2021 Google Updates Review

2021 looked at through a lens

2021 Was A Busy Year For Google Updates

2021 was a busy year for Google, which in turn made it a busy year for the SEO industry.  Due to the almost monthly updates and significant changes in focus, many websites experienced unexpected changes; some good, some not-so-good.

In February 2021, Google began “Passage Indexing” – focusing on a sentence or some phrasing within a page or article content.  Passage Indexing is similar to, but not the same as, a “featured snippet” and diminished the attention typically paid to web page titles and headlines.

By March, people noticed that some categories, ranging from cosmetics to finance, had a decline in featured snippets. This was a by-product of the YMYL (your money or your life) focus Google had previously started, which aimed to increase accuracy and accountability in web content.

In April, as a continuation of the “accuracy and fact-driven accountability” focus, Google began to prioritize accuracy and stated facts in reviews. The goal was to make reviews less of a sales pitch and more fact-driven.  Overuse of adjectives, once SEO’s friend, became less relevant.

June introduced Google’s MUM (Multitask Unified Model), which used AI to improve the search experience for users.  This replaced the prior model, BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers). The purpose was to improve the user’s experience (UX), at least in the eyes of Google’s AI.  Another June update, Google’s spam update, was designed (theoretically) to go after “black hat” SEO techniques.

One of the largest updates of the year – the “page experience update” – also happened in June and made many sites bounce a bit more than usual.  At about the same time, many SEO frontline specialists (including myself) began noticing that Google’s AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) was no longer being used as a ranking measure.

Late June and most of July gave us a major “core update”, which mostly affected sites and content that could have a negative impact on the quality of people’s lives and/or their finances (remember Google’s focus on YMYL). Newer sites suffered the most; established sites, particularly with quality backlinks, typically gained search placement.  Google also made it obvious that they were now simply “nullifying” spammy and black hat backlinks, not penalizing sites containing them (something many SEO professionals already believed to be true).  But while Google stopped actively penalizing sites for using these dubious techniques, sites containing them did see a drop in traffic because of the nullified links.

In August, Google began changing title bars and site meta descriptions (although hints of that had been taking place for several years). One upside to this change: Google’s updated descriptions often offer insight into what Google thinks a web page is about and can provide indirect guidance for content changes when Google’s “thoughts” are off-target.

According to many reports, another update occurred in October and into November. From our perspective, this update was primarily related to Google My Business changes and descriptions. Of the dozens of websites we manage, there was very little difference in the tracked keyword search results following this update. There were also many reports of a spam update, but we saw very little (if any) impact – quality content will generally not be impacted by spam updates.

Late November also gave us an unexpected update, which affected many retailers who had online stores featuring a variety of products with descriptions. Many small retail outlets were negatively impacted by this update, especially as it happened just before Black Friday.

Future changes –  Google is renaming Google My Business (GMB) to Google Business Profile (GBP) in early 2022, tying stated service offerings more closely to Google Maps and search results. There are still a lot of questions about how this will be implemented, but we expect that a significant part of Search Engine Optimization will be tied to GBP for small businesses in 2022.