SEO in 2021: The Definitive Guide

The Definitive Guide To SEO In 2021

This is the ultimate guide to search engine optimization in 2021.

And let me be clear about something:

This is NOT your average “SEO in 2021” predictions post.

Yes, I’ll cover the most important SEO trends this year.

But you’re also going to see new strategies that are working great right now.

So if you’re looking to improve your SEO next year, you’ll love this updated guide.

SEO in 2021: The Definitive Guide

Chapter 1:Core Web Vitals

Chapter – Core web vitals

According to Google, core web vitals are going to become a ranking factor in May 2021.

And in this chapter, I’m going to show you exactly how to get your site ready for this upcoming Google update.

(Including a real-life example of how I dramatically improved Backlinko’s core web vital scores.)

Let’s dive in.

Core Web Vitals: What You Need to Know

Core web vitals are a set of three specific web page experience metrics that Google considers super important:

  • Largest contentful paint
  • First input delay
  • Cumulative layout shift
Core web vitals are part of Google's overall evaluation of "page experience"

According to Google, core web vitals will directly impact rankings.

Google on core we vitals

That said, they also point out that core web vitals aren’t a make or break ranking factor. In other words, you can still rank with poor core web vitals scores.

Google on ranking pages

That said, there’s really no reason NOT to optimize your site’s core web vitals.

So it makes sense to set some time aside to work on them.

Here’s how.

How To Improve Your Core Web Vital Scores

To be clear:

The exact steps you take to improve your core web vitals depends on your site.

For example, a site that runs on Shopify will be different compared to one that runs on WordPress.

That said, here’s the process you can use to figure out what you need to fix.

First, pop open the Google Search Console and click on “Core Web Vitals”.

Google Search Console – Core web vitals menu

Then, take a look at how the pages on your site stack up.

Google Search Console – Core web vitals report

(I basically ignore the desktop scores. Google’s mobile-first index means that mobile scores are what really matter).

You want to really zero-in on “poor URLs”.

Core web vitals – Report – Poor URLs

In my opinion, Google is going to punish poor URLs more than boost up good URLs. So you want to prioritize getting your URLs out of the red.

Again, how you tackle this depends a lot on the core web vital that you’re struggling with.

For example, a bunch of my pages had a poor CLS score.

Core web vitals – Report – CLS issue

So we worked on improving the stability of pages as they loaded.

How We Improved Backlinko’s Core Web Vitals

When Google announced their upcoming page experience update, I realized that we needed to make a change.

You see, Backlinko’s load times were slow. Very slow.

Backlinko – Old page speed score

It wasn’t for lack of trying. We used a lightweight WordPress theme. Compressed our images. And more.

But the fact was: Backlinko’s pages were HUGE. Some of our posts had 40+ high-res screenshots. Plus visuals, embedded videos and animated images.

The thing was, this didn’t seem to hurt our rankings at all. Which makes sense considering that our search engine ranking factors analysis found no correlation between page speed and rankings.

Page loading speed does not correlate with first page Google rankings

But this update was different. Google wasn’t just looking at page loading speed. They were going to try to directly measure user experience.

In other words: this time they weren’t messing around.

So I got to work.

Specifically, I hired an agency to overhaul Backlinko’s code. It now runs on Next.js.

It wasn’t cheap. Or easy.

But in the end, this significantly improved our core web vital scores.

Backlinko – New page speed score

And our overall load times.

Webpagetest – Backlinko – Scale content post

Fortunately, you probably don’t have to completely overhaul your site’s code. Backlinko was kind of in a unique situation. This is why we had to take drastic measures.

But 9 times out of 10, you can improve your core web vital scores using the tips that I outlined above.

And with that, it’s time for chapter 2.

Chapter 2:Google Passage Ranking

Chapter – Google passage ranking

In October Google announced a new search technology called “Passages”.

This feature allows Google to rank specific sections of a page (“a passage”) independently.

This feature is going to affect 7% of all searches, which is a massive number.

(To put that into context, Google Penguin only impacted 3.1% of all queries.)

Let’s see how to optimize for this new Google ranking factor.

How Google Passage Ranking Works

Passages allow Google to rank specific, relevant passages from a specific page. Not just the page itself.

(Kind of like a souped-up version of Featured Snippets.)

Here’s an example from Google’s feature announcement:

Google – Understanding passages

So instead of Google ONLY taking into account the relevancy of an entire page.

They’ll now also size up the relevancy of a specific section of that page.

Google passage ranking will evaluate content sections independently

That said, Google has made it clear that they will still evaluate entire pages.

Twitter – Google on evaluating whole pages

So backlinks, on-page SEO, UX signals, and Google’s other page-level ranking factors will still apply.

The only difference is that a single page now has more chances to rank. That is, assuming the page is optimized and organized.

Which is exactly what I’m going to cover right now.

Organize Your Content Into Discrete Sections

Yes, Google will rank passages of your page semi-independently.

But that doesn’t mean they can easily divvy up a disorganized page.


Google may now look at each section like a mini web page.

Organizing content into discrete sections may help with Google passage ranking

This means your content needs to be divided up into dedicated sections.

And each section should cover a specific subtopic.

You may have been doing this already. If not, I recommend going back and organizing your content into VERY clear sections.

For example, take a look at this page on my site: “SEO vs. SEM: What’s The Difference?”.

Backlinko – SEO Hub – SEO vs. SEM

This page is organized into 21 different sections.

