This is the ultimate guide to search engine optimization in 2021.
And let me be clear about something:
This is NOT your average “SEO in 2021” predictions post.
Yes, I’ll cover the most important SEO trends this year.
But you’re also going to see new strategies that are working great right now.
So if you’re looking to improve your SEO next year, you’ll love this updated guide.
CHAPTER 1:Core Web Vitals
Core Web Vitals: What You Need to Know
Core web vitals are a set of three specific web page experience metrics that Google considers super important:
- Largest contentful paint
- First input delay
- Cumulative layout shift
According to Google, core web vitals will directly impact rankings.
That said, they also point out that core web vitals aren’t a make or break ranking factor. In other words, you can still rank with poor core web vitals scores.
That said, there’s really no reason NOT to optimize your site’s core web vitals.
So it makes sense to set some time aside to work on them.
How To Improve Your Core Web Vital Scores
To be clear:
The exact steps you take to improve your core web vitals depends on your site.
For example, a site that runs on Shopify will be different compared to one that runs on WordPress.
That said, here’s the process you can use to figure out what you need to fix.
First, pop open the Google Search Console and click on “Core Web Vitals”.
Then, take a look at how the pages on your site stack up.
(I basically ignore the desktop scores. Google’s mobile-first index means that mobile scores are what really matter).
You want to really zero-in on “poor URLs”.
In my opinion, Google is going to punish poor URLs more than boost up good URLs. So you want to prioritize getting your URLs out of the red.
Again, how you tackle this depends a lot on the core web vital that you’re struggling with.
For example, a bunch of my pages had a poor CLS score.
So we worked on improving the stability of pages as they loaded.
How We Improved Core Web Vitals
When Google announced their upcoming page experience update, I realized that we needed to make a change.
You see, load times were slow. Very slow.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. We used a lightweight WordPress theme. Compressed our images. And more.
But the fact was: pages were HUGE. Some of our posts had 40+ high-res screenshots. Plus visuals, embedded videos and animated images.
The thing was, this didn’t seem to hurt our rankings at all. Which makes sense considering that our search engine ranking factors analysis found no correlation between page speed and rankings.
But this update was different. Google wasn’t just looking at page loading speed. They were going to try to directly measure user experience.
In other words: this time they weren’t messing around.
So I got to work.
Specifically, I hired an agency to overhaul Backlinko’s code. It now runs on Next.js.
It wasn’t cheap. Or easy.
But in the end, this significantly improved our core web vital scores.
And our overall load times.
Fortunately, you probably don’t have to completely overhaul your site’s code. Backlinko was kind of in a unique situation. Which is why we had to take drastic measures.
But 9 times out of 10, you can improve your core web vital scores using the tips that I outlined above.
And with that, it’s time for chapter 2.
CHAPTER 2:Google Passage Ranking
In October Google announced a new search technology called “Passages”.
This feature allows Google to rank specific sections of a page (“a passage”) independently.
This feature is going to affect 7% of all searches, which is a massive number.
(To put that into context, Google Penguin only impacted 3.1% of all queries.)
Let’s see how to optimize for this new Google ranking factor.
How Google Passage Ranking Works
Passages allows Google to rank specific, relevant passages from a specific page. Not just the page itself.
(Kind of like a souped up version of Featured Snippets.)
Here’s an example from Google’s feature announcement:
So instead of Google ONLY taking into account the relevancy of an entire page.
They’ll now also size up the relevancy of a specific section of that page.
That said, Google has made it clear that they will still evaluate entire pages.
So backlinks, on-page SEO, UX signals, and Google’s other page-level ranking factors will still apply.
The only difference is that a single page now has more chances to rank. That is, assuming the page is optimized and organized.
Which is exactly what I’m going to cover right now.
Organize Your Content Into Discrete Sections
Yes, Google will rank passages of your page semi-independently.
But that doesn’t mean they can easily divvy up a disorganized page.
Google may now look at each section like a mini web page.
Which means your content needs to be divided up into dedicated sections.
And each section should cover a specific subtopic.
You may have been doing this already. If not, I recommend going back and organizing your content into VERY clear sections.
