How Should You Approach SEO in 2021? (It’s Not How You Might Think!)

We already know organic search traffic is more sustainable and effective than paid ads.

Research estimates that globally, businesses will spend a whopping $389 billion on digital ads this year—most without really understanding where the money goes or the ROI.

In fact, people are finally catching onto the idea that hyper-targeted ads—like PPC which drives 80% of Google’s revenue—aren’t as targeted as they’re advertised. So, what’s the solution?

If you think you’re off the hook because you follow the technical SEO blueprint, think again. The smartest marketers and SEO consultants have acknowledged for years that SEO as we know it is on the way out.

Well, that day already came and went—but most brands never made the appropriate changes. Instead, they just kept picking a single keyword, throwing it into the copy ten times, optimizing the meta, and later wondering why their rankings keep dropping.

Brands must realize that SEO today is extremely fluid. You can’t press the right SEO buttons and expect rankings to fall out anymore—and with every Google update moving forward, the tactics we know as SEO will slowly turn into spam flags.

To Win at SEO, You Must Understand How Google Does Its Job

Google’s job isn’t to help brands rank on the first page. In fact, Google has always hated the concept of SEO because it gives brands and malicious characters a loophole to game the system.

Google’s job is to answer user search queries effectively and efficiently.

Once you change your mindset to acknowledge that, it gets much easier creating content that consistently ranks.

Every Google Update Moves Closer to Human Language and Intent

Every Google update moves farther away from mechanics and closer towards natural human language.

Google Brain, the tech giant’s machine learning and AI team, formed in the early 2010s. In 2015, Google launched its first major update known to include machine learning: RankBrain.

Machine learning helps Google understand user intent. Ideally, the algorithms improve based on what results people click on in every search, whether they return to the results, how long they stay on a page—infinite factors, really.

Every Google update takes the algorithms one step closer to understanding natural human language, too. That was the purpose behind the BERT update with natural language processing (NLP) in 2019 (the biggest update since 2015).

You Can’t Press the Right SEO Buttons to Improve Ranking Anymore

With machine learning and AI in charge, you can’t reverse engineer a winning SEO strategy anymore just by plugging keywords in the right places. You must genuinely earn rankings today with consistent, comprehensive, and better-quality content than what’s already ranking on the topic.

Google Search Rankings Fluctuate Daily

Search the same keyword two days in a row and you might notice totally different first-page results.

Machine learning is naturally fluid. Every time someone runs a search—which happens 3.5 billion times per day—the algorithm adjusts itself to (hopefully) offer better results each time.

SEO demands ongoing energy. It should be an ingrained part of your content marketing and website strategies, not something you do once a month or after every Google update.

Today’s Common SEO Tactics Could Become Spam Someday

Websites used to hyperlink keywords with internal links because they knew it would propel those links to the top of results for the anchor text keyword.

Did spammers exploit the anchor text links? Of course, but countless innocent websites also thought they were just doing the right thing to help Google understand their content.

Even with every technical SEO tactic today, there’s always the chance a future update will render it a spammy black hat technique. However, if you always prioritize content integrity, those issues are easy (albeit tedious) to fix.

What Can You Do to Set Yourself Up for Successful SEO?

It’s all about quality. Create content you’d want to read yourself and you’ll eventually earn your way into relevant SERPs.

Use Technical SEO to Help Google Understand Your Content

Keywords and technical SEO still matter; they tell Google what your content is about and your areas of expertise. You just can’t rely on keyword placement to strongarm into the SERPs.

Placement certainly still matters, though; Google algorithms scan certain parts more than others to understand your content. Almost like humans, algorithms look for shortcuts to reduce cognitive load.

Your headline, meta description, subheadings, and image metadata should all include topical keywords in a way that sounds like you’d speak.

Make Google EAT Priority in Every Piece of Content

When we talk about “high-quality” content, what do we mean? Google uses the EAT acronym to judge what content is worth ranking.

  • Expertise
  • Authority
  • Trustworthiness

Think about how important those factors are.

For a search like “2021 interior design,” low-authority content is a minor inconvenience. We might look for inspiration somewhere besides Google next time. But for searches like “custody laws in Ohio” or “how to perform CPR,” low-authority search results could produce some pretty devastating consequences.

That’s why you should only publish content within your realm of expertise, link to high-authority sources, and offer trustworthy advice.

Write Copy in Snippet Formats: Subheadings, Bullets, Summaries

First, your content must be scannable. Both humans and Google algorithms scan subheadings, titles, bullets, and the edge of copy to find the information they need.

Whitespace matters as well to guide eyes around the page and break up blocks of text.

However, you should also make your copy snackable. Google keeps adding snippet features to search results:

snippet features search results

snippet search results

Under every subheading, include a strategic summary or bulleted list with relevant keywords that Google can grab and insert directly into the SERPs.

Make Content Enjoyable with Images, Video, GIFs, and Infographics

Multimedia helps break up blocks of text and keeps your visitors engaged—and engagement is good because it tells Google people enjoy your content.

Keep in mind that Google has also started paying more attention to image searches. Always optimize your image, GIF, and video metadata with descriptive ALT tags.

Plus, while accessibility has always mattered, Google will begin prioritizing it more as a ranking factor this year via the upcoming Core Web Vitals, along with overall user experience.

Prioritize Semantics for Subheading Topics

It’s not about primary keywords anymore. Google wants you to take a more holistic approach with your content through semantic keywords, questions, and related topics.

Run a search for your general blog topic keyword and use the related questions along with inspiration from Answer the Public to structure your subheadings. You’ll end up with a comprehensive blog every time.

structured sub-headings seo
Answer the Public

Avoid SEO “Tricks” and Think Holistically for Success in 2021 and Beyond

Don’t beat yourself up if you suffered a serious blow to rankings after a major Google update. After every update, some of us gain and some lose. That’s just how it is.

Get your mind in the right place first.

In some cases, this might mean admitting you need to remove old mediocre blogs and update others with interesting in-depth content. Regardless, as long as you prioritize integrity in everything you publish, you’ll never have to lose sleep over Google updates.

Our SEO consultants bring over 15 years of experience into work every day to help brands create engaging content for their audience. Check out our diverse portfolio to see the results.


Justin Staples

For 15 years, Justin has guided businesses on a transformative journey through strategic marketing and design to craft their unique online identity.