Overall 2020 was certainly an interesting, challenging, and unique year. Both in terms of a global pandemic and turbulent search landscape. This year was riddled with a plethora of new social norms as well as new ways to conduct business. This was especially true for small and medium sized companies and websites where entire businesses or even sales models changed seemingly overnight. 

There has also been a massive change to how and what searchers are looking for. Not just with new technology and search features, but what people are actively searching. With things like travel, in person dining, shopping, and whatnot taking a secondary role for the most part. While some industries have benefited heavily in the new search landscape others have been seeing a consistent decline.

Understanding what we learned from this year. As well as what trends we saw can help you understand the current state of SEO and search. We will also get into what the future may hold with our 2020 SEO predictions.


Significant Learnings and Trends

Here are a few of the many things we learned in SEO for 2020.

Google is not perfect

With various issues and process errors this year reinforced that the tech giant is not immune to technical issues. This has unfortunately caused some distrust and cautious speculation around supposed algorithm updates that are not officially noted.

To Google’s credit most of these issues only affected a tiny percentage of their total index. However, when .02% of your index potentially affects millions of pages there is warranted justification for website owners, webmasters, and marketers to be concerned.

Search changes with people

This may seem obvious but there is a lot of chatter and debate around rankings and traffic. Overall this is likely due to how and what people are searching for given the current state of things. Things like covid-19, politics, economy, and much more can have huge impacts on search terms, keywords search volumes, and broader website metrics. 

This year has caused a short-term change if not fundamental change on how and what many people search for. In some cases it has even affected what they expect to see from those rankings (store policies, sanitation efforts, flexible delivery options, contactless serving, digital customer service, etc.).

Responsiveness can mean success

Earlier in the year we saw tons of examples where small businesses were struggling. We also saw a fair amount of huge success stories that almost always came from an ability to rapidly change or even provide creative alternatives for their business. What we truly learned here is that being able to adapt quickly can help mitigate potential business challenges even if deemed improbable.

If you are looking for an example of a business that made quick changes and saw success see our Majestic Meats case-study here.

Query intent may be the new ‘king’ of SEO

Understanding searcher intent is not a new concept but the requirement to actually understand what intent means for a query is relatively new. This higher standard of understanding your users and their intent based on keywords has been an increasing part of organic search for the last 3-5 years. With the introduction of AI (deeprank, rankbrain, BERT, etc.) in search algorithms and rankings; solving intent has almost become the number one factor to achieve top organic rankings.

Traffic and content diversity protects success

This year we saw several huge changes to several Google related mediums. Things like skyrocketing social ad prices, YouTube monetization apocalypse, keyword combining and filtering in AdWords, and ever the shrinking organic space for listings. 

It has become painstakingly clear for many advertisers and website owners that diversifying traffic and lead sources is no longer a luxury for market savvy entrepreneurs. Instead it has become a new requirement in order to sustain what use to be typical business from isolated marketing channels. 

With this need for market diversity comes a need to expand the kinds of content and topical focuses a business has historically created previously. Now a business or website has to look at creating text, graphics, videos, podcasts, webinars, etc. to stay relevant.


SEO Key Trends We Observed in 2020

Mobile usability and experience is where site design should start

Mobile has continued as a trend from last year where many made big pushes and reminders to get websites ready and optimized for mobile first indexing. The trend seen here is a much bigger push to ensure user experience and general site usability is the best it can be. 

Many recommendations from various Google reps centered around page speed, Google’s core web vitals, and taking a mobile-first approach when building or optimizing a website. Again this is nothing too new but the real change here is from “having a responsive website is enough” to “ensure you give the best experience via mobile”.

Branding and industry association/notoriety can be crucial

This is also a continuation from the past few years. However, the industry got a bit more definition and context over this last year. Specifically noting how a website’s or business’s reputation and authority within there vertical may be understood algorithmically. 

A lot of granular and expanded detail was given around E-A-T and what it means for a website. Google dropped several hints around how links have probably changed in terms of helping gauge a brand’s renown and trust within an industry. 

Overall it seems external links and more-finite, the content surrounding them (or the context) likely plays the biggest role in a links value. It was also clearly stated that in general this nuanced brand affinity mainly affects sites in the YMYL space (health/medical, finance, ecommerce, etc.) of search.

Social proof matters, reviews, links, and consistent content

Coasting off brand familiarity we also received more detail and proof around user signals and their correlation to increased organic rankings. In general this was noted as having a good reputation and positive or neutral sentiment towards a business or brand from external content. 

This was reinforced by various comments about the potential negative effects ranking organically can have. From having a large amount of negative reviews or comments online. While there was no detail around the exact thresholds are in regards to negative vs positive commentary.

Service and purchasing options are expected

With a global pandemic in full swing many businesses and services have already adapted to the need for better sanitation, social distancing, and contactless ordering/delivery. Providing these options and supporting them well has seen many businesses grow during this time despite economic instability. The need to have several purchasing, delivery, or service options is quickly becoming a business standard versus a nice-to-have for any business and website.

