When it comes to SEO and news publishing, to say that 2021 is going to be an interesting year is an understatement. In a turbulent 2020 that included COVID-19, #BLM and the upheaval of the US elections, there were dramatic changes in the way that tech giants approach news, and a definite reshaping of the way the public consumes and trusts news.
To get a sense of how quickly news-related SEO trends are ramping up, here’s a roundup of some of the changes seen just since the start of the new year (!):
- Google News performance report was added to Google Search Console: The report joins the normal search and existing Discover report to allow news publishers to examine the traffic coming from news.google.com and Google news apps.
- Google added the “About this result” feature to the SERP: This allows users to learn about the source of the result they wish to click on.
- 12 new manual-actions (penalties) related to Google News and Google Discover have been added to the help center: Most of these are centered on content that violates guidelines.
It sure has been a busy few months! Now let’s look ahead to what we can expect from the rest of 2021. Here are the trends we believe will dominate the news SEO-landscape moving forward:
1. Core Web Vitals
The most significant trend this year for news publishers is the upcoming core web vitals update. Announced back in November 2020, core web vitals is expected to roll-out in May 2021. Core web vitals is a set of three different metrics that measure a page’s loading speed from a user-centric perspective. It’s a new addition to the “page experience” ranking signals, which also includes mobile-friendliness, safe-browsing, HTTPS, and intrusive interstitials.
This is yet another milestone in Google’s ongoing quest to “make the web a better/faster place” (or as Google puts it: “to ensure people get the most helpful and enjoyable experiences from the web”).
“Page experience is a set of signals that measure how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page beyond its pure information value. It includes Core Web Vitals, which is a set of metrics that measure real-world user experience for loading performance, interactivity, and visual stability of the page.” Google search central
Many in the SEO community see core web vitals as a pure page load speed update, but this misses the bigger picture. Core web vitals are extremely important because they serve two different purposes:
- Measuring loading speed from a user-perspective.
- Bringing standardization to loading speed measurement.
It is hard to estimate how broad and impactful the core web vitals update will be. Judging from past speed updates, there was little difference. Hopefully, core web vitals will ultimately revolutionize the way we think and deal with loading speed issues. Meanwhile, what’s certain is that it will push many publishers to improve the usability of their websites.
2. To AMP or Not to AMP
AMP has been a controversial topic among the SEO community almost since it was announced. Many have resented it, saying that because AMP is cached on Google servers, it allegedly reduces time on the publisher site/page and decentralizes the SEO value of a page. It also means you have less control over design and features on the page, and it struggled with some measurement issues when it was first launched.
On the other hand, along with its May 2020 update of the page experience, Google has also announced that AMP will no longer be a requirement for appearing at the Top Stories section. By doing so, Google dismantled one of AMP’s strongest advantages. But if you read the announcement carefully, it’s clear that you will need your mobile pages to be almost as fast as AMP to be featured in Top Stories:
“The change for non-AMP content to become eligible to appear in the mobile Top Stories feature in Search will also roll out in May 2021… we will prioritize pages with great page experience, whether implemented using AMP or any other web technology, as we rank the results.” Search Central Blog
To cut a long story short, judging by the current state of news publishers’ readiness level for core web vitals, it’s hard to imagine many of them will revert from AMP – especially as AMP continues to evolve quite successfully. It’s also worth noting that although AMP is no longer a prerequisite for being featured in Top Stories, it doesn’t mean that the percentage of AMP in this section will drop by much. Case in point: see what Google Discover currently looks like.
3. Passage Indexing
Passage indexing is one of Google’s new AI capabilities that allows the algorithm to rank a piece of a “needle-in-a-haystack information” you’re looking for, even when it is buried deep within a webpage.
Passage indexing, which rolled out on February 10 for US EN queries, was anticipated to be BIG… Google claimed it will impact 7% of ALL once rolled out globally. At the time of this writing, the only example I have found is the one provided originally by Google (see below).
