2021 was an unpredictable and highly volatile year for SEO. Since the start of the year, we have seen significant algorithm updates (many of which are unconfirmed) on a weekly basis. It took many by surprise considering how frequent and impactful these updates have been throughout the year. So much so that a study by SEMrush was conducted showing the volatility changes compared to 2020 (read more on this below).
In this article, we are going to provide a timeline and description of every confirmed update that was launched and unconfirmed update that was felt by industry experts and tracking tools, major SEO announcements that were made, and SEO predictions for the upcoming year.
Table of Contents
- 2021 SEO Update Timeline
- Significant SEO Announcements & Changes
- 7 SEO Predictions and Trends for 2022
2021 SEO Update Timeline
- January 7th and 8th: There were reports of fluctuations and signs of an algorithm update for a couple of days, but nothing was confirmed. Some speculated that it was an unconfirmed update while others believed it was a continuation of the December 2020 Core Update.
- January 11th: There was not an algorithm update that launched on this day, however, Google did confirm the launch of the subtopics ranking feature back in November 2020.
- January 12th: More reports of an unconfirmed algorithm update were made for January 12th with signs of high volatility on sensor tools.
- January 27th: Another unconfirmed update was speculated to have launched on the 27th. Industry experts reported seeing high volatility on algorithm sensors and notable fluctuations with their web traffic and keyword rankings.
- February 8th: An unconfirmed algorithm update was released on the 8th. Some report to have felt the effects a day earlier, but tracking tools are showing significant volatility on the 9th.
- February 10th: Google Passage Ranking Update was released for the US English search results with plans to apply this to other English-speaking countries in the future. This update allows Google to decipher long bodies of content and attribute multiple text passages to different queries in the same piece.
- February 12th: Similar to January, there was not an update on the 12th but Google confirmed that the Google Image Search Update (launched in November 2020) did reduce duplicate images in the search results.
- February 17th (and 23rd): Ranking fluctuations were reported again signaling another unconfirmed algorithm update on the 17th followed by chatter from industry experts and webmasters regarding a possible update on the 23rd. Nothing was confirmed, but many experienced a big drop in traffic on the 23rd.
- February 24th and 25th: A Local Search Ranking Update was suspected to have launched towards the end of the month due to BrightLocal’s tracking tool showing notable fluctuations. Industries that were most impacted by this included car dealerships, bars and pubs, and accounting and financial firms.
- February 26th and 27th: To end the month, there were more reports of an unconfirmed algorithm update with reports of high volatility on tracking tools and traffic drops from website owners across various industries.
- March 2nd and 3rd: March started out with yet another unconfirmed algorithm update. Fluctuations were noticed starting the 2nd and continued to be felt moving into the 3rd. There were no reports of specific industries feeling the effects harder than others.
- March 6th and 7th: There was chatter in the industry about another possible algorithm update. Nothing was confirmed by Google, but many experienced fluctuations in their site analytics.
- March 10th and 11th: Following another unconfirmed algorithm update on the 10th, BrightLocal’s tracking tool picked up on one of the largest unconfirmed local search algorithm updates with a score of 6.78/10 on the 11th. It was reported that real estate was one of the most volatile industries following this update.
- March 19th: Yet another unconfirmed algorithm update was released and felt by webmasters and business owners.
- March 26th – 29th: Finishing off the month with speculation around another unconfirmed algorithm update starting on Friday and lasting until the following week on Monday. There was worry of it being another core update but the fluctuations were not as strong.
- April 8th: Google announced the launch of the first Product Reviews update, a search ranking quality algorithm update. It was a significant update (almost on the scale of a core update) that targeted product review content and rewarded insight analysis and original research (look below at the graph visualizing the sudden traffic drop of a website posted by Glenn Gabe). While it was a global launch, it specifically targeted English content. The Product Reviews update finished rolling out on the 22nd.
- April 23rd: There were reports of an unconfirmed algorithm update yet again. This time it affected both web search and local search. In addition to this, there were also complaints of Google not indexing pages properly.
- May 1st: There was speculation around a large algorithm update launching the end of April moving into May. Nothing was confirmed by Google, but industry experts were not sure whether it was a continuation of the Product Reviews Update that launched in April or something entirely separate.
- May 3rd: A possible algorithm update was suspected to have affected local search. There wasn’t much chatter from webmasters and industry professionals, but BrightLocal’s tracking tool showed high volatility.
- May 7th and 9th: More reports of a possible unconfirmed algorithm update were announced. Reports state that it wasn’t a massive update.
