COVID-19 & SEO – How to prepare your eCommerce site

COVID-19 & SEO – How to prepare your eCommerce site

Apr 22

Written by Priscilla Cornwell, SEO & Analytics Manager and AJ Leale, Sr. Director eCommerce 
The world of eCommerce is always changing, but with the appearance of COVID-19 it is changing and becoming impossible to predict what will happen next. The economy took a major hit to retail with no end in sight.  Businesses across the country are facing uncertainty like no other time in history.
COVID-19 has had a direct impact on what consumers are searching for and the type of information they’re interested in seeing. Google is the first to tackle changes head on. They updated their SERP surrounding COVID-19 to improve how users find the info they need to know, from the right sources.
This article will suggest options for addressing organic performance now and how to prepare your online business for the future.

What you need to be monitoring right now

The key phrase for these times is “uncertainty”. Your organic search performance during these past two weeks will change and may take a major shift even during the time you’re reading this. The way to tackle your current organic performance, while preparing for the future, is to monitor your analytics as often as possible. It’s crucial to have an understanding of your site’s current state to determine where to allocate your marketing budgets for the most return. Monitor your organic search analytics weekly or even daily, as often as your SEM specialist is able to assess and optimize your AdWords accounts. Remember, SEO is a long-term strategy. Letting current strategies slip means a long road to recover from this.  Specifically, retailers should identify areas to improve in several different areas.  Once you identify these improvements, we will work on strategizing them.

Branded vs. Non-branded Impressions

Visionet assessed the largest fluctuations across our clients within the retail, furniture and essential business industries in branded and non-branded queries. We saw wins and losses that correlated with current events and had major impacts on their revenue.
When your organic search traffic is fluctuating, it’s important to distinguish whether is coming from your current keyword rankings, CTR or impressions; each will invoke a different plan to address. If your keyword rankings are steady, but your branded queries took a hit, it’s possible a drop in search volume is responsible.
Group ‘A’: Across apparel retail clients and other industry stats, impressions took a hit on March 13th when a national emergency was declared by the President. There was a direct correlation on that date to the drop in their branded query impressions. Keyword rankings for this group of companies remained steady for mid-March. However, consumers felt uncertainty with the economy, and were no longer searching for their favorite brands.
Group ‘B’: However, we saw hard for furniture, tools and home improvement companies, their non-branded keyword rankings improved during this time with a complimenting increase of impressions for branded queries. Organic search was responsible for their highest grossing revenue to-date during these times.
These two opposite cases show the importance of using Google Search Console to monitor what’s happening with your brand in the SERP, and to take note of where your organic traffic is coming from. This is the best way to prepare for redemption or to seize the opportunity on your growth.

Find your SEO/SEM gaps

Looking at our Group A example, they’re struggling to regain brand impressions after consumers stopped searching for them. For SEO, this means non-branded keyword rankings should be addressed for the future. For the entire site, this means more brand awareness efforts should be put in place now.
To find your gaps, use Google Search Console and your preferred keyword ranking tool to identify where you site is seeing the largest fluctuations for keyword rankings and impressions. It’s just as important to determine what is causing any losses, as it is to determine where they are coming from. Is your drop in non-branded keyword rankings from duplicate content on your site, or from a new competitor out-ranking you?
Use a site audit tool such as Screaming Frog, to stay up to date on crawling your site. It’s essential to identify technical errors before they have a negative impact. Keep a look out for canonical and redirect chains during any remediation processes, to avoid extra clean-up work later.

Monitor Internal Site Searches

It’s important to understand what users are looking for in the SERP and how they are navigating your site. Everyone knows Merchandising 101- show consumers what they’re looking for. Start with looking at the recent internal site searches and compare to older, pre COVID-19 searches. Dig into the terms and volumes to understand the changes.  There are two ways to review your internal search. Through Google Search Console, GSC, or through your internal eCommerce site admin panel,
As an example using GSC, the site search report in Google Analytics (Behavior>Site Search), take note of what searches users are conducting. If “lounge wear” is one of your top searches, ensure it is in the navigation or on the homepage. Bringing new categories to the forefront and monitoring trends is an easy way to improve conversion rate without code pushes and UX design. If your top searches happen to also be in your navigation, consider revisiting your information architecture before holiday. Consumers don’t have patience to keep searching.

Page Speed

Continue to monitor your page load times, across mobile and desktop, throughout the month to ensure there are no spikes. A site that loads well is one that converts well. Page speed also has a direct impact on your organic search rankings so letting that slip through the cracks can hurt more than your consumers’ patience. Use a tool like Google Page Speed Insights to analyze how your site is performing on desktop and mobile. Identify ways to improve slow performing pages, focusing on the biggest SEO ranked pages first.

Big Picture Thinking

During a crisis, don’t corner yourself into only working on one channel. Ensure you continue to monitor how each of your channels are converting and where they can each be improved. Comparing performance across channels is the first step to a holistic digital strategy. If paid search is struggling with quality score, SEO can often step in and help work on content optimizations for a win-win strategy. If Email isn’t performing well check to see if SEM, Video and Social are sharing more compelling details or images. If social needs new content to share, consider creating new landing pages that can benefit SEO and Paid Search as well. Have your teams branch out beyond their expertise to ignite “big picture” thinking. Adjust your marketing spend and effort based on what is working well and what should be working better, all with an ROI focused prioritization.

