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2021 Google updates round up: everything businesses need to win at search

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2021 Google updates recapped everything businesses need to win at search


30-second summary:

  • There have been three core updates in 2021, released in June, July, and November, while another was rumored but unconfirmed in October
  • Featured snippets that fell under the YMYL algorithm were unexpectedly removed in February, then restored in March
  • Product reviews came under the microscope in April, with marketing and sales-centric language penalized in favor of expertise on review-centric websites
  • Multiple spam updates unfolded throughout the year, though these updates should not impact any website that follows Google’s guidelines

Successful SEO strategy is akin to dancing the tango with Google updates. Unfortunately for copywriters, the Big G can be an unpredictable partner at times. In addition to daily algorithm tweaks that go unnoticed, we all brace ourselves for core updates that have a sizeable impact on page ranking and performance. Throughout 2021, Google has confirmed a handful of updates.

Further updates have also been speculated by experienced web-based professionals, reporting these to aid others in remaining on the right side of an adjustment. Throughout this guide, we’ll discuss the updates rolled out by Google in 2021 to date.

Complete list of 2021 Google updates

As promised, let’s review all the algorithm updates issued by Google during 2021, major and minor alike. Some of these are official, confirmed by Alphabet themselves. The core updates are an obvious example of this. Others were noticed by webmasters of influential brands and discussed online. These unconfirmed updates are marked in red below.

1. Passage indexing (February)

The passage indexing update, announced in October 2020, is probably better described as passage ranking. The purpose behind the update is simple and noble. It will pick out one particular sentence or paragraph from a long-form article, aiding a niche web query and avoiding irrelevance.

Essentially, this update seeks out keywords and terminology in an entire article rather than focusing primarily on titles and subheadings. At the time of writing, Google projects that this will impact around 7 percent of search queries. At this point, the passage indexing update also only applies to copy written in US English, though this will eventually become global and translingual policy.

Now, you may be wondering how this differs from a featured snippet. The short answer is that a snippet is chosen based on the whole web page, seeking relevance to the subject at hand in all aspects of the query. The passage indexing update can pick up on a small element of a broader discussion that would otherwise be banished to the mid-page and beyond. Speaking of featured snippets, however…

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2. Featured snippet drop/featured snippet recovery (February and March)

In mid-February, MozCast noticed that featured snippets vanished from countless SERPs on Google. This involved a decline of some 40 percent, the largest in over six years. Snippets that revolved around medical or financial advice were particularly impacted. Some of the keywords and terms that experienced this plummet included:

  • Acne
  • Autism
  • Diabetes
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Investment
  • IRA
  • Lupus
  • Mutual funds
  • Pension
  • Risk management

As you’ll see, the YMYL broad algorithm appeared to be a particular bone of contention. We’ll never know for sure, as this update – if indeed there was an update – has never been confirmed or denied by Google. What’s more, around a month later, these snippets returned as though they had never been away.

Without any explanation behind the mystery, it’s impossible to offer advice to webmasters on how to avoid a future unwarned absence of featured snippets. The fact that YMYL was hit so hard suggests that it was a deliberate action, though. Whenever working within this niche, proceed with caution – especially if relying on SERPs for ecommerce opportunities.

3. Product review update (April)

April’s product review update was also critical to ecommerce sites and those that collate product insights. Google is adamant that this has not been a core update. However, the approach that content marketers must now take mirrors the core updates that arose later in the year.

Following the review update, it’s more important than ever that product reviews remain strictly factual. That means discussing a product’s qualities (or lack thereof) without clear and obvious attempts to push for a sale from an affiliate. Sites that used their copy to talk up the qualities of a product using popular keywords and directing consumers toward Amazon were typically penalized.

Thin copy, as always, captured Google’s attention too, and not in a positive manner. Meaningless, fluffy words designed to pad out a page, along with repetition, will see a page slide down the rankings. A product review site that hopes to remain in good stead with Google must remember the fundamental rules of E-A-T. You can still attempt to make a sale, but not at the expense of demonstrating expertise, authority, and trustworthiness.