For example, take a look at this page on my site: “SEO vs. SEM: What’s The Difference?”.
This page is organized into 21 different sections.
(Each section has a H3 subheading)
That way, Google can treat the content underneath each H3 as a mini web page. And rank it accordingly.
Double Down on Long Form Content
The downside of long form content USED to be that you could sometimes get beat by a more focused page.
For example, let’s say you had a section on your page about writing blog post intros.
And someone else had an entire page dedicated to writing post intros.
Well, in some cases Google would rank the entire page about post intros over you.
That’s because your competitor’s page was 100% about that topic. And to Google, that page could be a better UX for someone looking to write better introductions.
But that’s about to change.
Today, Google can parse a single piece of long-form content into 5, 10, or even 100 unique passages.
And each one has a good shot of ranking in Google.
So yeah, long-form content already had a rankings edge in the SERPs.
Now that Google can divide up a single page into distinct passages, you can expect long-form content to work even better for SEO in 2021.
CHAPTER 3:Optimize for Featured Snippets
According to SEMrush, 6.83% of all search results have a Featured Snippet.
And yes: Featured Snippets are stealing A LOT of clicks from the #1 spot.
(As I like to say: “#0 is the new #1”)
The question is:
How do you get your content to appear in the Featured Snippet?
Well, that’s what this chapter is all about.
I recently decided to make ranking for Featured Snippets a priority.
And it helped us go from a handful of Featured Snippets rankings to over 390.
Here’s the step-by-step process that I used.
1. Find Featured Snippet opportunities
Like most things in SEO, the first step is keyword research.
Keywords that you already rank for.
Keywords that have a Featured Snippet.
Why is it important to focus on keywords that you rank for already?
99.58% of all Featured Snippets are from pages that rank on the first page for that term.
So if you don’t already rank in the top 10, you have zero chance of ranking in the Featured Snippet spot.
How do you find Featured Snippet Opportunities?
Ahrefs “Organic Keywords” report.
It shows you keywords that you rank for… that also have a Featured Snippet:
4,512 keywords? Looks like I have some work to do 🙂
2. Add “Snippet Bait” to Your Page
“Snippet Bait” is a 40-60 word block of content specifically designed to rank in the Featured Snippet spot.
Why 40-60 words?
Well, SEMrush analyzed nearly 7 million Featured Snippets. And they found that the most Featured Snippets are 40-60 words long.
I wrote short Snippet Bait definitions for every page of The Content Marketing Hub.
And these helped my content rank in the Featured Snippet spot for lots of definition keywords.
HubSpot takes Snippet Bait to another level.
They add little boxes to their posts that actually look like Featured Snippets:
3. Format your content for other types of Featured Snippets
Snippet Bait works best for so-called “Paragraph Snippets”, like this:
Even though paragraph snippets make up 81.9% of all Featured Snippets…
…they’re not the only one.
If you want to rank for List Snippets…
Use H2 or H3 subheaders for every item on your list.
(You can manually check you HTML to see if this is set up correctly)
Google will pull those subheaders from your content… and include them in the Featured Snippet:
If you want to rank in Table Snippets…
You need to create a table that Google can easily pull data from.
For example, the content from this Table Snippet…
…is pulled directly from a well-formatted table.
Which leads us to our next topic…
CHAPTER 4:The Rise of Visual Search
Is Visual Search an SEO game changer?
But based on how things are trending, visual search is poised to take off in 2021.
Here’s what you need to know.
Visual Search is Taking Off
More people are conducting more visual searches than ever before.
Just take a look at these stats:
Google Lens has already been used 1 billion times (source).
Pinterest gets 600 million visual searches per month (source).
36% of American consumers have already used visual search (source).
Visual Search Technology is Insanely Good
Visual search is still in its infancy.
And it already works REALLY well.
Don’t believe me?
Whip open Google Lens on your mobile device and start scanning stuff around your room.
You’ll probably find that it can identify pretty much anything.
Today, Google Lens can identify 1 billion objects. And that number is growing every day.
Heck, I tried Bing’s visual search on my phone. And it works super well.
