2021 was another year of changes, twists and turns, and the organic search world was no exception to this. Google rolled out several algorithm updates in their ongoing mission to improve search quality, relevance, and experience, including a questionably timed pre-Black Friday update. The pandemic continued to impact user search behaviour and created further challenges for sectors reliant on human presence.
We have analysed the SISTRIX Visibility Index data for 2021, identifying the 250 domains that have reaped the reward of increased organic visibility on Google (.co.uk) in terms of both absolute and percentage change.
The losing domains of 2021 have been analysed in a separate article.
The top 250 winning domains have been defined using SISTRIX’s Visibility Index. The index assigns a visibility value to every domain analysed within the Google search results.
The data within this article reflects the visibility of domains in Google’s UK index. SISTRIX’s UK database measures the rankings of 100 million keywords across 10 million domains on mobile and desktop devices.
The Visibility Index data is solely focused on visibility fluctuations resulting from algorithmic changes and does not reflect external factors such as seasonality, weather, or national holidays. Discover more about how the Visibility Index is calculated.
A complete table of all domains analysed is included at the end of the article. However, before you look at these, we’ve extracted some fascinating examples of 2021 SEO winners from whom you may be able to take inspiration for future SEO strategies.
The rise of reference sites
The reign of reference sites continued from 2020, with collinsdictionary.com (+182.8 VI), merriam-webster.com (+174.4 VI) and britannica.com (+169.4), experiencing incredible absolute gains.
Collinsdictionary.com is the domain that saw the biggest absolute gain in organic visibility in 2021 (+182.8 VI). In our most recent look at the Top 100, the domain is the 12th biggest in UK search.
By analysing their directory data, it appears that a large contributor to their visibility uplift was the redirection of the AMP versions of their dictionary pages to the overarching /dictionary directory. The decision to redirect these pages is likely to have stemmed from Google’s page experience announcement in April 2021 which stated that they would no longer give preferential treatment to AMP pages in search.
The migration started around the 18th October 2021 and as of 3rd January 2022, the /dictionary directory has obtained a further 134.68 VI points.
Another reference site that has experienced an impressive absolute uplift is merriam-webster.com (+174.8). Merriam Webster is also an online dictionary and thesaurus that includes word games and quizzes, amongst other features.
We can also see (above) that the domain is seeing a steady increase in backlinks acquired from various domains.
With more people working remotely due to COVID, many businesses have invested in or increased the use of their existing digital communication tools. It seems that Google has acknowledged this fact, and as a result, high-quality reference websites have been given more search prominence.
Image library increases
Several domains that have seen the most improvement in visibility in 2021 include image libraries, most notably dreamstime.com (+195.4% VI).
From closer inspection, we can see that their /photos-images directory has seen a rapid increase in visibility on Google search during the year. The URLs that have seen the most uplift are stock image categories (e.g. “Happy Birthday”, ”Landscapes”, etc.).
Since 4th January 2021, SIS|TRIX has dewteted new rankings for approx. 1,075,963 more keywords. One example: “bully dog”
Other image libraries that experienced visibility increases in 2021 were iStock (+144.7%) and Alamy (+136.3%).
Enhanced visibility for music domains
Spotify hasn’t just unwrapped our listening activity this year, it has also unwrapped the gift of improved Google search visibility. After experiencing a major loss in visibility after the May 2020 Core Update, spotify.com saw a nice increase in Google visibility in 2021 (+115.1 VI).
On 4th January 2021, spotify.com was ranking for the most keywords on Page 2 (roughly 21,410) following by Page 1 (approx. 20,110).
Fast forward to 3rd January 2022, and their organic visibility distribution has clearly improved. There has been significant improvement in the number of keywords they are ranking for on Page 1 (+13,830 keywords/total of approx. 33,940 keywords) and Page 2 (+1,070 keywords/total of 22,480 keywords) of Google search. A 26% page 1 distribution figure is well above average.
Based on findings made by OneZero in September 2020, this visibility increase may be somewhat due to SEO spam tactics. OneZero discovered that artists have been manipulating Spotify’s internal search by creating fake, keyword-optimised artist names to maximise streaming and revenue opportunities.