4. Multitask Unified Model aka MUM (June)

June was a busy month for Google, starting with the Multitask Unified Model update, better known as MUM. This update could be considered a logical extension of the previously discussed passage indexing update. MUM also used AI to improve the search experience for users, replacing BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers).

It’s claimed that MUM is at least 1,000 times more powerful than its predecessor. In addition to providing greater, much more insightful data for users, MUM works to eradicate language barriers, including misspellings, leaning upon nuance to meet the expectations of a search.

Perhaps more importantly, MUM means that irrelevant content, picked up through a questionable use of keywords to game the SEO system, will soon disappear from the top of the page in favor of more appropriate content. The core update that came later in the month garnered most of the headlines, but don’t sleep on the impact of MUM.

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5. Spam updates (June)

Next in June came a spam update, which took place over two weeks. In theory, this update should not have impacted any website operating under white hat SEO rules. It was designed purely to keep content relevant and appropriate, battling against sinister tactics.

As always, though, there was room for error with this update. It’s always advisable to keep on top of the latest webmaster guidelines laid out by Google. This way, a site is considerably less likely to fall foul to a misunderstanding and accusations of black hat traffic-hoarding.

Updates to Google’s Predator algorithm could also be considered a crucial part of this update. Google has been taking lengths to protect people from harassment online, and a big part of this is downgrading sites that seemingly exist purely to denigrate a reputation.

6. Page experience update (June)

Page experience update sounds like a grand event, comparable even to a core update. In reality, this was a pretty low-key affair. It was also a slow procession, kicking off in June and rumbling on until August. All the same, there will be a degree of ebb and flow as a result. Discuss the update with your UX designer and ensure it remains at the forefront of your thinking.

One of the biggest takeaways from this update is that AMP is no longer essential to rank as a top new story. That could make a sizeable difference to any reporting site. The usual caveats still apply, though – sticking to the established policies of Google News is non-negotiable. Although AMP is no longer critical, ensure your news articles remain mobile-friendly, hosted on a fast and secure server, and unfold devoid of interruptions such as intrusive advertising.

7. Core update (June and July)

Here’s the big kahuna that has every web admin across the globe on tenterhooks – Google’s major summer core update. In 2021, Google announced two updates over June and July, both of which would be connected.

As always, there were winners and losers from this update. In a recurring theme, YMYL sites appeared to lose a great deal of traffic throughout the update – especially in June, when the changes were most volatile. Thin content in any niche also seemed to be a particular focus of this update, with such sites pruned cautiously.

However, some sites that were previously heavily penalized may have experienced a little bounce back. It has been claimed that the biggest priorities of the June and July updates, other than thin copy, have been domain age and the use of backlinks.

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Review the traffic of any old sites that you wrote off after the game-changing updates of 2019. These sites may have experienced a revival in page ranking and could be worth reinvestment. Just be mindful that Google may consider this an oversight and reverse the decision at any moment.

8. Link spam update (July)

Another spam-detecting algorithm rolled out in July, this time focusing on backlinks. What’s interesting here is that Google referred to this update as ‘nullifying’ spam links, not penalizing them.

Essentially, Google will just stop counting inappropriate links toward a page ranking and quality score. Naturally, though, it would feel like a punishment if a site relied upon these links previously – this is an important Google update for link-building professionals to pay attention to.

Keep an eye on the links on your site if you have seen a drop in traffic, ensuring that they meet Google’s link scheme standards. It could be all too easy to fall foul to this update based on outdated copy that has not been updated in some time and now links to an altered and irrelevant online location.

9. Page title rewrites (August)

Here’s an interesting update from August. Google started to adjust carefully selected page titles, leading to different ‘headlines’ in search results. This may have SEO consultants across the world wailing and gnashing their teeth, seeing meticulously curated messaging adjusted according to Google’s whims.

Rest assured, the page titles are not undertaking complete rewrites. We are talking about adjustments, not wholesale changes, to title tags. All the same, it could be enough to leave a webmaster frustrated with the outcome. Nobody wants to be accused of click-baiting, especially when the news industry has a questionable reputation with a cynical population segment.

There is little anybody can do to prevent this. To retain some measure of control, though, keep your H1 headings short and readable, and be mindful of your H2 headings. These may be used, in part or whole, to adjust the title of a search result.