Details can make a catapult or cripple a business

We have also seen a significant rise in granular detail and information. Especially within business listings, website blogs, and general service/product content. This detail is likely due to a few related trends also seen over the past few years. 

One trend is more people conducting research around products and services prior to purchasing. This is evident in a few ways but mostly around how specific service and product queries are getting. As well as the expansion of most purchasing paths/funnels. 

Another historical trend has been creating better content, which after so much time will lead to even finer details and bits of information. All in the hopes of creating even more robust copy then what was produced before. 

One more related trend around this is the need to provide more detail pertaining to the pandemic. With details around hours, inventory, precautions, etc. becoming further bits of information that can set a business and website apart from its competitors. This is particularly important for local search and those with brick and mortar locations.


2021 SEO Predictions

So what does the future of SEO look like in 2021 and beyond?

As a tl;dr I believe mobile experience will continue to be the main focus for most Googlers. I also believe that local search and businesses will see massive growth in 2021. Lastly I am confident intent and search behavior will continue to rapidly change for the foreseeable future.

If you are curious what I am seeing that I feel justifies my predictions above, read on.

Shiny Red Mobile First Button

With mobile first indexing pushed back to March of 2021 I believe there is good reason surrounding this. Not only from a pandemic point of view but also from an adoption and impact standpoint. In general Googlers have been pretty consistent around the need to focus on the mobile version of your site. 

Although many businesses still likely see a larger percentage of their traffic coming from desktop users. Regardless of your core traffic today it is likely to not matter. With mobile first indexing a website starts to be solely judged based on how it appears mobile. Meaning a greater need to ensure proper text/button sizing, improved code optimization, fast page speed, and planned user paths will become a big focus for businesses, site owners, and marketers.

Return of the Local… Business Model

With vaccinations beginning to go out to front line workers and those most susceptible to Covid-19. I believe there will be a huge desire from most to return to some normality. Restaurants, local retailers, and other businesses are likely to see a boom in the upcoming year. 

Another thing I believe contributes to the growth of local businesses is the recent meteoric rise in ecommerce sales. While it is great for a pandemic it is clear people are looking for an instant and immediate purchase. Most purchasers want to find someone local offering what they are looking for. There is also a huge gap in some places when it comes to employment. I am sure many aspiring entrepreneurs may take future employment in their own hands.

With those 2 factors alone I think there will be a massive rise in boutique retailers, specialty stores, and even service businesses. Who knows how long it will last but for a select few it will be the newfound catalyst to business ownership and success.

Search Behavior Evolution

Outside of some ecommerce retailers, grocery stores, and job listing sites. I would be willing to wager most sites have experienced general loss during the last 6-9 months in terms of search impressions, organic traffic, and site leads/conversions. While at the same time seeing higher rankings and better click through rates. Which would have been impossible and at the very least very rare as recent as earlier this year. However, now it is likely going to become the norm and something I suspect will continue well into the future.

The reasoning for this is something most people are experiencing today due to the pandemic and ever changing economic situations. With a dramatic shift in social behavior, working from home opportunities, fluctuating job markets, and drastic changes in everyday life. Search is probably going to continue changing, and changing rapidly. 

We have all probably experienced and even joined in on at least one of the many trends over the last few months. From binge-watching netflix’s tiger king to becoming an artisan sourdough bread maker. There have been massive spikes in seemingly random hobbies, products, and entertainment. Which are likely due to how we are trying to cope with these challenging times. What will be next big thing is anyone’s guess, which likely changes every hour with things like vaccine administration, social media, and general human adaptation. Being the 3 conjoined twin captains yanking on the ‘hottest-trend’ ship’s wheel.

The only thing I believe guaranteed is that search will continue to change in ways no one can predict, at least for the next year or two, and hopefully sooner.


Detailed Timeline of SEO Updates

December 2019

5th – Quality Rater Guidelines Updates

9th – BERT Algorithm Rolls-out World-Wide (This impacted 10% of all queries world-wide, like it did in the US).

11th to the 12th – Algorithm-like fluctuations (Unconfirmed algorithm update, industry saw larger-than-normal ranking fluctuations).

27th – John Mueller noted E-A-T mainly applies to YMYL (health, finance, etc.) type pages.

January 2020

7th – Algorithm-like fluctuations (Unconfirmed algorithm update, industry saw larger-than-normal ranking fluctuations).

13th – January 2020 Core Algorithm Update (Google confirmed they would be rolling out a new core algorithm update. They estimated this would take 2+ weeks to completely rollout world-wide).

22nd-27th – Featured Snippet Dedupe (Google pushed an update to organic search that began limiting any featured snippet to only appear once in search results).

February 2020

3rd-12th – Algorithm-like fluctuations (Unconfirmed Google algorithm update that is believed to have started rolling out in search February and peaked around mid-month). 

