2021 Search Marketing Trends: What’s Changing and What’s Staying

As digital marketers, we often tell ourselves that we love learning new things. It helps preserve sanity when the rules around us change. Personally, I’m also not overly upset when some things remain constant year after year. As we look at search marketing trends in 2021, some things are changing and some things are staying the same.

Google Analytics Gets a Major Reboot

Google Analytics is the swiss army knife for measurement for Search Marketers. It can be integrated with Google Ads for paid reporting and Google Search Console for SEO-focused reporting. Most critically, the conversion tracking engine allows Paid and Organic efforts to be measured in terms of their impact on bottom funnel customer generation and revenue goals. The ubiquitous reporting platform is running on over half of the websites out there today and it’s changing.

The new default property type for Google Analytics is fundamentally different than it used to be. Formerly called the Google Analytics App + Web property, the new Google Analytics 4 property type is here. While it likely won’t replace Universal Analytics (UA) as the standard for GA measurement for a number of years, it is inevitable that this is the future of analytics. So what should digital marketers do in 2021?

Learn How GA4 is Different From UA

Some things seem better and easier in GA4 compared to UA. For example, there are enhanced measurement events (shown below) that can be set up entirely within the Google Analytics platform. With Universal Analytics, events like scroll depth, video engagement, and file downloads could only be tracked with the help of Google Tag Manager.

Some things are far more complicated or not even possible within GA4. For example, there are currently no views that are available. It’s also not possible to change attribution models in GA4.

These changes stem from the fact that the entire data collection model in GA4 is different from UA. Marketers should dedicate some time to get an understanding of how GA4 compares to UA as the session based model of UA is replaced by events in GA4.

Start Experimenting With GA4

The good news is that Google Analytics is still very free. Marketers should begin setting up new Google Analytics 4 properties in addition to their legacy UA properties. The legacy data will allow business as usual reporting and management to continue, while the new GA4 property will provide some much needed time and space to acclimate to the new platform.

The Shift Towards Automation in Paid Search is Accelerating

Google’s paid advertising platform was rebranded from Google AdWords to Google Ads in July of 2018. Google said the move was to better reflect everything that was available on the platform, since Display, Shopping, App, and Video ads are available in addition to the original Search ads. It also signaled the beginning of PPC advertisers relying less on the “words” chosen in their campaigns, and trusting Google more.

In the two and a half years since, Google has been slowly rolling out changes to the platform that subtly force advertisers to trust the Google machine and automate many of their campaigns. In 2021, this trend is no longer subtle.

Say Goodbye to Modified Broad Match

For many PPC advertisers, there were only two match types that really mattered: [exact match] (set off by brackets) and +modified +broad +match (where each search term following a plus sign indicated a required term in the query string). Broad match and “phrase match” were often disregarded, largely because they could be imprecise and were not necessary with proper use of exact match and modified broad match keywords.

Over the years, Google had slowly been chipping away at the precision available to advertisers by softening the definitions of exact match but 2021 is a whole new ballgame. As of Feb 2021, new modified broad match keywords can’t be created, and the three match types shown below will remain.

In their place, advertisers will be forced to rely more and more on Google’s Audience Solutions to augment their keyword match types. Let’s say you’re an advertiser looking to reach parents of toddlers who want to purchase educational toys. In the “old days” (2020 and before!) you would probably be best served by creating a tight list of exact match and modified broad match keywords.

  • [educational toys for toddlers]
  • [education games for toddlers]
  • [teaching toys for toddlers]
  • +educational +toys +toddlers
  • +educational +games +toddlers
  • +teaching +toys +toddlers

Now, Google would say their #bestpractice would be more akin to using only a couple of broad match keywords like toys and games and layering on Audience Solutions like “Parents of Toddlers” (a Detailed Demographics Audience), “Family-focused” (an Affinity Audience) and “Baby & Children’s Products” (an In Market Audience).

The end result is that control shifts from the advertisers (based on the keywords they select and manage) to Google, because Google controls the definition of the Audiences.