10. Speculated core update (October)

We previously discussed how, back in February, MozCast acknowledged some strange patterns pertaining to featured snippets that Google never acknowledged. Something similar unfolded in October when various significant webmasters noted sizeable changes in traffic and performance. This led to claims that Google had engaged in another core update.

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Much like February, these changes remain unconfirmed. However, as we’ll discuss in a moment, there was a reasonably seismic core update in November. Given that the previous update unfolded over two months, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Google adopted the same practice this time around.

11. Spam update (November)

Another spam update occurred in November 2021, once again targeting infractions that break Google’s general content guidelines. A website that does not contravene basic regulations or cut SEO corners should remain unaffected. Do keep an eye on your traffic and performance, though. If you notice any fluctuations, it could be time for a refresh of your content.

12. Confirmed core update (November)

Finally, we had another core algorithm update in November. At the time of writing, this was still a very recent development. As a result, the impact of the update will become more apparent over time. Some early responses and acknowledgments have been noted, though.

The most significant adjustment appears to be mobile searches, which were declared 23 percent more volatile than the previous update. Again, much like earlier in the year, featured snippets and ‘quick answers’ in the YMYL niche seem the most heavily impacted. Health and real estate, in particular, have seen a big change in performance.

Now, it’s worth noting here that Google felt compelled to address the timing of this update. Danny Sullivan took to Twitter and accepted that an update just before Black Friday and the Christmas shopping season is not ideal for ecommerce sites – especially those that already adjusted their copy based on previous updates.

Source: Twitter

It will be interesting to see if this will change how Google approaches algorithm updates in 2022 and beyond.

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This concludes our trip through the Google algorithm updates of 2021. Just remember, more tweaks and changes are made each day. Most of these adjustments have little to no impact on the performance of your website. If you have spotted a change in fortunes, though, review when this occurred. You may find the answer lies above.


Joe Dawson is Director of strategic growth agency Creative.onl, based in the UK. He can be found on Twitter @jdwn.

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How to Start Affiliate Marketing With No Money in 2022 (5 Steps)

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How to Start Affiliate Marketing With No Money in 2022 (5 Steps)

If you do it right, affiliate marketing can make you money while you’re on the beach, in the mountains, or even taking a nap. I would know—I’ve been doing it for years.

I started my first affiliate marketing blog 10 years ago with just $40 and not a clue what I was doing. Now, it’s earning six figures, and I only have to work a few hours a week to run it.

In fact, that affiliate site receives over 100,000 visits per month from Google:

Google analytics for affiliate website

In this article, I’m going to teach you how to start affiliate marketing with (almost) no money. I’ll share how I did it and what you can do to get started today.

How does affiliate marketing work?

Affiliate marketing is the process of promoting someone else’s products or services and making a commission whenever someone buys after clicking your affiliate link.

For example, if you publish a blog post or a YouTube video sharing the best vacuum cleaners for pet hair and someone buys a product you recommend after clicking your affiliate link, you get paid a percentage of that sale.

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It’s a great business model because it has almost no overhead and you don’t have to manufacture, or ship products, or handle customer service. You get paid to promote cool stuff.

Can you really start affiliate marketing with “no” money?

The only way to start affiliate marketing with no money is to get an affiliate link and start sending it to people you know. While this is possible, it’s not scalable and won’t make you much money unless you’re constantly networking.

Instead, the most successful affiliate marketers create a website and social media channels in order to get traffic to their affiliate links. While social media accounts are free, a website does cost a few bucks.

Specifically, you need to purchase a domain name and website hosting. A domain costs you around $3–$7 for the first year, and hosting starts at $2.75 per month (paid annually, this is $33).

So you will need at least $36 to get started as of the time this post was published.

If you’re ready to make your website, I recommend following this YouTube video by WP Beginner. It walks you through how to get your hosting and domain name set up and how to use WordPress for complete beginners.

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How to start affiliate marketing with (almost) no money

If you’ve got the $36 and you want to give this business model a try, I’ve come up with five simple steps to get you started in affiliate marketing:

Step 1. Find a niche OR a good affiliate program

The first and most important step is figuring out what you want to talk about and promote—in other words, your niche.

