GMB Insights Predict a Slow Path to Recovery

Last month, we shared the results of a study of consumer behavior in the first phase of the pandemic. The study based its findings on analysis of Google My Business Insights data for multi-location brands whose online presence is managed by Brandify, covering some 16 different business categories. Today, we’re updating that study with data from the month of May — data that demonstrates clear evidence that consumers are returning to stores and other places of business that were hard hit by the shutdown. Our findings show, however, that recovery for suffering businesses may take quite a long time. And by contrast, some businesses for whom the pandemic resulted in a boom in activity are still showing remarkably high consumer traffic.

As a reminder, Google My Business (GMB) is the platform where businesses manage the profiles that appear in Google Search and Google Maps on desktops and smartphones, as well as in local business results provided by Google Assistant and Google Home. GMB Insights measure consumer search activity for a particular business location, including searches by keyword (“restaurant near me”) and direct searches (“umami burger anaheim blvd”); views on Maps or Search; and actions such as calling the business, visiting the business website, and requesting directions. Because of the volume of data Brandify is able to gather across thousands of stores and offices, these consumer signals paint a vivid picture of evolving behavior during these still early days of recovery.

Key Findings

  • Overall searches dropped 17.7% in March and 27.1% in April, but rose 31.5% in May
  • Overall views dropped 33.2% in March and 29.7% in April, but rose 29.6% in May
  • Overall actions rose 1.6% in March, dropped 13.7% in April, and rose 68.3% in May
  • Phone calls and website clicks throughout April and May were trending at about twice their normal volume
  • Hotels saw a gain in searches of 82.7% from April to May, the highest gain of any category, but in the context of a recovery from historic lows
  • Restaurants saw the second biggest gain in searches at 50.3%, also in light of historic lows in March and April
  • Hotels also had the biggest gain in views in May at 67.2%, followed by branded retail (outlet stores) at 52.7%
  • Hardware and home improvement search growth more than doubled from April (11.4%) to May (26%)

Overall Search Traffic Climbing Gradually

The chart below depicts the trend in direct, branded (“chain”), and indirect searches from January through May 2020. As we noted in our last study, a huge spike in traffic in late February occurred during the first wave of panic buying; afterwards, sheltering at home caused overall search volumes to dwindle. 

GMB Searches Overall, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

Though searches have remained low in comparison to before the pandemic, they do exhibit a gradual rise from a low point that occurred around March 25. Searches on May 25 compared to March 25, for example, are up an average of 22% across all search types. 

A Slow Return to Previous Device Habits

If you saw our previous study, you may recall that the most dramatic chart was the one that depicted a crossover point on March 18 when Maps views dipped below Search views, indicating that far fewer users were searching for businesses while out and about on their smartphones. Typically, Map views are three to four times greater in volume than Search views. In our update to this chart, we see signs of a slow return towards previous behaviors, though Search views are still slightly higher in volume than Map views, which are still extremely low compared to historical trends. 

GMB Views Overall, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020 

Map views reached their lowest point on about April 5, with gradual increases ever since. Map views reached a post-shutdown high point on May 22, with volumes about 66% higher than April 5. Of course, this gain needs to be understood in context; even at the May 22 high point, Map views were still about 57% lower than on January 22, a typical day before the pandemic.

Search views, which may indicate searches in mobile browsers but are probably dominated by desktop searches, continue at roughly twice their pre-pandemic volume. 

Consumer Actions Show Ongoing Need for Information

One of the messiest, but most illuminating, charts in our study is the one that depicts consumer actions across all businesses. In our previous study, we observed a huge decline in requests for directions and a massive spike in phone calls, accompanied by a less dramatic but still significant increase in website visits. Taken together, these stats painted a clear picture of consumers sheltering at home and desperately seeking information about essential services. In our update to that chart, we see this trend continue, with some notable changes.

GMB Actions Overall, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

The precipitous decline in driving directions continued all the way to April 12, when they began a gradual rise that continues through the end of our reporting period. Nearly equivalent peaks in driving directions requests on the weekends of May 23 and May 30 represent volumes not seen since about March 15. 

As for phone calls, nothing compares to the remarkable peak point of March 20, when phone call volume uncharacteristically rose to almost twice the volume of driving directions. Still phone calls continue to come in at historically high volumes, suggesting that consumers remain highly dependent on gaining information about store closures and openings, inventory, and other types of information they must feel they are not seeing, or not trusting, in GMB profiles themselves. Throughout the end of May, phone calls were trending at about twice their normal volumes. 

Website clicks, too, remain higher than normal. In fact, they too are at about twice the normal volume in May compared to pre-pandemic levels. Website clicks reached a high point on May 9 that was about 93% higher than February 9. See the next section of this report for more on May 9-10 as a watershed moment.

