SEO 2021 in review: Endless updates, title rewrites, GMB becomes GBP and more
Despite facing a still-raging pandemic and a slew of updates, SEOs rose to the challenge. Here’s our recap of the year’s most important SEO stories and news.
In 2021, SEOs faced a flurry of Google updates (including the highly anticipated yet possibly-overhyped Page Experience update), new search results page features like continuous scrolling and countless other updates that could potentially affect visibility for their brands — all while operating amid the second year of the COVID pandemic.
From core updates and title change fiascos to improved shopping options and new ways of tracking data, this year was full of surprises. Here’s our look back at the most impactful SEO news, tactics and tools of 2021.
Google algorithm updates
Core updates. Google released three major core updates — one in June, one in July and one in November. The first caused a lot of search volatility, with tools like MozCast reaching a temperature of 107.3°F on June 3. The July update continued this spike until it all died down around July 12.
On November 17, Google announced a third, somewhat surprising core update, just days before the Thanksgiving holiday, Black Friday and Cyber Monday. According to many tracking tools, this update had higher volatility than June and July’s. Due to the speedy rollout and widespread ranking shifts, many SEOs rightfully wondered why Google chose this time of year to release such a large update.
Page title rewrites. Of all the algorithm updates from this past year, the changes to Google’s page title rewrites in the search engine results pages (SERPs) were the most controversial. Marketers began noticing significant changes to their SERP titles around mid-August.
Following a slew of feedback claiming huge decreases in result quality, Google rolled back some of these updates later in September. But many sites still experienced major ramifications in the following months, including our own properties.
Spam updates. Google released a number of major spam updates throughout the year. The first set rolled out on June 23 and June 28, although there wasn’t much of a noticeable impact on rankings.
The second update, released on July 28, targeted link spam. Rather than penalizing sites with bad links, Google stated that it focused on ignoring those signals.
Product reviews updates. This year, Google launched two updates to help combat spam and/or thin product reviews. The first update was released in April and the follow-up came in December. Both of these were designed to prioritize reviews with in-depth research, including “content written by experts or enthusiasts who know the topic well.”
Passage indexing. Google introduced passage indexing, an algorithm tweak that ranks segmented pieces of content on a page, to the SERPs in early February. Google now displays these passages as featured snippets and links users to that particular part of the page.
The year in SEO news
The SERP. Google added an “about this result” box to the SERP in February, giving searchers more information about their results. It expanded this feature in July.
In a similar fashion, Microsoft Bing launched Page Insights in November, which features a lightbulb icon next to each search result that gives searchers more details about them.
Google also rolled out continuous scroll on mobile search in October, which seemed like it would encourage more clicks on results past page one. SEOs are still measuring what impact this change has had on CTR.
In November, the search company added features designed to give more visibility to local news content.
On the Microsoft side, Bing Search gained a new interface to make its results more appealing, including an infographic-like search panel and expandable search carousels. It also introduced “Make Every feature Binary” (MEB), a new algorithm model designed to help improve search relevance. And in October, the company released IndexNow, a cross-search engine collaboration with Yandex to set a protocol that would index any new content instantly.
COVID-related updates. As many marketers know, the pandemic has spurred on more interest in SEO as businesses search for new ways to connect with customers. This interest in SEO has remained high over the past year, but there were a number of additional trends. These included an increase in searches for local businesses and pandemic-focused topics.
In April Google announced that additional COVID-related travel advisory information would be shown in Google Search to assist with trip planning. It also expanded its Explore section for its travel site.
In December, Google began rolling out a search feature that lets users see if a doctor or healthcare facility takes their insurance — no doubt spurred on by the increased number of COVID cases worsened by holiday gatherings and the Omicron variant.
Yelp introduced “Proof of vaccination required” and “Staff fully vaccinated” profile attributes. It also added a health and safety measures community feedback feature to help consumers learn more about local businesses’ health and safety compliance. And, to help prevent customer confusion, it added a virtual restaurant attribute.
