Search right now is essentially that scene in every natural disaster movie when the seismograph changes from drawing a calm and steady line to spiking back and forth. Quakes are being felt all around the SEO industry, and as the COVID storm rages on, it doesn’t necessarily show any signs of stopping.
Volatility doesn’t necessarily have to mean confusion and uncertainty about why rankings are the way they are. Our SEO experts helped dig into 3 main themes that are likely to be impacting rankings and gave insights on how to deal with it—and assist clients in dealing with it as well.
Businesses can experience volatility for only what it is—rapid changes—and be armed with strategies to adapt to these changes and manage the clients they do it for.
3 main causes for volatility
Changing search behavior
The global pandemic has caused nearly every customer on the planet to re-evaluate their needs and priorities. Businesses that offer any sort of in-person experience that is no longer viable, for example, will naturally see a stark decline in organic traffic.
We asked experts which industries they’ve been seeing volatility in, and they echoed this sentiment on the effects felt by industries that provide irrelevant (or outright banned) services.
Claire Carlile: Travel and tourism, hospitality, restaurants, attractions – not a good time for these industries.
Niki Mosier: I think it goes without saying, but the event industry has experienced a lot of volatility right now. I have a client in the event space that runs photobooths and they have been hit pretty hard right now.
Lily Ray: The biggest declines can be seen across sites that provide content related to in-person experience, such as traveling, lodging, conferences, festivals, or flights.
The numbers don’t lie. In investigating these claims, Google Trends line graphs paint a grim picture of what these sites have been going through over the last few months. “Concert tickets” rapidly bottomed out around the same time that many large gatherings announced their cancellations, and “hotels” is at its lowest point in 5 years.
An answer that is perhaps equal parts more simple and more complicated is that Google algorithms are simply not designed for how sharply search behavior has changed over such a short period of time.
Keywords that formerly had a benign meaning or a low search volume reserved for more niche cases have now been assigned an entirely new context.
Shifts in business offerings
What would already be enough in searcher behavior change to send shock waves across SERPs is compounded by businesses also drastically changing what they’re able to offer, or how they’re able to deliver it.
Businesses that are fortunate enough to have a product in high demand in this situation are now faced with making real-time changes to their inventory and alerting customers when items are out of stock.
Some businesses are offering something totally new to customers. This typically comes from a strategic attempt to offer something virtually that was previously only available in person, or offer a no-contact way of delivering the product or service they sell. Lily Ray notes that these businesses seem to be experiencing volatility in the opposite direction, recording sudden increases in traffic to their site.
Lily Ray: From what I’ve seen, the volatility is largely being felt across the board. Even for industries that are not directly impacted by the coronavirus, the volatility in Google’s search results in recent weeks is enough to change traffic patterns across most websites. The categories I’ve noticed with the largest positive fluctuations tend to be the ones that offer an online product, whether it be telecommunication, fitness, home and garden, therapy, ecommerce, recipes, or other sites that offers users the ability to consume content or transact online.
And if a business isn’t doing something similar to any of those examples, you can bet they’re producing new content with an added COVID-19 context to keep up with where user attention is, just like everyone else is doing.
Any changes to your site can affect your ranking on any normal day. After all, that’s why you hired your friendly neighborhood SEO to make changes to your site in the first place. With these changes increasing in frequency and perhaps becoming more drastic than your simple maintenance, that’s cause for indexing and ranking fluctuations.
YMYL stakes are higher
Sites in industries that normally fall under YMYL may be ousted because the normally high stakes associated with consuming this type of content has become even more risky in the current pandemic.
For those of you catching up, YMYL refers to “Your Money or Your Life.”
As Alex Valenica explains it, “Websites that sell products or provide services or information that can impact the happiness, health, financial stability, or safety of users are categorized by Google as YMYL – which stands for ‘Your Money or Your Life.
Google holds these types of sites to the highest standard because the stakes are incredibly high when it comes to this type of content.
Some industries that fall under YMYL include ecommerce, financial services, healthcare, and legal.”
As search engines and social networking sites build their own subsites, widgets and features to pull in coronavirus information from their chosen sources like the WHO and the CDC, sites that previously ranked for YMYL content simply may not be making the cut anymore.
