9 SEO Experts on 2020’s Impact and SEO Priorities for 2021, Part One

Working at Wellspring Digital with an SEO OG, Karl Hindle, has given me access to some of the smartest people in SEO. I’ve been able to interview a few of them already, namely Lily Ray, Duane Forrester, Jim Hedger, and Tim Capper. And more are on their way.

2020 was a year of upheaval, to put it mildly. Marketing your business has become even more challenging in these turbulent times, and SEO is not any different.

So, I thought I would ask some of my favorite SEOs, including many friends of Wellspring Digital, their thoughts on SEO in 2020 and what’s in store for SEO in 2021. I asked these SEOs only two questions…

  1. In what significant ways has the global pandemic changed SEO?
  2. What should be the top SEO priorities for marketers in 2021?

The SEO Experts

So, who did I ask?

  1. Lily Ray, Director of SEO for Path Interactive
  2. Duane Forrester, VP of Industry Insights at Yext
  3. David Harry, Owner, and Sifu at SEO Training Dojo
  4. Doc Sheldon, Founder/Owner at Intrinsic Value SEO
  5. Omi Sido, Senior Technical SEO at Canon Europe
  6. Jim Hedger, Owner of Digital Always Media and Co-Host of Webcology
  7. Dave Davies, Owner of Beanstalk Internet Marketing and Co-Host of Webcology
  8. Barry Schwartz, President of RustyBrick, Inc., and Editor at Search Engine Roundtable
  9. Tim Capper, SEO Director at Online Ownership and GMB Expert

These SEOs gave me quite a bit of information to work with, so I will be doing this in segments as a three-part series. Up first is Lily Ray, Duane Forrester, and David Harry.

The COVID-19 Pandemic’s Impact on SEO

The first question I asked these three was “In what significant ways has the global pandemic changed SEO?” We’ll start with Lily…

Lily Ray on the Pandemic’s SEO Impact

Google’s Shift to High Authority Websites

Even before coronavirus, Google started to implement changes to its algorithms that prioritize authoritativeness over other factors like recency or exact-match wording during times of crisis.

2020 put those changes to the test, and the results were clear: across a variety of categories, but particularly with regard to health keywords and news, high-authority websites dominated the search results throughout 2020.

Websites like the CDC, the WHO, the FDA, New York Times and other trusted institutions saw massive increases in visibility as Google surfaced the most trusted content possible during a global crisis.

Even in light of rampant misinformation about coronavirus circulating online – especially on social media platforms – Google’s algorithms largely did a good job of not surfacing misinformation, despite bad actors’ efforts to propagate that content.

Google’s Focus on E-A-T for YMYL

While the coronavirus pandemic won’t last forever, 2020 served as a year for Google to ensure that it was doing all it could to disseminate trustworthy information and reduce misinformation and fake news in the search results.

This is consistent with Google’s efforts to increase the visibility of sites with strong E-A-T across a variety of YMYL (Your Money, Your Life) categories that we’ve seen from Google in recent years.

While we may not see such a huge emphasis on ranking high authority sites above all else when the pandemic is over (which I believe we are starting to see a glimpse of, as of the December 2020 core update), Google will likely continue focusing on E-A-T for YMYL and controversial queries, especially during breaking news events.

Duane Forrester on the Pandemic’s SEO Impact

This pandemic has brought forth a number of changes impacting the work and daily lives of SEOs:

A Stronger Focus on Digital

Probably most profoundly, this global situation has brought digital firmly to the forefront of almost all businesses and companies worldwide. Most companies had a digital team before this, but internally, the focus on their work has ramped up.

This means more money to back programs, increased oversight and involvement with other internal teams, and definitely more oversight in terms of results a digital program can drive.

In short, everything when online, SEOs were in the spotlight and expected to perform. If the general consumer didn’t know what SEO, DTC, and TikTok were before the pandemic, they certainly do now.

Coronavirus Put a Spotlight on Local SEO

Local took on a much more important focus. And since a lot of people couldn’t leave their own homes for extended periods, even Amazon, it could be argued, became ‘local” – they got you what you wanted, to your doorstep.

During this pandemic, in fact, Amazon has been actively expanding their footprints into new communities nationwide to speed delivery and blanket the country with deeper coverage.

But true local became the centerpiece for digital marketers in some ways. Take out, to-go, takeaway, delivery, curbside, and so many more phrases became much more important to rank for.

The COVID-19 Digital Marketing Reset

And that was only really important after you surfaced content explaining how your business was made safe for consumers to visit.

Consumers wanted to know your business was safe to visit. And if you didn’t have content to explain how they were safe, you were at a distinct disadvantage.

“Actual SEOs” Had a Busy 2020

Whether it was creating content or getting it live, getting it ranked and still being able to direct site visitors toward a funnel of some kind, SEOs globally were extremely busy this past year.

In some ways, 2020 was a test of if you were, or were not, an actual SEO. Taking a discounted “training program” and getting a “decree” stating you’re an SEO has always been a shortcut to starting a career as an SEO.

And in normal times, that might work, allowing you to learn-as-you-grow. 2020 was a hard reminder that SEO is multi-faceted, experience definitely matters and beyond knowing SEO, success comes from being able to work across teams, understanding all the various needs a business has.

Good SEOs were in massive demand, often having a back-log of business waiting for a turn to employ them. In-house teams were standing in fresh spotlights and truly able to focus disparate resources to help their programs succeed.