SEO documentation. Google published updates to its search documentation throughout the past year, though some of those changes weren’t officially announced.
The company quietly published new manual actions targeting News and Discover penalties in February. In June, Google offered an SEO guide to address HTTP status codes, network issues and DNS errors. And in October, it refreshed its search quality guidelines to expand on the concepts of YMYL content and lowest-quality content.
Microsft also published a list of Bingbot IP addresses in November to better alert users when it was crawling their sites.
Diversity and inclusion. In response to the growing amount of hateful rhetoric and attacks against people of color, women, and other minority groups, industry leaders — both search professionals and brands — made pushes for change.
Google announced in February that it would be changing its policies toward diversity research, following its questionable firing of AI ethicist Timnit Gebru. Due to criticism of how the situation played out, the company said it would tie business goals more closely to inclusivity and diversity — and change how it handles employee exits.
In April, Yelp rolled out an Asian-owned business profile attribute in response to the recent rise in anti-Asian violence and xenophobia. Later, in May, the company introduced an LGBTQ-owned attribute option to celebrate pride month.
Third Door Media (the parent company of Search Engine Land and SMX) held the second annual Search Engine Land Award for Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Search Marketing. The previous winner, Areej AbuAli, served as a judge, with Rejoice Ojiaku and hasOptimization earning the accolade in 2021.
We also put together a list of inclusive marketing resources to help marketers highlight their brand values. Besides being the right thing to do, becoming a more inclusive organization has been shown to be better for your brand.
Image and YouTube. In February, Google provided documentation on image SEO best practices. The advice was focused primarily on ranking well in Google Images, but marketers can apply many of the suggestions to image ranking in general.
YouTube, seeking to assist creators with their reach, added video chapter previews and auto-translate captions. And in December, it launched a new feature that automatically linked to places mentioned in videos, giving users even more context.
Structured data. In May, Schema.org launched its schema markup validator tool in response to Google deprecating its structured data tool. It’s for more “general purpose” use than Google’s Rich Results tool.
Industry and legal news. After postponing the mobile-first indexing deadline — first moving it from September 2020 to March 2021 — Google decided to leave the deadline open-ended. It said that there are still many sites not ready to shift over due to unexpected challenges they’re facing.
Mozilla tested Bing as the default search engine for 1% of Firefox users, leading many SEOs to reconsider the importance of optimization for non-Google search engines.
DuckDuckGo pushed past 100 million searches in a single day on January 11, showing how important private search experiences are to a growing number of users. And in December, the company announced that it’s working on a desktop browser, further signaling their support for greater privacy in search.
The battle for data privacy continued throughout 2021 with additional legal actions brought against Google. On March 12, a California judge ruled that Google must face a lawsuit claiming it tracks users in Incognito mode. In response, Google released a court filing saying that it makes clear that “Incognito” does not mean “invisible.” And in November, Google managed to win a dismissal of the U.K. Top Court’s data privacy suit relating to iPhone users.
Google’s run-ins with policy hit issues across the board. In October, the tech giant faced allegations from 17 state attorneys claiming it throttled non-AMP ads to give AMP a boost. This, along with Google’s decision to remove the AMP requirement from Top Stories, led many publishers to reconsider using the format.
Google was also fined €500 million ($589 million) by the French Competition Authority for failing to comply with negotiations with news outlets. Later, it lost a key appeal against the EU’s €2.4 billion ($2.8 billion) fine against the company from 2017, which found that Google broke an antitrust law in how it promoted its search engine regarding shopping.
In December, the company came under investigation for alleged harassment and discrimination against Black female workers. The report said the regulator began looking into the company’s practices after formal complaints.
Reporting, analytics and tools
Google Search Console (GSC). In April, Google released a pilot tool in Search Console that allowed users to report indexing issues; it was fully rolled out in August. Google also added practice problem rich results data, providing more insights for education content publishers. We also saw an upgrade to the AMP debugging section, which now links users to the AMP page experience guide.
To improve accessibility and user experience, Google introduced a new design for Search Console in November (shown below).