If the search intent behind keywords that previously landed a user on your top-ranked site for cough suppressant has changed to now indicate that they’re potentially dealing with something more sinister related to coronavirus, you’ll likely see a significant drop to make room for higher authorities.
What are some fundamentals of a successful strategy to mitigate volatility?
Armed with clues on which factors may be influencing the current search volatility, what’s a SEO, a marketer, a business owner, ANYONE to do?
True SEO experts have said all along that there isn’t a way to “game” the algorithm, and if you find one, you can’t expect your success to be long lived.
Search engines like Google routinely become more sophisticated to find what is truly the best offering for each searcher. So as searchers’ needs have drastically changed, it makes sense that when we asked our experts for some fundamentals of a strategy that could mitigate search volatility, their answers weren’t centered around the tactical skills most professional SEOs use in their day-to-day jobs—they were centered on adjusting your offerings at the core. If you aren’t offering what searchers now want, you won’t be able to convince Google to rank you. Here’s what they had to say:
Claire Carlile: Explore the pivot – can an offline experience go online? Are there alternative options for service delivery? Mitigation might be possible in some circumstances.
Niki Mosier: It might not be a traditional strategy but the most impactful thing I’ve seen help clients impacted right now is to be flexible and to be creative. Looking at local businesses, especially restaurants who have been hit really hard right now, I’ve seen so much creativity like delivering cocktails and “Decorate Your Own Cupcake” kits.
Lily Ray emphasized that this business pivot is one of the only viable options to generate immediate revenue in one of these adversely affected industries, and if you can’t realistically perform this pivot, you may have to hunker down and prioritize long game tasks like content to poise your business for its comeback.
Lily Ray: If your company does not have a means of shifting its services to an online model, or otherwise finding a way to profit during this period of stay-at-home orders and quarantines, the best thing you can do is weather the storm. Get your website and your digital strategy in a place where it can compete once life has returned to relative normalcy. Also, if content marketing is part of your digital strategy, stay on top of the latest trends, and target your messaging according to changing consumer behavior, questions, and demands. It’s important to look not only at monthly trends, but to hone in on what’s happening weekly or daily as it relates to the questions people are asking online. Paying close attention to these trends can allow your business to craft content at the moment searchers need it most, and potentially see big surges in traffic as a result.
How you can use search data to pivot your business
First, you need to find out which problems in your industry searchers are trying to solve. Google’s weekly trends can be a good place to start to spark your brainstorming on where priorities lie.
We’ll bet you notice some patterns in the weekly trends. People having trouble managing their own health and wellness services they usually go out for. People wanting companionship and entertainment. People attempting to access virtual versions of classes and gatherings that are no longer viable. How can these adaptations inspire changes at your own business?
Get more granular and begin searching for keywords associated with your industry. This will give you actionable insights for which services aren’t relevant right now, which are emerging dark horses that you can align with, and which subtopics you should expand on.
Let’s look at a high-level example of what you could do. Say you own a fitness business and “gym” is a keyword you find success with for organic traffic or rely on heavily for paid search. When you investigate that in Google Trends, you can see interest in physical gyms is tapering off.
However, in the “Related Topics” section for “gym,” you find that people are searching for the equipment itself. You may infer that people are attempting to create their own home gyms. Can you sanitize and rent out the equipment in your gym that isn’t being used? Could you produce content around the top 5 items that will make the most well-rounded home gym? Could you offer workout plans that don’t require equipment?
Taking what you know from the overall weekly trends around customers wanting virtual versions of services, you can try out another related keyword. Here you see a sharp uptick, and you know you’re gaining traction in honing in on what searchers want from your business.
“Home workouts” is another viable keyword to inform a business pivot, but it’s also a cautionary tale in tracking these keywords over time. What is trending in search today may not be trending in search tomorrow. It’s up to you to look at where the trend changes and infer what happened there. For example, people may be losing gusto for home workouts and need to be pulled in with a “stickiness” tactic or a reward.
Again, don’t forget to take a look at the “Related Topics,” which will tell you exactly which subject areas to drill down into as your explore that pivot option.
After you’ve used Google Trends to come up with a few basic ideas of where search intent is shifting within your industry, it’s time to build out the keywords associated with that into a more exhaustive list.
Use tools like Google Keyword Planner or Keywords Everywhere to get a list of associated keywords and keyword variations with their relevant information like CPC and competition. This will help you drill down into more specific directions for a business offering pivot, as well as inform how you message it on your website and other content so it has the best chance of being surfaced on a search engine.
