, but, above all, take your time making great content.
All SEO ranking factors come after creating quality content on your site. Plus, focusing on great content simultaneously builds your online reputation.
If you want to write quality content quickly that provides expertise, authority, and trust, you can check out our content editor Jenni. We use AI (with similar tech to BERT) to help you find insightful content ideas so you can quickly build your next high ranking article.