SEO (or search engine optimization) can be both a nuanced art and marketing science when it comes to seeing return on investment. Most of us spend hours doing off-page SEO only to get a few backlinks in return, or optimizing our website pages in a highly competitive space while the companies around us seem to be crushing it with their rankings and relevance.
Suddenly (or so it can feel) Google throws a wrench in your gears and declares they’ve made an update to the search algorithm, leaving you uncertain about which activities to prioritize and which to continue on with.
In 2021, we’re focusing on tracking a key group of SEO benchmarks. Here’s a look at our top four:
1. Topic Cluster Performance
One of the most algorithm-update-proof tactics we’ve adopted for ourselves and our clients is the preservation of subject matter authority and relevance. Organizing your content into topic clusters creates a strong ranking signal and enables search engines to easily crawl the nicely laid out structure you’re serving up.
New to topic clusters? Here’s a bit about how they work:
Let’s say you have a piece of premium content, such as an infographic or white paper, that focuses on a particular subject. You put all of that content onto a pillar page, which serves up the information in an un-gated fashion (while still offering the reader opportunities to download the PDF version). Then you create a series of relevant blog posts that relate to the content on this pillar page.
The key here is linking from the blog posts to the pillar page, and from the pillar page to the blog posts. This cross-linking creates a robust structure and shows the search engines that you are offering a deep dive into the selected topic.
From there, you can measure the effectiveness of the topic clusters via HubSpot’s Topic Cluster Tool.
2. Featured Snippets
The search engine results page is ever-evolving. In terms of interactivity and UX, it has come a long way since the days when our desktop monitors had tubes in them. Featured snippets are the boxes of information that appear above the organic search results. Below is an example of a featured snippet:
This year, Google announced that sites appearing in Google’s Featured Snippet won’t show on the first page of the SERP a second time. This means you have one shot at being the most relevant to your organic audience.
You can use software to measure your featured snippet performance, or if you’d rather do it yourself, use incognito mode on Chrome to search for your optimized blogs and see if they are showing featured snippets when sought out.
So how do you optimize for a Featured Snippet? Focus your keyword research on question-based search volumes. The closer the phrase is to the actual search terms, the better your chance is of having a featured snippet. You should set a goal of having every single blog contain a highly relevant, high-level paragraph that addresses the key term you’ve optimized it for.
3. Domain Authority
One of the most widely regarded ranking signals, domain authority (DA) remains a priority for content marketers to measure in 2021. This benchmark was created by Moz and has been adopted by SEO platforms as an accurate, aggregate measure of a domain’s ability to perform on SERPs.
It should be noted that search engines don’t specifically look at a site’s DA, but rather they look at all of the areas that make up a site’s DA. You can measure your DA with a number of tools, but we rely on HubSpot for our efforts. The recipe for DA contains more than 40 ingredients, the most important of which are high-quality external backlinks. This brings us to our final 2021 SEO benchmark to monitor.
4. Link Toxicity
In a perfect world, every single site would have relevant subject matter and sites would organically link to them to increase the relevancy of their own content. The reality is far more selfish in nature.
Although tactics such as guest blogging and backlink outreach are viable forms of off-page SEO, there are still black-hat services out there that promise backlinks in exchange for a fee. These links typically get marked as toxic by Google, and can harm your reputation.
This is nothing new and has been long battled by Google. Every single algorithm update includes new ways to sniff out sites using these services, and you don’t want to get caught with toxic backlinks on your site. The SEMrush Backlink Audit tool provides a simple and effective way to identify any sites that may harm your domain authority by linking. You can disavow these toxic links within Google Search Console as a way to tell search engines, “I don’t even know that site. Don’t penalize me.”
SEO is fundamentally the same as it was yesterday. You still need to reinforce your relevance in organic and meaningful ways. Search engines are still optimizing their algorithm updates to benefit the users, so rather than optimizing for search engines, you should be optimizing for users as well. Keep your eye on these four factors, and your regular everyday content marketing activities should flourish in 2021.
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