9 SEM Trends You Need to Know for 2021

It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a year like no other in modern times. Every industry has been affected by the events that have unfolded, and search engine marketers have had to be more nimble than ever before in adapting their strategies. While it looks like returning to some degree of normality might be a possibility in the months ahead, there’s no reason to assume SEM will ever go back to business as usual.

Here are 9 SEM trends you need to know when planning your program for 2021.

1. Ad Spend Will Be Hard to Predict 

2020 saw a massive decrease in advertising investment as businesses in different industries faced shutdowns and even financial crises due to a lack of customers. Since advertising investment overall has been on an upward trend for years, most people working with Google Ads expect the spending levels to simply bounce back in 2021.

That said, as the pandemic continues and the economic fallout of it is likely to extend for years, it’s hard to really say how ad spend will change in 2021. According to IAB’s latest survey of media buyers, only 9% feel very clear about their ad budget outlook for 2021, while 70% either have ballpark estimates or no clarity at all:

Marketers preparing for 2021 should have their budgets ready, and if investments don’t evolve as expected, then rest easy knowing it will be cheaper and easier to bid for top ad spots in search results. 

2. New Advertising Opportunities on YouTube

There have been many changes to YouTube’s advertising options that will make it more valuable to search engine marketers in 2021. Google Ads has recently introduced new metrics to improve ad optimization on YouTube, including engaged-view conversions (EVCs) and view-through conversions (VTCs). They also brought in audio ads for YouTube, designed to connect brands with audiences that listen to music on YouTube. 

Advanced contextual targeting is another feature they’re now using to drive mass reach for advertisers in specific contexts. Large brands are already starting to make the most out of YouTube’s reach and relevant content to meet their business goals. New targeting, ad types, and optimization features like these are sure to make YouTube particularly appealing for advertisers in 2021.

3. Google Will Keep Pushing Automation

Google’s efforts to minimize how much advertisers can access and analyze data through the platform have been trending for a while now, and 2021 is expected to be no different. Google Ads regularly introduces new machine learning-powered features designed to automate insights, which typically presents challenges for advanced advertisers who want to construct their own analyses. 

Since the majority of Google advertisers don’t have the experience or expertise to do this, it’s likely the trend towards automating insights will continue as Google rolls out more features. The important thing to remember in 2021 is that machine learning is helpful, and there’s still a lot you can do to customize and guide automated bidding. With so many relevant data points available that can influence bidding decisions, some degree of automation is necessary in order to keep up with it all.

4. Increased Investment in Non-Google SEM 

The plethora of challenges advertisers now face managing their campaigns on Google Ads could encourage many to invest more in non-Google SEM options to deliver the results they want. While Google still remains the biggest search engine in the market by a considerable distance, using other options will become more appealing as it continues to control what advertisers can or can’t do on the platform.

This is especially true as other search engines like Bing have made it very easy to import campaigns from Google Ads so marketers don’t need to start from scratch. Investing in non-Google SEM can be extremely worthwhile and empower advertisers with the control they need to reach the right audiences and drive more conversions at a better cost-per-click. 

5. Better Insights From Google Analytics 

Google recently introduced a new, more intelligent Google Analytics using artificial intelligence, machine learning, and better cross-platform integrations to help brands surface more critical insights into marketing performance. GA can detect data trends like an increase in demand for certain products or even future actions your customers may make. Here’s what a churn probability report looks like in the new GA:

These insights are incredibly useful for optimizing campaigns and bid adjustments to maximize PPC revenue. Smart marketers will use GA to their full advantage to improve SEM in 2021.

6. Higher Competition in Shopping Ads

Google Shopping Ads are a powerful solution to bring in new customers to your business. According to Smart Insights, Shopping Ads make up 76.4% of retail search ad spend. The massive increase in online shopping in 2020 means Shopping Ads now represent an even bigger opportunity for retailers to drive breakthrough ROI.

This alone is reason enough for the competition to surge as more marketing organizations start investing in this ad type. However, that’s just the first half of the story. In April 2020, Google officially opened up Shopping Ads to all businesses for free. Before this, you had to pay to display this kind of ad. Now, Google is allowing businesses to compete for Shopping Ad space just like they do with other ad campaigns. It’s safe to say, then, that we can expect an intensification of competition for Shopping Ads in 2021.

7. A Focus on First-Party Data Management

In recent years, platforms like Google and Facebook have made massive walled gardens of data, making it difficult for marketers to access and utilize the audience data they need. This has led to an increased interest in gathering and managing data independently. While this wasn’t easy to do before, it’s become even more complicated now that global privacy policies are restricting third-party cookies across browsers. 

There are no longer any easy solutions to help businesses capture and manage their own audience data. Forward-thinking marketers that focus on developing their own data strategy will be setting themselves up for success in 2021 and beyond. While the cookie is dead, there are other ways to monitor how your audience interacts with your business online, such as device fingerprinting. 

8. More AI-Optimized Ads

In today’s advertising world, it’s not just targeting and bidding that you can optimize using artificial intelligence, but also your ads themselves. Responsive search ads (RSAs) are a type of ad that allows Google AI to optimize your headlines, ad description, and call-to-action to make them more relevant to the search query and audience. While this feature has been around since 2019, enough businesses have now tried RSAs to confirm they work very well at improving cost per click, cost per conversion, and conversion rates across the board. 

Google Ads has introduced many automation features that the majority of marketers dislike, but RSAs are certainly not one of them. Their ability to craft and deliver effective messaging to searchers at exactly the right time will make them a staple ad-type for campaigns in 2021 and beyond. 

9. Better Intent-Based Targeting

It has long been an important strategy in PPC advertising to choose keywords and create ads that speak to the original intent of your audience. People interested in different products or services, or who are at different stages of the sales funnel, shouldn’t be targeted with the same message. While smart marketers are constantly working on segmenting to achieve this goal, it’s about to get much easier in 2021.

That’s because Google recently launched a new custom audiences solution. This brings custom affinity and custom intent audiences together for better segmentation and targeting. When creating custom audiences, you can now easily set targeting to: 

  • People with any of these interests or purchase intentions
  • People who searched for any of these terms on Google. 

This makes it much easier to target and optimize your ads for people in the awareness, interest, decision, and action stages of the sales funnel. 

Wrapping Up 

It’s difficult to know for sure what’s going to happen in 2021, especially after such a strange year in 2020. Businesses investing in SEM need to pay close attention to how changes in the economy, their communities, and industries can impact their success. That said, there are some trends in new technologies and marketing strategies that businesses can expect to be important moving forward. Be sure to take advantage of the things you know for certain and keep an eye out for new changes in a year that’s bound to be much better than the last.

Courtney Danyel

Courtney Danyel is a business writer covering digital marketing, marketing technology, techniques, and related topics. She has 8 years of experience as a professional writer and content marketing expert.

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