The Impact of Covid-19 on Local Search for Healthcare

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The Upheaval in Local Search

Google acted quickly in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic to make several adjustments to the Google My Business platform in order to better serve customers during what turned out to be a great upheaval in search behavior. In fact, GMB offered some early signals that the pandemic was likely to change life as we knew it, including an uncharacteristic spike in searches during the first wave of panic buying in late February, as documented in our recent GMB Insights study.

As panic buying, sheltering at home, and the shutdown of non-essential businesses began to dominate everyone’s attention toward mid-March, GMB data demonstrated clearly that consumer behaviors were changing, and that confusion was at an all-time high. As evidence, here’s a chart from our study showing GMB actions from February to April 2020.

Brandify Pandemic Insights Study 2020

The lefthand side of the chart exhibits a normal trend, with driving directions by far the most common action taken after viewing a GMB listing — mostly by users on smartphones preparing to navigate to a business location — and phone calls and website clicks trending at about half the volume of directions. The peaks you can see most clearly in the driving directions requests in February are weekends, when more people are out and about, visiting new restaurants and other unfamiliar places.

After about March 8, things get wild. Driving directions requests decline quickly and dramatically, and there is a corresponding rise in website clicks. But the massive spike in phone calls, reaching its apex on March 20, tells the real story. Consumers who are used to getting most of the information they need directly from a business’ GMB profile were suddenly calling businesses in numbers not seen since peak holiday shopping days in 2019.

This is because so many businesses were forced to close temporarily, modify their operating hours, or close to foot traffic while remaining open for special services such as curbside pickup, delivery, drive-through, and safe shopping hours. The situation on the ground changed so quickly and in such unprecedented ways that Google’s features were not equipped to deal with the impact, leaving many consumers turning to the old-fashioned phone call as their only means of getting needed information.

Google Modifies Healthcare Search

On March 20, the Google My Business team announced they would disable reviews and Q&A (since restored) in order to conserve human and machine bandwidth for critical updates. New listing creation and verification was also temporarily disabled. Google made these moves, in large part, in order to ensure that listings in critical categories, especially healthcare, would remain up to date.

The Google My Business product team also rushed to create new features in response to the crisis, such as a “temporarily closed” flag in the GMB dashboard and prominent attributes showcasing the availability of services like pickup and delivery. Healthcare was a primary focus in this phase of new feature development, which is still ongoing.

Changes to medical profiles have included the following:

  • A new Covid-19 information link that directs users to a web page on the provider’s site, offering Covid-19 information for visitors. Google went so far as to pre-populate many of these links based on its own efforts to identify the relevant pages on provider sites.
  • A new online care link that directs users to tools and information for booking virtual care.
  • A new prominent attribute indicating online care is available at the provider location.
Profile showing “Covid-19 info” and “Get online care” links

Google has also begun displaying an alert in many medical listings that indicates you should call your doctor before visiting if you think you might be sick with the virus.

New alert in Google profiles to call ahead if you might be sick

Another, slightly more detailed alert message displays atop lists of medical results in Google search on mobile and in the desktop local finder view (what you see when you click “More places” from the local pack).

General alert displayed above medical results

In addition, an ambitious collaboration between the GMB and search teams has resulted in a completely new search experience for coronavirus testing centers. Testing centers boast their own special version of the local pack and local finder interfaces, with special attributes calling attention to important features of each testing center, such as whether appointments or prescriptions are required. As you can see from the example below, testing centers are linked to existing GMB profiles as appropriate, but they are treated as independent entities in search.

New local pack for coronavirus testing centers

This update to local testing center results is part of a dramatic modification to the overall search results page, designed to help users find any information they may need about the spread of the virus locally and nationally, what symptoms to look for, details of treatment and prevention, and answers to common questions.

Custom search results page for coronavirus testing and information

Healthcare Search: The Pandemic Effect

Recently, Brandify collaborated with the team at Kyruus, a prominent search and data management platform for healthcare providers, on a whitepaper entitled “Local Search, Healthcare, and the Impact of Covid-19” that dives deeper into the needs of patients when using digital tools during the pandemic to find provider information. In the whitepaper, we cite Brandify’s recent Vertical Search Survey, which demonstrates that searchers strongly favor Google when searching for healthcare providers online.

Brandify Vertical Search Habits Survey 2020

The full whitepaper can be downloaded here. Among its findings is the statistic that 58% of patients begin their search for a provider online. According to data from Kyruus search logs, patients during the pandemic have been searching in great numbers, not only for information about coronavirus testing and treatment, but also for other basic health needs such as pregnancy care. Access to healthcare information of all kinds is of paramount importance during the ongoing crisis, and the majority of patients expect to be able to access that information digitally, with Google as the default source for many.

The definition of healthcare access is changing, too. The whitepaper reports exponential growth in the demand for virtual care, with one provider going from 700 requests per month to 7,000 per week. This unprecedented surge in patient demand is among the most important of the signals felt throughout our society that the pandemic must lead to fundamental organizational change. Digital channels will become even more important as these changes unfold.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.