Google My Business Search and Engagement Trends Define the Next Normal

In two previous studies published on Street Fight in May and June, we used Google My Business data from several thousand chain and franchise locations managed by Brandify to track changes in consumer behavior during the initial phases of the coronavirus pandemic. What we found in these studies was in some ways not surprising: Consumers throughout the U.S. were sheltering in place and seeking out local businesses at a much lower rate than normal with very gradual trends toward a return to normalcy starting in mid-April as the great reopening progressed. 

But there were several details revealed in the data that we couldn’t have predicted. For instance, our early findings showed that, starting in mid-March, phone calls initiated from Google My Business profiles saw a huge increase in volume. Even though searches were down overall in most verticals — with the exception of a few outliers such as grocery and hardware — the consumer intent to call a business when searching was in fact much higher than before the pandemic began. 

We knew phone contact with businesses had been critically important to consumers in 2020, but we didn’t know much about what was happening in those phone calls. Were consumers merely asking for information, such as whether a store is open or whether its hours have changed? Or were businesses generating a significant number of new leads as consumers sought out new sources for needed items and services?

So we turned to DialogTech, a leading provider of call tracking and conversation intelligence technology, to help unlock phone call trends during the pandemic and cast additional light on consumer sentiment and needs during this time. With the addition of data from DialogTech, we’ve been able to add an important new layer of insight to our examination of consumer sentiment in 2020. 

The current report also adds two full months of new data to our ongoing study. As you’ll see, the picture painted by the new data is one where consumers are continuing to limit their shopping activities in comparison with pre-pandemic trends, but have increased store visits and contacts significantly throughout the summer, likely with a focus on an expanded set of essential needs mixed with optimism about a return to normal.

Key Findings

  • Searches were 8.6% lower in July than in February
  • Driving directions have made a strong return and were only 1.1% lower in July than in February
  • Phone calls were 61.5% higher in July than in February
  • Website visits were 69.3% higher in July than in February
  • Likelihood to act upon searching for a business was 1.4% in February and 1.75% in March, and has run consistently at 2% from April through July, indicating 41% greater likelihood to act during the pandemic
  • GMB calls are 86% more likely than the average phone call to result in a good sales lead
  • 67% of phone calls originating from GMB profiles in 2020 are new customers
  • Restaurants, outlet stores, and hotels have seen three months of positive growth, indicating the continuation of recovery through July
  • Hardware and home improvement continues to show the biggest gains, recovering from a decline in June with a surge of searches and actions in July

Search Recovering Slowly, with Signs of Adjustment

Now that we have seven full months of data from 2020 to examine, we can offer a snapshot that captures overall year-to-date trends vividly, with several touchpoints that will resonate in the broader context of our own lived experience with the pandemic and its various phases.

GMB Searches, Views, and Actions, January-July 2020 

Brandify-DialogTech Consumer Insights Study 2020

As you can see from the chart, we have yet to return to normal levels of consumer activity, as represented by search and view activity in January and February. We also have yet to repeat the large spike in searches during the early days of panic buying in late February and early March. From a shelter-in-place nadir in late March, however, consumer activity has gradually and consistently grown in a trend that creeps ever closer to pre-pandemic levels. 

Interestingly, evidence of an adjustment appears in the first half of June. If you recall, this corresponds to the period of time when consumer overconfidence in a return to normal was quickly followed by a surge in new coronavirus cases and re-implementation of restrictions on business operations in many states. Despite this adjustment, overall activity is up in July compared to June. Searches are only 8.6% lower in July overall than they were in February. 

Actions Reflect a Return to Stores, but Phone Calls Still Booming

The most recent two months of GMB Actions data demonstrate a strong movement in the direction of a return to store visits. This is in light of a still-lower volume of overall searches, probably indicating that customers who do seek out local business have an unusually high intent to transact. One interpretation of these facts taken together — lower search volume combined with higher intent to act after searching — is that consumers are finding themselves, as time goes on, needing to expand their definition of essential needs. For a while during the early shutdown period, we could (and were often obligated to) forego visits to the dentist, the clothing store, the auto shop, and so on, but as the pandemic progressed, these needs could not be ignored forever. Less overall activity with higher intent, by this interpretation, paints the picture of a consumer focused on getting a range of needs met as efficiently as possible. 

