How the search landscape has changed overnight and what to do about it

The team discussed that while SEO fundamentals aren't changing, user behaviour rapidly evolves in hard-to-predict ways. Still, there are things you can do to stay ahead of your competition.


1. When we say the search landscape has changed overnight, what do we mean?

Steve: The elements to deliver great SEO results have not changed. What has changed is how users are searching. The Coronavirus has, of course, had a huge impact on the way people search. Coronavirus is now the most popular search in Google, overtaking basic searches such a ‘weather’ and ‘news’.

Google has released a Google Trends hub showing how different countries are searching around Coronavirus. Coronavirus has dramatically impacted people’s lifestyles, this has caused new search trends around:

  • Taking care of ourselves
    • ‘ treadmill hire’, ‘meditation apps’, ‘online workouts’, ‘online fitness classes’
  • Wanting to look our best
    • ‘ how to cut hair at home’
  • Supporting neighbours and communities
    • ‘nhs volunteer responders’, ‘Coronavirus volunteers’, ‘How to volunteer for NHS during coronavirus’
  • Home learning
    • ‘home school ideas’, ‘open university free online courses’, ‘online language courses’
  • Coffee
    • ‘dalgona coffee’

This change in lifestyle has created lots of new triggers to start people searching and new needs (however many of these won’t be relevant to your business, therefore it's critical that you focus on your business, and not just chase new search trends).

There are then industry-related search trends. Some industries have been more impacted than others and it’s important to consider how your audiences have been impacted. Industries that have been heavily impacted include travel, property, and some retail. However, in finance and insurance, we haven’t seen big trend shifts. But what's important is thinking about your audience, how have they been impacted and how are they using Google to solve these new needs?

Ryan: For me, this is less about Google changing any algorithms as a result of the Coronavirus. We've seen no evidence of this. The situation is more about how businesses have seen things change overnight. Many businesses have gone from a combined off and online presence to try to and sustain revenue from online only. This puts a huge focus on search and what more can be done to drive revenue from the channel.

I guess the answer here remains one that applies to a lot in search, it depends on the context. Look at how (if at all), your audience's search behaviours have changed since Coronavirus, and adjust your strategy there. We saw a great example of this happening in the insurance sector right back when all of this began. As a result of Coronavirus, people were looking to cancel weddings, you suddenly saw a huge spike in the use of keywords related to 'wedding insurance'.

Remember, Google hasn't just changed the algorithm because of this virus. Though data suggests that for some traditionally static sectors like insurance, things have changed a lot. As always though, keep testing changes to your content such as page titles and meta descriptions and see what happens. Do you see positive or negative movement or are the changes neutral? 

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2. What are some of the examples we have seen so far, and what do they teach us?

Duncan: Interestingly I'm working with two clients at the minute who are pretty much at opposite ends of the spectrum.

On one hand, we're working with a US-based tech business with a product offering that's even more relevant in the current climate, they've seen traffic and conversions pretty much double in the space of three weeks.

For these guys, it's about understanding changing search trends and new user behaviours in order to adapt messaging and content as quickly as possible. We're also playing a big role in visualising their data to help the C-suite get a better view on performance.

On the other hand, we're working with a client who's front line business has had to effectively close, and the role of their website (which is primarily lead generation), has had to adapt to that.

Here, our focus again has been on understanding changing search trends and customer behaviour. We've adapted our objectives so that we're now focussed on providing as much useful information as possible to customers in this difficult time. In the space of two weeks, we've been able to add a Coronavirus advice hub as well as new functionality to signpost the most relevant customer journeys. Again, data plays a big role here, and our audience segmentation in GA has been vital in understanding different audience behaviours.