The trend lines for GMB Actions overlap quite a bit towards April and May, making it somewhat difficult to track each data point. So for the sake of clarity, here are the three Action metrics in isolation.

GMB Driving Directions, Phone Calls, and Website Clicks Overall, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

Recovery Patterns Differ by Vertical

As with last month’s report, we’ve subdivided our GMB Insights dataset into 16 vertical segments, covering everything from banking and finance to manufacturing and equipment. A full list of these vertical segments can be found in the tables at the end of this report. 

Last time, we offered a deep dive into four verticals in particular: hotels and accommodations, hardware and home improvement, restaurants and eateries, and healthcare. This time around, we thought we would offer a brief update on these four and a snapshot of trends for four additional verticals: banking and finance, branded retail (outlet stores), grocery, and automotive. As before, we have also compiled a trend analysis overview that covers all 16 of the verticals we studied.

We will see that results differ dramatically by vertical, with some seeing slow recovery after major losses, while others continue to see unusually high consumer traffic due to pandemic-related needs. 

Hotels and Accommodations

We noted last month that hotels were one of the hardest hit verticals in the first phase of the pandemic. As the charts below demonstrate, there are some signs of recovery from April through May, with modest increases in generic keyword searches (“hotels in miami”), views on Maps, and actions — especially requests for driving directions. Taken together, these trends suggest that at least some consumers are returning to leisure and business travel, starting in late April and increasing in May. 

In fact, hotels saw the biggest gain in searches in May of any vertical at 82.7%, though this is in light of severe losses of 42.8% in March and 67.2% in April. 

GMB Searches, Hotels and Accommodations, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

GMB Views, Hotels and Accommodations, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

GMB Actions, Hotels and Accommodations, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

Hardware and Home Improvement

In stark contrast to hotels, the hardware and home improvement sector saw gains in traffic starting in the early phase of the pandemic. The charts below demonstrate that these gains have only increased with time. Generic keyword searches (“hardware store near me”) are higher than ever in May, and significantly higher than pre-pandemic trends. Map views are higher for hardware than most other verticals, and Search views exhibit a steady climb throughout the pandemic period. Action metrics, too, have continued to climb, with phone calls reaching their apex in the year to date on May 25, far later than the apex in the overall actions chart, which occurs on March 20. Clearly, consumers are focusing on home improvement, repair, and construction in increasing numbers, and are perhaps beginning to plan for more ambitious summer projects. 

Overall, hardware searches were up 11.4% in April and 26% in May.

GMB Searches, Hardware and Home Improvement, January-May 2020

Brandify Pandemic Insights Study 2020

GMB Views, Hardware and Home Improvement, January-May 2020

Brandify Pandemic Insights Study 2020

GMB Actions, Hardware and Home Improvement, January-May 2020

Brandify Pandemic Insights Study 2020

Restaurants and Eateries

Restaurants, like hotels, were hit hard in the early days of the shutdown. They, too, are exhibiting modest signs of a very gradual return to normalcy. Interestingly, the sharp spikes in traffic that are typical in January and February, indicating a rise in consumer interest during weekends, have softened through the pandemic into curves, demonstrating that restaurant visits have spread out into weekdays. 

One remarkable data point: as you can see in the actions chart, on May 10 there is a huge volume of phone calls and website visits for restaurants, greater than any time since the beginning of the year. May 10, of course, was Mother’s Day. We can think of this as a moment when many Americans must have decided to try venturing out to restaurants, perhaps for the first time since the shutdown began. 

Overall, restaurants saw the second biggest gain in searches from April to May of any vertical, at 50.3% — though searches are still of course only a fraction of their normal volume. 

GMB Searches, Restaurants and Eateries, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

GMB Views, Restaurants and Eateries, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

GMB Actions, Restaurants and Eateries, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

Healthcare

Searches related to doctors and medical facilities, as we reported last month, were more consistent during the early phase of the shutdown than was the case with most verticals. This is obviously due to the ongoing need for medical care as an essential service, coupled with the surge in concern about coronavirus. That surge is shown most clearly below in the searches chart during late February and early March, and is followed by a decline during late March and early April, when the shutdown brought so much societal activity to a standstill. 

The rise in activity from late April into May — shown consistently across searches, views, and actions — likely shows that consumers are making up for lost time, scheduling elective procedures, dental visits, checkups, and other appointments they’d put off or been forced to cancel when the shutdown began. Overall, healthcare searches saw the third largest gains in May of any vertical at 49.4%.

As a side observation, it’s worth noting that healthcare data exhibits one of the clearest patterns of any vertical of weekday-focused activity — note the elongation of every peak in these charts. Weekend traffic goes almost to zero, since doctor’s offices are typically closed on weekends. The spikes toward the left of each peak indicate that Mondays are the days when patients are most likely to contact their doctors.