This was followed up by Google’s search liaison noting updates to Google’s algorithm happening all the time.

9th – Algorithm-like fluctuations (Various tools showed large amounts of rank changes and fluctuations. These shifts didn’t have much moment as they seem to have subsided by the next day).

March 2020

30th – Downed Site = Dropped URLs (Google’s John Mueller responded to a question confirming that depending on how a site goes down, page can start disappearing within search results in a matter of days).

April 2020

20th – Algorithm-like fluctuations (There was some ranking fluctuations shown on several SEO tools).

22nd – Froogle is Back (Google announced they would be allowing free listing inclusion on their shopping platform).

29th – Site Speed is a “Teeny Tiny Factor” (Google’s Gary Illyes responded to a tweet stating site speed as a ranking factor is relatively minor).

May 2020

4th – Covid-19 Has Not Slowed Google Crawling (Google’s John Mueller responded to a search question around Covid-19 potentially slowing crawling and indexing. He noted that he doubts anything (crawling/indexing wise) would be affected by the ongoing pandemic).

May 2020 Core Algorithm Update (Google announced they would be releasing a new core algorithm update that would take approximately 2 weeks to fully rollout).

20th-22nd – Algorithm-like Fluctuations (There was some discussion and tool fluctuation that seemed to indicate a smaller algorithm update).

28th – Indexing Issues (Several site owners and publication sites noted some indexing issues around new pages and entire sites).

June 2020

2nd – Algorithm-like Fluctuations (There was some discussion and tool fluctuation that seemed to indicate a smaller algorithm update).

10th – Algorithm-like Fluctuations (A number of algorithm tools showed significant rank changes within their data sets).

18th-22nd – Algorithm-like Fluctuations (There was a large sustained spike in rank fluctuations over a few days mid/late June. Most speculate this was a core update despite nothing official being stated by Google).

22nd – It was noted by several site owners that there ‘discover’ based traffic was down. It was confirmed there was a bug with Google’s discover feature, that may have been part of the ranking fluctuations seen.

23rd – Algorithm-like Fluctuations (Probably the largest change in ranks seen across the board since May. Overall there is little known about what happened but it was speculated this was either a bug fix, test reversal, or even verticalized (specifically government)).

29th – Random Links Not Necessarily Bad (Google’s John Mueller responded to a question around disavowing or removing random link to a domain. He responded stating “Random doesn’t mean they’re bad.”)

July 2020

6th – Algorithm-like Fluctuations (There was some discussion and tool fluctuation that seemed to indicate a smaller algorithm update).

22nd – Delayed Mobile First Indexing (Google published a blog revising their final push to mobile first for indexing to March of 2021).

August 2020

10th – Search Glitch (What started as a believed google algorithm update was confirmed as a search glitch. This was confirmed by Google directly as an issue with Google indexing systems which in turn affected search results).

15th – Algorithm-like Fluctuations and Reversal (Tools started showing large rank changes which were seemingly reversed within a few hours).

28th – New Google Queries (Google confirmed again for the third year in a row that roughly 15 of all google searches are new. This is still important since it shows that every month there are queries never seen before).

September 2020

10th – Local Algorithm-like Fluctuations and Reversal (Several tools specific to local/map rankings showed significant shifts for a day and a half. After which things seemed to reverse and go back to normal).

15th-19th – Algorithm-like Fluctuations (There was a larger sustained shift in rankings from various tools. Many speculate the fluctuations are related to a core algorithm update – although nothing was officially confirmed by Google).

23rd – Algorithm-like Fluctuations (A number of algorithm tools showed significant rank changes within their data sets. This was later confirmed by Google to be part of a mobile indexing issue).

27th – Canonical Issues (Several website owners and webmasters cited examples where canonical URLs were mistakenly being indexed and ranked).

28th – Indexing Issues (Again several website owners and webmasters noted issues with their sites and pages being indexed. Google again confirmed via there Search Liaison that there were some indexing issues).

October 2020

13th – Algorithm-like Fluctuations (Various rank monitoring tools have shown medium to high rank shifts. It was unclear if these shifts were algorithm updates, tests, or if they were related to the previously noted indexing issues).

15th – Search Announcements (Released an announcement covering several upcoming search features and functionalities. These upcoming additions/changes included things like passage indexing, identifying sub-topics in content, video highlighting, and a continued commitment to provide the most accurate and useful search results).

November 2020

4th – Algorithm-like Fluctuations (There was some discussion and tool fluctuation that seemed to indicate a smaller algorithm update).

December 2020

3rd – December 2020 Core Update (The latest in the core algorithm updates released by Google. This update is still actively being deployed as this article is written. Anything learned will be noted on our December 2020 Core Update blog post ).


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Colton is the former Director of SEO Strategy at Boostability testing and defining the products and processes that make Boostability's customers successful. He was part of Boostability for over 8 years. Colton loves hanging out with his family and gaming. He runs a personal blog over at www.coltonjmiller.com where he discusses gaming, life, and SEO.