People WANT to Search With Images
Once you start using it, you’ll quickly notice that visual search is super helpful for:
- Identifying landmarks
- Local business reviews
- Nutrition information
- Lots more
Which is probably why 62% of young consumers want more visual search tech:
How to Optimize for Visual Search
Earlier this year we conducted one of the first visual search ranking factors studies.
Here are some of the highlights from that research.
Mobile-Friendly Pages Have a Huge Edge
9 out of 10 Google Lens results came from a site that passed Google’s mobile-friendly test.
Considering that basically 100% of Google Lens searches are done on mobile devices, it makes sense that Google would prefer mobile-friendly websites.
Traditional Image SEO Still Applies
Our research found that traditional image SEO techniques (like optimizing image filenames and alt text) seems to also help with Google Lens rankings.
And that high-authority pages and sites are more likely to appear as Google Lens results.
Google Lens Results Tend to Come From Content-Rich Pages
We found that Google tends to pull Google Lens image results from pages with quite a bit of text (1600 words on average).
At first this may seem surprising. But when you realize that Google specifically states that the text content on a page is important for image SEO, this finding makes a whole lot of sense.
The most recent set of Google Quality Rater Guidelines REALLY focused on E-A-T.
To be clear:
E-A-T has been a part of the guidelines for years.
But E-A-T is now a more important ranking factor than before.
For example, Google’s new “How Search Works” report mentions that they want to rank “reliable sources”.
They even cite E-A-T as a key ranking signal:
With that, here’s how to bump up your site’s E-A-T.
Be An Expert (Or Hire One)
If you hire random freelancers to write your content, you’re in trouble.
That’s because Google wants to feature content that’s written by legit experts in their field.
They even go as far to say that medical content needs to be written by health care professionals.
This is a tough thing to fake.
So if you want your content to rank in 2021, it needs to be written by people that know their stuff.
(Especially in the health niche.)
Google probably focuses on off-site signals to figure out your site’s E-A-T.
The rater guidelines spend a lot of time on evaluating the site itself.
For example, the guidelines point out that:
This means having:
- Thorough about page
- Easy to find contact page
- References and external links to sources
- Author bylines on every article
Most of Google’s evaluation of E-A-T happens off of your website.
Which makes sense.
Any random person can claim to be an expert.
But getting other websites to agree with you?
That’s a totally different story.
In fact, Google’s guidelines state that:
Besides creating an awesome site, how do you get other people to mention you and your site as a go-to resource?
First, you need to be cited on lots of other trusted websites.
These don’t even have to be linked mentions.
Something like this can help Google see you as an expert on a given topic:
Second, your site as a whole needs to be associated with a specific topic.
Again, this comes down to off-site mentions. Specifically, mentions from other authorities in your field.
For example, getting listed as the #1 SEO blog by Ahrefs probably boosted Backlinko’s reputation in Google’s eyes.
CHAPTER 6:Video Continues to Surge
Online video is EXPLODING right now.
In fact, according to Cisco, online video will make up 82% of all online traffic by 2022.
And that may still not satisfy the world’s demand for video.
Despite the fact that there are more videos out there than ever, HubSpot states that 43% of people want even MORE video content.
If video isn’t part of your digital marketing plans, you’re missing out. Here’s how you can use video to improve your SEO this year.
Video Featured Snippets
You’ve probably noticed more Video Featured Snippets in the search results.
In fact, Google highlighted Video Featured Snippets in their “Reintroduction to Featured Snippets” report.
And I expect to see more of Video Featured Snippets in 2021.
From what I’ve seen, here are the 3 most important things to do to get your video content in a Featured Snippets.
1. Organize Your Content Into Discrete Sections
This is huge.
Clear sections help Google understand the content in your video.
Which makes it easy for Google to use different clips from your video in a snippet.
2. Optimize Your Video for SEO
Google uses your title, description and tags to figure out what your video is all about.
So besides publishing videos that have clear sections, you also want to make sure that your video is optimized for SEO.
In fact, a small HubSpot study of 165 Video Featured Snippets found that 80% of them contained a keyword in the title.
