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Top Five SEO Priorities During COVID-19

The battle to contain COVID-19 has all but eliminated in-person touchpoints with the consumer, leaving digital channels as the sole way to communicate with customers. With this shift in consumer behaviour, companies must be prepared to answer customer questions. Make sure you’ve acted on these five SEO priorities to provide a seamless customer experience:


1. Update Store Hours, Store Closings, & Event Changes

In many countries, physical stores are no longer open. As the rules and regulations are constantly changing, it’s crucial to maintain the correct business hours on Google My Business to ensure customers who do leave their home won't arrive to a closed store.

Google My Business Store Hours

On March 23rd, Google My Business (GMB) announced updates to their policy during COVID-19, including:

  • GMB support will prioritise processing edits to listings for critical health-related businesses, as well as new listings, claims, and verifications for these businesses
  • Any edits to opening and closing hours, special hours, temporary closures and business descriptions will be prioritised
  • Reviews and Q&A functions have been disabled

In addition, Schema.org announced schema for COVID-19, including "SpecialAnnouncement" and "eventAttendanceMode" markups. These can be useful when looking to provide date-stamped updates for things like travel bans and school closures, as well as to indicate if an event has been cancelled, or moved online.

Top tip: Do not change the regular hours of your listing on GMB, add special hours instead.

For more tips on how to optimise GMB, see Merkle's post on Optimising for GMB During Coronavirus.


2. Create content around COVID-19

Consumers are glued to their phones more than ever and their searches are reflecting the questions they have about the new world in which they live. By reviewing recent search trends, brands can identify top questions around products and create content to answer those questions.

For example, an FMCG company might notice an uptick in queries for “does baby formula expire?” while customers look to stockpile supplies. A finance company might notice a trend away from “how do I buy stocks” towards “should I stop contributing to my pension?” A travel company may notice an uptick in queries like “how do I cancel my flight?” Many brands, regardless of industry, may notice an increase in searches for “coronavirus [brand].” By highlighting policy updates and showing thought leadership at a time when your customers have more questions than answers, you can position yourself to be top of mind once they are ready to purchase.

To identify what customers are looking for, use tools such as Google Trends (Coronavirus specific), Google Search Console, and Google Analytics. Brands can also use tools like Newsdash to research news trends/topics and track performance versus competitors. While keyword research tools are often a first port of call for SEO professionals, they are slow to indicate trend movement.

Companies can also think creatively around using internal data to forecast trends. For example, travel restrictions are slowly being lifted in Asia. A global travel brand could use internal GSC data and purchasing patterns in Asia to forecast content that might be relevant to another region in 2-3 months.

Finally, as stores across the globe are closing, think about how this will change customer habits. Adjusting messaging to include “free shipping” or using structured data to designate a product as “in stock” may help increase online conversions for users who might have otherwise shopped in store. This strategy can also be applied to PPC messaging.

Stock messaging

Top tip: Use first-party data to identify trends that can guide you to more relevant content, but make sure to keep a consistent brand voice and ensure your content does not seem opportunistic.

For more tips on how to release content during this time, see Merkle's post, How to Create Coronavirus Content: Tools, Trends and Business Insights.


3. Help PPC Respond to Changing Trends Using SEO Data

While Google Trends and traditional keyword tools can be a great way to identify search trends, they often overlook long-tail terms and provide broad search volumes over a longer time period. Nothing beats brand-specific data, and SEO is uniquely positioned to capture this brand-specific data.

At Merkle, our Total Search method provides data by query, page, and country. Once sorted by impressions, this will help curate a list of “breakout” generics. Market-specific trends can also be isolated to help understand spikes in searcher demand by location.

When combined with an understanding of current affairs, these new keywords offer a great way for paid search to respond by expanding their keyword coverage and capitalising on the first-to-market advantage. By refining bids based on real-time data, brands can achieve ad efficiencies over time.

For example, COVID-19 pushed search demand away from pre-ordering coffee for the morning commute in favour of bulk ordering beans for in-home consumption. The coffee companies that quickly identified, quantified, and responded to these trends have pivoted their brand in the short-term to areas of decreased competition and increased opportunity. Responsive data is vital for remaining relevant to core audiences as behaviours evolve.

Top tip: This method can only collate data for which the site ranks; additionally, data will include impressions instead of search volume (so use it as a guideline rather than gospel).


4. Keep users engaged by improving Page Speed

With everyone shifting from offline to online, the internet has been affected at a global scale. The usage of internet has grown significantly in areas affected by COVID-19, with Vodafone reporting a 50% increase in internet usage as more people are working from home. YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon are even limiting streaming video quality globally to help support the increase in demand, estimated to have increased 20% in one weekend.

Google’s Lighthouse Report can provide insight on performance, providing data on metrics that will impact user experience: such as First Contentful Paint (FCP), First Meaningful Paint (FMP), and Time to Interactive (TTI). Review opportunities such as enabling compression, enabling browser caching, and optimising images for some quick page-speed wins.

Speed doesn’t just impact organic performance; it can also help lower CPCs and bounce rates for paid search advertising. Even if you’ve paused advertising spend, improving page speed now can put you in a stronger position once you switch it back on.

Top tip: The speed of your page can help a brand stand out when everything is slower. Optimise your loading page speed metrics with tips from Merkle's guide to a ‘fast’ website.


5. Optimise for Voice Search

With consumers spending all or nearly all their days at home, they have far more opportunities to interact with virtual assistants than ever before. If brands haven’t considered voice search in the past, now is the time to cast a critical eye on what consumers want to know. For example, as consumers are increasingly using online grocery delivery services, companies like Ocado are answering questions like “[What is the] Ocado minimum order.”

Optimise for voice search

In contrast, some of the newer grocery delivery services such as Coop are not producing content to answer similar questions like “[What is the] Coop minimum order?” As the featured snippet often powers the virtual assistant’s response, optimising for those queries can help answer customer questions both online and through voice. By using tools like BrightEdge, brands can review the quick answers that both they and their competition rank for and identify any gaps in content.

Top tip: Keep an eye on trends and identify when and where opportunities may arise to answer questions related to your brand. Use appropriate structured data mark-up and formatting (bullets and numbers) to put you in the best position to capture quick answers.

For more tips to ensure customers will find your site through voice-enabled technology, read Merkle's blog post How to Optimise Content to Rank for Voice Search.

In addition to the above tactics, most SEOs have a backlog of tasks to implement. If traffic is down, consider using this time to push through technical fixes or migrations that will improve the website in the long term. Whether your brand is seeing an uplift in traffic (productivity tools, food delivery, insurance, & in-home entertainment) or seeing a drastic decline (retail, travel & leisure), these SEO tactics can help brands maximise visibility during the pandemic and beyond by reacting quickly and supporting customers through this unprecedented time.