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2021 Guide for Digital Marketers: Recommendations From Top Experts

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03 Feb, 2021

As digital marketing has already been a field of constant changes, today following updates, understanding the shifts in the consumer behaviour, analyzing the data and adapting to new developments is much more important than ever - because 2020 has changed a lot.

We interviewed top experts so as to learn about their takeaways from a year deeply affected by COVID-19 pandemic while identifying the key SEO and PPC trends for 2021.

We asked 3 questions to the digital marketing professionals to collect insights:

  • How has COVID-19 shifted digital marketing?
  • How the top SEO/PPC/Search trends will evolve in 2021?
  • What are 2 or 3 things we should not ignore in 2021?

We are deeply saddened by the loss of Hamlet Batista as this article is dedicated to the lovely memory of him.

I'm assuming everybody in digital marketing is seeing increased business except for the travel industry and similar. Many businesses that traditionally traded offline have been shifting their budgets to power online campaigns.

Search marketers, in particular, need to pay more attention to keywords that where the intention of the search user shifted. For example, the phrase "cleaning wipes" before COVID was not necessarily germ-killing wipes. Now, it most likely is. There are many new opportunities. For example, we've seen a spike in job search demand for medical personnel.

The need for speed and agile decision making and execution will remain strong. When the world can change so dramatically so quickly, moving slowly can mean the difference between the life and death of a business.

Automation will across all channels, powered by advanced AI technologies, will help marketers do more with less (and faster). Privacy measures and increased keywords datasets will make intent research as important as keyword research.

Don't ignore programming in SEO/PPC/Content. Marketing is becoming increasingly technical (regular expressions, redirects, etc.)

Python can help automate many tasks. JavaScript is where the web is heading. 

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Obviously, a lot has changed in the last months, ever since COVID-19 became a pandemic of global scale. And the same is true for digital marketing, but not solely because of COVID-19 - the general landscape is changing faster than ever. Also, I don’t believe there is this one single answer which is valid for every industry; as a matter of fact, the impact of COVID-19 has been quite diverse with heavy losses – e.g., in the events and travel industry - but strong gains in online retail, all things remote working, etc.

Channel shifts: We’ve been at the forefront of this - especially when COVID-19 hit back in March, loads of paid search budgets got suspended. One reason being that customer acquisition wouldn’t have made any sense (e.g., international travel). Therefore, companies started to shift budgets into conversion rate optimization or ramped up their content marketing efforts.

Communication: Of course, this is not surprising - but clearly, communication had to be changed in various ways. This could have been because;

  • companies were forced to move away from customer acquisition and had to focus on relationship management/retention-focused campaigns instead.
  • their message would not have been in-line with the “new normal”.
  • companies’ product offering had to move from an offline to an online “model” - or be redone entirely; both cases would have called for new campaigns.

Empathy: This was expressed in loads of different ways – which was great in the beginning, but soon led to an “overload” for some - for example, due to

  • all clothing companies starting to craft and distribute masks.
  • almost every single events company starting to offer either free events or webinars.
  • many distilleries producing hand sanitizer etc.

From an SEO standpoint, I strongly believe that Google’s passage indexing will have a massive impact on their search results. Much more significant than the widely anticipated roll-out of Core Web, for example. 

I expect Google to take a huge leap in terms of quality - because comprehending and finally weighting certain passages depending on the query should help to better understand pages with mixed topical focus (and let’s be honest, these are a lot…!), long-form contents, etc. I’m very excited about this! So a “trend” in that regard would probably be “passage optimisation”? Though I have to say, some of us SEOs are already doing that (e.g., by adding and marking-up simplistic forms of passages such as FAQ, etc.). However, I see this becoming much more of “a thing” in 2021 – but also something that a lot of SEOs will get wrong.

Structured data: Personally, I find the topic “relatively boring” (yeah, it’s not really new…) - but it’s super important; especially because it helps Google understand;

 

  • the content of your page
  • the importance of certain sections
  • the structure of your page
  • the relationship (if any) between different passages of content, be it in the same or within other documents.

… so essentially: what your page is all about - but in a much more structured, and therefore efficient, way. And not only that, but it’ll also serve as a foundation for loads of other (SERP) features yet to come, and, ultimately, it will even help train Google’s ML algorithms (not that you’d benefit from this, but hey…).

