2020 has been a difficult, complicated, and a downright stressful year for everyone. No matter what you do or where you live, you’ve been affected by COVID-19 and its far-reaching impact on society, politics, and commerce.
While we’ve been living our day-to-day lives and crossing our fingers in the hopes that 2021 will be a little calmer, Google has been keeping very busy. The search giant released several big and small algorithm updates this year, including its May 2020 Core Update, which was a massive change and a direct response to COVID-19 and how it altered online behavior. I wrote an article detailing the May 2020 Core Update’s effect on search results, and in the six months since that update, Google has continued refining its tools and tweaking features in search results.
Now that we’re near the end of the year and approaching the holiday season, Google is slowing down its activity and likely preparing for whatever 2021 has in store for us. That means it’s time to take a look at a few big changes in 2020 and how they’re going to impact digital marketing as we move into the new year.
GA4 – The Newest Google Analytics
On October 14th, Google officially released Google Analytics 4, or GA4. This new version of GA includes some new features, like AI-powered insights and prediction capabilities, along with enhancements digital marketers have wanted for years, like cross-device tracking. On top of these big features, companies that use Google Ads will also have the opportunity to create deep integrations between Ads and Analytics, which could allow for improved ad spend and targeting.
GA4 seems like it could be useful and insightful for commerce-based groups (especially those with an app), but the same can’t be said for lead-gen websites. The new Monetization and Retention sections will help businesses understand site and app purchases, and the ability to create custom analytics dashboards will be huge for digital marketers looking for an edge. Lead-gen groups might not get much from GA4 but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored.
GA4 is free and any website can start a new GA4 property view with a quick addition to Google Tag Manager. I recommend giving it a look and maybe setting up a GA4 view, but don’t forget that Google is well known for updating, reworking, and adjusting its tools on a constant basis. GA4 won’t replace Universal Analytics anytime soon but it’s never bad to be a little ahead of the curve.
Rich Results Test
A site’s structured data helps search engines display ratings, reviews, FAQs, internal links, and other company information, so it’s important to make sure that any markup is tested and validated. Google is very picky about structured data, so they made it a little easier for everyone by releasing the Structured Data Testing Tool (SDTT).
With SDTT, you can test a live URL or a chunk of copy/pasted code to see if the particular type of markup you’re using is working correctly. If something’s broken, missing, or incomplete, SDTT will call out the issue and allow you to adjust and retest the markup with ease. This allows marketers and developers to test their markup, but you can’t actually see how your landing pages look in search results.
While SDTT can be found in every competent marketer’s toolbox, we had to use many different tools to see how our markup would actually look in search results. Google knew this was a pain point for many marketers, so earlier this year, they released the Rich Results Test (RRT).
With RRT, marketers and developers can test the markup contained in a live URL or a snippet of code. This test will determine if the markup not only meets Google’s standards but also displays how it will look in search results (if it’s acceptable).
Like SDTT, the RRT will call out any errors or warnings in the markup, but unlike SDTT, the RRT will not allow you to adjust and retest the code directly through the interface. Each update to the live site or adjustment to a code snippet requires the user to fully rerun the test, which can be time-consuming and a little annoying.
Check out my recent article on the new Rich Results Test if you’d like to know more about testing and reviewing your site’s structured data.
The New Google Tag Manager Debugger
In my opinion, Google Tag Manager (GTM) is one of the company’s crowning achievements and one of the most useful tools out there for marketers and developers. Before GTM, tagging clicks and on-site interactions was difficult, and that’s putting it lightly. Custom tags could slow websites, break functionality, or come across as improper page elements, none of which Google likes to see on indexed sites.
So, instead of trying to support thousands of tagging options, Google created Tag Manager and included built-in preview and testing options. Now, tags could be injected and managed through GTM without bogging down a site, which pleased marketers and developers across the world.
While it wasn’t a perfect system, GTM’s original debugger made it easy to understand a site’s data layer, what could be tagged, and how it could be tagged. Google was happy with the tool and regularly adjusted it over the years, but apparently, Google doesn’t subscribe to the old saying “you don’t need to fix something that isn’t broken.”
Recently, Google released the newest version of Google Tag Manager, and it’s a major change from what we knew and loved. Instead of attaching the debugger window to the tab, you’re testing in Preview mode – which, while cramped, was an important UX feature. GTM now opens an entirely new tab that requires you to enter the URL you want to test. You’ll have to manually turn this on and off for each site you visit, otherwise, the debugger stays active.
From there, GTM opens a full debugger tab through tagassistant.google.com. This details the page’s loading process, what occurs when users click around on the site, and which tags are and aren’t firing. This is very similar to the previous version of GTM, but having to click back and forth between tabs makes for a frustrating user experience, especially when you’re trying to check real-time actions and solutions.
While I’m not a fan of the new format, I’m enjoying the expanded features. The new pathing option makes it easier to simulate a user’s path through the site and test various click targets and conversion metrics. The debugger also provides a greater level of detail for each tag that did or didn’t fire, which makes it easier to find solutions or issues with tags you’ve created.
GTM’s new debugger is still too new to fully evaluate, but I expect Google to continue augmenting this tool and trying new options over the next year. Keep a close eye on this area and be sure your tags are working correctly.
Search Highlighting, AI-Driven Results, and More Search Results Features
While Google loves sharing new tools and services, one of their biggest focuses will always be improving both the quality and appearance of search results. They want to be sure people find what they’re looking for but also that search results are full of informative, eye-catching elements that will improve interaction statistics and, just maybe, help Google earn a few extra bucks (or clicks).
Google is very good at evaluating on-page content and showing it in search results, but it’s the searcher’s job to click the link and scan through the content to find the answer they want. Google knows that people rely on it for queries of all kinds, and out of all the search result features Google released in 2020, I’d have to say that the new Search Results Highlighter is one of my favorites.
With the Search Results Highlighter feature, Google now highlights any content contained in its featured snippet right on the page. In the example below, I entered “what does a vpn do?”. Google provided the answer in a featured snippet and, if I click that result, Google has actually highlighted that passage in the page content. This is only possible with sites using an HTML structure (which is most sites).
This new tool isn’t perfect and doesn’t work with every “how”, “what”, or “why” query, but it’s becoming a more and more common sight in search results. It also demonstrates how easy it is for Google to adjust a site’s appearance, which could be important for the future.
On top of new search features like the Search Results Highlighter and tweaks to how ads look in results, Google’s AI is getting smarter and showing up more and more often. Local Results are getting more and more accurate and helpful, and Google is getting even better at interpreting misspelled queries. This could be a major boost for mobile searchers while also helping Google’s AI expand its understanding of how people search.
Be sure to keep an eye on search results as we go into 2021. Features like “People Also Ask” and “Related Searches” are becoming more and more visible in search results, which could alter how people access and interact with search results. After all, what’s the point of visiting a website when Google has the answer for you?
SEO in 2021 and Beyond
Even with everything I’ve listed above, I’m really only skimming the surface of Google’s full 2020 activity. There were minor updates and tweaks to the algorithms, several changes to indexing practices, and plenty of behind-the-scenes changes that we’ll never know about. We’ve still got two months left in 2020, and while it’s unlikely that Google will make any major moves over the holiday shopping season, that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods just yet.
Contact the expert web developers and digital marketers at CQL if you’d like to know more about Google’s 2020 updates or discuss SEO in 2021.