- May 13th: An unconfirmed algorithm update was released followed by reports from various industry professionals and webmasters on the negative effects they were seeing on their website performance.
- May 16th: Yet another unconfirmed algorithm update was speculated to have been launched mid-May. While some believed it was a result of the Page Experience Update, this unconfirmed update is entirely separate as the Page Experience Update was delayed another month.
- May 19th and 20th: Google did not confirm whether they released an algorithm update or not, but many experienced significant fluctuations in website data and performance as well as tracking tools showing high volatility on these two days.
- May 22nd: A major unconfirmed algorithm update launched on the 22nd causing significant changes to website and keyword performance across various industries. It was reported that these effects were at the level of a major core update.
- June 2nd: A confirmed broad core algorithm update was released by Google. They tend to release a few core updates every year, so this isn’t a surprise. What is surprising is how close this one was launched to the highly anticipated Page Experience Update. It started off slow with minimal impact but picked up around the 7th in impact. It finished rolling out fully on June 12th.
- June 8th: A local search algorithm update was felt throughout the industry and BrightLocal’s tracking tool supports this showing high volatility on the 8th and 9th. The industries that were most impacted by this update were:
- Finance and accounting
- Real estate and property businesses
- June 10th: Google announced the Predator Update that targets websites with slanderous and exploitative content. While Google has been working on demoting websites that exploit and slander people’s names for years, this update goes beyond this to expand protection.
June 11th and 12th: An unconfirmed algorithm update was released. There were more reports of significant changes to website performance following this unconfirmed update compared to the June 2nd core update. There may be some overlap with this update and the core update finishing its roll out, but nothing was confirmed.
- June 15th: Google began a slow roll-out of the Page Experience Update. They announced that it will gradually roll out throughout the month and end in August, but the update did not finish rolling out till September 3rd. In addition to this, Google announced on the 17th that AMP was no longer a requirement to rank in the Top Carousel section of a SERP and will instead look at page experience.
- June 23rd and 28th: Google confirmed the release of a Search Spam Algorithm Update. Part one of the Search Spam Update was released and fully rolled out on the 23rd with part two following closely behind on the 28th. This update made a global impact on web and image search. Some reported seeing spammy websites being indexed and showing up higher in the search results, which may have been a temporary glitch to the changes that were being made.
- June 30th: Right as the month was ending, another unconfirmed algorithm update was said to have been launched. Only two days after the Search Spam Update.
- July 1st: Google announced the release of the July 1st Core Update. It usually takes about two weeks for a core update to fully roll out. It was surprising to see Google launch two broad core algorithm updates within a month of each other, but they did warn us once the June Core Update was released. Some do believe that the fluctuations seen on June 30th were early signs of the July 1st Core Update, but Google denies this. There was a spike on July 9th from the core update that caused much chatter in the industry, and it fully finished rolling out on July 12th. It appears it was mostly felt on the 2nd and the 9th of the month.
- July 2nd-3rd and 9th-10th: It appears that a local search algorithm update also hit during the July Core Update. Google has stated that local search results are not really impacted by core updates, but as people began to question the overlap in timing, Danny Sullivan released another statement saying that local search results can be affected in certain situations.
- July 23rd and 24th: A smaller unconfirmed algorithm update was believed to have launched. Many noticed an impact on these two days with some winners and losers in this week’s round of algorithm updates.
- July 26th: Google released the Link Spam Update and stated that “it’s even more effective at identifying and nullifying link spam more broadly, across multiple languages.” Google published a blog post with reminders and information on backlink best practices and properly adding the right rel values to each link. While it was expected to roll out within a two week period, it took almost a month and was officially announced to be fully rolled out on August 24th.
- July 29th: Right before the month concludes, another unconfirmed algorithm update was believed to have launched.
Learn more about what link schemes to watch out for and best practices to implement for authority link building on your own website.
Learn more about what link schemes to watch out for and best practices to implement for authority link building on your own website.
- August 6th: There was speculation starting on August 6th and moving through the weekend of another unconfirmed algorithm update. While some experienced drops in site performance, many saw an improvement for the first time since the summer core updates were released.
- August 14th and 15th: Reports came in saying another unconfirmed algorithm update was felt over the weekend of the 14th. Major fluctuations and volatility were also recorded on the sensor tracking tools. It may just have been effects from the Link Spam Update that was still rolling out at this time, but nothing was confirmed.