Video (and audio): I believe Google is going to significantly ramp up its integration of videos as well as audio content, especially podcasts for the latter. This ties in nicely with a) the fact that often times (depending on intent) those formats simply are the best answer, b) the whole concept of passages, and lastly, c) loads of progress has been made recently with audio as well as video recognition. So, extracting relevant parts to actually “rank” those formats properly (without needing tons of meta data) is likely to help with this as well.

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COVID-19 and lockdowns have been incredibly stressful on businesses and the people that work in them. Some are dealing with massive spikes in demand and others are dealing with massive declines; and those that are not dealing with those things are still dealing with the challenges of working from home, unpredictable economic situations, and difficulty in anticipating demand and business needs in the future. We are also dealing with employees and people that are over-taxed and stressed, dealing with many more adjustments in their home and personal lives. I think that overall, digital marketing strategies have not changed all that much, but the tactics and the way that teamwork together is what has really changed. 

I think that it has shifted a lot of the messaging for eCommerce. People are looking for free shipping with a quick delivery time. They are doing more online comparisons of products and prices. In some cases, like food delivery apps, restaurants, and entertainment, people are looking for different types of products and pivots - prepared and unprepared food al la Panera selling groceries; online experiences like what Airbnb has been offering; Digital workout classes like Mirror and Peloton.

In a more immediate way, it has obviously changed how teams are working together. Digital marketing teams are re-learning how to communicate when they are virtual, so tools that make that easy, or make project management or asset management may be very useful. In-person conferences have been canceled, but so many events have gone online, at a discount, and this is a huge opportunity for people in the industry to learn so much more than they otherwise could, but - it does seem like there is so much opportunity to learn and information available that people are sometimes getting overwhelmed - both speakers and potential attendees. It is an interesting paradox to watch play out.

I expect 2021 to be a time of a lot of learning and experimentation. Everyone is adapting - marketing and product managers, but also customers. Google does seem to be making a lot of updates that will make information in the search result easier to consume, but this may further erode the amount of traffic that is going from search results to a website. Digital marketers of all kinds, including paid will have to stay on their toes - because search results are becoming more compelling and interesting, and there are even the Free Merchant Center listings that can rank, with images, prices and stars, just like a paid listing, competing directly with PLAs. Here is what I think we will all need to adapt to:

  • Richer SERPs with more data, images, and graphs showing up in clusters - it may look like expanded Knowledge Graph - the best example here is some of the COVID search results that we are seeing now.
  • The richer results that I am expecting may be called SubTopics or they may just include SubTopics; This is something that Google has announced with Passages, but they have not gotten much attention. I think they will be a huge deal.
  • Passage Ranking will likely become a new key goal of SEO’s; I expect this to grow as a strategy option, in the same way that targeting Featured Snippets did - there will be controversy regarding whether or not they are good for SEO or conversion, and eventually, most people will be on board, and ready to target Passages. 
  • I expect some controversy over Google mistakes. They are using more and more AI, which is imperfect and needs to be trained. Training means catching mistakes, so that could be interesting, and there is even potential for major mistakes. 

Don’t ignore Passages and SubTopics. These are changes to the SERP that are driven by AI. Google was surprised at how quickly their 2-phase indexing process was able to speed up the time between the first and the second phase of indexing. My guess is that the AI used in that process worked and learned faster than they expected. I think that this could happen again, but with Passages, SubTopics, and the richer results in the SERP - and this could be a wild ride.

Don’t ignore free Merchant Center listings. This is a big deal and I am honestly surprised that people are not giving it more attention. Being able to get your product information directly in a SERP, with a clickable link that gets people directly into a conversion funnel is a big deal. I think people might not be giving it much attention because teams are divided between ‘Paid’ and ‘Organic’ and this is somewhere in the middle. I plan on spending more time testing and researching this, because I want to understand and explain the potential better. I also think that things like this, and the Google Jobs API are the future of SEO - Really - the FUTURE - these things are important! Optimizing content for proper ingestion into specific Google APIs may be our new jobs, potentially in 2021 but certainly after.

I have been saying it for years, but Voice Search and voice interaction is important - even if it is not perfect yet. Videos and video transcripts and video chapters, along with Passages and podcast indexing & transcription, (also with chapters) are positioned to change Voice Search and interaction, but they will also change what and how we optimize.