David Harry (the Gypsy) on the Pandemic’s SEO Impact

Small Business, The Pandemic, and Local SEO

Well on its face that’s an easy one. Back when this all began the internet was the equalizer. A small business could compete with the big boys. We could outrank the corps with a small business because they didn’t see the internet as viable. So, it was the wild west.

Once they caught on they overpowered the little guys (small businesses) with huge investments in SEO. The advantage was gone.

The pandemic forced small businesses to once again look at the internet and by extension, SEO, as something they needed to do. Thanks to localization (aka Google My Business) as part of any viable business plan.

Sadly, it’s probably a good thing. In my estimation, it’s a good thing. That and having a web presence in general. I could go on, but you get the idea…

Top SEO Priorities for Marketers in 2021

OK, same three SEOs, different question…

What should be the top SEO priorities for marketers in 2021? Again, we’ll start with Lily Ray…

Lily Ray’s Top SEO Priorities for Marketers in 2021

Mobile UX Will Matter More and More

Beyond the emphasis on E-A-T, SEOs should focus on presenting a clean, uncluttered, highly usable and trustworthy experience on their sites – especially on mobile devices.

Given that mobile-first indexing will be fully rolled out in 2021, plus Google’s new Core Web Vital metrics (which focus primarily on mobile), SEOs should adapt their strategies to ensure that the work they are doing to optimize sites focuses on mobile experience, performance, and interactivity.

This means making use of features like accordions, jumplinks, FAQ schema, and other techniques to make content easy to use and navigate on mobile devices.

Clean Up the Old SEO Clutter

SEOs should also work to reduce clutter and underperforming content in the search results; many sites have been around for 15 or 20 years at this point, and have thousands of URLs indexed that don’t receive any traffic or visibility.

Reducing the amount of low-quality content that your site adds to Google’s index can help the remaining indexed content to perform even better.

Duane Forrester’s Top SEO Priorities for Marketers in 2021

There are several areas marketers need to conquer in 2021 and beyond:

Google’s Core Web Vitals

Get your technical houses in order. We are rapidly approaching a point where this will start making a profound difference. Google’s focus on Core Web Vitals (CWV) signals a clear intent to focus on “consumer user experiences.”

And while humans can generally easily understand what this means, teaching machines is much more difficult. This is why there are so many variables being tracked with CWV.

Every metric teaches the systems a different dimension that traces back to satisfaction levels for people. And lest you think CWV is THE only thing to focus on, it’s only a single subset that requires attention.

Mobile, UX, Intent-Matching, and Answers

But let’s be clear here, mobile, UX, intent-matching, and answers are paramount focal points for 2021.

The world doesn’t need 1.4 million results for a query. It needs the most accurate answer for each question. That’s pretty subjective, I’ll grant you, but you get the general idea. People want answers, not a list of possible answers.

That’s the focus for the major search engines, and when people engage on their pages, the engine generates revenue from the ads. So the best outcome for a search engine is that people continue to come back to their pages and that long list of possible answers facilitates this.

A customer clicks on a link, visits a website for a few seconds, comes back to the search engine, clicks another link, and so on. More chance to get engagement on their ads, and less chance for you to keep that person on your own website.

In 2021, lowering your bounce rate is going to be more important. What if you could keep 20% more of your visitors from a search engine? And what if you could see 25%+ click rates from them on only your content? Could you extract value from those deeper, longer engagements?

Machine Learning and New Data Sources to Build On

Marketers are going to need new sources of data to build decisions on. Keyword research is being squeezed and it’s harder to find deeper, detailed data within the mix.

And we’ve known for years about the need to up-level keyword research to ‘topic research”, and from there, build content trees that answer questions directly related to all facets of a topic. So finding more data will require new approaches to capturing that data.

For most businesses, their own site search can function to help uncover reams of untapped insights. But one-trick-pony database lookup systems aren’t the answer.

The answer is machine-learning powered systems built to think like modern search engines, using the same techniques, technologies, and deployments. By making your website the clearest source of truth for a topic, you will claim more engagement time.

David Harry’s Top SEO Priorities for Marketers in 2021

Next Verse, Same as the First: Strategy!

That one has never changed. It’s strategy. We can talk links, content, GMB until we’re blue in the face. But marketing and by extension internet marketing and SEO isn’t something that lives in isolation.

Budgets are finite. I don’t believe in putting all of one’s eggs in a single basket. So, for me as always, the priority should be about an effective use of the SEO budget and ensuring the other elements are there to support the SEO.

If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it? SEO requires a strong online presence (social, PR, etc) and even an offline presence.

Sure, I can say that content is important. But without the rest of the support system, it generally falls short.

So, I may be biased, but get your house in order. Work with the devs to make sure that the on-site technical issues are spot on. Then work with the rest of the marketing teams to get the rest of the strategy out there.

Who Is Next in Line?

So, there you have it from three unique SEO perspectives. Thanks again to Lily Ray, Duane Forrester, and David Harry for providing such great insight into these topics.

Next up is Doc Sheldon, Omi Sido, and Jim Hedger. Check it out! Part Three is now live as well.

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Jon-Mikel Bailey is the Chief Development and Marketing Officer for Wellspring Digital, a full-service digital marketing firm specializing in SEO, PPC, Marketing Automation, and Content Marketing. He has been published in MarketingProfs, Business2Community, SpinSucks, {Grow}, Social Media Today, and more. He has spoken at the Digital Summit Series, MarketingProfs, ITE, Grant Thornton, and others.

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