- August 17th and 18th: Another unconfirmed algorithm update was felt across various industries starting on the 17th with significant changes being felt on Wednesday the 18th. Again, it’s difficult to firmly say whether this was a continuation of the Link Spam Update or if it coincides with Google changing meta titles to display text from headers (jump below to read about this).
- September 1st: There were signs of yet another unconfirmed algorithm update at the start of the month.
- September 3rd: The Page Experience Update fully finished rolling out on Google Search and Top Stories.
- September 4th: An unconfirmed algorithm update was believed to have launched over the holiday weekend. While there was not much chatter between site owners and SEOs (most likely due to the holiday), tracking tools showed higher volatility on the 4th versus the 1st.
- September 9th – 13th: An intense unconfirmed algorithm update was speculated to have launched from the 9th to the 13th. It caught many SEOs off-guard with how long it lasted.
- September 16th and 17th: A possible unconfirmed algorithm update was released mid-September. Reports were made on seeing a range of results – some saw improvements while others saw a decline in results.
- September 24th and 25th: Another unconfirmed algorithm update was released toward the end of the month. Tracking tools show high volatility on these two days. Some raised the alarm after seeing drastic drops in keyword rankings on the 25th.
- October 2nd and 3rd: A major unconfirmed algorithm update was released at the start of the month. Tracking tools show extreme volatility and many reported seeing dramatic changes to their keyword and website performance.
- October 6th and 7th: Building off the previous week, another unconfirmed algorithm update was released on the 6th and 7th.
- October 8th – 10th: More reports and signs were made of another unconfirmed algorithm update being released the weekend of the 8th.
- October 14th: Starting the weekend of the 14th, there was speculation of another unconfirmed algorithm update as tracking tools showed signs of higher volatility. However, Barry Schwartz believes it could have been a result of some UI changes that were made:
- October 15th – 18th: Yet another unconfirmed algorithm update was released on the 15th. While it wasn’t dramatic, many SEOs and site owners reported traffic and ranking drops between 20 to 30% (some saw even greater losses).
- October 26th: Reports and tracking tools show elevated volatility levels on the 26th signaling yet another unconfirmed algorithm update.
- November 4th: Google announced the release of a November Spam Update on the 4th. Tracking tools show early signs of this starting on the 3rd. Nothing was confirmed or specified regarding what type of spam this update is targeting (link, content, or search spam), but people reported noticing a drop in indexed pages for websites using cloaked content and incorporating links in the cloaked content. The November Spam Update finished rolling out fully on the 12th.
- November 17th: Google launched a core update that took a couple of weeks to roll out fully. They have been known to release updates before the end of the year, possibly as a way to better understand changing intent with keywords due to seasonality (Marie Haynes confirms this in a recent podcast episode). The November Core Update finished rolling out on the 30th.
- November 24th and 25th: Webmasters reported significant changes to their traffic and keyword performance on these two days. Experts attribute the volatility back to the core update where the effects were especially significant right before Thanksgiving and two major shopping days for e-commerce retailers (Black Friday and Cyber Monday).
- November 30th – December 8th: Google confirmed that they did released a local search update starting on November 30th and moving through December 8th. It’s officially being referred to as the November 2021 Local Search Update.
- December 2nd: A second Product Reviews update was launched on the 2nd and finished rolling out on December 21st. As mentioned earlier, the first one of its kind was released earlier in the year in April. Reports show that this update is impacting more websites than just review-based and affiliate sites and is likely to expand to other languages.
- December 4th: BrightLocal’s tracking tool showed signs of increasing volatility for local search results starting at the beginning of the month and really spiking on the weekend of the 4th. This appears to be directly correlated with the November 2021 Local Search Update mentioned above that rolled out until the 8th.
- December 11th and 12th: There has been more speculation about another unconfirmed algorithm update being released over the weekend. Tracking tools show extreme volatility with reports of people experiencing traffic and keyword fluctuations.
- December 17th – 19th: Reports show major volatility starting on the 17th and moving through the 19th. This could be a spike as the December Product Reviews continued to roll out and finished on the 21st.
- December 27th and 28th: There was speculation of another update with reports of tremors and volatility being felt starting on the 27th. Google hasn’t confirmed anything yet.
Significant SEO Announcements & Changes
Page Experience Update Will Apply to Desktop in 2022
You may have already expected the Page Experience Update to apply to desktop as it was released, but Google announced that this update will take effect starting February next year. All of the ranking factors from the mobile implementation will apply on desktop minus mobile-friendliness. However, Google confirmed that intrusive interstitials will negatively impact site performance on desktop (just as it will on mobile).
