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COVID-19 SEO Strategies: Digital Marketing During the Pandemic

There’s no doubt that the American economy is in a precarious position right now. With many schools closed until the fall and businesses across the country being forced to operate remotely or close their doors completely, it’s no wonder that most of us feel frightened about the state of our finances. As of April 23, a record 26 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in a five-week span. And with many organizations being denied federal funding to assist in offsetting the losses associated with COVID-19, most business owners are prioritizing cost containment above all else.

We’ve seen this before, to a certain degree. Whenever there’s fear of an economic downturn, operating budgets are shifted accordingly. Since consumers aren’t spending as much money, business owners feel they can’t spend theirs, either -- particularly when it comes to their ad promotions. In the wake of the 2008 recession, businesses were forced to make tough choices to maximize the chances of survival. As a result, lowest cost per lead. Although pay-per-click advertising could drive more traffic to your site within a short period of time, those costs can also add up. SEO, on the other hand, is meant to be a long-term solution that’s focused on building an organic presence on a consistent basis. It’s already highly affordable, which means it should be low on the list of costs you’ll want to cut. But since SEO strategies depend on producing fresh content on a regular basis and a slow buildup of certain ranking signals, it would also be to your business’s detriment to put a pause on SEO.

To that point, “pausing” SEO isn’t really possible in the same way that it is for a PPC campaign. You can stop new blogs from being written or new backlinks from being obtained, but what’s already been implemented will continue to impact your SEO. Really, the best thing you can do is to continue to build on what you’ve done and make adjustments based on relevant searches.

It also might behoove you to remember that your competitors are asking the same questions about their own ad spend. And if they’re decreasing their digital marketing efforts, that actually leaves you with an opportunity to stand out. Advertising prices will likely drop during this time, creating more of a buyer’s market and making it a bit more financially feasible for you to amp up your marketing. Moreover, you’ll have an opportunity to position yourself as an industry leader at a time when your competition may not be quite as visible to the public.

Don’t forget that consumers are spending more time online than ever as they shelter in place. Depending on your business, they may not be making the same kinds of purchases -- but they are on the internet. They may have more time to read the emails in their inbox or search for helpful information. This is a great time to focus on SEO if your business provides vital services and products or can offer valuable advice to those who need reassurance. Even if all you have to share are some messages of hope and safety, you may be able to optimize that content so that your brand shows up in searches that concern the pandemic. Queries relating to COVID-19 are currently receiving considerable search volume worldwide.

That doesn’t mean you should try to game the system to show up for these terms, capitalize on public fear, or make light of the pandemic in any way. But writing about this universal experience and sharing recommendations as a gesture of goodwill can be extremely powerful. And since Google continues to provide an essential service, your business can potentially get noticed even more if you’re optimizing for the right search terms. That might not happen as readily until the pandemic is over. But if you’re able to focus on SEO behind the scenes, you’ll definitely be ahead of the curve when the economy re-opens.

How COVID-19 Has Impacted SEO

There’s a lot we don’t know about how the novel coronavirus will continue to affect the American workforce and our economy. It’s a good guess that many businesses will struggle to make it through and may not be able to re-open, particularly since federal funding is scarce. But as far as knowing which businesses will survive or how long we might be impacted, that’s all pure speculation at this point.

However, we are already starting to see how the pandemic has changed internet search trends and SEO. This is data we can readily access in real time, which can provide marketers with some insight on how to move forward.

It should surprise no one that online shopping is on the rise. In fact, CNBC reports that U.S. e-commerce spending rose by more than 30% from the beginning of March through mid-April, as compared to the same period last year. At a time when most businesses with physical locations are closed, it’s clear that the retailers that can provide access to products and services via online portals will certainly fare better.

But since many Americans are concerned about how they’ll weather the financial storm, they may not be in the position to spend hundreds of dollars on clothing or jewelry. Searches for essential goods -- such as nearby resources for toilet paper, face masks, hand sanitizer, sanitary wipes, and thermometers -- are definitely on the rise. The same can be said of grocery and gourmet food items. But many residents have shifted from stockpiling these kinds of supplies to making a mad (virtual) dash for books, sports and recreation equipment, toys and games, electronics, home improvement products, and even beauty and cosmetic items. Those purchases aren’t just happening on Amazon either, which means that consumers are willing to look beyond more established brands to find what they need and even lend their financial support to smaller businesses.