By narrowing keywords down to ones containing “music”, we can see that these tactics are still at play. For example, with the “artist” called “Workout Music”, who is ranking in position 8 on Google for the keyword “music for working out”.
Many many more examples can be seen. The verified artist “Sleeping Baby Songs” has an SEO hit along with verified artist “Calm Music For Studying.” If you ever see them playing live, we’d love to hear about it.
In addition to Spotify, genius.com also saw an increase in organic visibility (+50.1 VI points).
Genius is a lyrics website that also publishes the latest music chart information. It also contains articles and an online shop.
Genius.com experienced a gradual decline in organic visibility throughout 2020. However, it started to see this ramp up again in the second-half of the year, and seemingly unrelated to any Core Updates.
Google Core Updates Winners
In 2021, there were three core algorithm updates (free tool here) and unusually, none of these rolled out within the first quarter of the year. As a result of these updates, there were many winners (and the corresponding losers) from a Google visibility perspective.
One great example of a site that won in 2021 was familyhandyman.com (+161.3%). Family Handyman is a US-based DIY magazine owned by Home Service Publications Inc who also own Reader’s Digest.
The domain’s visibility almost halved following the May 2020 core update (from 10 to 5.2). However, once the December 2020 core update rolled out, incremental improvements in visibility started to show. Throughout all three 2021 core updates, familyhandman.com’s visibility has strengthened and notably, in December 2021, its visibility reached its highest level since 15th January 2018 (+1.80 VI points higher).
The site is a typical info-affiliate site but the interesting thing for UK readers is that none of the affiliate sites work, there’s a US focus in the content (US electrical safety guidelines, for example) and the site language is EN-US. Will this survive 2022?
Cylex, a local business directory, had a rough start to the year on the visibility front. However, like TV Tropes, the domain saw notable gains following the June and November updates (+177.7%). There was a temporary visibility drop-off between updates, but by the beginning of 2022, their VI score has reached its highest point in the last five years (with a VI of 15.1).
Complete list of 2021 winners (absolute & percentage tables)
Now that we have gone into depth about a small selection of the 2021 Google winners, here is the full list of top domains.
Below, we have included two tables containing the top 25 domains (absolute and percent). These have been filtered to remove adult content.
View the full, unfiltered list of top 250 domains that saw the highest percentage increases in Google visibility.
View the full, unfiltered list of the top 250 domains based on their Visibility Index points (absolute increase).
Well…that’s 2021’s winners! The Google SERP landscape has undoubtedly continued to develop throughout 2021 and has revealed some interesting insights, and not just within the UK results.
As always, we have analysed the visibility trends across many countries and have concluded that:
- The prominence of reference sites has continued into 2021 Google SERPs. Three examples within the UK SERPs are collinsdictionary.com, merriam-webster.com & britannica.com that have seen continued growth overall.
- There are examples of successful removal of AMP content. Collinsdictionary.com is a prime example of a success story.
- We should never underestimate the power of link building. The increase in domain diversity within merriam-webster.com’s backlink profile may have positively impacted its Google visibility in 2021.
- Websites containing product reviews may not have been exclusively impacted by the April & December 2021 Product Review Updates. From observing recent fluctuations in the visibility of merriam-webster.com’s /medical directory and the increase in spotify.com’s visibility from March 2021, it is possible that other domains – where E-A-T is particularly important – were affected by these two dedicated updates too.
- Visibility Index increases do not necessarily correlate with positive website change. For example, in the case of spotify.com, visibility may have been somewhat inflated through spammy optimisation tactics. Whilst these have provided the domain with short-term visibility gains, these have the potential to negatively impact how Google perceives the quality of the domain longer-term.
Many of the year’s biggest visibility winners were those who suffered at the hands of 2020 Core Updates (including familyhandyman.com, cylex-uk.co.uk, tvtropes.org & spotify.com). These updates continue to sculpt the shape of the SERPs to maximise result relevancy, quality and experience, whilst having a significant impact on visibility.
Also available – Top 100 UK domains by visibility.