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Search Engine Optimization  |   Interviews  |   Marketing Strategy

SEO and coronavirus: How COVID-19 is changing the search game as we know it [Interview]

John Becker

By John Becker

May 26, 2020

SEO and coronavirus: How COVID-19 is changing the search game as we know it [Interview]

Considering that search ranking sometimes seems to be affected by the flutter of a butterfly's wings on the other side of the world, what effect will the greatest humanitarian crisis in decades have?

As the world comes to grips with the new realities of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis, many businesses are seeing big changes to their traffic, search rankings, online reviews, and other metrics.

🔎 Related: Top 10 reasons why your website content might not be ranking

To shed some light on these open questions, Narrative SEO founder Franco Valentino came (virtually) to explain what's happening.

The mood of the economy

John: Talk to me about how you think businesses are feeling right now.

Franco: We [at Narrative SEO] have the privilege of being attached to a broad set of businesses, from mom-and-pops to large e-commerce accounts, so we're getting a good feel for what's happening.

The biggest shift that we've seen breaks down by essential versus nonessential businesses. 

When you look at the trends overall for business, essential businesses are doing remarkably well. They’re even having a hard time keeping up.  

On the other hand, for mom-and-pops, it’s a different story and almost difficult to watch.

The hardest part is dealing with the uncertainty.

Overall, everyone is in limbo right now. No one knows how this is going to play out. So we’re all just watching what's happening on a day-to-day basis and adjusting accordingly.

The eye of the hurricane

John: I talked to Tom DiScipio recently and he described it as “the eye of the hurricane.” We've kind of adjusted to this strange new normal, knowing that the other shoe is going to drop at some point.

Franco: That's a great analogy for it because we don't know what’s coming, if it’s going to get worse, or diminish in strength. 

I do have to say this: Kindness and compassion is everywhere. People are incredibly altruistic. They're helping clients and internal employees and as well as their neighbors. It’s nice to see that humanity is still basically good.

What happens after the world opens is anyone’s guess, but we can see some clarity through he darkness.

Gas prices are very low, and should stay that way until the end of the year. People will take advantage of that and release the pent up demand for travel and meals once states clear things up. 

There is a silver lining, though, and the companies that adjusted course will come out of the shutdown stronger than before.

The effect of COVID-19 on SEO

John: Can you talk to me about what the effect COVID-19 has had on search? 

Franco: So, this is really interesting because it is showing a different side of search engines than we've ever seen.

I'll try to dig in a little bit on the technical side: I don't know if everyone understands what a SERP sensor is, but a search engine result position is basically the results of when you search something, it's what we mean when we say “our Google results.” 

The tool vendors in the technical SEO space typically have sensors to measure the health of the search landscape. These SERP sensors have been very, very quiet.

They've been overall normal, except for the very technical things that we look at, but beyond the sensors, we're seeing massive changes.

Let me point to one example with Google My Businesses.

GMB shut down reviews.

They’re not getting rid of them, but they temporarily removed the ability for people to leave reviews because all of these businesses are going to be impacted and people are going to be upset and emotional and potentially leave a ton of negative reviews.

But the biggest overall change is in e-commerce.

We have three clients in the "essential" business category whose businesses has quadrupled in Q1. They are in the medical research, home safety, and purification sectors.

I think we’ll continue to see break-out results with these industries until a vaccine or some other benchmark test hits the general public.

Google itself has changed the main search page for COVID-19 with a way for folks to self categorize the information they’re looking for.

This is a drastic change in how Google accrues information, and we may see a category style menu on search coming soon.

How do we plan for this?

John: How do you recommend businesses plan for this? What do they need to be doing in the short and long term?

Franco: The nice thing about what we do is that it's almost like diagnosing a patient. We follow a strict checklist and test for the essential basics of technical SEO.

Each story is typically the same: We find important structural elements that are misconfigured — and when they get fixed, the site stops leaking leads.

Remember to keep your site speed fast by optimizing your server. It’s the last place anyone checks and usually provides the biggest short term wins. 

Next, make sure your content answers the right questions. The whole They Ask, You Answer model. That's where the gold is.

Short term:

For the short term, if your business has changed or been affected by the pandemic, the first place you should start is Google Search Console because that is the front line of SEO.

You'll see your impression rate there and whether it's increased or decreased over a given time period. Look at what keywords have changed. Some of them may have dropped off, others may have surged.

If your website is ranking for new keywords, then you would double down on related content, assuming those keywords convert.

🔎 Related: The effect of coronavirus (COVID-19) on Google Ads, keywords, and paid advertising overall

Also, check for crawl errors in Google Search Console, and fix any technical issues you find. 

Long term:

Search engines have changed. They're basically artificially intelligent machines that try to understand meaning behind terms. They used to be word match engines, but now it’s all about intent.

The world's search engines actually got together and came up with a working committee called

It's a way for us to actually build out our own profiles in what they call 'entity blocks' — think of it like chapters of an encyclopedia. 

Try to understand how schema works and then start filling in the blanks by surrounding your website with schema to give the algorithm an ‘assist’.

That’s a great goal for the next six months to a year. We've seen exponential growth, and so can you. It improves your search footprint across all search engines.

How to implement schema

John: To start implementing schema, what’s step one? 

Franco: Step one can be as simple as installing Yoast SEO or Rank Math plugins, if you have a WordPress site. Both of these plugins can give you a basic level of schema.

You can add your company name and address and links to things like your logo and social media profiles. Then, make sure you’ve updated your Google My Business. 

Just by doing that Google can make more sense of where you are — and for local businesses that's really important.

Next, it’s custom coding certain field types.

Let's say that you have a small e-commerce shop that uses Shopify.

Shopify actually has a couple of plugins that you can add that give you a little bit more of an enhanced data set for schema. You can put in your product, review stars, and your pricing. 

That way, Google can actually say, if somebody's searching for a blue Nike sneaker and your shop has it, they can just show the card with your rating and allow people to click on it.

But you don't get that if you don't implement schema. 

If you're a large company hoping to implement schema, then you're looking at Google Tag Manager and a custom environment. You’ll need to grab a programmer.

The biggest changes to search

John: Tell me about the biggest structural or algorithmic changes that have taken place of late. What's the 30,000-foot view? 

Franco: So, all of the major search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing, and Yandex) all got together a few years ago to build the framework. This has been the biggest sea change across the internet for how search engines work. 

Right now only about 7% of websites globally have implemented schema markup, with e-commerce sites leading the way.

It's a difficult topic, but understanding schema is crucial. It is where search engines have gone, and the world is lagging behind.  

But it's such a natively difficult topic because we're talking about machine language. Just doing the basics is going to set you apart from your competition. 

If you actually sit down and take the time and give yourself permission to fail with it, you’ll see exponential improvement in traffic. And this doesn't have to be turned on tomorrow, but you should have a quarterly plan to start working towards a goal.

What you’re building is your entity information inside of Google itself.

Franco's advice to all businesses

John: Franco, what’s one piece of advice you have for all businesses out there right now?

Franco: This sounds counter-intuitive, but a good user experience requires fast pages. The quick win is this: optimize your images.

Every account that we audit — and we've done thousands now — everyone has images that are much too large for their platform. This is really low-hanging fruit, it’s super easy to do, and it makes your website visitors happy.

And that's all that matters at the end of the day. 

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