Now that the last crumbs of that Aldi Specially Selected panettone have been stuffed into our swollen cheeks and the Christmas tree has been collected, it's time once again to cast our eyes towards the digital horizon.

SEO Trends in 2021: Our Predictions

Join us as we gaze into our crystal ball, summon our inner Paul the Octopus and predict the trends and events that will reverberate throughout the world of SEO in 2021.

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

Spare a thought for poor old Context. Having wrestled the throne from the vice-like fingers of long-serving incumbent Content, it now finds itself deposed by the new kid on the block, Intent.

A quick perusal of SEO 2021 trend blogs leaves little doubt that Intent is this year's sanctioned buzzword. And quite rightly so. If understanding a searcher's intentions isn't right up there with the most important things an SEOer should be considering, then we don't know what is.

It was, of course, the BERT update, way back in the halcyon days of 2019, that brought Intent to the front and centre of people's minds, even if it really should have been there long before.

2020 was all set to be Intent's big year until our attention was diverted by the impending demise of life as we knew it. And although the doors to the pubs and hairdressers remain closed, Intent's ascension can be delayed no longer. Be in no doubt, if the conference centres reopen in 2021, their corridors will be filled with chants of 'Intent is King!'

If you aren't familiar with Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers and the update they inspired, you can learn all about them thanks to our BERT for Beginners Guide. No more hiding your face in shame because you don't know your Masked Language Modelling from your Next Sentence Predication!

AI Will Be Everywhere, But Careful Where You Look

If you can't escape Intent in 2021, you won't have much more luck dodging AI. It's literally everywhere. It's watching you right now. And if you aren't using it to help your SEO efforts… well, the less said, the better.

But, hang on a second, where exactly is it, and what on earth are we meant to be doing with it?

The AI assault on SEO has come from two directions. Firstly, it's from the use of machine learning in ranking algorithms, starting with RankBrain and moving onto NLP and BERT. Put simply, if sub-sets of AI, such as Natural Language Processing, are fuelling search results, then it's remiss for SEOers not to have at least a basic handle on what's going down.

Secondly, there's an ever-increasing set of tools that harness the power of AI to make SEOers work easier to perform and more effective. Crunching large sets of data more quickly and getting more refined outputs is undoubtedly a good thing.

But having a rudimentary understanding of how machine learning drives algorithms and taking out subscriptions to a set of other people's tools, isn't exactly the cutting-edge, AI-driven future that all the bluster seems to suggest. But really exciting stuff is happening. You just need to know where to look. Shameless plug incoming…

Our parent company, Welocalize, is widely regarded as one of the pioneers within machine learning and linguistics. That comes from years of research and investment, and that knowledge is now helping us here at Adapt experiment with some pretty cool stuff.

Take, for example, our tests on readability. We know that Google is giving more and more weight to user experience, and we know that readability impacts user experience. By overlaying linguistic complexity measures from NLP with organic performance for vast sets of web pages across multiple markets and languages, we can find pre-existing and response patterns that can have a massive impact on SEO strategy and content production.

And it need not be confined to readability. Language quality, relevance, and sentiment are all measurable factors that can be cross-referenced against performance, either individually or in various groupings. Undertakings such as this simply wouldn't have been possible without AI.

Certain Approaches to Digital PR Will Continue to Mystify

Deep within the churning stomach of the algorithm, there persists a curious anomaly. That by ranking Hawaiian pizzas by the ratio of ham to pineapple, creating a league table and announcing Kidderminster to be 'The UK's Capital of Hawaiian Pizza' in The Sun Online (or if you're really lucky, The Metro), you can somehow sell more home insurance. Within an increasingly sophisticated machine, it seems an increasingly curious blip.

Perhaps 2021 will be the year that some mecha-suited engineer will be lowered into the beast to fix it?

Much has been written about the merits of an approach to digital PR that focuses almost solely on creating a specific type of viral content that appeals to a particular type of online publication – and it's not a debate we want to get into here (but if you've got a spare couple of hours, please do get in touch). But the laser-focused obsession that certain clients and agencies persist in having with this singular-facet of the incredibly complex and layered world of digital PR is, quite frankly, mindboggling.

Addiction can do strange things to a person, or indeed an entire industry, and link addiction is no different. Will 2021 be the year that this obsession starts to rescind? Our best guess – highly unlikely.

Google My Business Won't Be Fully Monetised Just Yet

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, it was hard not to notice the hullaballoo caused by a Google survey which insinuated that premium, paid-for features were in the pipeline for Google My Business listings.

Sure enough, a few months later, some US business owners noticed Google Certified badges being offered as part of a premium Business Profile package. The Google Certified Badge is nothing new. It's been around since 2017 as part of the paid-for Local Service Ad product, but this is the first time it's made its way to the Google My Business platform. And that felt like a pretty significant development.

Looking for clarity, SearchEngineLand received the following response from Google:

We're always testing new ways to improve our experience for our advertisers, merchants and users. This experiment will show the Google Guaranteed badge on the business profile. We don't have anything additional to announce right now.

It would be a brave man that bets against further monetisation of Google My Business – but we are up to the challenge. Here in the UK, we don't think 2021 will see a full freemium evolution for GMB. The timing and climate just seem a little off. But make no mistake, come 2022, that green badge will need to be budgeted for by anyone serious about their local SEO.

The Ascent Of User Experience Gathers Apace

So, unless you've spent the last 12 months locked away from the rest of the outside world, you will almost certainly have these nine letters etched into the fabric of your mind: LCP, FID, CLS. Because whether you want it or not, Core Web Vitals will be a ranking factor in 2021.

More fully, Google announced that "page experience ranking signals for Google Search will launch in May 2021. This will combine Core Web Vitals and previous UX-related signals." Big news.

Well, kind of big news. A lot depends on how you interpret it.

In terms of what is being asked for from a tech perspective, this is more of a formalisation than a step-change. But it's the soul of the update, rather than the body, that's interesting. Look behind the technical requirements, and it's clear that user experience is now the driving force.

Time on page, bounce rates, pogo rates, scroll depths – all these metrics are going to become increasingly important. The influence of user metrics is irrepressibly, and entirely understandably, in the ascendancy.

Apple Search to Launch

Rumours of an Apple search engine have been doing the rounds for years. Much like the Loch Ness Monster, months and months of silence can suddenly be interrupted by a purple patch of activity. And late autumn 2020 was one of those periods – suddenly, Apple Search was back on everyone's lips.

Stephan Bajaio, Chief Evangelist at Conductor and good friend of Adapt, did some super sleuthing around the topic for his Future of SEO: 2021 & Beyond Webinar. Check it out to see exactly why Apple Search might finally be on its way – and also to hear from our very own Director of Performance Translation, Gurdeep Gola.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, our self-imposed 1500-word count is almost upon us, meaning there's no room to discuss 2021 barnburners like retention-focused SEO, ever-increasing word counts (how could 1500 words ever be enough?), and rapidly evolving featured snippet strategies. Nor have we given any love or attention to SEO prediction list stalwarts, Video and Voice. But fear not, 2022 will be here quicker than you imagine, and I'm sure they will be back.