Ryan: We've seen industries hit badly by Coronavirus and many sectors boom. Gardening, online coffee (a big talking point at Fresh Egg) are two areas that have seen uplift. The key learning here is that you need to adapt and act fast. There's an example of a company that simply wasn't equipped to work from home, that meant better-prepared competitors now have the edge, while they now play catch-up on adapting to a new life working from home. Being fast to adapt could be the real difference between success and failure at the moment, you can't be afraid to make the jump, you jump.

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3. I am based in the United States, is there anything different about search results in the USA vs the UK?

Steve: Yes, Google has changed search results for health queries in the US. Google is also piloting showing virtual care platforms directly in the search results. The US is always the first to get new rollouts, there will be subtle changes in features between the US and the UK. For individual queries, you’ll see massively varying search results from the UK and the US due to the competitive landscape being different.

Ryan: One of the biggest things for me is the testing of organic listings in Google Shopping. Depending on how this goes in the US, we would likely see this being rolled out worldwide, something Google has hinted at. Look into this if your an e-commerce brand to see what happens, it is worth testing!

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4. SEO is often seen as having more impact in the longer term. Do you feel that the current situation means that impacts can be seen more immediately (i.e. from creating content quicker that's even more topically relevant)?

Ryan: Good question. Something that has been a surprise over the last few years, is the challenge I've seen businesses face in creating and getting content live. Lots of work has paused during this pandemic, and I've seen examples of businesses that now have the time to spend creating content as other projects are put on hold. Use this time, both for the creation of timely and evergreen content. As things start to get back to normal, it is highly likely the time will disappear again.

Also, consider what changes you can implement quickly. Tweaks to H1s, page titles, meta descriptions, and intro copy should all be easy to change and can make a real difference to overall visibility and clickthrough rate.

Steve: There is the opportunity in certain sectors to create new content, which in normal circumstances would normally be highly competitive and might take longer to see any reward. If you’re in a sector where there’s been lots of new search intent, being the first to get quality content published that meets the intent of users on a new topic could produce quick results. 

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5. Have the fundamentals of how we approach SEO changed at all as a result of COVID-19?

Ryan: The fundamentals of search have remained largely the same, it's the thinking behind it that may have changed during the last few weeks. For example, how can we make changes faster? Especially if there is a consumer need for answers. In some sectors, we have seen internal taskforces come together. These teams are in place to get tasks pushed live quicker, and to ensure tasks are being prioritised in accordance with business objectives, rather than just putting out content in a bit of a panic.

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6. The data we used to rely on is now out of date before we can even analyse it. How do we adjust?

Ryan: This is a great opportunity to tap into tools you may not have used in the past. Google Trends, BuzzSumo and Answer the Public can give you data that is being updated in some instances, in an hour. Consider getting someone within the team to keep track of these tools and to provide regular updates on whether anything is changing. Have the team ready to make content adjustments as required. In addition, ask your customers! They have the best opinion of your business and the sector, get their thoughts, and adjust your plans accordingly.

Mark: Google Trends should be one of your go-to tools for insight right now, forget classic keyword research in many cases, because the data is changing too fast for those methods to keep up. What Trends gives you is almost real-time, and shows you very clearly where change is happening, and it's direct from Google, so, if you're not familiar with it yet, now is the time to change that.

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7. How best to respond to rapidly changing search terms and being heard above the noise?

Steve: For your current visibility keep an eye on Google Search Console. It now updates daily so you haven’t got the four-day lag you used to have. Using the API you can pull the queries out and label these by brand/non-brand, as well as any queries or questions that contain Coronavirus. This allows you to spot new trends where you already have some visibility. This might also identify queries where Google currently isn’t showing you in high click-through positions, and where there’s an opportunity to improve.

For live trends, you can use the Pytrends library to scrape Google trends listings to extract related queries. This can automate a process for finding new queries can then combine this data with your search console data. However, focus on queries related to your business and don't chase irrelevant queries because they have search volume.

It's more important than ever to have a robust SEO strategy that focuses on audiences' needs across the customer journey, considering search intent across Google's MicroMoments. New content plans should feed into this and be assessed against other priorities.