Of course, even if this general tendency is correct, some growth in consumer activity should also be attributed to a proportion of the population who eagerly returned to leisure activities, such as restaurant dining, as soon as local reopening policies made those activities possible. 

GMB Actions, January-July 2020

Brandify-DialogTech Consumer Insights Study 2020

The story of GMB Actions during the period covered in the chart is a story in three parts. Until early March, the trend was typical of the pre-pandemic period: requests for driving directions were by far the most common action taken after viewing a listing, whereas phone calls and website visits trailed in volume as second and third choices. This is logical in a context where most local search activity takes place in Google Maps on a smartphone; searching for a business is most naturally followed by requesting directions.

The middle part of the story is more muddled, with all three data points vying for prominence. But in general, phone calls are way up, website visits are also up significantly, and driving directions plummet. This is the shutdown period, from early March through late May, when consumers simply weren’t out and about looking to visit businesses in person, but did exhibit a much higher need for information about local businesses. 

The third part of the story comes to light with the addition of data for June and July. With plenty of reservations, we can perhaps still call this a period of recovery. Driving directions return to near-normal volumes, if still slightly lower than the heights of January and February, with a familiar pattern of peak volumes during weekends. Note, though, that website visits and especially phone calls are still trending significantly higher than normal in the June-July period. 

What We Can Learn from Trending GMB Actions

Driving directions made a strong recovery in June and July, and have regained their position as the most popular action taken as a result of visiting a GMB profile for the first time since the middle of March. In fact, driving directions requests in July returned nearly to pre-pandemic levels, indicating that consumers have returned in great numbers to brick and mortar businesses, particularly on weekends. Driving directions requests in June and July were only 5% lower than in January and February. 

There are signs, though, that we are still living through a very different version of “normal.” In particular, this manifests in the booming volume of phone calls and website visits that continues throughout the period we studied. After the huge surges in both metrics that we saw in the early days of the shutdown, phone calls and website visits have returned to a pattern that, though lower than March, is still far higher than before the pandemic. Phone calls in June and July were 67% higher than in January and February, and website visits were 69% higher. 

Why was the rising tide of consumers going back to physical stores not accompanied by a decline in phone calls and website visits? We can probably infer that consumers still feel a strong need to gather information about businesses before visiting. Here are some likely questions and requests: 

  • Product inventory or availability questions
  • Buy online, pickup in store (BOPIS)
  • Questions about open status of the store
  • Questions about modified hours
  • Questions about availability of amenities, like indoor dining at restaurants
  • Questions about availability of services
  • Questions about health and safety procedures
  • Professional consultations that can take place via phone or web
  • Requests for curbside pickup

In summary, consumers may be using the phone or visiting the business website in order to minimize time spent at a store, or even more than one store, so that transactions can take place quickly and efficiently. This is encouraging; many U.S. consumers seem to have taken to heart the recommendation to limit time spent in public places in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

It’s also true that conversion intent is running quite a bit higher than normal. In February, about 1.4% of all searches for a business on Google resulted in a phone call, website visit, or request for directions. Think of this as the GMB equivalent of CTR in advertising. Conversion intent jumped to 1.75% in March, and to 2% in April, a rate that holds firm through July. A 2% conversion intent indicates a 41% greater likelihood to take action after searching than the pre-pandemic rate of 1.4% in February. The overall trend suggests that consumers are trying to be highly efficient at every stage of the purchase journey, and that when they search for a business, they don’t do so idly, but because they intend to transact. 

