In 2017, ecommerce sales were responsible for $2.3 trillion worldwide. This figure is expected to be nearly doubled by 2021, with projected global sales for 2020 coming out to a predicted $3.9 trillion.
This year, businesses of all sizes across various industries have faced unprecedented challenges as a result of COVID-19, with some industries fairing better than others. The pandemic has forced businesses to quickly adapt their strategies, with many required to solely operate online. In fact, Google reports that there were four years of ecommerce acceleration within the first three months of lockdown. This huge shift to digital has seen a dramatic change in the way consumers shop and are likely to shop in the future, and the increase in online purchasing is driving new or higher consumer expectations. Ecommerce is now more important than ever.
With coronavirus still ongoing and 2020 drawing to a close, the only thing that’s certain for the new year is change. That’s why it’s crucial for businesses to keep up to date with the latest trends and developments to stay ahead of the curve in 2021.
With all of the above in mind, we’ve created this guide to give ecommerce businesses an insight into 9 key advancements that are expected to impact the industry next year. We’ve collected opinions and predictions from external industry experts, as well as some of Impression’s own specialists, to give a variety of views and considerations across multiple digital marketing disciplines.
One thing we can expect to see in 2021 across all digital marketing channels is increased competition, as businesses increasingly see the importance (or arguably, necessity) of an ecommerce strategy. To combat this, experts across the industry advise that you diversify your choice of channels and platforms to maximise your visibility.
This is particularly important for ecommerce brands given the impulsive nature of many online purchases. As Fraser Andrews, Paid Media strategist at Impression explains: “[Compared with lead generation] ecommerce can be a lot more impulsive, so ensuring that you are catering to those impulses (by being present on whichever platform your customers may be spending their time on, at any given moment) makes a big difference.”
Ben Garry, SEO strategist at Impression, advises that ecommerce marketers “think beyond standard Google Search when considering how to gain visibility for the long-tail content you create. Google Search is still an excellent source of traffic but a growing number of SERP features and ever-increasing competition mean that it can be tough to maximise your visibility through the ‘10 blue links’ alone. In terms of organic channels, YouTube is one worth exploring more in 2021. Embedding YouTube videos into content creates a new way for your audience to engage, and will drive up video engagement to bring you more visibility on YouTube itself. YouTube is a huge search engine in its own right and is perfectly placed for top of the funnel traffic and audience awareness.”
The need to diversify platforms was echoed by our paid specialists too. James Webster, one of our ecommerce PPC specialists, said that his main advice for ecommerce brands in 2021 was that they should ‘invest in multi-channel ecommerce activity.” Continuing, James said, “if you are really looking to scale up and grow your business over the next 12 months there needs to be an aligned focus from all channels due to the long conversion journeys. Impression has partnered with a feed optimisation platform that allows product feed integration across various channels e.g. Google Merchant Center, Microsoft Advertising, Google Display Network and paid social catalogs. This allows the same product feed you’d typically use for Google Shopping to power your whole online inventory.”
Liam Wade, Impression’s head of PPC, also stressed the importance of using the same base feed across all channels, with platform-specific modifications, which is exactly what a platform like Shoptimised facilitates.
When considering your choice of paid social platforms, it’s important to think beyond the usual suspects like Facebook and Instagram if you want to stay ahead of the curve. Amy Stamper, paid social & display specialist at Impression, predicts that TikTok will be the most influential platform for ecommerce in 2021.
“TikTok was making major waves in 2019, but the short-form video app really exploded into the mainstream during lockdown. Potential barriers such as the US ban were less significant than expected, and now TikTok’s massive user base is available for self-serve ads for all businesses. Early adoption paid off with great results in our first client campaigns, however we expect that 2021 will be the year of mass advertising.
Facebook is trying to imitate TikTok with Instagram Reels but it’s not as user friendly and the algorithm leaves much to be desired – we predict that TikTok will continue to lead the way in terms of innovation and growth.”
End-to-end, in-platform ecommerce
Over the last few years, a growing number of social media platforms have introduced shoppable posts and in-app checkout experiences to their apps or sites. As Amy Stamper summarises, “[Facebook] continues to implement new features that make social ecommerce a real consideration for businesses. Instagram in particular has been a good channel for paid social – with tagged products from Instagram Shops becoming widely adopted and dynamic product ads taking full advantage of Facebook’s algorithm to increase sales.”
