Search Marketers Cater to New Customer Needs for Holidays

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Search marketers are taking a hyper-targeted approach this holiday season as certain industries see major upticks in web traffic and others see substantial declines. Search volume in e-commerce (retail) and grocery delivery is up. Organic traffic on recipe websites is through the roof. Meanwhile, industry experts say search volume for travel, airlines, and other non-essential industries has taken a hit.

“When you look at the types of industries impacted, there are different responses from each,” says Billy Watts, SEO manager at CallRail, a lead-focused marketing and analytics platform. “Being an effective search marketer is about aligning content and messaging to what people are looking for.”

From a global perspective, Covid-19 is most definitely trending. According to Google Search Trends, the top trending coronavirus queries currently are “coronavirus cases” and “coronavirus update.” Search interest in “vaccine” has also reached an all-time high. Thanks in large part to the economic chaos and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, queries like “KeyBank unemployment” and “unemployment office near me” are currently trending as well.

The volatility surrounding coronavirus is impacting nearly every vertical. For businesses that have become more relevant this year—for example, retailers selling masks or urgent care centers offering Covid-19 testing—having an SEO strategy is even more important. Although search traffic for certain types of essential businesses is up, competition in the search results is tougher than ever.

Leaning Into Change

Grocery stores are doing more business than pre-pandemic, with average weekly household grocery bills surging from $120 to $161 at the height of statewide lockdowns this spring. Many restaurants are pivoting right now to promote their takeout and delivery options. Health and wellness websites are fielding questions about coronavirus, as are many news publishers. Leaning into the changes means understanding and responding to the challenges consumers are facing right now and setting up a search strategy that focuses on providing the best experiences possible.

The most successful search marketers notice the latest trends and then create content that answers questions. Google’s ongoing updates to its search algorithm haven’t taken a break during the pandemic, and evolving ranking factors continue to have ripple effects on marketers. While it has become more challenging to follow the moving target of SEO during the outbreak, experts say focusing too tightly on developing a search strategy that focuses strictly on Covid is a mistake. Pages dedicated to the pandemic will naturally begin to decline in traffic once the pandemic moves from the forefront of search.

“Always be building authority,” Watts says. “Use all the tools at your disposal to communicate the response to change: public relations, business directories, social media, your website, email, even direct mail is making a comeback.”

Increasing Volumes

At CallRail, Watts and his team are seeing call volumes going up across the board for businesses. Watts says customers are using Google My Business to find and call businesses more than before the pandemic. Although worldwide public interest in Covid-19 peaked in mid-March, there is little doubt that Covid-19 will have long-term repercussions on search behavior.

During this holiday season, specifically, Watts expects to see more online shopping happening, and that means brands that plan to sell products or services online need to already have their search strategies in place. Searches for “Christmas” started appearing in the top 20 search terms way back in September this year, one month earlier than in 2019. Related terms, like stockings and ornaments, also began entering the list of top searches over the same period.

Brandify’s Consumer Holiday Survey found that 47% of consumers plan to do “most” of their holiday shopping online, but they may visit stores for some items. More than half (54%) say they look to business websites for information about in-store safety practices. From a search perspective, it’s important that those consumers can easily find the information they are looking for on the first page of Google results. Deloitte’s holiday research found similar results to Brandify’s, with e-commerce holiday sales projected to grow by 25% to 35% year over year, compared to a sales increase of 14.7% last year.

“For some families, the holidays are going to be different, but everyone wants to enjoy the holiday season and bring a little light into their world,” Watts says. “There will be opportunities to help people connect, share, and celebrate the things we are grateful for.”

Big picture, Watts says he doesn’t think the general advice around SEO for businesses has changed during the pandemic. Empathy is still key. Businesses need to be the resource for customers searching online, and they need to solve the problems people have. While the pandemic has created new challenges for search marketers, Watts says the ones who rise up are going to come out on top.

“Don’t stop investing in content that answers the questions of your audience. Make sure your customers know they’ll get a great experience, before, during, and after their engagement,” he says. “Pay attention to the changing business landscape; there may be impacts to some businesses that create gaps you can fill.”

Part of that changing business landscape involves a greater emphasis on shopping small and supporting local. In survey after survey, consumers have said they are interested in helping local retailers that have been hit hard by the pandemic. Retailers that stand to benefit from that momentum should be making sure their Google My Business listings and other local search profiles are updated with accurate store hours and information about curbside pickups or online sale events.

“Too often, smaller brands try to apply the tactics of bigger brands such as deep discounts or free delivery. But that often obfuscates what makes them unique,” says ActiveCampaign CEO Jason VandeBoom. “I believe that small companies should lean into their differentiators.”

Productsup Chief Marketing Officer Marcel Hollerbach recommends that businesses play up their in-store strengths online and make sure their product data is consistent across all channels. That means product listings should be up to date and inventory levels should be accurate across all platforms, including Google Shopping and the retailer’s own website.

“Optimizing their multi-channel e-commerce strategy is key — retailers need to get their products listed on Google Shopping, websites, social media, and more to reach the largest audience possible,” Hollerbach says. “They also need to ensure product listings have high SEO value to appear in front of shoppers, directing them to their various selling channels.”

Regardless of whether a Covid-19 vaccine gets approved this winter, Watts says marketers shouldn’t expect a radical shift back to normal in 2021.

“I’m optimistic the situation will gradually start to improve next year, but some new habits and expectations are here to stay,” he says. “Make sure you have the systems and processes to be nimble, especially with your website. The need for SEO has never been greater.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.Rainbow over Montclair

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.