Your niche can be almost anything, from a hobby, to an interest, to a lifestyle. Like dogs? That can be a niche. Interested in cryptocurrency? Niche potential. You get the idea.

Niche selection is one of the hardest parts of affiliate marketing. You need to pick something you won’t mind creating content about for years to come. It takes time to build the brand authority and awareness to turn this into a full-time business, so don’t be afraid to spend some time here.

Now, there are a few ways to choose your niche. You can either pick a niche you’re already interested in, OR you can look for good affiliate programs first and base your niche on those program(s).

Finding high-paying affiliate programs with quality companies can be difficult. Usually, you’ll either find good products with low commissions (2%–4%) or crappy products with high commissions (20%+).

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But every once in a while, you’ll find a high-quality product with a high commission rate. And if you do, it may be worth basing your niche around. It’s much better to get high-paying partners than just to promote Amazon products.

There’s nothing wrong with building an Amazon affiliate website. However, don’t expect to make a lot of money from this unless you’re able to get a huge amount of traffic and sales. 

Last year, I sent Amazon more than $1.2 million in sales… and only made $47,310.

Amazon affiliate income

So yeah—it’s worth looking for a better affiliate program. 

The best affiliate partnerships are made by creating a direct relationship with the brand you want to promote and working out a private deal.

So where do you find great affiliate partners?

Think about the things you already enjoy doing and look at your favorite products or services in those niches. See if any of those products have an existing affiliate program. If not, call a brand to get in touch with its marketing team or even the owner to try and work something out.

You can also find potential affiliate programs by searching for “[your niche] affiliate programs” on Google. You’ll often find lists of brands that have an affiliate program, as well as the details of the program.

Lastly, you can check popular affiliate marketing platforms like AvantLink, impact.com, ShareASale, and many more.

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Ready to look for a niche? Here are two guides to get you started:

Step 2. Decide on one traffic channel

One of the biggest mistakes I see beginners making (and have made myself) is focusing on creating content for too many traffic channels at once. They make accounts on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and Pinterest, all while managing their blog—it’s too much.

Every single one of these channels takes months or years to learn and build engaged audiences on. And each of them can fill enough time to be a full-time job.

Instead, choose one or two main traffic sources—my favorites are YouTube and Google because they can bring recurring organic traffic—and get really good at them.

Yes, you can have an account on every channel. Sure, you can share your blog posts on them pretty easily. But keep the bulk of your content creation and attention on one channel, then use the others to support that channel.

At Ahrefs, we specialize in search engine optimization (SEO)—that is, creating and optimizing content to appear in search engines. 

Organic traffic from search engines like Google is one of the best ways to get recurring, passive affiliate revenue. It takes time to learn the skills and get to page #1 on Google. But SEO is worth learning in the long run because it brings you traffic every time someone makes a search and finds your content.

One of my sites received over 100,000 visits from Google in a single month without me creating or promoting a single piece of content during the entire month:

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Google analytics traffic overview

YouTube is similar because it’s also often used as a search engine, making it another great source of recurring visitors without the need for constantly creating and promoting new content.

Of course, which traffic channel you choose depends on your own preference and the niche you’re in. Some niches are much more competitive in search engines than others. 

You can use Ahrefs’ free keyword difficulty checker to quickly see if the keywords in your niche are hard to rank for or not. Think of keywords you may search for in the niche and type them in the tool to get more information.

For example, “best vacuum cleaners for pet hair” may be hard to rank for:

Ahrefs' free keyword difficulty checker

Our tool estimates you’d need backlinks (links to your page from another website) from ~45 websites to rank in the top 10 for this keyword. And you can see some of the competitors are big brands like NYMag and HGTV. 

The Keyword Difficulty (KD) score—35—is on a scale from 0 to 100, with 0 being easy and 100 being extremely difficult. It’s on a logarithmic scale, which means it gets exponentially harder to rank for a keyword as the number goes up.

For comparison, the keyword “car vacuum cleaner” has a KD of 27, and we estimate you’d need ~32 backlinks to rank in the top 10.

