The year in Search 2021: all the updates, changes and SEO drama in one place

Posted by Owen Powis on 20 Dec, 2021
View comments Search News
2021 has been quite the year, with some of the biggest and most frequent updates across Search seen for a long time. So here's a recap of the main events.

January

We kicked off Jan a little more gently this year, compared to 2020 when Google welcomed us back to work (still nursing those New Year hangovers) with a massive update. This year it seems Google decided to make sure we had the right tools for the job and set about updating some of the Google toolkit.

Request indexing.

This started off with changes to the Structured Data Testing Tool followed by updating the Index Coverage Report.

February

Google started strong in February adding the 'about this domain' feature to the SERPs, giving searchers a way of getting a bit more information about a result before clicking on it.

They didn't stop there though, also rolling out Passage Ranking, allowing them to hone in on specific, relevant, sections of a page. Affecting mostly long tail queries, this impacted around 7% of searches.

Google also finally released a solution for those of us who manage websites with multiple Google properties, linking these together in Search Console.

March

Stop the press! It's not actually Google for once! Yes, in March we saw Bing launch an improvement to their SERPs to make them more 'visually immersive'. This included some really cool changes, like infographic style panels for certain results, as well as the ability to do 'in image' searches.

Bing visual results.

March also bought Google's Ads Safety Report, which highlighted just how hard they have to work to try and keep the web safe. They blocked a whopping 3.1 billion searches in 2020.

April

April bought about a couple of smaller changes, such as Google pushing back the Page Experience Update (I think we all breathed a sigh of relief at this) and the release of the Product Reviews Update. However the big story for sure was Google FLoC.

Google FLOC.

This was the Federated Learning of Cohorts and it was designed as a replacement for third party advertising cookies. The problem was everyone hated it, across Publishers, Advertisers and Browsers.

As we saw unfold throughout the year, this was an uphill battle for Google. One that they ultimately didn't win. Probably one of the best parts of the year was the rest of the web standing up against this and forcing Google to back down on their plans.

May

It's new tech time! May bought us MUM and LaMDA from Google. Two new technologies that leveraged some of the gains Google have made in AI and Natural Language Understanding. Whilst LaMDA was more of a chatbot on nootropics, MUM had much more obvious and direct implications for Search.

MUM focused on responding to searchers' intent, bringing in far more contextual understanding and responses that contained insights from content, rather than just displaying the content itself. It's an interesting technology, but if implemented in the way Google demonstrated, it would represent a massive shift in the way Search and the web works.

June

Remember June? Here at Wordtracker we sure do! It was the Summer of Updates and Google really didn't mess around. Starting with the June Core Update, which was curiously split into two parts, followed by the Spam Update and the Page Experience Update (finally!) rolling out.

“Later today, we're releasing a broad core update, as we do several times per year. It's called the June 2021 core update. This will be followed by the July 2021 core update.

Some of our planned improvements for the June 2021 update aren’t quite ready, so we’re moving ahead with the parts that are, then we will follow with the rest with the July 2021 update. Most sites won’t notice either of these updates, as is typical with any core updates.”

Danny Sullivan's announcement

The first part of the core update moved away from the previous focus on YMYL sites, instead having a much broader impact, with News and Travel & Tourism sites coming off worst. It appeared to be centred around factual content and reporting, with reference sites doing the best out of it.

July

July saw the other half of the Google Core Update, which both reversed a lot of gains made by reference sites and bought the focus back to YMYL sites. It was also the point at which we took a look at the crazy number of updates over this summer:

8th April - Product Reviews Update
3rd June - June Core Update
15th June - Page Experience Update
23rd June - Spam Update part 1
28th June - Spam Update part 2
1st July - July Core Update

July also saw what is probably the best named Wordtracker article of the year...

Floc_up.

This was Google's 'postponing' of the much hated Google FLoC plan until 2023, which was a great example of how even Google couldn't push something on the rest of the web when so many people were against it.

August

There were a few minor tweaks and upgrades in August, but there was one that really stood out. Google updated the way it generated titles in the search results. The problem here was that Google failed to properly communicate the changes, didn't give any warning (they confirmed it after the fact), and in many cases the results were far worse for both users and webmasters.

It was a complete misstep and resulted in a whole lot of SEO professionals with upset clients, especially clients with legal obligations, such as medical sites, dictating how their results are displayed.

Page titles.

Google then issued a sort of apology (the 'I'm sorry you're upset by it', rather than 'I'm sorry about what I did' kind) and then proceeded to announce a forum for feedback.

September

September was a comparatively quiet month, with few updates apart from Google announcing they had refined the Page Title Update so that now 87% of results were generated from the HTML rather than the previous 80% after the update.

Our article at the time covers why Google might rewrite titles and serves as a great refresher on it.

Tropical holiday.

I think by this point we all appreciated the break. So here's someone else's nice holiday picture to look at and pretend it was yours.

October

This was MUM's month, with Google pushing their new technology and demonstrating how it's driving a redesign of the search page.

Google wants to help searchers explore across topics, meaning a better understanding of how subjects and content may be related and presenting better options to users to explore across them.

November

As November is when many of us are flat out working to get everything set up for Thanksgiving, Christmas and January sales Google wisely chose not to make any significant changes this month.

No just kidding! In fact they pushed through a major core update, a big spam update and updated Google My Business. But then they did drop the mobile first indexing deadline, which was good news for a lot of sites that were struggling with the requirements.

A late addition was the November 2021 Local Search Update, which Google only announced after the event, in a tweet on 16 December - a week after it had completed.

It's OK though, as for any SEO's left battling to cope with the influx of changes at one of the busiest times of the year, Google issued extensive guidance...

Google guidance.

December

As 2021 comes screeching to a halt Google haven't been able to resist crowning the year with another update, this time to Product Reviews.

Product reviews.

The Product Review Update was the final update of the year and caps off one of the busiest years from Google we have ever seen. Let's hope that 2022 brings about at least some better communication - and if this webmaster could wish for just one present in his SEOcking it would be for a clear roadmap from Google for 2022 clearly showing what they are planning to update and when.

I won't be holding my breath.

Recent articles

The year in Search 2021: all the updates, changes and SEO drama in one place
Posted by Owen Powis on 20 December 2021
Google released November 2021 Local Search Update on 30 Nov
Posted by Edith MacLeod on 20 December 2021
Graphic design trends that will shape 2022 [infographic]
Posted by Wordtracker on 7 December 2021
Google's December 2021 product reviews update rolling out
Posted by Edith MacLeod on 6 December 2021
5 tips for educating colleagues about the importance of SEO
Posted by Sean Begg Flint on 2 December 2021