This tells us that Americans have moved beyond panic-buying and are thinking about more than mere survival. That means there’s probably a bit of wiggle room for businesses that don’t offer essential supplies and services to make a dent with their marketing. It also means that many consumers want their dollars to count -- and that the playing field may now be a little more leveled. Since Amazon has delayed many of its shipments, the allure of one-day shipping may not carry as much weight. If consumers have to wait a little longer for their deliveries anyway, they may be more willing to support a smaller business directly. They may also be more willing to rely on a Google search, rather than typing a keyword into Amazon’s own search bar, to find what they need. And if they’re ready to use Google to their advantage when making online purchases, that gives other businesses an opportunity to compete -- which is where SEO becomes really important.

It’s not just e-commerce that’s been seeing increased traffic, either. News outlets, health and wellness information sites, food and recipe blogs, and outdoor recreation and home fitness resources have seen major gains in search volume. This makes sense, as these sites provide consumers with what they want to know and provide the value they can currently use while they #stayhome. Even if your website doesn’t operate within any of those verticals, you may still be able to make some progress if you can zero in on what consumers need during this uncertain time. That may or may not be a product or service they can immediately buy -- but if you make a great impression, this can do wonders for your brand visibility even after the coronavirus subsides.

SEO Strategies to Pursue During a Pandemic

So now you know that you shouldn’t stop your digital marketing during COVID-19. But what exactly should you focus on?

For starters, take this time to make sure your website is a well-oiled (and well-optimized) machine. If you’ve put off increasing your site speed, need to overhaul your design, or have fallen behind on posting blogs, now’s the time to work out those kinks. Take the time to optimize your meta descriptions or take a closer look at your target keywords, as well. And if your site isn’t mobile-friendly, change that immediately. More consumers are conducting internet searches on their smartphones and other devices than ever, so you won’t want to miss out on that traffic (or risk a rankings drop).

If you’ve already taken care of those aspects, make sure you add a pop-up or a prominent site banner that notifies customers about what they can expect during the pandemic and the steps you’re taking to protect your employees. This can put consumers’ minds at ease and make all the difference when they’re deciding who to support.

You may also want to explore new ways to deliver valuable content to your audience. Publishing timely blog posts can be an excellent idea, but so can hosting webinars and sharing video content. Since everyone has quickly accustomed to video conferencing, media involving video is more shareable than ever. This can provide a way to entertain audiences, provide valuable information via a different platform, or allow you to share the human element behind your business; either way, you’ll connect with your target demographic in a whole new way. Above all else, you should be creating content that fosters trust and comfort.

You’ll also want to stay active on social media and through email blasts during this time. While you should be careful not to overload newsfeeds or email inboxes, consumers will be readily scrolling and refreshing more than ever. This can be a good way to cross-promote everything you’re doing with your marketing during COVID-19 and promote consistent communication with your customers. Be sure to always lead with empathy and to emphasize compassion. While it’s fine to offer discounts on products and services right now, make sure not to make light of the pandemic or prey on panicked consumers as a way to turn a profit. While some humor can be welcome during this time, it’s better to err on the side of caution.

If your business has a brick-and-mortar location and you’re still operating in some capacity (either remotely or as an essential business), you’ll also want to focus your efforts on local SEO. Many residents in your area may be willing to make a trip to your business if your doors are still open, particularly if you can show you’re taking all necessary precautions to keep them safe. Most of us are keenly aware that small, independently owned businesses will be hurting as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, so consumers are often willing to do what they can to lend their support. It’s a good idea to optimize your website to highlight offerings for contactless delivery or online ordering in your specific area. You’ll also want to update your Google My Business page to ensure it offers accurate information. You can even start publishing GMB posts to promote certain deals or to update customers with necessary info about your operating hours or delivery options. This can allow you to reach consumers more readily and focus on those within your immediate service area.

And while you shouldn’t panic and shut everything down, you should take some security precautions. Because many people are feeling desperate about their own financial situations and may have more time on their hands, it’s likely that websites may be vulnerable to attack. You can’t afford to lose brand trust during this time, so you should make every effort to beef up your site security. You can easily do this by updating plugins (which could otherwise be vulnerable) and switching over to a secure sockets layer (SSL) certificate to protect customer data. Not only will this provide consumers with peace of mind, but you could actually improve your rankings, too.

We know business owners will be faced with some difficult decisions in the coming weeks and months. But by leaning into your digital marketing during COVID-19 and being smart about your SEO, you’ll be able to maintain your brand visibility, connect with your customers, and set yourself up for success in the aftermath of the pandemic.