On December 14, the Review Snippets rich results report was updated, reducing the number of review objects; namely, the top-level schema.org/Rating objects.
Google Analytics 4. Google announced changes to Google Analytics 4 that included integration with Search Console, new machine learning models and data-driven attribution features. Interestingly, the language in this update suggests that the company may be considering sunsetting Universal Analytics in the not-too-distant future.
Google also unveiled a new version of Analytics 360, the company’s suite of products designed for enterprise-level companies, using Analytics 4 as its foundation.
Bing Webmaster Tools. Microsoft released its Bing content submission API to all users. Unlike its URL submission API, this version lets users submit content, images and HTML to the index as well.
Google Question Hub. In January, Google opened up its Question Hub for US-based publishers — it’s been available to users in India, Indonesia and Nigeria since 2018. The tool “enables creators to create richer content by leveraging unanswered questions,” according to Google.
Retail and e-commerce
In April, Google began enforcing its policy requiring merchants to show the actual price of items throughout the entire checkout phase. The company also updated Google Merchant Center’s product data specification requirements to encourage optimized Google Shopping ads and organic listings.
Google Shopping and WooCommerce partnered together in June to help retailers show their listings across Google. The search engine also released an e-commerce SEO guide to help improve retail sites’ search visibility. These updates reflected the changing landscape of retail due to COVID-19.
In an effort to put more offers in front of users, Google added a “Deals” feed to the Shopping tab and Merchant Center. It also began showing retailers when their items were eligible for badges. And, in order to show relative visibility and other metrics, Google provided Merchant Center users with a relative visibility report.
In November, Bing Shopping introduced customer-focused tabs to help shoppers find what they were looking for in one place. This update also made it easier for retailers to list their products. And later in December, Microsoft Bing launched the Ethical Shopping hub in the UK, which helps users shop for eco-friendly and fair-trade fashion items.
Microsoft also announced a partnership with Shopify to integrate Bing Shopping with the retail platform, which rolled out in December.
Google Business Profile (formerly Google My Business). Early in the year, Google released a tool to help businesses better manage reviews, enabling business owners to monitor the status of reviews they’ve flagged.
On November 4, Google announced it would be renaming Google My Business to Google Business Profile. Along with this update, the company released new features that would give marketers and business owners more control over their accounts, which include:
- Claiming and verifying Google Business Profiles directly in Google Search and Google Maps;
- Call history launching in the U.S. and Canada;
- Messaging directly from Google Search; and
- Message read receipts being controlled within Search and Maps.
Maps. The importance of local maps has only increased throughout the past year. We saw a deeper integration between these and local business profiles across the board.
Google Maps started showing price ranges for U.S. restaurants, adding to a rollout of new features focused on expanding indoor business directories, which included airports, malls and transit stations.
Microsoft Bing introduced a new feature that allows users to search local stores. It’s designed to enable searchers to check store stock, helping them choose whether to buy online and pick up in-store.
Later in November and early December, Google rolled out an update to how it ranked the local search pack and map pack results. Termed the “Vicinity Update,” the change drastically impacted local rankings across industries.
Local SEO tools. Google Business Profile Product Experts worked together to help users find unique listing identifiers. Using a Chrome extension called GatherUp, they showed profile managers how to find their business’s unique CID number, which is useful to know when listings are merged or duplicated.
To help local businesses expand their reach, Yelp rolled out Custom Location Targeting, budget recommendations and other helpful local features. It also introduced custom search filters, themed ads and Project Cost Guides to support service businesses.
Looking forward to 2022
With so many algorithm and platform updates taking place this past year, many SEOs will be anxious to look at their data. Just remember: many of these updates are broad, and the most important thing for you to do is to keep your clients updated on Google’s changes.
Many brands are responding to user demand for greater accessibility and increased privacy, so be sure your websites and other properties are compliant and support all kinds of users.
Finally, we’re still a long way off from the end of the pandemic, so focus on answering your audience’s most pressing queries and making things as convenient for them as possible. Showing customers your brand’s values is more important than ever.