March 2021 SEO News Recap

Carolyn Wilborn SEO Content Author Published April 6, 2021

1. Reminder: 100% Mobile-First Indexing Is Coming Soon

Postponed from September 2020, Google’s revised deadline for moving to sites to mobile-first indexing was March 2021. In an SEO office hours hangout video on March 19th, Google’s John Mueller said Google may have stopped moving sites to mobile-first automatically and will be “switching a lot of those over at once” in April or May.

If your site has not yet been moved to mobile-first indexing, here’s a checklist from Google on how to prepare:

  • Make sure Google can see your content. Use the same meta robots tags on desktop and mobile, follow lazy-loading best practices, and make sure that you’re not blocking any needed resources on mobile.
  • Primary copy should be the same on desktop and mobile.
  • Check your images and videos:
    • Images: Avoid making images too small or too low-quality, use good alt attributes, and use caution if image URLs are not the same on desktop and mobile since it may take time for Google to understand the new URLs.
    • Video: Use video structure data and position videos (and images) in an easy-to-find location so that Google recognizes their value.

More details on the March 19th update can be found here. See the full list with details here.


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2. Google Provides Guidelines for Organic Shopping

Google introduced unpaid Shopping listings in April 2020, which gave a wider group of online retailers the opportunity to connect with customers through Google Search. In late February 2021, the search engine provided new guidelines on how to make sure that Google understands the products that retailers are selling. This document includes tips for brands and manufacturers, retailers and third-party sellers, and for publishers.

In this documentation, Google emphasizes the importance of GTINs, or Global Trade Item Numbers. While Manufacturer Part Numbers (MPNs) and Stock Keeping Unit numbers (SKUs) are mentioned for some types of products, tips for each of the three groups mention GTINs and the benefits to using them.

Google’s recommendations put a strong emphasis on uniqueness and verifiability as well, referencing the value of GTINs for both. Additionally, high-quality product data, the use of structured data for publishers, and using exact product names are strongly encouraged to help Google identify products.

Read the full guidelines here.

3. Rich Results Roundup

There were several stories about rich results – enhanced result in Google search like breadcrumbs, star ratings, and sitelinks search boxes – in the past month, so we’ve gathered them together for quick review.

First, Google made two updates to the rich results report in Google Search Console. In the job postings report, you may see an increase in the number of errors due to changes to the requirements for certain properties in job posting structured markup. Additionally, Google has now started checking the validity of FAQ and Q&A structured data that is below the root entity level.

Read more details here.

Next, John Mueller provided some advice on troubleshooting rich results and what might be going on if your rich results disappear from Search. If your rich results aren’t showing, you’ll want to check the markup you’re using is valid and that its use complies with Google’s policies. If both are true and you still aren’t seeing the rich results, it’s most likely a sitewide quality issue.

John recommends doing a site query for your website to see if the rich results appear. If you do see them there but not in a normal search, it’s likely to be a quality problem. If they don’t appear in the site query, it is possible that Google has not completely processed them yet.

You can find more details here and here.

4. Use Noindex – Not Robots.txt – to Remove Pages From Google’s Index

Want to remove a page from Google Search? Google’s John Mueller reminds us to use a “noindex” tag rather than trying to block the page with robots.txt.

While the robots.txt file can block Googlebot from crawling a page – and might, therefore, cause it to be removed from the index – there is no guarantee that this will happen. Other signals, such as external links, may result in Google indexing the page.

So, if you really want a page removed from the index, and you don’t want that page to rank for any queries that might be relevant to your site, you need a “noindex” tag on the page.

Read more here.

5. Long Title Tags Can Be Beneficial

We often try to use caution when writing title tags since only about 60 characters are usually visible in the Google search engine results page. But did you know that just because searchers can’t see the words after that point doesn’t mean that Google can’t see them?

In a Google Central Live event in late February, Gary Illyes from Google confirmed that there is value in having title tags beyond what’s visible. There is no fixed title tag length that Google has set, and the search engine can see all of the text.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you should keyword stuff your titles or make then as long as possible. The goal of a great title tag is to tell the searcher – and Google – the topic of the page and to get the searcher to click. Be concise and precise, keeping in mind what searchers will see, but not worrying if the title is a bit long.

Read more here.

6. Use Internal Linking to Indicate Important Pages to Google

Many of us have experienced the frustration of submitting a sitemap to Google and having the search engine not index all of the listed pages. Google has said that they don’t really use the Priority field in XML sitemaps, so how do you tell Google which are your high priority pages?

In a recent SEO Office Hours video, John Mueller answered a question on this topic by discussing the value of internal linking. Specifically, he talked about how Google usually begins crawling a site from the homepage. By linking pages from your homepage – typically through the navigation – you’re telling Google that those pages are important. This means Google is likely to find, crawl, and index them more quickly than a page that is several clicks away from the homepage.

You can read more here.

7. Featured Snippets Return to Previous Levels

In late February (just after we’d finished up our monthly newsletter), multiple tracking tools reported a sharp decline in the number of available Featured Snippets. There was some discussion at the time about the cause, but no update from Google on why this might have happened.

As of March 12th, it appears that the percentage of queries returning Featured Snippets has returned to previous levels (or higher), suggesting that this may have been a short-term test or a bug.

Learn more here.

8. More on the Future of Third-Party Cookies

As we discussed last month, Google has been regularly updating their plan for eliminating third-party cookies. In early March, the company published a blog stating:

“We’re making explicit that once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products.”

What does this mean? The strong statement reiterates Google’s commitment to the Privacy Sandbox and FLoC, an alternative to third-party cookies currently in development. FLoC is Chrome-based, which could make it more difficult to gather cross-channel data and make attribution more challenging.

In addition, there is concern that Google could block user-level identifiers from its owned and operated marketplace, which could be a serious problem for ad tech vendors that rely on them.

The news has created a great deal of uncertainty in the industry, as there are few details at this time.

Read Google’s blog article here. More from Search Engine Land here. Analysis from Digiday here.

9. Total Cookie Protection Launched on Firefox

While we’re discussing cookies, Firefox launched Total Cookie Protection, built into the browser’s Strict Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP). Strict protection blocks content trackers in all windows, as well as those blocked by the Standard ETP: cross-site cookies, social media trackers, tracking in private windows, fingerprinters, and cryptominers.

Learn more here.

10. Video “Key Moments” Now Showing in Google SERPs

In early March, Google rolled out a new “key moments” video interface in the search results. This interface offers a video timeline that highlights particular sections of the video which may be of interest to searchers. A few weeks later, Google updated its documentation on how to get videos to appear in search to include tips on best practices for marking timestamps on YouTube:

  • In the video description on YouTube, add a timestamp in the following format: [hour]:[minute]:[second].
  • Label each timestamp with the name of the clip; the label and timestamp should share the same line.
  • Link the timestamp to the appropriate point in the video.

The documentation also includes guidelines for key moments if you’re using “clip” structured data to mark segments in videos not hosted on YouTube.

Read the full documentation here. Hat-tip to this blog.

11. Similar URLs May Cause Duplicate Content Issues

Use caution when creating URLs, particularly if you do have some duplicate content on your site. According to John Mueller, Google uses a “predictive approach” to look for duplicate content. If the search engine finds that certain URL patterns have duplicate content, it may predict that all pages with the same URL patterns are duplicates – and not be crawled or indexed, even if they are unique.

The solution? Limit duplicate content as much as you can and use canonicals where appropriate.

Read more here.

View last month’s SEO news here.

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