In the field of search engine optimization (SEO), a few big truths stay consistent over time. SEO professionals can make an estimated guess that in five years quality backlinks, valuable content, and providing a good visitor experience will all still matter. But many of the smaller tips and trends change often enough that even SEO experts can struggle to keep up.
While it’s an industry that’s always evolving, it’s also one full of curious researchers willing to do the work to track and understand those changes. Each year brings new studies that help marketers make sense of search engines and how people use them. Here are some of the notable findings of 2020.
1. Google (probably) doesn’t care about your meta description.
One of the main steps included in every SEO 101 guide is to customize your meta descriptions. Resources on beginner’s SEO will usually stress that the meta description doesn’t directly contribute to rankings. But the hope is that writing something compelling that includes your target keyword can increase click-through rates, so you get more traffic.
Yet a recent analysis from Portent found that Google often ignores the meta description you add to the page, replacing them by pulling from the content on the page itself. Specifically, they found that Google rewrote the provided meta description in 71% of mobile search results, and 68% of desktop ones. If you’ve been devoting time to writing unique meta descriptions for every page, that’s pretty disheartening!
Before you swear off meta descriptions forevermore with dramatic flair, the analysis did provide some additional context. Google is far more likely to use the provided meta description for keywords with a high search volume.
When you consider that top performing pages can rank for hundreds of keywords, it puts that finding into perspective. If Google recognizes that your meta description makes sense for the main keyword you’re targeting, they may use it in those searches. But if the page ranks for additional keywords your description doesn’t include or address, it may pull a copy that seems more relevant from elsewhere on the page.
Writing unique meta descriptions is therefore still worth your time, particularly for any high-volume keywords you target.
2. Over 90% of the terms searched are long tail, but most search volume goes to head terms.
Backlinko did a thorough study of 306 million keywords to understand what kinds of searches people perform. They found that 91.8% of the search terms people use are long-tail keywords, which they define as anything that gets less than 100 searchers a month.
But while long-tail keywords are well represented when you look at the distribution of terms people are searching for, when it comes to the volume of searches, head terms win. Nintey-six percent of all searches performed are for head terms. In fact, a small list of popular terms makes up a significant portion of that volume. The top 500 keywords claim 8.4% of search volume.
3. 97.6% of keywords lead to Google results that include a SERP feature.
When you do a Google search, you know you’ll see ten blue links with a brief description for each. But the days where that’s the only thing you see, or even the main part of the page in most searches, are long in the past. The organic results that SEO professionals work so hard to earn frequently claim only a portion of the search engine results page (SERP).
Instead, the SERPs for many keywords are now dominated by SERP features such as answer boxes, knowledge graphs, and image packs. The Backlinko keyword analysis referenced above found that almost all Google SERPs now include at least one SERP feature. The most common examples being the People Also Ask section, image packs, video results, and Top Stories.
The rare keywords that don’t produce SERP features tend to be those with a low search volume.
4. When it comes to hosting, dedicated > shared.
Google keeps its search algorithm under wraps, which leaves SEO professionals guessing at which factors make the biggest difference in influencing a web page’s rankings. Answering questions about which ranking factors to prioritize usually falls to research experiments.
Reboot Online Marketing conducted an experiment earlier this year to collect data on one such question: does your web hosting plan make a difference to your SEO performance? With shared hosting plans, a website has the same IP address as other websites on a shared server. If there’s a chance low-quality, spammy sites are on that server, SEO experts have wondered whether that could dock a website some of the SEO authority it might otherwise have.
The company set up websites that were otherwise identical, and optimized them to rank for a specific (non-competitive) keyword. They found that 80% of the results on page one in their study were on dedicated hosting plans, suggesting a clear winner in which type of hosting plan is better for SEO.
5. For local businesses, Google’s SERP replaces the homepage.
SEO for local businesses is different than it is for everyone else. Google’s algorithm weighs different ranking factors for searches with local intent. And when the search engine thinks you’re looking for a business located nearby, the SERP is dominated by a map and the local pack of results.
Over time, the local pack results have grown to include enough information to answer most of the questions a searcher might have. And now, when you click on a result in the pack, you don’t go to the business website, you go to a Google page with more information about it. A Backlinko analysis of Google user behavior found that 42% of people that search local queries click on results inside the Google Maps Pack, rather than scrolling down to the organic results below.
Considering all that, few would find it surprising that in the annual survey Moz performs of local marketing professionals, 78% say that Google is the new homepage for local businesses. That’s a big deal! It suggests many customers may choose a business without ever visiting its website.
For local businesses, what customers learn about them via their Google listing is as important as what they share on their own website. No one doubts the power Google has over businesses in general, but this takes it to an extra level for local businesses.
6. SEO work hasn’t slowed in the midst of Covid-19.
For anyone with SEO expertise, 2020 had a bit of good news. A Backlinko study of job listings on Glassdoor and LinkedIn found the SEO industry is still going strong. Even as many industries face budget cuts and layoffs due to the effects of the novel coronavirus, at least as of early June, SEO professionals were still in demand.
Take New SEO Knowledge into 2021
In an industry that changes as much and as often as SEO, paying attention to new research once it’s published is smart. It can help you better determine how to refine your strategy and where to focus your efforts. And having knowledge backed by data allows you to craft a strategy based more on evidence than feelings, which will likely pay off in results.