Other Things Being Automated

The match type change is only one of several that have been changing. Another includes the trend away from manual CPC bidding and towards automated bidding. Pro tip: some automated bidding strategies can be effective at both driving results and saving time. Any conversion focused strategy like Target CPA or Maximize Conversions can work wonderfully. But the upper funnel automations like Maximize Clicks or Target Impression Share can be a great way to burn money in a Search campaign.

And advertisers should be on the lookout for other “enhancements” from Google Ads. As of March 2021, Responsive Search Ads (RSAs) where Google controls what ad shows up on the SERP replaced the advertiser controlled Expanded Text Ads (ETAs) as the default.

And Google reps are getting increasingly pushy with advising advertisers to follow the automation heavy recommendations outlined in the Optimization score section of their accounts, and even to turn on auto-applied recommendations, allowing Google to make changes as it sees fit within accounts.

At some point, humans will become almost extraneous in the process of managing an Ads account. For now, a human who understands the platform (and which automations can be most helpful) is still the best way to get the most out of Google Ads.

Amazing Content Still Matters for SEO

The SEO world is getting more technical than it’s ever been before. Structured data is meaningful for driving click through rates on the SERP. Technical SEO’s are becoming proficient with Python and driving amazing results. Developer skills are becoming more important than ever as the world races to understand LCP, FID, and CLS in preparation for Google’s Page Experience Update. It’s a complex world and it all matters. But it’s also true that without amazing content, none of it matters.

Think About What Search Engines Want to Do

Search Engines are still very much in the customer service business. You, the customer, asks the search engine a question. Your satisfaction with the results you get on the SERP determine whether you continue to use the same search engine going forward (and creating revenue potential for your preferred search giant) or (gasp!) decide to finally give that DuckDuckGo a shot.

So yes, search engines are highly motivated customer service providers. They know that the best results on the SERP should load quickly and be visually engaging, but they must present useful, highly relevant, and trustworthy responses to the questions that users have. This is the prerequisite for any On Page SEO work.

Think About Search Intent

Search engines are increasingly working to match results on the SERP to user intent. Long gone are days of keyword stuffing, or even just nailing your primary keyword in your H1, title tag, alt text, and meta description. While those things still matter, content creators should be thinking about clusters of content related to the questions that their users have. There are lots of great free resources out there to get the process started. A personal favorite is alsoasked.com.

Local SEO Still Matters

Google gets over 3.5 billion searches per day and roughly half of all searches have local intent. And these are high intent searches, with 88% of local searches resulting in a call or visit within a 24 hour period. Think about it, you don’t search for “coffee shop near me” planning to get your caffeine fix tomorrow. So we’re looking at well north of a billion and a half searches per day where someone is looking to spend money in a place where they happen to be.

3 Things to Do With Local?

As the world prepares to re-open in 2021 following a year spent largely indoors, it’s important to remind ourselves how much Local still matters. Here are 3 things businesses with brick and mortar footprints should be doing.

  1. If you think NAP consistency has something to do with your post lunch doldrums, you should remind yourself precisely how Local SEO compares to On Page SEO. With all things SEO, we can think about how Authority + Relevancy combine to drive SERP results, but those two dimensions look very different in practical terms for Local vs. On Page.
  2. If your online reputation game looks weak, it’s time to move that to the top of the priority list. Yes, there are software solutions and services that can help generate quality 5* reviews. But if you’re a business that continually languishes below the 4.0 review mark, it’s probably worth asking if your customers are trying to tell you something. If something is broken, fix it. Then go generate authentic, high quality reviews that will last.
  3. Google My Business is still the most important platform in Local, and arguably the most important platform of all for many local businesses. It’s also still very free, so take advantage of all it has to offer by using Google Posts, keeping hours current, and regularly refreshing with new pictures.

About Root & Branch Group

Root & Branch is a small digital marketing company that believes roots come before branches when it comes to successful digital marketing campaigns. If you’re interested in learning more, you can connect on LinkedIn or check out some SEO-focused content on YouTube.

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