“Instagram also recently launched a new ecommerce checkout feature to tackle the on-going challenge of delivering an end-to-end in-app ecommerce experience for users. This new Instagram Checkout allows users to complete product purchases without ever having to leave the app, and removes friction by saving purchasing information for future payments.”
Jack Cooper, global digital marketing lead at Roland Corporation, echoed this sentiment: “Following developments to platforms like WhatsApp and Instagram (including the new ‘guides’ feature), for eCommerce, there must be a bigger focus on social shopping platforms in 2021.”
Amy doesn’t think it will take long for challenger platforms like TikTok to catch up with social commerce developments either: “TikTok has started to experiment with social commerce in combination with the new generation of influencers. According to TechCrunch, TikTok has started to allow some users to add links to websites within their bio and offer creators the ability to easily send their viewers to shopping websites.”
Outside of social media platforms, Google also doesn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to become an ecommerce leader. Google launched free listings across Google Shopping back in April 2020 and this lower barrier to entry for merchants will result in a wider selection of products on Google Shopping. Following this, Google has already announced plans to make it possible to buy directly through Google Shopping in the longer-term.
According to The Print, YouTube (Google owned) has additionally confirmed their plans to turn the platform into a major ecommerce hub. Video creators may soon be able to tag products mentioned in their videos and this is currently being tested across a limited number of channels.
Commenting on these developments in social commerce across the industry, Jack Cooper summarises: “twinned with organic Google Shopping listings and the newly-announced Google Pay overhaul, I strongly believe that 2021 will see the already-blurred lines between paid social and paid search become even muddier. A rivalry that echoes that of PPC & SEO a decade or so ago.”
Savvy businesses and quick adopters may sweep up, and this presents an opportunity for many SMBs to be agile like never before!”
Looking at the world of digital PR, something that we can definitely expect to see ecommerce brands doing more of in 2021, are product stunts, according to Impression’s head of digital PR, Laura Hampton.
“Product stunts have been a theme of recent years, with PRs either working with an existing product to make it more newsworthy or creating a new (maybe fake) product to create a conversation. Looking at trends in product sales, tying products into seasonal holidays or announcing a particularly exciting new product are also great techniques that can be underpinned by thought leadership and newsjacking around the topic of selling online.”
Laura advises that these kinds of product stunts are great for building deep links to product pages too, which is notoriously “one of the most challenging areas of digital PR, for no other reason than the fact it can appear very salesy to ask a journalist to include what is essentially an advert for your brand.
But it is possible. The key is to make the product newsworthy.
That might be something that’s already an inherent characteristic of it. As an example, one of our clients launched a new version of their product which was built entirely from recycled and recyclable materials, and this was a newsworthy hook in itself that enabled us to earn links and coverage as a result. In other cases, we’ve been able to give existing products a PR-worthy hook by slightly reframing them or updating the description of what’s already there to tie into something topical in the news.
Then there are PR stunts. These are great for landing product page links if the stunt is a) a product itself or b) highly related to a product. For example, in one case, we created a new product for a kids brand which was an anti nightmare mist to spray under beds and get rid of the monsters around Halloween. This was a product that sat in a product category and thus passed link equity into that category and the products within it. In other cases, we’ve used stunts like competitions or even offline campaigns to create newsworthiness around a product – for example, by hosting the Ts and Cs of a drawing competition on the product page to which the competition related meant that any journalist promoting the competition would need to include that link.”
Google Analytics 4
As any good digital marketer will know, reporting on and assessing the impact of your marketing activity on your business’ bottom line is as crucial as the activity itself. This means that a robust reporting, tracking and attribution solution is required, which is where Google Analytics 4 comes in.
Aaron Dicks, managing director at Impression, tells us more about the newly-launched version of the platform and how to configure your set up for reporting success. “Whilst it’s early days, it’s a firm recommendation from Impression to ensure you have a new GA4 property set up to ensure you have some historical data in place for when you come to use the platform.
If full ecommerce reporting is still not entirely configured, from list page impressions through to cart actions then this is a missed opportunity to understand your Analytics data in a new dimension: through the SKU lens. A proper ecommerce implementation can feed into much more, such as merchandising decisions and altering search behaviour and list page layouts, and more.”
Browser cookies have only a short life ahead of them right now and, with their demise, ad platforms and analytics vendors alike are going to need to innovate to find new campaign measurement techniques. Google’s answer to this, through Google Analytics 4, is to utilise the power of Google’s machine learning to model performance and fill in the gaps programmatically. This means accuracy on the platform, specifically relating to user data, may decrease slightly over time, but it’s too early to tell.”