Duncan: "Rapidly changing" is an interesting one, because adding to Steve's point about having a robust strategy, it is also vital that you have the expertise and the processes in place to be able to execute your strategy.

This is the case particularly in large businesses with multiple stakeholders. Your digital capability will often dictate just how "rapidly" you are able to react to changes.

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8. Are there any specific things people can do to remain useful to their customers through search?

Ryan: Absolutely, give users clear information throughout the customer journey. Have delivery times been impacted by Coronavirus? If yes, tell your customers! And don't just tell them via your website, let existing customers know through email, change your Metadata to make things clear from the start, join up the customer journey, and set expectations. Users are being a lot more understanding, but it won't help if they are only being made aware of any changes after they have purchased.

Duncan: Again it comes back to the same search fundamentals we've already spoken about. Understanding how your customers are searching, what type of information they're looking and in what format, and trying to meet that the best you can.

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9. What impact do we think recent behavioural changes have on the importance of EAT where content is concerned?

Ryan: For me, this depends massively on the sector. With many people turning online for the first time in some sectors, it's important that your business has a strong selection of reviews, demonstrates expertise (perhaps with the use of onsite experts), and showcases that your reputable brand in the sector. Sometimes this can be as simple as displaying reviews in the right places.

If you don't have many reviews or are being inundated with negative reviews, consider implementing a review strategy that can be as simple as asking customers for feedback.

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10. Given ever-changing Search algorithms, how important is regular refreshment of copy for businesses where products remain relatively static (e.g. insurance) - would a focus on regular news/posts be more appropriate to boost organic rankings?

Steve: Creating fresh content to meet user's search behaviour can be a great way to attract relevant traffic to your site.

It’s critical you consider how your audiences are searching and how timely content will meet their search need (not just creating content that is irrelevant to your product offering to try and drive clicks). For insurance, we see a lot of hygiene content missing from client sites we work on, this would be a starting point and then any new search needs from COVID to support this. 

Ryan: Unless the Coronavirus has drastically changed the way that users are searching in your sector, your content plans shouldn't really have changed a great deal.

I'd echo Steve's thoughts here, by saying focus on what your business does as a starting point. I don't think I've ever audited a website and come away saying a client is 100% satisfying the core needs of an audience.

Get that right and then you can move away from the core needs to see what supporting content could be created.

Duncan: The question refers to 'regular refreshment' of content, which I think is interesting because it can be tempting to always strive to write a new resource, or create a new video. But sometimes there can be just as much value in iterating on and improving existing content. It's important not to lose sight of that when you're planning.

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11. Featured snippets now seem more important than anything else but how do we rank higher in them than others?

Steve: First identify the types of queries that are triggering featured snippets. Google is choosing to show answer boxes for most ‘I want to know’ queries now. Focus on what the core intent is for the user and ensure your information is directly answering this. Testing. No change following COVID, just the questions users are going to be asking. 

Ryan: The advice on this hasn't changed since before Coronavirus. Assess the SERP and see why Google is choosing to show your competitor over your website. In most instances, it will be because they are more clearly answering that particular question that Google is highlighting in the snippet. We've found in the past that by surfacing this content in a clearer way to users and ensuring the information is sufficiently covered, this can result in Google swapping around the snippet to test someone else.

Duncan: In terms of whether or not you should be prioritising featured snippets, it's about whether they're going to help you achieve your objectives. For some people reading, there might be 100 other more valuable things to tick off, whereas for others it might be a vital tactic in achieving that extra 1 or 2% you need.

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Other useful resources

  • Google Trends - Explore how Google data can be used to tell stories
  • Answer the Public - Discover what people are asking about
  • Buzzsumo - Run searches to quickly discover content ideas, uncover platform insights, identify passionate influencers, and more.
  • Pytrends - Allows simple interface for automating downloading of reports from Google Trends

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