GMB Insights Reveal Pandemic Search Trends for Multi-Location Brands
(Damian Rollison is VP of product strategy at Brandify, Street Fight’s parent company. Street Fight maintains editorial independence.)
Brandify’s Local Search Consumer Survey, conducted in late 2019, indicated that consumers turn to Google as the primary resource when searching online for local businesses of all kinds. When asked to compare Google with several alternative sites, apps, and services, consumers indicated their preferences clearly: 77% cited Google Maps as a preferred source of information, 39% more than any other tool.
Given the dominance of Google as a tool for local search, and given the fact that Google provides a richer set of search and engagement metrics for each of its business profiles than any other publisher, we thought it would be worthwhile to examine Google My Business data as an indicator of consumer search trends during the time of the pandemic.
The data Brandify has access to is largely centered on multi-location brands — chains, franchises, and other types of businesses that are managed collectively. Indeed, Brandify manages a significant proportion of brand locations in the United States, making its dataset statistically relevant as a measurement of brand search trends overall.
The time period we were interested in examining was February through April, though the first impact of the pandemic was not felt until late February moving into early March. But this larger span depicts clearly the level of disruption that occurred when shelter-at-home restrictions, panic buying, and drastically modified consumer behaviors began to impact a broad range of businesses.
Brandify Pandemic Insights Study: Key Findings
- Overall search volume for local businesses is up 45% in March-April 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
- Map views began a precipitous decline in overall volume in late February, suggesting far fewer users were searching for local businesses using Google Maps on their smartphones.
- After March 18, volume of Map views was overtaken by volume of Search views, an unprecedented trend. March 18 can reasonably be called the turning point for search behavior as sheltering at home became the dominant mode.
- Requests for driving directions were down 26% in March and April 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
- Phone calls were up 16%, and website clicks were up 22% in the same period.
- Phone calls spiked on March 20 to levels not seen in Brandify-managed locations since Black Friday and Christmas Eve 2019.
- Pharmacies saw the most significant increases, with a 206% increase in searches, a 150% increase in views, and a 29% increase in actions in March and April compared to the same period in 2020.
- The second and third greatest increases were seen in banking and finance and in hardware and home improvement.
- Grocery stores saw a 108% increase in phone calls and a 190% increase in website visits.
- The greatest decline in activity was in hotels and accommodations, where searches were down 32%, views were down 42%, and actions were down 69%.
- The second and third largest declines were in branded retail (such as outlet stores) and restaurants and eateries.
- Some verticals, such as healthcare and insurance, were only moderately affected by the pandemic in terms of overall GMB activity — not accounting for the differences in why consumers sought out these services.
Overall Local Search Volume Up from 2019
The top-level metric for GMB Insights is searches, which Google breaks out into three categories. These are defined in Google’s help documentation as follows:
- Direct searches: A customer directly searched for your business name or address.
- Discovery searches: A customer searched for a category, product, or service that you offer, and your listing appeared.
- Branded searches: A customer searched for your brand or a brand related to your business. This category will only appear if your listing has appeared at least once for a branded search.
The GMB API, which Brandify utilizes to manage listings and gather Insights data, uses slightly different nomenclature, as you can see in the chart below. Direct searches are called QUERIES_DIRECT; discovery searches are called QUERIES_INDIRECT, and branded searches are called QUERIES_CHAIN.
As the chart indicates, direct and branded searches saw a highly unusual spike in late February, reaching a peak February 29. Search volume on that day was comparable to Christmas Eve 2019 and nearly at the level of Black Friday 2019. This spike in searches may coincide with the first wave of panic buying as coronavirus began to impact the U.S., when massive rushes to buy hand sanitizer, toilet paper, bottled water, and other items began. Search query volume returned to more typical levels starting in early March, though as we will see, related behaviors — the devices used to search and the actions taken as a result — changed significantly during March and April.
However, even setting February’s spike aside, search volume is up significantly overall from 2019. Search volume in March and April 2020 is 45% greater than the same period in the previous year. The increase is due mostly to significant spikes in activity for particular verticals, which outpaced declines in others.
Sheltering at Home Changes Device Behavior
Amongst our findings, perhaps the most striking is this single chart.
The chart depicts Map views and Search views across all Brandify managed locations for the period of February 1 to April 30. Here’s how Google defines view metrics:
- Search views: A customer found your business via Google Search.
- Map views: A customer found your business via Google Maps.
While it’s true that GMB view metrics have been looked at with suspicion by local SEO experts, who question how the data is measured and what exactly it indicates about a location’s performance, still it can’t be debated that as a historical indicator, GMB views appear to pinpoint the exact nature of the change from normal activity to sheltering at home.