Safe Browsing Is No Longer A Ranking Factor
Unlike the initial announcement regarding the ranking factors in the Page Experience Update which launched in June, Google announced in August that safe browsing was no longer considered a ranking factor in the update and was also removed from the Page Experience Report in Google Search Console.
Original Ranking Factors:
Revised Ranking Factors:
SEMrush Releases Study On 2021 Algorithm Volatility
SEMrush published results from a study showing the volatility and impact of this year’s algorithm rankings. We have all seen and felt significant changes and this year has felt much more unpredictable than years past, but it’s validating to see hard numbers supporting this. For desktop searches, the algorithm updates have been 28% more volatile than in previous years. Mobile search results experienced 84% more volatility compared to 2020.
Google Overrides Meta Titles
While it isn’t new information that Google tends to override what is manually set in a meta title, the latest update on this coincides with an unconfirmed algorithm update that hit on August 17th and 18th. Google states that when meta titles are changed, they do this to provide better descriptions of the content. However, the shocking part of this is that Google later confirmed that they removed the search query from many meta titles which may have caused ranking fluctuations. Many also reported changes being made for the worse, not an improvement as was initially mentioned. There were increased reports of meta titles pulling in text from the headers instead of the manually assigned meta title.
The other unsettling aspect of this is that meta titles are considered a ranking factor.* Many SEOs and webmasters place target keywords for pages in the meta title. Google released a statement saying that keywords were not affected by this, but many did see ranking fluctuations correlating with these dates.
This is an important reminder for all SEO professionals and site owners to keep a close eye on meta information because it can change without warning. Tools like SEMrush will show you which pages display a different meta title or description on SERPs versus what is published for the page.
In addition to this, it’s important to strike a balance of strategically placing keywords throughout headers and the body of the content and writing in a natural manner that enhances the user experience of a page (and website overall).
*Note: meta titles are a ranking factor and focus keywords are often strategically placed there to help improve organic rankings.
7 SEO Predictions and Trends for 2022
1. More Algorithm Updates To Come
As we prepare for the new year, we must also prepare for the continuation of more algorithm updates. Danny Sullivan confirmed this on Twitter on November 4th saying that algorithm updates are released every year and this will not change, but that it’s likely for other types to be launched. We saw this earlier in the year with the introduction of the Product Review Updates and targeted updates, including Link and Search Spam.
It’s difficult to predict what those updates will entail, but knowing this information, SEOs and website owners should be focusing on enhancing user experience, following best practices, and producing valuable content that proves their E-A-T and aligns with searcher intent.
Refresh your memory on core updates and the questions that Google expects to be addressed in content for an optimal user experience. Read Google’s piece on What Site Owners Should Know About Google’s Core Updates.
2. Increasing Standards for E-A-T and Inclusivity
The standard for websites to prove their E-A-T is going to keep increasing as a means to restore trust online for searchers moving into the new year. Targeted updates that were released throughout 2021 further support this prediction, including the two Product Reviews updates, the series of Spam Updates that affected link, search, and content spam, and the Predator Update targeting exploitative and slanderous websites.
It also appears that changes are being made to encourage more inclusivity on search. One example we saw this past year were the revisions Google made to their Quality Raters Guidelines (QRG). Five revisions were made including an expansion of the ‘Groups of People’ within the YMYL definition. It added six new classifications to the already existing ones, which are:
- Gender expression
- Immigration status
- Victims of a major violent event and their kin
- Or any other characteristic that is associated with systemic discrimination or marginalization
Google even has a word list for terms to avoid and terms to incorporate throughout your website content for better inclusivity that they last updated on November 29th, 2021. We believe that this is going to play a more prominent role moving into 2022 and SEOs should be referring to resources, like the word list, when optimizing existing or creating new website content.
3. Hyper-Focus On Intent and User Experience
Algorithms are getting much smarter. It’s becoming less about the search volume and more about searcher intent and user experience. We saw this earlier in the year when people found that Google was overriding their page titles with text pulled from other areas of the webpage, like the headers. They also confirmed that search queries were intentionally removed from the meta title and replaced with what they deemed to be better contextual information for what the page will discuss. This doesn’t mean that keywords are being replaced altogether, but the intent behind the keyword is arguably more important than the search volume with results like this.