GMB Searches, Healthcare, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

GMB Views, Healthcare, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

GMB Actions, Healthcare, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

Banking and Finance

We noted in last month’s report that banking and finance was second only to pharmacies in overall gains across all GMB metrics during March and April. As our new charts demonstrate, most of that surge was in early March. Activity has leveled off considerably in the time since, though phone calls continue to be disproportionately high in volume through early May. 

Note that the surge in phone calls is not matched by a comparable surge in searches or views. This is one of many examples in the data where consumers performing searches are much more likely to take action than in normal times. We can assume that overall call volumes in banking and finance have been up significantly throughout the pandemic period, with economically fragile consumers checking retirement accounts and savings, seeking financial advice, and so on.

GMB Searches, Banking and Finance, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

GMB Views, Banking and Finance, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

GMB Actions, Banking and Finance, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

Branded Retail

Branded retail, our term for stores owned by the manufacturer such as factory outlets, took a particularly hard hit in the early days of the pandemic due to an extremely high rate of store closures. Many of these stores sell clothing and accessories, shoes, and housewares, items that many consumers could probably defer purchasing for a short period of time, but not forever. This circumstance is reflected in our updated data, where consumers clearly showed a need and desire to return to shopping for clothing and similar items, during a time from late April into May when more and more stores were able to reopen their doors.

The branded retail category exhibits the most dramatic statistic in our entire study:  a 601.7% increase in GMB actions from April to May, shown visually by the month-long upward trend in the third chart below. Clearly, consumers were calling outlet stores, visiting their websites, and requesting directions in increasingly great numbers throughout the month of May. The phone call and website metrics in particular suggest that consumers were seeking out information — is this store open? have the hours changed? — prior to revisiting stores they hadn’t frequented since the early part of March.

GMB Searches, Branded Retail, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

GMB Views, Branded Retail, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

GMB Actions, Branded Retail, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

Grocery

As with retail, the grocery category exhibits clear evidence of panic buying in the early phase. Unlike retail, the metrics through April and May are considerably stabilized, with a consistent pattern of grocery searches, views, and actions focused mostly around weekends. There is a gradual rise in Map views and requests for directions starting in mid-April, but for the most part grocery shoppers seem to be exhibiting a regular pattern of shopping regularly but less frequently than in normal times. Note the peak on Mother’s Day, May 10, less significant than for restaurants but still noticeable.

GMB Searches, Grocery, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

GMB Views, Grocery, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

GMB Actions, Grocery, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

Automotive

The automotive vertical, which includes both auto repair shops and auto parts stores, saw a dropoff in the early phase that was dramatic if less severe than for hotels and restaurants. This makes sense — consumers were likely putting off any non-critical automotive repairs during the early shutdown period, but some critical auto repairs could not wait. In a pattern that is similar to healthcare, those repair visits and parts purchases that consumers delayed in late March and early April couldn’t be put off forever — consumers began returning to repair shops and parts stores in greater numbers in late April, a growth trend that seems likely to continue. 

GMB Searches, Automotive, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

GMB Views, Automotive, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

GMB Actions, Automotive, January-May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

Recovery Trends: March to May across All Verticals

In last month’s report, we concluded with tables summarizing the pandemic’s impact on all the verticals we analyzed. We’ll do the same thing this time around, but our focus in this report is shifted to more recent trends that may indicate progress toward recovery and a return to consumer confidence. 

The tables below paint a clear picture whereby May marks a turn towards recovery. Though trends differ significantly by vertical, overall searches and views trend downwards from February to March and March to April and upwards from April to May. Actions is an interesting anomaly — as noted in our last report, actions as a proportion of views and searches have been much higher since the beginning of the pandemic, indicating that searchers are heavily inclined towards contacting the businesses they search for, primarily via phone calls and website visits. 

This trend continues through May, suggesting that consumer uncertainty and need for up-to-date information continues unabated. Phone calls and website visits may be driven by multiple intents, but we can safely assume that, unlike driving directions requests (which are still at a historic low), calls and website visits both suggest consumers seeking answers to questions or additional information not present or obvious in GMB profiles. 

GMB Searches by Vertical, March to May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

GMB Views by Vertical, March to May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

GMB Actions by Vertical, March to May 2020

Brandify Recovery Insights Study 2020

It should be noted, of course, that the pandemic is far from over, and a great deal of uncertainty remains; as of this writing, the loosening of shelter-at-home restrictions appears to be linked to an uptick in new coronavirus cases in multiple states. It seems clear that we should be prepared for a path to recovery that will not follow a straight line, and may require re-sheltering periods that will cause consumer traffic patterns to decline once again. We hope that the long view will be one that gradually returns us to normal business operations — and we’ll be watching the data and reporting our findings as time goes on. 

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Damian Rollison writes the Streets Ahead column for Street Fight. He is VP of product strategy at Brandify, and can be reached via Twitter at @damianrollison. Brandify is the publisher of Street Fight.