For marketers, all this means is that we’ll be doing our jobs with a decreasing amount of visibility over accurate data, and will increasingly need to rely on machine learning interpreted data to manage activity and craft our strategies.
Automation in SEO & Paid Media
Another key consideration for digital marketers is the ever-growing presence of automation and how this will impact our strategies and day-to-day workflows in the future. Shachar Radin Shomrat, CMO at DeepCrawl, shared her thoughts on the future of automation in SEO:
“As we all know, the SEO industry is not short of innovation. SEOs have consistently had to move fast to react to competition and Google updates like Core Web Vitals.
Despite this, the industry has yet to fully embrace automation. In Econsultancy and DeepCrawl’s The Digital Future Report, only 6% of our research respondents said that automation was fully deployed for improving site performance at their organisations.
Though it exists in some forms — automating monthly performance reports, utilizing Python to speed up tasks, and setting up automation rules in project management tools, for example — there are still areas of SEO where, for many in the industry, automation has yet to be used to its full potential. Almost half (49%) of leaders surveyed in our report said improving on-site performance was mostly manual, for example.
In 2021, automation will become more ubiquitous. As Scott Brinker, VP platform ecosystem at HubSpot suggested at DeepCrawl Live 2020, automation is now a key part of the big data to big ops trend in martech. It won’t be long before we see wide scale automation in SEO.
One of the key use cases for automation will be automated code testing for SEO.
Why? Because technical execution remains a challenge for SEOs and marketers. And 41% say that making technical changes to their websites has, at some point, led to a negative impact on marketing performance. In today’s competitive search landscape, such negative impacts simply won’t be acceptable.
After all, no marketer wants to repeat the dreaded ASOS case study, where changing the site impacted search engine rankings, leading to an 87% hit to profits.
So what’s the solution? At DeepCrawl, we’ve already gone some way to providing tools to SEOs to avoid some of these catastrophic events from taking place.
In 2020 we launched our new SEO testing automation tool, Automator.
Automator automatically tests code before it gets released onto a site, enabling SEOs and digital marketers to easily ensure bad code doesn’t get released and have the chance to negatively impact their search rankings and revenue.
So far, around a third of Automator tests have returned critical errors. Given that most early users of Automator are SEO mature, there’s likely to be an even higher percentage of code with critical SEO errors being released across most sites.
That’s why I believe we are entering an era of automation in SEO for 2021. Without a tool like Automator, SEOs may find themselves in hot water.”
When considering automation in Paid Media, Greg Holland, PPC strategist at Impression, added: “Google will start to favour automation as it takes control away from the marketer, so it will become increasingly important to look into opting into some automation techniques sooner rather than when it could be too late. This is perhaps more relevant for Search due to variances in keywords becoming more vague, whereas Shopping campaigns can still be optimised fairly efficiently using negative keywords and feed optimisation.”
It is clear to see that digital marketers across all disciplines need to consider the ever-increasing role that automation is likely to play in their strategies.
Reacting to change
2020 has been one of the most unpredictable years on record and, in line with ever-changing rules, regulations and restrictions, almost everyone has had to make changes to the way in which they work. Digital marketers are no exception to this. Matt Colebourne, CEO at Searchmetrics, talked to us about why ecommerce marketers will need to continue to be flexible in 2021 but why it’s also crucial that we remember the basics in the midst of all the change.
“If there is one trend that is expected to continue into 2021 it’s reacting to change. Digital marketers must be prepared for next year to be another uncertain one where online user habits and customer needs are likely to change rapidly. That means planning is difficult; you will need to have an overall plan for the year whilst retaining flexibility.
In 2020 internet traffic generally and search volumes particularly surged. However, the nature of that traffic changed markedly and this was a substantial challenge for digital marketers. Search Traffic which had previously converted at an economic rate suddenly became unprofitable as the nature of what people were doing online changed; they were spending more time browsing, reading and researching rather than comparing and buying.
So, how to deal with this? In some senses, for the digital marketer, it’s going to start looking a bit like being an energy supplier. To deliver the metrics that your business will need in 2021 you’re going to need your reliable, lower cost channels (coal and gas) such as SEO/Search/Content/Sponsorship/Product Marketing and then you’ll need to add your quick response, more expensive channels on top (hydroelectric and gas) that can be spooled up quickly to ensure you meet your overall goals such as Search/Display/Email.