SEO vs. SEM – Sections

(Each section has an H3 subheading)

That way, Google can treat the content underneath each H3 as a mini web page. And rank it accordingly.

Double Down on Long Form Content

The downside of long-form content USED to be that you could sometimes get beat by a more focused page.

For example, let’s say you had a section on your page about writing blog post intros.

Google may treat page sections like entire pages on a given topic

And someone else had an entire page dedicated to writing post intros.

Well, in some cases Google would rank the entire page about post intros over you.

That’s because your competitor’s page was 100% about that topic. And to Google, that page could be a better UX for someone looking to write better introductions.

But that’s about to change.

Today, Google can parse a single piece of long-form content into 5, 10, or even 100 unique passages.

And each one has a good shot of ranking in Google.

So yeah, long-form content already had a rankings edge in the SERPs.

Average content word count of the top 10 results is evenly distributed

And for generating backlinks and social shares.

Long form content generates more backlink than short blog posts

Now that Google can divide up a single page into distinct passages, you can expect long-form content to work even better for SEO in 2021.

I recently decided to make ranking for Featured Snippets a priority.

And it helped us go from a handful of Featured Snippets rankings to over 390.

Backlinko – Featured snippet ranking keywords

Here’s the step-by-step process that I used.

1. Find Featured Snippet opportunities

Like most things in SEO, the first step is keyword research.

Keywords that you already rank for.


Keywords that have a Featured Snippet.

Why is it important to focus on keywords that you rank for already?

99.58% of all Featured Snippets are from pages that rank on the first page for that term.

So if you don’t already rank in the top 10, you have zero chance of ranking in the Featured Snippet spot.

How do you find Featured Snippet Opportunities?

Ahrefs “Organic Keywords” report.

It shows you keywords that you rank for… that also have a Featured Snippet:

Backlinko – Keywords with featured snippet

4,512 keywords? Looks like I have some work to do 🙂

2. Add “Snippet Bait” to Your Page

“Snippet Bait” is a 40-60 word block of content specifically designed to rank in the Featured Snippet spot.

Why 40-60 words?

Well, SEMrush analyzed nearly 7 million Featured Snippets. And they found that the most Featured Snippets are 40-60 words long.

Most featured snippets are 40 to 60 words long

For example:

I wrote short Snippet Bait definitions for every page of The Content Marketing Hub.

Backlinko – Content Marketing Hub – Visual Content

And these helped my content rank in the Featured Snippet spot for lots of definition keywords.

Visual content – Featured snippet

HubSpot takes Snippet Bait to another level.

They add little boxes to their posts that actually look like Featured Snippets:

HubSpot featured snippet

3. Format your content for other types of Featured Snippets

Snippet Bait works best for so-called “Paragraph Snippets”, like this:

Google search – "YouTube description" featured snippet

Even though paragraph snippets make up 81.9% of all Featured Snippets…

Type of featured snippet

…they’re not the only ones.

If you want to rank for List Snippets…

Use H2 or H3 subheaders for every item on your list.

If you want to rank for list snippets use H2 or H3 subheaders

(You can manually check your HTML to see if this is set up correctly.)

Google will pull those subheaders from your content… and include them in the Featured Snippet:

Google pulls subheaders from your content for the featured snippet

If you want to rank in Table Snippets…

You need to create a table that Google can easily pull data from.

For example, the content from this Table Snippet…

Table snippet SERPs

…is pulled directly from a well-formatted table.

Table snippet source site

Which leads us to our next topic…

Visual Search is Taking Off

More people are conducting more visual searches than ever before.

Just take a look at these stats:

Google Lens has already been used 1 billion times (source).

Google Lens has already been used 1 billion times

Pinterest gets 600 million visual searches per month (source).

Pinterest gets 600 million visual searches per month

36% of American consumers have already used visual search (source).

36% of American consumers have already used visual search

Visual Search Technology is Insanely Good

Visual search is still in its infancy.

And it already works REALLY well.

Don’t believe me?

Whip open Google Lens on your mobile device and start scanning stuff around your room.

You’ll probably find that it can identify pretty much anything.

Today, Google Lens can identify 1 billion objects. And that number is growing every day.

Heck, I tried Bing’s visual search on my phone. And it works super well.

People WANT to Search With Images

Once you start using it, you’ll quickly notice that visual search is super helpful for:

  • Shopping
  • Directions
  • Identifying landmarks
  • Local business reviews
  • Translation
  • Recipes
  • Nutrition information
  • Lots more

Which is probably why 62% of young consumers want more visual search tech:

62% of young consumers want more visual search capabilities

How to Optimize for Visual Search

Earlier this year we conducted one of the first visual search ranking factors studies.

Backlinko – Visual search ranking factors study

Here are some of the highlights from that research.

Mobile-Friendly Pages Have a Huge Edge

9 out of 10 Google Lens results came from a site that passed Google’s mobile-friendly test.

Google Lens image results are pages that pass Googles Mobile-friendly test

Considering that basically 100% of Google Lens searches are done on mobile devices, it makes sense that Google would prefer mobile-friendly websites.

Traditional Image SEO Still Applies

Our research found that traditional image SEO techniques (like optimizing image filenames and alt text) seem to also help with Google Lens rankings.

And that high-authority pages and sites are more likely to appear as Google Lens results.

An average Google Lens result has a page authority of 35 and a domain authority of 64

Google Lens Results Tend to Come From Content-Rich Pages

We found that Google tends to pull Google Lens image results from pages with quite a bit of text (1600 words on average).