People will doubt it and mock it until it all of a sudden takes off, and really changes things, but smart marketers are already optimizing video and audio assets to interact with voice queries. We already interact with voice for simple information like math problems, spelling, weather, time, appointments, and cooking; but imagine saying “Hey Google, which is the best stainless steel refrigerator with a water filter and an ice dispenser?” and Google gives you a meaningful response or product comparison directly from the Merchant Center; Or imagine saying “Hey Google, how do I apply magnetic eyelashes?” and Google shows you a YouTube video, made and sponsored by a magnetic eyelash company.  

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To state the obvious the COVID-19 crisis has profoundly affected the digital industry and in many, different ways. Some of the effects are bound to last, some will abate as we return to a way of life and doing business resembling what we were used to before the outbreak. Most prosaically, there are a number of verticals that benefited and consequently grew over-proportional as a consequence of large population groups living under lockdown conditions over a prolonged period of time. Online retail, streaming and gambling providers are just a few of a large group of profit makers. Among these online retail is most likely to retain some of the temporary market share gains post pandemic. At the same time, the tourism industry in particular online travel and accommodation platforms continue to struggle for survival. For them this is a time of reckoning, since some industry consolidation is to be expected. Those brands that manage to get out at the end of the crisis can look forward to unprecedented growth, with fewer competitors than previously. It is apparent that the bottled-up consumer needs, unsatisfied for a prolonged period of time are virtually certain to cause a huge spike in travel, as soon as it is deemed safe enough. Which is why wise, long term thinking website operators take advantage of the current lull time to prepare their online platforms for what’s to come. This is the perfect opportunity to dive deep into on- and off-page SEO signals, drop legacy issues, clean-up backlink profiles and make the website as fast and robust as possible. Now is the perfect timing to do a comprehensive technical SEO audit and implement the changes.

One of the major changes that are certain to be coming in early 2021 is mobile-first indexing. For years mobile has been tossed around and deemed the next big thing that was coming. Prematurely, as we now know. Yet, with the Google announcement from July 2020 there are no more doubts. 100% mobile-first indexing for all websites is imminent. Websites not prepared or poorly optimized for mobile devices are certain to be on the losing end of the spectrum. Their organic rankings will most likely tank, especially in rather competitive environments. A best case scenario for not mobile ready websites is a prolonged decline of organic search visibility into ultimate oblivion. Many website operators have recognized and addressed the looming danger. Those who have not done so yet are quickly running out of time. For that reason, and with respect to the market consolidations expected independently as a consequence of the COVID-19 situation, it is likely that some brands will merge, evolve or disappear.

The importance of Core Web Vitals can’t be overestimated in 2021. With Google now officially highlighting the importance of user signals or as it is alternatively referred field data building websites that are popular with users is essentially a critical part of an online business strategy. Individual components, previously seen as isolated factors such as mobile friendliness, page performance, unique selling proposition and managing user expectations now, also officially, all contribute to how well any landing page does in organic Google Search. This is excellent news for all users and for website operators who did and continue to improve websites for their target audiences. With Core Web Vitals in place, one crucial signal is likely to improve across the board though. Landing Pages that load excessively long won’t stand a chance compared to their competitors. Which is why we can reasonably expect page performance to improve across verticals, language markets and industries.

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It made us realize that the best laid plans aren’t immune to crazy changes in the world and digital marketers who were nimble, willing to adapt, and do it quickly, thrived.

The ability to do things online has been particularly helpful in a year like 2020 but it’s also made us realize what we miss about getting out of the house and being with other people. Now that we got to prove to the laggards that buying stuff online really is super convenient, how do we combine the best of those online conveniences with the joys of being in the real world? How do we not lose all the gains we’ve seen this year in online transaction growth?

And how do we create a world that’s more fair and equitable now that we realize that a lot of the things we enjoy are highly dependent on the essential workers. We need to make sure we build sustainable systems that don’t collapse when another unexpected thing happens.

Automation has been a top trend in PPC for a few years and it will continue to be a major theme in 2021. 

Expect to see more changes like these from the ad engines: 

  1. More data will disappear. Like when Google started showing fewer search terms in reports.
  2. We’ll have less control over some things. Like how responsive search ads let us control the ad less than expanded text ads. 

But not all is lost! PPC experts have to make a mind shift if they want to continue optimizing their ads. Instead of managing details inside of Google Ads, they need to shift focus and learn to turn the knobs and dials on the automated systems. 

