Google search technology updates for 2021: SEO takeaways

We have many articles on this blog on SEO or search engine optimization for beginners. You can go to the link if you are very new to SEO. The present article is also for new bloggers, beginners and small website owners but slightly advanced. If you want to go straight to tips rather than deeper discussion, go to the last section of the post (SEO tips/ takeaways for beginners).

Though Bing is a big search engine and Yahoo!, DuckDuckGo, Baidu and some others are preferred search engines for some, Google dominates the web/ mobile search scene with 87% market share. So, if you are interested in constantly improving the search performance of your website or blog, you should keep updated about what Google does on the search front.

Search engine optimization and Google algorithm changes

Google regularly comes out with changes to its search algorithms and supporting actions for making search as user friendly as possible.

Google has gone on record that it makes thousands of minor changes in a year - sometimes many on a day.

And some of its changes are significant. Google calls them broad-core algorithm changes. In the past, it has given them memorable names: Pigeon, Panda, Penguin... The changes were sudden, and search engine optimization experts usually didn't have an inkling about them. When Google made these changes, many web pages suffered badly while a lesser number saw their search traffic improving. 

This time, Google has given us in advance a clear and direct indication that it would make some major changes to its search algorithms in 2021. But what Google tells is a lot confusing, especially for new bloggers and small website owners who are not expert in SEO or search technology. In recent times, Google has introduced some confusing concepts, and it will apply them to the upcoming algorithm changes too. In this post, we try to clear the smoke around them, so that blogger and website owner friends understand them and prepare themselves for the changes.

Modern SEO techniques and Google's advice

If you have been doing SEO yourself or have at least some interest in the subject, you would know that the SEO techniques that were effective some years back are no longer effective. Some have even been considered unethical by today's search engines. 

Google keeps advising through its articles, and interviews of its top functionaries, that it gives high value to quality content and common-sense search optimization. It is a hard fact that just quality content does not bring a web page on top of search results. SEO companies do a lot of research to find out what ranks high on Google and then they apply those tricks to search engine optimization for their clients. This post will not deal with them, but let me assure you that some simple SEO and the techniques I give below are good enough to rank high on search engines. For simple on-page SEO, please refer to other articles on search engine optimization.

Search engines keep inventing ways by which they can serve the best results to searchers. Since people now use mobile phones and apps for making searches, search engines are inventing ways to give the best results for such searches. Voice search, through virtual assistants, is another new trend that search engines are learning to handle efficiently. Modern search engines use artificial intelligence/ machine learning tools to guess the search intent and also to find which web pages best suit a query. 

So that your site's web pages look good and relevant to search engines, you need to use these modern SEO techniques. As I have discussed them in detail in posts linked from here, let me list them here as a quick reminder (leaving highly technical ones):

  • Improving website load speed (Loading faster than a minimum acceptable level is good enough).
  • Making website mobile-friendly.
  • Keeping a simple design, which also aids navigation.
  • Matching content (and its keywords) with likely search intent.
  • Serving useful, interesting content; sprucing it up to raise interest.
  • Using multi-media content.
  • Avoiding keyword stuffing, and getting links from unrelated and poor-quality websites.

Google SEO in 2021: page experience

This section is going to be a bit jargon-filled, but don't worry. At the end, I will summarize the tips that you can derive from Google advice, in simple language.

seo basic questions and Google

For quite some time, Google has been talking of page experience. It includes features of a web page that contribute to a good or bad experience for the searcher. Google has clarified that information will remain the basic requirement of a web page to rank high on search engine, and page experience will come lower in priority. At the same time, it will definitely have a bearing on search ranking of web pages once Google rolls out page experience as a ranking factor in 2021. 

As searchers on Google know that we feel good if a web page opens fast but our experience is not good if the web page shows an intrusive pop-up as soon as the page opens. There are other types of page experiences visitors or web-surfers have. Google lists them as follows:

  • Core web vitals (described below)
  • Mobile-friendliness. Some ways we can improve the mobile-friendliness of a web page or website include: readable content flowing well on the screen, proper text size and formatting, images resizing themselves according to the screen width, and clean interface (not cluttered). You can use this Google website to check mobile friendliness of your website or a web page. 
  • Safe browsing. Website should not have malicious content such as trojan or virus or data-stealing script/ code. There should not be a code that installs a harmful code in the visitor's computer/ mobile device. There should be no attempt to trick visitors to visit a harmful site, give one's confidential information etc. There are many ways your website can acquire unsafe content though you do not have a bad intention: If you have bought or downloaded a theme from the web for your website or blog, there is a chance of malicious software entering your website. Your website can also get infected when you apply a plugin or third-party code on the website. There can be a hacking attack on the website. Google Search Console has a tool to check any malicious code or other security issues on your website or blog. [This link will open once you log in to your Search Console account/ Google account.]
  • HTTPS security. If your website does not have a security layer or HTTPS enabled on it, you are at a big disadvantage in many ways, including SEO. Luckily, most free blogging platforms have HTTPS in-build on their blogs. Most web hosts too now provide a minimum-level HTTPS security with their plans. There is also a free, perfectly genuine, HTTPS certificate - you can apply it on your website or blog if your web host does not provide HTTPS security or charges you for that. 
  • No intrusive interstitials. Interstitials are advertisements that appear when a web page is loading. These could be in the form of full-page ads, pop-ups that cover the main content, pop-ups with a hidden unchecking box for removing them from the screen, advertisements that lie over part of the main content of the web page and appear like it. Web surfers don't like such advertisements, and so search engines also don't like them. Google has been telling webmasters to avoid putting objects over web pages that interfere with easy and smooth access of the main content, ever since 2017. On the other hand, legal or safety-related interstitials are considered fine (e.g. a small popup showing the website's privacy policy, one for login for registered users).
google search and user experience

What are Google Core Web Vitals?

Google has recently announced a set of features, Core Web Vitals. Google defines them as a set of metrics related to speed, responsiveness and visual stability, to help site owners measure user experience on the web.

Though a confusing concept (also a tongue-twister), web vitals are now going to be part of the core of Google search technology. They are a set of signals to Google search engine regarding how good experience the user has with a search result.

Google says, the web vitals will keep evolving. As of 2020, the core web vitals relate to the following features of a web page. You will notice that these features are loading time features of a web page, whether the web page opens as a result of a search query or otherwise.

  • Load time. This is measured with a metrics (again a tongue-twister!), Largest Content Paint. In simple words, it means how fast a web page or search result loads. A load time more than 2.5 seconds is considered bad and beyond 4 seconds, poor or very bad.
  • Interactivity. It refers to another jargon, First Input Delay. In simple terms, this measurement tells Google when the first elements of the web page started loading. So, if someone clicked on your website's link and if the title or image or text or background - something appears on the user's browser within 0.1 seconds, the FID of that web page would be 0.1 seconds. An FID of 0.1 seconds or less is considered good, up to 0.3 seconds as average and beyond this as poor.
  • Stability of content as it loads. This is measured with Cumulative Layout Shift. This metric measures how much shifting of screen takes place when elements are loaded on the browser on the user's device. You might have seen websites on which some text appears on the main part of the screen, then suddenly an image comes there and pushes the text down. Such shifts disturb the viewer's browsing and spoil his experience. The image shift happens usually when the image sizes are not given and it loads after the HTML of the main web page. On some commercial websites with numerous ads, the readable part keeps shifting as the ads load on the screen. Certain types of widgets, dynamic content, animations etc are some other types of content that shifts the layout while the website loads.

In very simple words, what it all means is that Google will introduce new ranking factors based on the user experience. These may not be as important as the quality of content, but since Google algorithm checks hundreds of ranking factors, a website with good or average quality of content may rank poor if many such factors are unfavourable.

These new factors can be improved at webmaster level. However, as a small website owner who does most of SEO himself or as a blogger, you should take care not to put too many images or ads on the main column or on the top part of the website. Do not put popups at all, or keep the popups of small size and place them in a way that they do not show immediately as the website is opened by the visitor.

You can use this Google page for its tool to check core web vitals of your website. I found this article on seobility a good resource for Core Web Vitals with details and practical recommendations.

SEO takeaways for beginners

The takeaways from this article are based mainly on what Google says about its search technology and algorithm updates. These, in short, are:

  • Keep the website/ web pages user-friendly, uncluttered. The main content should come out clear and without being disturbed by intrusive elements.
  • Do not keep too many images in the main column or top of a web page. Do not have too many advertisements and other elements on the website. Let the images also not be too heavy and without proper size attributes (if you can correct that).
  • Keep the website safe. No malicious code - and for this, check third-party elements even if you yourself do not add any undesirable code. These elements could be plugins, widgets, themes, code as advised by affiliate marketers or SEO companies.
  • If putting popup on the website, let it open after some delay and let it not have a hidden closing button. Let there be no more than 1-2 popups in a session; 1 is better.
  • Check how your website opens on mobile phones. If it does not have a mobile-friendly version, you will need to look at this. Major blogger platforms website builders and CMSs have options to change the layout of the mobile version of blog/ website.

This article draws its content profusely from the following documents issued by Google (and tries to simplify them for common bloggers and website owners):


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