Phone Call Trends: More Leads, Longer Calls

Of the two actions that are trending especially high these days, the bulk of SEO analysis tends to focus on website traffic, which is, of course, only natural, since the business of SEO professionals is to maximize visits to online properties. We in the local SEO industry have tended to spend a lot less time talking about phone calls, an inbound lead source that can be just as valuable as website visits, and that indicates a strong intent to transact with a business or to seek information that may lead to a conversion in the near future. 

Data from DialogTech related to Google My Business suggests that phone calls originating from GMB profiles have a higher than average lead value. Whereas phone calls to businesses in general can be classified as sales leads 22% of the time, phone calls generated from Google My Business profiles are classed as leads at almost twice that rate. 

For instance, during the first seven months of 2020, according to DialogTech phone data, approximately 41% of calls generated via Google My Business were good sales leads. This statistic illustrates the especially high purchase intent of consumers who use GMB to find and contact local businesses. GMB calls are 86% more likely than the average to result in a good sales lead.  

What’s more, calls generated through GMB are highly likely to be calling the business for the first time. For 2020 to date, approximately 67% of phone calls originating from GMB profiles were new customers, according to DialogTech data. 

Finally, phone calls from customers have tended to last longer than usual. Pre-pandemic, 57% of GMB phone calls lasted more than one minute, a number which increased to 62% in the period from March 21 to May 20, and went up even further, to a remarkable 73%, in the period from May 21 to July 31. Callers are spending more time on the phone, asking questions and gathering information, creating more opportunity to convert callers into customers.

GMB Phone Calls by Call Type, January-July 2020

Brandify-DialogTech Consumer Insights Study 2020

GMB Phone Calls: Good Leads and New Callers, January-July 2020

Brandify-DialogTech Consumer Insights Study 2020

Long-Term Patterns Emerge Across Verticals

As we did in the first two installments of our GMB study, we present here a detailed breakdown of GMB trends by month and by vertical. The overall picture is one where recovery trends continue, with all metrics climbing in both June and July, though far less aggressively than we saw with the recovery surge in May. We might infer that June and July have marked a slight reversal whereby consumers are realizing that the pandemic is far from over and are curtailing their activity to essential needs, which are nevertheless broadening into more business categories.

Verticals with trends that go far outside the norm include automotive as well as hardware and home improvement, with automotive showing surprising declines after a surge in May, and hardware and home improvement recovering from declines in June with a disproportionately large increase across all metrics in July. Hardware and home improvement continues to be the success story of the year, recovering from a 52.6% decline in searches in June with a massive lift of 266.6% in July.

Restaurants and eateries, hit hard in the early days of the pandemic, have enjoyed three solid months of almost all positive growth across all metrics, from May through July. The same is true for branded retail (outlet stores), another vertical that suffered greatly in March and April due to widespread temporary closures but has now seen three months of strong recovery numbers. Hotels and accommodations have enjoyed some recovery as well, especially in May with a 67.2% increase in searches and June with a 50.6% increase, though this growth trend flattened to only 0.6% in July.

Conclusion

Businesses across many verticals have struggled to stay afloat this year, but signs are pointing to continued increases in consumer activity and spending. We don’t expect this trend to reverse itself anytime soon, even as the country’s COVID-19 case count continues to grow; consumers seem to have decided that a modified return to normal — the “next normal,” as we’ve dubbed it — will be the bargain they’ll make between necessity and safety. An expanded sense of necessity for some, mixed with an eagerness to return to normal leisure activities for others, may be tempered by changing conditions, but so far seems likely to continue. 

There are many effective tactics businesses can employ to gain more customers with Google My Business during this recovery period. In particular, we see phone calls as a huge source of new leads this year, as evidenced by the data from DialogTech. It’s essential that businesses increase their capacity to handle a larger volume of phone calls and employ tactics that ensure consumer needs are met and leads are converted effectively into new customers. Brandify and DialogTech will offer a primer on GMB optimization, with a focus on converting GMB phone calls, in a webinar this Thursday, “How to Acquire More Customers from Google My Business During COVID-19.” Those interested can follow this link to register.

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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.