3. Provide a Transcript
The captions that YouTube automatically generates are REALLY good.
But it’s not 100%.
So to increase the odds that YouTube and Google can understand every word of your video, upload a transcript.
Grow Your YouTube Channel
YouTube is already the world’s 2nd largest search engine.
(In fact, according to a study by JumpShot and Moz founder Rand Fishkin, YouTube’s search engine is 2x more popular than Bing.)
Amazingly, YouTube is still growing.
In short, more and more people are searching for stuff on YouTube than ever before.
So if you want to get more traffic from SEO in 2021, I recommend creating and optimizing content specifically for YouTube.
It’s a search engine that’s too big to ignore.
The best part? Most marketers are too lazy to make videos. So it’s pretty easy to get your videos seen (assuming you know how to create high-quality videos).
For example, my channel has 39 total videos. And those 39 videos generate over 228k views per month.
(And as you might expect, a good chunk of those viewers turn into website visitors, leads and customers).
It gets better: when you publish SEO-optimized YouTube videos, you’ll own more Google real estate.
Why? Well, for starters: 55% of all Google search results contain at least one video.
(And almost all of those videos are from YouTube.)
Here’s an example of what I mean:
And considering that Google owns YouTube, expect even MORE YouTube videos in the search results in 2021.
Embed Video Content Into Text-Based Blog Posts
If people want to see more video content, why not give it to them?
That’s why I recommend embedding video content into your blog posts. And from my own Google Analytics data, I’ve seen that this can significantly improve your bounce rate.
Here’s an example of this in action:
CHAPTER 7:Master Search Intent
Search Intent has been a massive topic in the SEO world over the last few years.
And for good reason:
Content that doesn’t match search intent simply won’t rank.
And as Google gets better at giving people the exact search results they want, creating content that’s a 1:1 Search Intent match is going to be a must for 2021 SEO.
Identify Each Keyword’s Intent
Every keyword has an intent behind it.
Maybe it’s to look something up.
Or buy something.
Or compare product A with product B.
And the better your content can match that search intent, the better it will rank.
So your first step is to figure out your target keyword’s Search Intent.
Sometimes the intent is right in the keyword.
But it’s not usually that obvious. So for most keywords, the search results will tell you everything you need to know about that keyword’s Search Intent.
For example, take a keyword like: “protein powder”.
Someone searching for that term could want to buy some protein. Or maybe they want to learn more about it.
Well, according to Google’s first page for that keyword, most people searching for “protein powder” are looking for information.
Create Content That’s a 1:1 Search Intent Match
Now that you’ve identified Search Intent, it’s time to publish something that gives searchers EXACTLY what they’re looking for.
For example, when I analyzed the search engine results pages (“the SERPs”) for “how to get YouTube subscribers”, I noticed that they were mostly list posts.
So even though this was a “how to” keyword, I didn’t publish a step-by-step tutorial.
Instead, I published a list post.
And because my content is what users want, that page ranks in the top 3 for that keyword.
Re-Optimize Old Content for Search Intent
Search Intent optimization isn’t just for new content.
You can tweak your older stuff to make it a better Search Intent fit. To boost your on-page SEO. Or just to improve the page’s overall user experience.
For example, this post used to rank really well for “SEO campaign”.
But as Google got better at figuring out what people that searched for that keyword actually wanted, my post started to drop in the rankings.
Which made sense: someone searching for “SEO campaign” doesn’t want a case study about a random guy. They want a list of steps.
So I transformed that post into a step-by-step guide that was easy to follow.
Today, that page gets 156.46% more organic traffic than the old version.
CHAPTER 8:Combat Decreasing CTRs
There’s no denying it:
Organic click-through-rate is down. Way down.
In fact, one industry study found that organic CTR on mobile search is down 41.4% since 2015.
It’s no secret why: Google is crowding out the organic search results with SERP Features, like Answer Boxes, Ads, Carousels, “People also ask” sections, and more.
And to stand out in the SERPs, your result needs to scream “click on me!”… or else it’ll be ignored.
Include Your Keyword in Your URL
In 2019. we published the results from our large-scale organic CTR study.