Precisely on March 18, Search views, which had been steadily climbing in volume for several weeks, overtook Map views, which began a drastic decline in early March, only leveling off, at a lower volume than Search views, toward the end of the month. For context, coronavirus was first declared a pandemic on March 11. Shelter in place began in California on March 19 and in New York on March 20, at which point many people across the country had already begun voluntarily staying home as much as possible.
Given that the majority of Maps usage probably takes place in the Google Maps mobile app, whereas Search could be mobile, voice, or desktop-based, the precipitous decline in Map views clearly shows that consumers across the U.S. were using Maps on phones far less from the early days of the pandemic, with a dramatic tipping point occurring on March 18.
Trends in Actions Follow Shifting Pandemic Needs
As for GMB Actions, which include clicks for directions, clicks to call, and clicks to the business website or store landing page, pandemic trends are equally dramatic, though they follow patterns one might have expected.
Here, the time period that is most illuminating is February 15 to April 15. For the first third or so of this time period, roughly February 15 to March 10, trends follow a typical pattern, with driving directions far outpacing phone calls and website visits by volume. The significant spikes you can see in the driving directions metric on the left side of the chart occur regularly on weekends, when consumers are out and about and seeking directions to restaurants, stores, museums, parks, and more.
As noted previously, on March 11, coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Notice how quickly and dramatically the spike in phone calls, increase in website visits, and decrease in driving direction clicks follow from that date.
The phone call spike is especially remarkable and historically very unusual. For instance, in 2019, the only days phone calls exceeded driving directions were Black Friday and Christmas Eve. By contrast, in the period evaluated here, phone calls exceeded driving directions every day from March 16 to April 30, a trend which is likely unprecedented.
Clearly, in this case, we’re seeing patterns where consumers are much less likely to be out and about, thus less likely to need directions, but comparatively far more likely to be calling businesses presumably to find out whether they are open, what items are in stock, and so on. We also know that some retail brands that had to quickly pivot to curbside pickup were inundated with calls from customers simply indicating they had arrived and were waiting curbside for their items.
Less dramatic but similarly notable is the increase in website visits, indicating that shoppers were much more likely to seek additional information directly from the business about modified hours and services, temporary closure, safety procedures, and so on. This heightened need for information aligns with the early days of pandemic response from Google My Business and other local publishers, who at first had no good way of indicating, for example, that a restaurant was closed for dine-in but open for pickup and delivery. In the weeks afterward, and continuing to the present day, additional features have been launched to provide this information directly to consumers in local search results, though businesses are still well advised to use websites and landing pages to reinforce and expand upon the information in local search profiles.
Trends Differ Dramatically by Vertical
Now that we’ve examined search trends aggregated across all types of businesses, let’s take a look at how things differ by vertical. We’ve organized the data into 16 vertical categories, each of them comprehensive of several specific GMB categories that can be easily grouped together. Our vertical groupings include the following:
- Banking and finance
- Branded retail (e.g., factory outlet stores)
- Gas and convenience
- General retail (e.g., department stores, clothing stores)
- General services (e.g., professional services, property management)
- Hardware and home improvement
- Home and office services
- Hotels and accommodations
- Manufacturing and equipment
- Moving and storage
- Restaurants and eateries
Not all metrics for all verticals veered from the averages already discussed, so in this report we’ll focus on the data that reveals discrepancies from the norm.
Precipitous Declines in Hotel Searches and Actions
As one might expect, the almost total cessation of business and recreational travel near the beginning of the pandemic period is clearly reflected in GMB search volumes for hotels and accommodations.
View metrics for hotels show a similar decline.
Actions are an especially dramatic reinforcement of the trend shown in search queries, with customer activity reaching a point of near cessation beginning around March 21.
Overall GMB actions for hotels are down 46% compared to the same period in 2019.
Big Increases for Hardware and Home Improvement
In a major contrast to the results for hotels, searches and related actions for hardware and home improvement have seen significant increases beginning at the start of the pandemic period and continuing through April. We can presume that consumers sheltering at home are preoccupying themselves with home improvement projects, and thus making purchases at local hardware and home improvement stores, which have mostly remained open under the umbrella of “essential businesses” during the pandemic period.
View metrics for hardware and home improvement tell a complementary story, illustrating that the increases in search volume in March and April were most due to users searching for local hardware stores on desktops and laptops, rather than using the Google Maps app — though we see a rebound of Maps usage starting around April 6.
As for actions, we see here an especially dramatic trend, with driving directions only slightly down but phone calls and website clicks up significantly from about March 9 through the end of the period we studied.