To add another layer to this, users must get answers to their questions as quickly as possible. Gone are the days where we expect people to sift through long bodies of text. And while long-form content can be helpful for SEO, optimizing the design and structure of the page to enhance user experience is a necessary step for better search results. Use jump links, feature a TLDR or Table of Contents, organize content with headers, make content easier to read with bulleted or numbered lists, and add original, high-quality visuals to support your content.
4. Increasing Demand for Videos
Did you know that YouTube is the second most popular website on the planet? We often forget because Google is the market share leader, but YouTube is right behind them. It’s predicted that by 2022, 82% of internet traffic will be video. These statistics prove that video marketing is exploding in demand and it’s vital for businesses to start taking part in it.
In our December Search Sessions webinar, we gathered insights from digital marketing professionals on the trends they have seen and expect to see moving forward with video content. Authenticity is key, especially as consumers want to connect with businesses on a deeper level outside of just a good product or service. In addition to that, businesses should be testing out what videos work best for their demographics. Surprisingly (but also not a huge surprise), live stream videos increased in popularity in the last couple of years. And TikTok is making waves with shorter videos that keep viewers engaged.
For SEO (and other marketing channels), videos can be extremely valuable for promoting services and products. 72% of consumers prefer to watch a video about a product than read a product description. And in light of the Product Reviews Updates that have significantly impacted many websites across varying industries, videos can be a solution for providing exceptional content and detail on product performance, expectations, etc.
5. Local Search Is Making A Comeback
Not that it ever went away, but local search is definitely back on the radar as businesses begin to reopen their doors to customers. As this continues in the new year (hopefully nothing comes out of left field to cause another global shut down), 74% of consumers prefer a hybrid customer experience, meaning that consumers want the option of both in-person interactions and online consumption. Providing a seamless customer experience is essential, but so is showing up online in front of people searching for a service or product you can deliver.
While many traditional SEO best practices overlap with local SEO, there are some specific strategies for local search you should be optimizing for to increase visibility within the local community.
- Optimize your Google Business Profile: This is the same as Google My Business, but the name was recently changed. Your profile should contain essential, basic information that consumers need to know, like your business address, business hours, contact information, and website address.
- On-site optimization: Incorporate location-based and “near me” into your content to capture those searches. Having a dedicated page on your website with detailed directions on how to reach your business, local landmarks or structures you’re close to, and anything else that can better help search engines understand your location is another great way to optimize for local search. It can help avoid duplicate content as well if you have several locations in the same state or city.
6. Looking Beyond Traditional SEO Strategies to Build Authority
Link building has played a critical role in increasing search rankings for many years, but we cannot deny that it’s become more difficult (and dare I say somewhat confusing) in recent years to obtain the type of backlink that search engines deem worthy enough to significantly help increase organic positioning. Link Spam Updates and associating appropriate rel values (user generated or sponsored, affiliate, etc.) to backlinks are also changing the landscape of how SEOs have gone about to obtain authentic backlinks.
One prediction that we believe will become more important in the coming year(s) is aiming to better understand user behavior and obtain more positive social signals. This includes getting more authentic, positive online reviews (which are critical for local SEO), improving positive social signals, such as likes, comments, and shares, comments, and better understanding click and post-click behavior (which can provide valuable insight into searcher intent and how well your webpage is matching it). Learn more about that here under Colton Miller’s expert opinion.
7. Predictive Analytics and User Behavior Data = Better SEO
SEOs are accustomed to using historical data to guide their strategies. It’s proven to be effective, but times are changing and so are AI capabilities (artificial intelligence). AI is already widely used for common needs, like reporting, but certain industries are enhancing their SEO strategies by incorporating AI into their search strategies by pulling predictive analytics data. Predictive analytics data looks into what people are most likely to be interested in buying in the future based on previous purchases, browsing history, and other factors.
How does this help with SEO? Having this information before it actually happens (i.e. historical data) can help you optimize the website for SEO ahead of schedule giving you an advantage for when search engines fully crawl and register this information on your website. This can give you a major competitive advantage by being able to predict customer purchasing behavior and preparing for those trends before your competition does.
Get Help from the Small Business SEO Experts
Boostability is a leading white label SEO company with partnerships world-wide. We have over a decade of experience in executing successful SEO campaigns for small businesses across varying industries. Our team is dedicated to helping you navigate these volatile algorithm updates and understanding what practices are being rewarded while others have stopped, developing a data-driven strategy that will generate results for you and your clients, and guiding you along with the way with a dedicate Partner Growth Manager and endless resources from understanding SEO better to selling it more effectively and creating another sustainable revenue stream for your business.
Learn more about our white label SEO services here and what to expect!