Medium-difficulty keyword example

If you find some low- to medium-difficulty keywords, it could be a sign Google is a great traffic source for you. Otherwise, you may want to consider a different traffic source to get started with.

Here are some guides to help you learn about different traffic channels:

Step 3. Create killer content

Regardless of the platform you choose to focus on, you will need one thing to succeed:

Great content.

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Your content should be so good, so interesting, so riveting that people are eager to consume and share it. Whether that’s videos, pictures, or blog posts, the only way to stand out in this saturated market is to make your content really damn good.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you need the highest-quality cameras or the best-looking website. In fact, what makes content great varies, depending on the niche and the platform.

But typically, your content needs to be good at one of two things:

  1. Entertaining
  2. Informing

If you can both inform AND entertain people, you’ll do well with affiliate marketing. That can mean excellent storytelling, deep research, or great presentation of information. 

Of course, capturing traffic from Google is going to be very different from Instagram or TikTok. The intention is different—one platform is used for learning, the others for entertaining.

Creating amazing content for Google involves a lot of research:

Then, you need to compile that research in a way that’s easy to understand, well written, and optimized for search engines. The goal is to create something that’s better than what’s already ranking on page #1 for your target keyword.

For example, a good article for Google may look something like this, which ranks #1 for “rv accessories”:

RV accessories article example

As you scroll down the article, you see recommended boxes that share product information quickly and easily; also, the products are recommended by people who have actually used them.

Affiliate product recommendations

The goal with social media is still the same—to create something that’s better than what’s already out there—but it’s done in a different way.

Instead of presenting the best research in the easiest-to-digest way, it’s often about creativity, storytelling, and unique perspectives.

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That can mean a low-quality, handheld video of yourself being real in a moment when life is super difficult. Or it can mean crisp, edited films with drone footage, awesome angles, and sound design.

For example, here’s a video I posted on TikTok that blew up and received over 1.7 million views:

Social media is a different beast—people want to be entertained, not just fed information.

This is why it’s hard to define what “great content” means for social media. But generally, it comes down to being good at informing and entertaining. If you can nail those skills, the rest will fall into place.

Here are a few guides to help you create better content:

Step 4. Promote like crazy

Remember how I said to focus on one channel for traffic?

What I really mean by that is to focus on creating content for only one channel—you can still utilize other channels to boost that content.

For example, if you decide to focus on SEO or YouTube, you can still share your content on Facebook and Pinterest even without a large following. 

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Social media cross-promotion

That doesn’t mean you have to dive deep into Facebook and Pinterest groups and spend hours every day on social media to grow your audience—just look at it as a small piece of a larger strategy. Share it and move on.

Other things you can do to promote your content without spending money include:

  • Engaging with others on forums.
  • Building relationships with others in your niche and similar niches.
  • Commenting on other people’s videos and content.
  • Doing cold email outreach.
  • And more.

Check out our complete guide to content promotion to learn how to get eyeballs on your content.

Step 5. Scale it up

Once you find a traffic channel that works, you can work to scale up your efforts. Double down on the content and promotion methods that are working and cut the ones that aren’t.

At this point, you can look into hiring a writer, video editor, or social media manager to help you maximize your time.

Places like UpWork and Fiverr can help you find an assistant for a relatively low cost. It may take multiple hires to find the right person. But once you do, they’ll save you time, making the hiring process worthwhile.

Finding freelance writers on Fiverr

To have the best possible chances at landing a high-quality worker, only choose people with good reviews. 

Don’t just look at a five-star review average and assume they’re good, though. Read a few of the recent reviews to make sure they’re not fake purchased reviews.

And there you have it—the five steps to start affiliate marketing with basically no money.

Final thoughts

Starting an affiliate marketing business with no money is possible, but it does have a big learning curve and requires being scrappy and thinking outside the box.

With enough determination, you can create a business that earns passive revenue while you spend your time on hobbies, relaxing, with family, or doing whatever you want to do.

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It requires a lot of learning and work, but it’s worth it. If you have questions or want to get in touch, feel free to ping me on Instagram.

If you’re ready to learn more about affiliate marketing and SEO, check out these other guides:



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