Restaurant Searches Down, but Action Likelihood Up
To be sure, and as we might expect, restaurants and eateries saw major decreases in search volume after about March 7, as restaurants began closing for dine-in and offering pickup and delivery only, and many other food and beverage spots like breweries and ice cream shops began to shut down entirely. It appears that consumer search activity slightly predates the actual shutdown of these businesses, probably reflecting a tendency among consumers to avoid such establishments out of caution even before government restrictions became official.
Views display an even steeper and more consistent decline.
But in a notable contrast, GMB actions for restaurants and eateries show some signs of life. Though driving directions, consistent with other verticals, are down significantly, phone calls hold steady throughout the period and website visits are slightly up. Given the huge decrease in searches and views, these metrics should be taken even more seriously as indicators that restaurant patrons continued to make orders and seek information — presumably focusing on takeout and delivery — throughout the pandemic period.
As an illustration of the significance of the actions metric, on April 12, 5.4% of keyword searches for restaurants resulted in a phone call. This is compared to 0.6% of searches resulting in phone calls on February 12. Taking these two dates as representative of activity before and after the pandemic began, we find it is 900% more likely that a restaurant search will result in a phone call compared to the pre-pandemic period.
Healthcare Activity Comparatively Steady
In the healthcare vertical, we know all too well that patient needs have spiked during the pandemic period, particularly in regions hard hit by Covid-19. Though GMB trends can only tell part of the story — probably failing to capture a shift from routine care to urgent virus-related searches and actions — the overall story is one of general consistency in GMB activity, especially in contrast to other verticals.
Though search volumes in healthcare are down overall compared with the pre-pandemic period, the decrease is moderate, compared to the severe declines we’ve seen in other verticals.
View metrics for healthcare, similarly, show a moderate decline, with a trend consistent in other verticals of decreased Google Maps usage.
Finally and most dramatically, in a result similar to what we saw with restaurants, the healthcare vertical shows comparative growth in actions during the pandemic period, with phone calls in particular averaging higher after March 16 than in the preceding period.
Summary Metrics and Period-over-Period Comparison
Rather than repeating the detailed comparison of results across all metrics, we thought it would be more efficient to summarize overall findings in our study in terms of period-over-period comparison, looking at March and April 2020 in comparison with the same two months in 2019. This approach should be qualified, of course, by stating that overall usage of GMB has been up year over year for the past several years, slightly biasing our result in favor of increases. However, as we shall see, even with this caveat our findings demonstrate changes that far outpace what we would expect in normal times.
As you can see, the table is ranked in order of the average increase or decrease by vertical. The biggest gains, by far, across all verticals we examined were in pharmacy, banking and finance, and hardware and home improvement. In comparison, the largest declines were seen in restaurants and eateries, branded retail, and hotels and accommodations.
As another way of visualizing the impact of the pandemic across all verticals, the following chart depicts the average period-over-period change from greatest gains to greatest losses.
We’ve also broken out actions in order to demonstrate what the overall results cannot. Compared with March and April 2019, driving directions in the same period in 2020 were down 26% overall, phone calls were up 16%, and website visits were up 22%. But these averages smooth out huge gains and losses such as the following: a 190% increase in website clicks for grocery stores; a 96% increase in phone calls for hotels and accommodations; and a 74% decrease in driving directions for gas and convenience. Full results are shown in the table below.
In the charts below, we depict the rate of change by vertical for each action metric from greatest gains to greatest losses.
GMB trends followed pandemic patterns reported elsewhere for verticals such as restaurants, hotels, hardware stores, and grocery stores. For example, Foursquare has published a series of foot traffic studies demonstrating dramatic increases in visits to hardware and grocery stores, along with comparative declines in visits to restaurants and travel-oriented locations such as airports.
Brandify’s GMB data highlights, in addition, some notable trends in verticals that have received comparatively less attention. For example, banking and financial services show increases second only to pharmacies among all the verticals we studied. This finding likely highlights consumer concerns about bank balances, investments, retirement accounts, and mortgage payments as a result of pandemic-induced economic uncertainty.
Overall, the verticals that are booming in the pandemic period, with major gains in overall GMB activity, include pharmacies, banking and finance, hardware and home improvement, general retail, gas and convenience, and grocery. Those whose struggles are borne out by significant GMB activity decreases include restaurants and eateries, branded retail, and hotels and accommodations.
We can expect, looking forward, that Google My Business will serve as a useful barometer for long-term pandemic trends, as states begin the process of reopening a broader range of businesses and consumers tentatively return to shopping for less essential needs. We’ll keep an eye out for trends that indicate significant changes in consumer behavior and report them accordingly.