It will be imperative to target the right stage of the sales funnel with the right medium. For example, using Paid Search to target early stage research, where you’re building awareness and consideration but where such traffic converts very poorly to sales, would be very expensive in the current environment. That may change of course but it’s likely only towards the latter half of the year. Even then, however, the number of businesses that have switched to home working and may not revert back even when allowed to do so means that we’re not making that a prediction.
So, our suggested strategy is to go back to basics. Look at your pipeline stages and, when it comes to search, make sure that you have the right medium at the right point. We’d advise getting your SEO/content to do the awareness and consideration work and then enhance that with active measures such as Paid, Email etc in the purchase stage.
Or, to put it simply, it is now more important than ever to be super clear about business objectives first and then work backwards. Understand the pipeline shape and dynamics, plan in both reliable and quick reaction measures and monitor continually. Multi-channel is imperative; if your strategy relies on one and that changes dramatically, which we’ve seen happen recently, then you’ve got problems.
Make sure you get your mix right with sensible use of data and, critically, use measures that allow you to compare channels. If someone says “Oh, this is different, you can’t measure it using those old metrics” then view them with scepticism. More often than not, what that means is that they either don’t understand core marketing metrics and/or they suspect the channel they are promoting might not perform quite so well against such focused and clear measures.
So, to summarise, things are going to keep changing but remember to be clear about where you’re going. Ask yourself, what is your marketing ratio, what is your target cost/conversion, what visibility and awareness does your brand need. If you measure and compare that dispassionately then you can stay dynamic, genuinely ‘follow the science and data’ and experience positive marketing delivery.”
Chloe Fair, senior SEO strategist at Impression, also outlined some of the tangible implications of changing consuming behaviours in the SERPs (Search Engine Result’s Pages):
“The map pack has become more prominent in searches due to this shift in search demand. We have observed that queries such as ‘bedroom furniture’ are now triggering more transactional related search results, such as shopping and more category and product search results. Whereas it used to be more articles and local results, such as the map pack, showing a shift in demand.”
Changes to the composition of the SERPs mean that digital marketers will have to adapt their strategies accordingly in 2021. Azeem Ahmad, digital marketing manager at iamazeemdigital.com, also agreed that ecommerce marketers will need to change their tactics in order to win customers in 2021, and shared some of his key learnings from this year which will shape his future strategies:
“2021 will be the year that will separate the good marketers from the great in my opinion.
Comparing consumer behaviour from previous years to future years is a dangerous tactic. Analyse your own customer data and behaviour during COVID and align those with your efforts for a greater chance of success.
Amongst the many things that the pandemic has taught us, it’s that consumers (certainly in my experience) do not like the hard sales approach. Softer, conversational messaging will work great. Most people are at home more often, and there’s more opportunity to get their attention across multiple screens. Repeating aged messaging in various forms will alienate rather than resonate.”
Core Web Vitals & Accessibility
As Aaron Dicks, Managing Director at Impression highlights, “Core Web Vitals is definitely the largest announcement from Google on site speed in years, so it’s unlikely there will be further news quite as large as this throughout the remainder of 2021.
Aaron continued, “Web Vitals, in addition to the “Core Web Vitals” measure a wide range of user experience and page interactivity factors which will increasingly impact search engine performance into the future. These not only impact site (and server) speed, but also the loading and execution of assets, scripts and slow ads on a website, as these all impact a users overall experience.”
Ian Humphreys, senior SEO strategist at Impression, added that “Core Web Vitals will become a ranking factor from May 2021. In preparation for this update, ecommerce brands should first build an understanding of their users’ experiences across their website pages. To do this they can take advantage of Core Web Vitals reports within their Google Search Console. For any pages that have been identified as “poor” performing or in “need of improvement” they should dig deeper to understand whether these potential pain points would impact their most valuable pages. Then, the next steps are to review any valuable pages that are performing at a more granular level, using tools such as page speed insights. This will help them build out a list of action points that prioritises priority pages and can be worked on ahead of the update.”
Looking at the introduction of Core Web Vitals from an accessibility perspective, Sophie Darr, SEO executive at Impression, believes that “the introduction of Core Web Vitals in 2021 is a positive shift in the right direction for a more user-friendly and accessible web. However, there are many websites which still fail basic accessibility tests. A 2019 study of over 1 million popular site homepages, carried out by WebAIM, found that 97.8% had accessibility issues of some kind.