Now that you have your keywords associated with new business offerings you’re looking to explore, import them into a tool like AuthorityLabs Rank Tracker to track how they perform over time. This will allow you to stay on top of searcher priorities that are gaining traction and prune pivot ideas from your potential strategy that are losing steam.
How have your discussions with clients shifted?
You having a good handle on the forces behind search volatility is one thing, but helping your clients to understand it is another.
One common thread in managing clients that our experts mentioned was flexibility. Whether that’s shifting spend from one channel to another, cutting hours, or simply empathizing, here’s what they had to say about how their conversations with clients have shifted:
Claire Carlile: I work with many small and medium sized business clients, almost exclusively in travel and tourism, I’ve cut my hours with them dramatically, or completely. I do the minimum for a couple of them, just to make sure they ‘tick along’ and that nothing ‘breaks’ whilst they are experiencing this downtime.
Lily Ray: I’ve been telling clients to rest assured that we are seeing major shifts in search results across a large variety of industries, which are resulting in huge fluctuations in traffic and visibility. In many cases, these changes will be temporary. Google’s algorithms are adjusting for rapid changes in consumer behavior, but it’s impossible to say what that behavior will look like in the next several months. This is why staying on top of your SEO and content strategies are extremely important – what worked 3 months ago might not work as well during this next unpredictable phase.
Niki Mosier: Discussions with clients have definitely been a bit all over the place. We’ve had some clients pull paid ad budgets and shift to SEO. We’ve had some clients have to pause spend completely but with the hope to come back when things return to “normal”. The most important message I’ve tried to get across to clients is that we totally understand this is a very strange and scary time and we are here to help them in anyway we can. We have added additional educational programming and made it free to all attendees during this time.
How can you pitch new clients or reduce churn in current ones?
As these conversations shift and some clients naturally tend to shy away from making investments in SEO, either by stopping it to cut costs or not wanting to start something they’ve never done in the first place, SEO’s are being challenged to convince clients of the ROI potential.
One idea is to pivot your lead generation to industries and businesses that are most ready to hear it: the ones who are actually having an uptick in traffic because they provide something relevant to the current anomaly.
Claire Carlile: I’m pitching new clients, I’ve picked industries that are seeing an uptick in traffic and sales during this period, and have made a move into e-commerce for SMBs. Many of these are businesses that have NEVER invested in SEO, and they’re realising that the opportunities for them online are immense at this moment in time, and potentially well into the future if they make an investment at this point!
Another strategy to pitch new clients or prevent churn in existing ones is explaining the role of SEO as a pillar of a marketing long game. If you continue on with creating digital assets for a few months without integrating SEO best practices, you’ll find that “starting SEO” will be extremely challenging and will most likely not have the rapid effect you’re hoping for. When things return to normalcy, you may be far behind competitors who maintained their SEO or content in preparation for that day.
Lily Ray: The use of online search engines is going to persist – and maybe even expand – regardless of the outcome of events that take place in the world over the next months and years. Pausing an SEO strategy puts your business at a disadvantage when things return to relative normalcy, especially given that it can take months to see the results of a successful SEO strategy. Consider SEO to be a foundational part of your marketing plan that will help your business to be front and center when consumer behavior eventually transitions back to a relative state of normalcy.
Niki Mosier: I’m explaining to the clients that if they have the budget now to invest in SEO, it will only help them when things return to “normal” to have continued to improve their SEO foundation or to work on new SEO initiatives like content if they aren’t currently.
Understanding the factors that are influencing search volatility is the first step to being able to take action amid search volatility.
As our experts are seeing in the field, searcher priorities are shifting away from certain types of offerings and moving full force toward others. Using the search data available to you, either for yourself or for clients, will allow you to identify opportunities for a successful new business strategy that’s poised to flourish in these strange times.
Strong SEO is at the heart of both understanding the importance of keyword data in informing you of customer needs, as well as getting in front of potential customers when they attempt to find solutions for these needs on a search engine.
Armed with an understanding of how SEO props up any successful marketing strategy and our experts’ advice on how to message it to new and current stakeholders, weathering the coronavirus storm just may well be within reach for any business willing to adapt.
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Sr. SEO Account Manager
SEO Practice Lead