For example, instead of trying to tell Google exactly what keyword and what bid and what ad text is likely to result in a conversion, why not try to tell Google a bit more about those conversions and why you’re not happy with some of them? 

Answer the question of what makes one conversion better than another. Did one prospect end up buying from your sales team whereas the other didn’t? Did one person return half their order whereas the other kept everything? Chances are you’re not sharing these important details with the ad engines or your tool vendors like Optmyzr yet. But once you do, the machine learning algorithms can help find more of the best types of conversions and fewer of the ones that weren’t as valuable. 

I think 2020 taught us a lesson about not getting complacent. We need to have really good monitoring and alert systems that quickly help us adapt to fast-changing factors in the PPC landscape. And by the way, those same systems we put in place to get through the pandemic can also be really useful to help us monitor the ever-increasing set of automations we’re forced to use. 

We also can’t ignore that machine learning is getting more ingrained in all the tools we use and that automations keep getting better. We need to get with the times and have a strategy for working with the machines instead of trying to prove that we’re still better than them.

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Covid-19 has both changed things and has also not changed things. For businesses, if they were not already online before the pandemic, they either got online or folded for the most part. Obviously, many coffee shops are not online, but housewares, makeup, candles, etc were all shops intensifying their online efforts in order to stay afloat. For all their efforts, people still opted to shop offline for these housewares, candles, and other things. The desire to touch, examine, and buy immediately items has kept offline shops in business but the real fight now will be between Amazon and small retailers. 

Businesses who moved recently online have faced serious fulfillment issues and may yet not survive the move. There has been a boom of small businesses looking for digital marketing support but mainly free to do themselves rather than hire a professional. There has been a move for digital marketing to go in-house more as agencies are eschewed for local talent. SEOs and SEMs can bring a business customers but it is up to the business to fulfill the orders. One of my clients benefitted massively as a result of the pandemic but refused to leverage their dominant market position too much in order to give smaller companies a chance. 

I don’t know that beyond what Google has already announced and Bing’s advancements in ML that there will be anything of substance that will change in 2021. We will still have core updates, we will see the new UX icons in search results, we will see fraggles/passages more and more, as Google themselves announced. 

 

What I would like to see, however, is people continuing to get the core fundamentals right. I would love to see more of a focus on cleaning up some of those heavily bloated websites so they are lean and well optimised for not just speed but also the core vitals. I’d love to see people take more care of optimising not only their title tags and meta descriptions, but I would also love to see people treating their H21 as a potential alternate title tag that Google may choose instead of their title tag, and I would love to see people craft better first paragraphs to help Google and people see they have arrived at the correct page. I would like to see more interest and care taken with internal links and I could like to see people clean up broken links on their sites. These are all very basic and not super sexy but they can chance rankings significantly. 

I hope that 2021 will not only be the year of the digital marketing professional but also the year of the small business. Covid-19 may be trapping us at home but the online world is still open to us. Continue to shop locally and no matter how big or small you are, remember you *can* succeed online!

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Mainly I see the shift happening in the B2B industry. They could no longer rely on events and fair trades and were forced to try the digital arena and become visible to new clients online. This change will last as they have now learned and explored new areas or the marketing mix that can help them attract new customers.

Many of the e-commerce driven websites saw a large increase in sales as people had to spend more time at home and could not travel, but didn't want to stop shopping. The store-driven companies had to manage omnichannel needs and create better solutions for picking up the goods outside the store or deliver it to the doorstep. 

Google's push of following better UX standards and implementing core web vitals is key for 2021. This together with speed and security as well as meeting the searchers’ intent and giving the visitor evidence and trust with signals of authenticity will be key for SEO, PPC and Content Marketing performance. This will evolve more in 2021 and bring clarity and focus on better websites in general. 

 

The need of providing true and accurate information to the users are key for both Social Media Networks as well as Search Engines to compete for the attention. They will use trust-signals to help navigate and evaluate what to show the visitor. Website owners need to shift more to better privacy concerns and a better understanding of the searchers’ intent. They should use analytics data to understand what people actually read and create a better website that is driven by visitors' need for content. 2021 should be the year when PDF material is not just published because we had the material in a folder and could easily add it as a download function on the web. Thin content should be removed not just by Google's crawl budget algorithm but also to save time and money from keeping it updated and translated and leaving customers with a poor experience.