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Expert Panel:
2021 Google Updates

January 11, 2022 Trish Leighton

For SEO professionals, 2021 can be summed up in two words: algorithm updates. Last year, we saw an unprecedented number of search algorithm changes and tests that made the search result landscape far more volatile than in previous years. Some of these were confirmed by Google, and we were given some insight into what they were focusing on so we could anticipate the effects, but many were smaller tweaks that you would only notice if you were paying close attention (and luckily, we do).

What is an algorithm update?

Google periodically updates their search algorithm that determines what results are shown for a given search query. They are all aimed at improving the user experience and delivering the best results that match the user’s search. Google puts forth great effort to ensure any result that is clicked on will provide accurate and useful information without requiring much further digging on the user’s part. For example, a search about pet-friendly hotels in a certain area shouldn’t contain results about the restaurant of the hotel, or for a hotel not in the immediate area of interest. Google doesn’t want a user to say, “well that isn’t what I was looking for at all” and have to go elsewhere for their information or dig further on the website to find it.

To do this, the algorithm must sort through billions of website pages in milliseconds to provide solid results, and this requires frequently improving their search algorithms. This can lead to temporary dips or surges in your website’s rankings, or lasting effects depending on if your site has been rewarded or penalized with the recent change.

2021 Updates

This year brought some major updates, most occurring in the last six months. In June, Google started rolling out a months-long Page Experience Update “designed to highlight pages that offer great user experiences” and reward sites with good page load speed and responsiveness, and a solid layout that doesn’t shift. We’ve all been browsing a site on our phones and clicked a link just as the page moves and we end up clicking the wrong link! It’s not conducive to a good user experience and is one of the metrics that Google calls Core Web Vitals that are measured and used to determine ranking.

In July, Google began its Link Spam Update, aimed at nullifying bad links and checking that a website’s backlinks follow Google’s guidelines. Basically, if you purchase links, use a blog link network, or get sponsored links without identifying them as such, your site may have been penalized and pushed down in the rankings. Since backlinks are still a powerful signal to Google that your site is relevant and authoritative, they need to ensure the links are legitimate and procured organically.

In August, Google started re-writing page titles. Page titles are what appear as the clickable links in search results. So once it was determined that a page on your website was a good match for a search, Google may have changed the displayed page title to something that more closely mirrored the query. The intention was to make it more enticing to click, but if you’ve ever spent time crafting perfectly unique page titles or expect to see something specific when you Google your own website and are shown something out of left field, it can be an unwelcome surprise.

September, October, and November brought a massive number of minor changes and one broad core algorithm update aimed at enhancing the previous spam update. As SEO analysts trying to report on keyword rankings and metrics, this made our jobs more difficult as the volatility of rankings was off the charts for several months. Just as we got used to one change, they would roll it back and start testing something else. While it’s important that the search algorithm be tested and tweaked as user behavior shifts and our expectations of website responsiveness gets faster and faster, it can create frustration for both the agency and client while the changes are occurring and things remain up in the air.

However, through all these changes and tweaks we have seen, the underlying intention remains the same and shows us where the priorities must lie for 2022 – solid user experience, informative content, and squeaky-clean technical SEO.

One can look to the physical changes in search results to see how content is being used as an answer to the intent of the search, and not just trying to match keywords.

Besides the page title rewrites, Google recently rolled out indented results that actually gave a website two spots in the search results, as more than one page could answer the intent of the search. This is an excellent opportunity to own more of the search results real estate that is so hard to come by. But the only way to get it is through good content on the website that carries through all the pages.

This is a search for “Hard Rock Café” on Google. If you look at the two results from the same website, you can see clearly how Google is trying to determine my intention of the search. While it delivers the home page as the main result, it’s as if the next thought is, “I bet she is looking for a Hard Rock Café location near her, so let’s show the locations page too and make it easier.”


Another change is the placement of the “People Also Ask” section. This is where Google displays content related to the search query, as it tries to understand your intent and provide options that make sense. This used to appear at the bottom of page 1 of search results, and then was often in the middle. Now it’s displayed above organic search results for many of our test queries. This section is a great resource for content ideas for your website, and another example of how Google is trying to determine what you are really looking for, as this example for “best hotel in Times Square” query shows:


What does this mean for 2022?

Google is investing major resources into AI development, mainly around understanding language and intent. It’s as if they want to know the feeling behind your search query and what motivates it, and thusly be able to interpret content of a website to match perfectly.

When they deliver results, they want to be sure the website that is clicked on loads quickly, doesn’t change the location of clickable elements as it loads, and, perhaps most importantly, matches the intent behind the search.

So how do we prepare for this? Short answer – you should already be prepared for it. Content being important is not a new concept. Establish authority in your area with destination pages that talk about things to do near you, restaurants that can’t be missed, or the perfect trip itinerary. This is not the time to take a “less is more” minimalist approach or to skip creating the FAQ page.

Make sure your SEO team is monitoring your performance regularly and that your technical SEO is aligned with Google’s expectations. Schema markup on every page, image tags, clean headers, internal linking structure, good backlink profile – these are all ways to help communicate your content’s subject matter and show Google how you can answer the intent of any related search.

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