Scope estimates that disabilities affect almost 14 million people in the UK – that’s about 20% of the population. If your website is not accessible, then you could be missing out on a fifth of your potential customers. For example, if your website is not screen-reader friendly, you are preventing visually impaired users from accessing your site.
There are many different tools you can use to measure your website’s accessibility, including Lighthouse in Chrome Dev Tools. This will give you a starting point, with actionable recommendations to improve the accessibility of your website.”
In 2021, SEO managers will need to be aware of the impacts of Core Web Vitals, from both a site speed and accessibility perspective.
EAT (Expertise, Authority and Trust)
While EAT considerations have been on the radar for SEOs for several years now, Hugo Whittaker, SEO executive at Impression believes that “EAT has been one of the most, if not the most influential consideration for ecommerce content”, and that it will continue to shape the way we approach content in 2021.
Hugo explains that “A major theme in recent algorithm updates has been Google rewarding sites that demonstrate high levels of expertise and trustworthiness, particularly in Your Money Your Life (YMYL) verticals.
Google wants ecommerce websites to provide a safe and informed shopping experience for their users, especially in the health and fitness industries. As a result we’ve seen SEOs invest more in informational content that aims to demonstrate expertise and authority in the space, making sure to highlight the experience and qualifications of the author.
EAT has also placed greater emphasis on increasing overall site authority in the space through link acquisition. No click searches are on the rise and the most lucrative keywords are becoming more difficult to rank for, with larger websites often being rewarded thanks to their larger backlink profiles. Smaller ecommerce sites have had to pivot their strategies to improve their own backlink profiles, as well as increase branded traffic through PR activity.
It’s highly likely that EAT will continue to be a highly influential trend in 2021. Nevertheless, SEOs should also look out for Google’s new ‘passage indexing’, which aims to provide more accurate results to answer a user’s query. This could lessen the importance of keyword themes and make it easier for smaller websites to rank for long tail keywords if they produce the right content. It may also make featured snippets a more common occurrence in the SERP, which will decrease clicks even more for organic results.”
CRO (Conversion Rate Optimisation)
While CRO (short for conversion rate optimisation) is a discipline that has been around for a while, Richard Chapman, CRO consultant at Impression, believes that brands’ CRO strategies are still drastically underdeveloped in comparison to more mature areas of digital marketing, like SEO. But, Richard predicts that CRO is only going to become more necessary in 2021 as companies direct increasing quantities of traffic to their site and need to make incremental increases to conversion rate to drive results. Richard spoke to us about recent developments in CRO, and how it may evolve into next year.
“One of things to come to the forefront of CRO recently is site speed. This due to Google’s algorithm targeting site speed as a key area for rankings. Also people nowadays are less patient especially with technology, it should just work quickly, right? We all now expect next day delivery, fast food and any information we want to appear within two seconds on our devices.” As highlighted in the introduction, the surge in ecommerce growth has prompted higher consumer expectations when it comes to online shopping and website experiences.
Looking ahead to 2021, Richard thinks that Biometrics in CRO, as well as multi-channel CRO will be key in the industry.
“For enterprise level sites and brands an exciting area to look out for is BioMetrics. Previously this sort of technology has been used for facial recognition, eye & finger print scanning and lie detectors.
Big companies who have the budget can hook customers up to have their bio metrics measured while using different web experiences and branding. This technique gives a new level of user data and information prior to a/b testing variations on a live website audience.
VWO has been ever present and continues to develop as one of the leading technology providers for running CRO campaigns. The ability to run multi channel campaigns and provide bespoke web experience per channel is a powerful tool.
This could lead us to a point where websites give a bespoke experience per channel (I can hear the SEOs scratching their heads on this one).”
For any brands looking to make the most of their acquired traffic, a CRO strategy should definitely be considered for 2021.
As 2020 draws to a close, the only certainty is that the ecommerce landscape will continue to change and evolve, as the wider climate does, throughout 2021.
With ever-changing restrictions on brick and mortar stores, having a strong ecommerce presence is no longer desirable, but a necessity, if businesses are to thrive in the current and future climate. Add to this: increasingly demanding users, new digital channels and disciplines, ever-evolving automation features, fiercer competition between platforms and accessibility and privacy considerations… digital marketers will have their work cut out in 2021.
Despite the challenges, businesses that are able to adapt their strategies in line with the nine trends, tips and tools covered in this report will be in a strong position to excel at ecommerce next year and beyond.