How to Take Action for Your Site Now

The next step is to develop a holistic strategy for your site using the information collected. With your list of identified solutions for improving your site’s performance, you’ll most likely have to prioritize each item to fit them into your current strategies. Implement solutions for the biggest improvements with the lowest effort (obviously). Visionet advises that you consider working on the following action items now so you can stay on top of your SEO despite any internal marketing struggles:

Address Consumer Concerns

Visionet recommends creating a COVID-19 landing page to address specific concerns consumers may have surrounding COVID-19. This page is an opportunity to discuss your store closures, sanitization processes and delivery updates. Its your way to help your customers feel comfortable with buying from you.
Creating a COVID-19 specific landing page also opens the opportunity for improved brand awareness. We recommend to carefully add products to this page that may help serve the public during these times, making sure you do not appear to be overly pushing products.  It is never a good place to be if your customers think you are trying to make a profit from the pandemic!  If you don’t sell any products that could help, use this as an opportunity to help customers buy product they will need like summer clothing.  If you chose to do this, list these products with special promotions to show that you care about the financial uncertainty that many of your customers surely have.  By expanding this page, you tackle consumer interest with additional content for the site all at once.

Consider solutions for now and others for later

What works now, may not be the best thing for 3 months for now. Review all your improvements and prioritize based on impact now; which may be different than later. In the case of Group A, they needed to immediately start improving their non-branded keywords to start the recovery and improvement in the months to come. Once the crisis is over, branded keyword searches should go back up for them.
Retailers should also consider the current impact on other traffic channels. They may need to lean on other channels to help fill that gap while we wait for improvements. For example, ramping up on social or paid ads are a great way to work on brand awareness in the interim. Consider using your budget to fill in the gaps for your digital strategy holistically.  We have seen several retailers, to save cash, actually lower their SEM campaign levels, which makes sense.  However, in most cases, the lower SEM traffic actually converted higher and the revenue drop from SEM was much less than the paid ad spend drop. Imagine if they actually increased their spend, their revenue would have dramatically risen!

Ramp up on content users want to see

When adjusting your content bank for the next month, consider what users are searching for now, during the outbreak. This is your shot to build your content and stand out against competitors in the short term. Ask yourself the following questions to help guide your strategy:

Are you essential or non-essential?

If you are an essential business, monitor how consumers are searching for your products. Ensure you are giving as much information as you can and be careful of your wording.
If you are non-essential, monitor what consumers are purchasing. If your conversion rate for skincare is up, consider creating new content for “at-home” around those products. This is an opportunity to let your top products shine (keep relevancy in mind).
Another creative opportunity is to integrate essential items into your purchases. One retailer was giving out a free roll of toilet paper with each order; it was a great conversion booster and it holds its weight in search volume. “Free toilet paper” has 260 monthly searches right now.

Are you a Your Money, Your Life (YMYL) brand?

If your company sells products that could impact a consumer’s happiness, health or financial stability then your content falls under Your Money, Your Life. Odds are if you sell any type of vitamins, supplements or financial advice you need to be cautious of SERP changes during the outbreak.
YMYL content is known for being hit with algorithm updates (see Medic Update as an example). Be mindful when developing new content and make sure to continue to monitor your performance closely.

How can you creatively position saturated content trends?

If the topic you’re looking to write about is trending, it’s probably high competition for ranking (IE. WFH Loungewear). Get creative with trending topics by paying attention to the type of content Google is serving for these keywords. Is the SERP presenting more product content or informational queries? Follow E-A-T principles when you’re writing content.

Don’t let your current strategies slip through the cracks

If budgets are cut due to the outbreak, try your best to keep up with your SEO strategies. Pump out as much content as you can afford and continue to run crawls for technical errors. Don’t let duplicate content, 404s and other site health factors pile up.
In addition, use this as an opportunity to dive into new SEO strategies and increase your efforts if you can afford to. The companies who invest in SEO during these times will be the one’s that see a competitive advantage when the outbreak is over.

Keep your FAQs up to date

What people need during this outbreak is answers to their questions. If any of your policies have changed due to the virus, it’s best to make sure your FAQs are up to date. Better yet- create a COVID-19 specific FAQ page if relevant.
Using structured data (FAQ schema markup), you can highlight these questions in the SERP when users come across your indexed FAQ page.

Don’t try to be the news, stick to your industry.

This goes without saying, but it’s best to avoid attempting to position your brand as a news outlet unless you happen to be one. One of the biggest updates Google made during the outbreak was to bring the most accurate news articles to the top of the SERP, so it’s unlikely you’ll rank.
Instead of using COVID-19 updates as an SEO strategy, consider using it to be transparent with your consumers. It’s not about ranking, it’s about helping people. If Google can see right through you, so can consumers.

Closing Thoughts

Both the SERP and world are changing rapidly as we speak. Analytics, strategy and maintained SEO efforts are the way to brace the storm. “What gets measured gets improved.” – Peter Drucker