SEO year in review 2020

SEO is constantly changing and 2020 has been no different, with several algorithm updates, and rapid changes in consumer search behaviour as a result of Covid-19.

In this article, we’ll look back at some of the key developments in SEO from our perspective.

Core algorithm updates

There have been three core algorithm updates in 2020, with Google releasing an update back in January, and another on another algorithm update on May 4. 

The most significant core update seems to have been the Google Core Update December, for which we waited longer than normal. The pattern has been roughly 2-3 months between core updates, but we waited around six months for this one.

Core Update timeline 

Google Core update December 2020

Image source: Pi’s SEO Platform

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This long wait time did imply a significant update, and that’s what we’re seeing so far. Pi’s Jon Earnshaw described it as a ‘monster algorithm update’, with some fashion retailers seeing large drops in visibility. 

Google Core Update December 

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Image source: Pi’s SEO Platform

Jon sees a relationship between this and other core updates, and  E-A-T SEO (Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness). Essentially, Google is looking for evidence of quality in your content – expertise, authors, content volume and on and off page quality signals.

Google’s changing SERPs

One continuing theme during 2020 has been the introduction of more and more SERP features. Text results still matter, but they are less visible than they used to be in many cases. 

Features like answer cards, knowledge panels, top stories and video boxes now often take the top positions in Google’s results.

SERP Landscape | Google UK

scheme serps

Image source: Pi’s SERP Matrix 

This calls for a different approach to content and search strategy for some businesses. For example, if some of the search terms you target tend to return SERP features, then you may need to produce content to target these spots. 

It also calls for more attention to be paid to structured data. In a fascinating chat with Jon Earnshaw earlier this year, Jono Alderson spoke about the direction Google is heading in – wanting to act like a personal assistant and answer search queries more directly through these features, rather than simply presenting a list of links. 

The use of structured data is the key to greater visibility in changing SERP results and even, as Jono pointed out, the price sites need to pay to even stand a chance of ranking for certain search results.

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The impact of Covid-19 on search behaviour

The pandemic changed everything in 2020, and search has been no different. Lockdowns, restrictions to store openings and more have had an impact on the way people search. 

One effect of the lockdown from March was to drive people online in ever greater numbers, and this was reflected in our search data, as documented in the Year in retail so far report

Search activity across almost every sector peaked higher than before in Q1 and Q2 2020, with search volumes outstripping Black Friday 2019 in some cases.

Search volume over time | Retail combined landscape | Google UKretail trends search landscape

Image source: Pi Market Intelligence

There were winners and losers, and search trends reflected those items that customers needed to make it through lockdown. Online grocery retailers experienced massive demand, as did other sectors such as homeware and electricals. 

The most popular searches reflected the items that people needed to keep them happy and entertained during lockdown. So this meant gaming devices like the Nintendo Switch, hot tubs, garden furniture and items like hair clippers to compensate for the businesses that had been closed.

Most searched terms Q2 2020 | Search volume | Google UK

most search terms

The first half of 2020 was more challenging for the fashion sector, with more modest demand. With people going out less, many fashion items were in less demand, the key exceptions being leisurewear and kid’s clothes. 

The travel sector also experienced a challenging year, with travel impossible for large periods, and subject to rules and restrictions for most of the year. 

This of course dampened travel search demand, and the travel search landscape looked very different this year. Travel search volumes in the first half of 2020 we as low as they’ve been for many years, only beginning to pick up in May and June.

Search volume over time | Travel landscape | Google UKScreenshot 2020-12-22 at 09.42.59

Image source: Pi Market Intelligence

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Massive eCommerce growth

It’s been a huge year for online retail, with several records being broken over the year. The first half of the year saw massively increased demand. Stats show that eCommerce accounted for almost a third of all retail sales in May and June.

Ecommerce as a percentage of total retail sales: May 2017 – July 2020

ecommerce growth

This trend has continued into the second half of the year, with online taking 28.5% of all retail sales in October. 

With organic search accounting for a large proportion of most retailers’ traffic and sales, this year has underlined the importance of SEO – there’s a clear correlation between the sites that invest in search optimisation and those that succeed.

In Summary

It’s been a year of change and constant challenge for marketers, with greater fluctuations in customer behaviour than ever before.  

This is in addition to the regular challenges of remaining relevant in a search landscape which is constantly evolving, whether through new initiatives and features from Google, or via its now regular core updates.

This year, with a huge shift to online, has only underlined the importance of SEO to business success.

And the key to maintaining search visibility and driving revenue to your websites is to be able to understand the SERPs and identify the key opportunities for your business.

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