Nonetheless, we strongly believe passage indexing should make this list. The reason is its dual nature: it signifies Google’s approach of becoming more granular with AI for indexing very fine pieces of content. To the untrained eye, this may look like Google is simply improving the accuracy of its search results. But a veteran publisher could argue that this is yet another step towards reaping content from sites in order to sell more ads on SERPs. We will let you be the judge on that.
4. Google Discover
If you are not familiar with it yet, Google Discover (formerly “Google Feed”) is a mobile feature that serves content from around the web in a feed-like experience, according to your personal interests, browsing history, and trending topics in your area. Google Discover is accessible via a star logo on the Google search app or in the default homepage of your Chrome mobile browser.
Discover has been around since 2017, so nothing new here. But it’s slowly gaining traction over the years. It made the list because it seems to have come to maturity as it approaches its fourth birthday. For publishers, Discover is a good source of extra traffic. For Google, it’s all about making an imprint in the world of feeds.
We expect to see some big improvements coming to Google Discover (or at least an announcement) in the second half of 2021.
5. Web Stories (F.K.A AMP Stories)
If Discover is Google’s attempt to take a swing at the “feed” experience, Web Stories is its way to bring the story format to the SERPs. Much like Discover, it’s not new and was introduced back in 2018. It didn’t get much traction until recently, but it seems to be getting a lot of attention in recent months.
Google does not appear to invest a lot of effort in differentiating web stories from social-media-type stories, positioning it as high-quality editorial content suitable for journalism. It provides perks that are much more suitable for news publishers, like monetization through ads, the ability to embed links, 100% control over content hosted on the publisher server (which explains the revert from AMP stories), AND search engine indexability.
E-A-T (expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness) has been one of the biggest buzzwords in the SEO world this past couple of years. The term originates from Google’s quality raters guidelines (QRG), which is basically a manual for the search engine’s human content evaluators.
The term became widely accepted after the August 2018 “Medic Update”. This update hit numerous YMYL (your money or your life sites) that were recognized as lacking E-A-T, most of them from the medical industry.
But what does E-A-T have to do with news sites?
The answer lies within this whitepaper published by Google back in September 2019, titled “How Google fights disinformation”. The whitepaper thoroughly explains what E-A-T is, and what are YMYL sites:
“ …some types of pages could potentially impact the future happiness, health, financial stability, or safety of users. We call those “Your Money or Your Life” pages or YMYL… They include financial transaction or information pages, medical and legal information pages, as well as news articles, and public and/or official information pages that are important for having an informed citizenry.”
And then came the December 2020 update. As usually happens with core updates, there was a lot of post-update chatter in the SEO community. Updates cause turmoil in the community, and that leads to attempts to simplify (some may say over-simplify) the impact of algorithm updates.
Many in the SEO community speculated that the December update allegedly hit highly authoritative news websites like the NYTimes, Guardian, and others – probably not websites you would say are lacking in E-A-T. But these assumptions were based on SEO tools measurement, which could be somewhat inaccurate due to the database of keywords it uses. One way or the other, it seems that the news industry was negatively affected by this update.
7. Expansion of Fact-Checking Tools
Within the context of E-A-T and Google attempts to fight disinformation, it’s worth mentioning a couple of interesting additions from last year. News publishers should keep an eye on tools that can be of great service to publishers who wish to tell a fact-based story and by doing so, improve their search rankings:
- Fact check for images: When searching Google Images, you may see a “Fact Check” label. Click on it in a larger format, and you’ll see a summary of the fact check that appears on the underlying web page.
- Fact check structured data: This enables a summarized version of your checked facts to be displayed on SERPs.
- Fact check markup tool: This allows you to mark checked facts on your site without implementing structured data.
- Google Journalist studio: This is a suite of tools that use Google’s AI and search capabilities to help journalists analyze large amounts of data in a short amount of time.
2021 has started off strong in regards to the SEO landscape of the publishing industry. We anticipate it will continue to be turbulent in all that evolve trust and transparency and combating fake-news. If you can only invest in one thing this year however, we would recommend creating web stories, this would probably yield the best ROI and will help you occupy considerable SERP real estate for the future.