And one of our most interesting findings was that keyword-rich URLs get 45% more clicks vs. URLs that don’t contain a keyword that matches the person’s search.
Use Emotion (Without Going Overboard)
Our study found that emotional titles had a relatively high CTR.
But we also found that title tags that contained “Power Words” reduced clicks by 14%.
It looks like Google searchers want to click on compelling titles. But if a title veers into clickbait territory, they’re going to click on something else.
Write Meta Descriptions for Every Page
In other words: make sure your website’s description meta tags are 100% original. And would compel someone to click on your site in the search results.
This is a simple 2-minute step that can increase your CTR by approximately 6%.
BONUS CHAPTER:Quick SEO Tips for 2021
In this chapter I’ll show you a few quick win tactics that are working great right now.
And should work even better in 2021.
Publish “Research Content”
Bloggers and journalists LOVE data.
And if you can hook them up with a stat, a survey, or an industry study, they’ll link to you like there’s no tomorrow.
For example, in 2020 we published 5 pieces of Research Content.
And those 5 pieces of content brought in 22,926 backlinks, 23,217 social media shares and 262,983 thousand visitors.
The downside of Research Content is that it’s A LOT more work than banging out a list post or case study.
But when done right, the extra effort can totally pay off.
Create Visual Content
(Especially “Concept Visuals”)
Just like video, visual content is growing fast.
In fact, a recent survey found that 87.5% of marketers use visual content in the majority of their content marketing efforts.
And thanks to social media sites like Pinterest and Instagram, visual content should continue to see growth in 2021.
How can you take advantage of this trend?
Create more visual content… especially “Concept Visuals”.
In my experience, “Concept Visuals” can do just as well as a fancy infographic… if not better.
(Concept Visuals are images that are easy for other sites to embed into their content. When they do, they’ll usually link back to you.)
For example, here’s a simple visual that I included in one of my guides:
And because this visual explains a tricky concept, people LOVE embedding this image in their content:
In fact, this single Concept Visual has generated 20+ backlinks to my site.
Optimize Your Podcast Show Notes for SEO
Everyone and their mom has a podcast.
But very few people rank their show notes in Google.
Fortunately, optimizing your podcast show notes for SEO isn’t super hard.
Here’s how to do it.
First, get a full transcript of your interview.
Then, turn that transcript into a full blog post.
In other words, don’t just copy and paste your transcript and call it a day.
Instead, you want to repurpose the transcript into a post that could stand on its own, including:
- An introduction
- Screenshots and visuals
- Internal and external links
- Comments section
Here’s an example of how this can look.
Then, optimize the page’s on-page SEO just like you normally would.
And you’re good to go.
Build Backlinks as a Podcast Guest
Podcasts are one of my all-time favorite ways to build links.
It’s like guest posting… without all the back-and-forth. Just show up, share what you know, and you get a sweet backlink:
And podcasting’s popularity is growing like a beanstalk. In fact, 100 million Americans listen to at least one podcast per month (that’s up 10% vs. last year.)
That means that next year there’s probably going to be even MORE opportunities for you to get links from podcasts.
Publish Content Hubs
Content hubs are essentially a bunch of related content that cover a specific topic.
But instead of linking together random blog posts, you present them as entries in a single “hub”.
And create a hub homepage for the hub.
To date, we’ve published three content hubs here at Backlinko:
And they’ve done SUPER well.
In fact, the pages that make up The Content Marketing Hub alone bring in 26,438 visitors every month.
These hubs do double duty for your site’s SEO.
First, hubs are the type of “WOW” content that gets people sharing and linking to you.
Very few people are willing to put in the work required to create a content hub. So when you do, you’ll instantly stand out.
Second, your hub pages are strategically designed to rank for lots of definition keywords.
For example, one of our SEO Marketing Hub entries is optimized around the term “LSI keywords”.
And when I say “optimized” I don’t just mean using my keyword in my title tag.
The content is 1000% optimized for search intent.
For example, someone searching for “LSI keywords” probably wants to know the basics. Like what it is and why it’s important for SEO.
And each entry is structured to give people a primer on that topic.