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9 min read

COVID-19: The SEO Impact and How to Respond

This article was updated on: 02.09.2022

Throughout the world, we’ve felt the effects of coronavirus (COVID-19) across all areas of life. In addition to threatening lives, the outbreak has caused businesses to struggle and economies to falter, presenting an unprecedented challenge to decision-makers around the globe. Now more than ever, it’s vital that we push on and work together to make it through this difficult time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected different industries in different ways. According to UK Hospitality, the impact on the hospitality industry has been “catastrophic” so far, with companies closing or switching to a delivery service following the lockdown; meanwhile, the work-from-home policy has seen the video conferencing industry skyrocket, with share price increases for major players like Zoom.

Reflecting the volatility of the business world, we’ve also seen the organic search landscape undergo considerable changes over the past days and weeks. Organic performance has plummeted in certain verticals whilst soaring in others, with knock-on effects on the digital marketing industry as a whole. Although SERP volatility has been lower than expected, position changes have tended to favour more official sites, with governments and NGOs shooting up the Google rankings.

The purpose of this article is to piece together the effects of the outbreak on organic search and provide actionable advice to businesses and SEOs. We’ll explore the SEO impact that the virus has had on a range of industries, as well as examining some individual websites more closely. To conclude, we’ll discuss why businesses should keep investing in digital marketing to pull through and the practical steps that SEOs can take to help them achieve this.

In recent weeks, the SEO community has been abuzz with commentary on the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on organic search. With significant drops in organic performance across certain verticals and new SERP features emerging, there has been lots for SEOs to discuss.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) SERP Features

Lily Ray at Path Interactive noted that the first significant change came with the release of several new SERP features designed to provide users with crucial information about coronavirus (COVID-19). Triggered by coronavirus-related searches, the new knowledge panels gather information from sources such as the NHS, the Centre for Disease Control, and the World Health Organisation:

Impression’s Ian Humphreys added here that “Google has enabled their SOS alert SERP features and has made changes to their algorithm to provide higher authoritative organic search results for all related queries.” Positioned at the top of the coronavirus-related SERPs, this feature warns users of the current emergency status of the COVID-19 pandemic and allows users to share the alert:

As Ian also points out, “these SERP features are not only present for general COVID-19 search queries but can also be found within industry-specific verticals.” The events industry has been hit hard by the outbreak. With a lot of countries now on lockdown, it is likely that online information about events will be incorrect. In response, Google has replace the events SERP feature with the following message:

We may see further updates in the form of new SERP features or updates to existing ones, particularly in relation to industries that have been affected in the offline world. For example, the film industry has ground to a halt as cinemas are closed throughout the UK, but there don’t seem to have been updates to the featured snippets that list film times just yet.

Organic Performance Across Different Industries

Periods of instability and economic uncertainty tend to have diverse effects on different businesses, and this certainly applies in the case of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Much of the discussion regarding the SEO impact of the pandemic has centred on the notable variation in organic performance across different industries.

Nick LeRoy was amongst the first to comment on this phenomenon. Analysing data from 10 anonymised sites across a range of verticals, Nick reported the most significant week-on-week (WoW) changes in organic sessions and revenue during the period 12th Match to 16th March:

  • An ecommerce site that sells “very niche” commercial machinery suffered a 25% drop in organic sessions and a 35% decrease in organic revenue WoW.
  • An online health food shop saw a 56% increase in organic sessions and an incredible 188% increase in organic revenue WoW.

Whilst these individual sites are not representative of entire industries, SimilarWeb has helpfully provided daily updates on cross-sector changes to website traffic over the past 28 days. This data also encompasses traffic from direct, paid, and social sources, but we would expect to observe roughly proportional changes if purely organic traffic was investigated.

According to the most recent SimilarWeb report, the travel and tourism sector has been worst affected, with a 32.52% decrease in traffic for car rental sites; a 34.02% decrease for air travel sites, and a staggering 38.83% decrease for accommodation and hotel sites. On a more positive note, food delivery sites have seen a 7.80% uptick in traffic, along with a 9.07% increase for TV and movie streaming sites. Further Education News reported that traffic to e-learning sites is increasing, too, with The Open University’s platform seeing a 50% increase in daily sessions.

Collating the recent reports on industry-specific performance, the main winners have been remote software sites. The G2 report concerning the influence of the COVID-19 crisis on software usage has highlighted that downloads via its marketplace have increased significantly for remote work, learning, and entertainment platforms: over the past month, the relative growth in downloads of audio-conferencing software was 565% compared to 52% for virtual reality social platforms.

The rising level of demand for remote software through the G2 marketplace is mirrored by a surge in organic traffic to websites in this category. Zoom, for example, has seen a 136% increase in organic sessions since the beginning of 2020, rising from 2,153,643 per month to 5,079,582:

Anecdotal evidence from a Twitter thread started by Marie Haynes suggests that Zoom is not the only remote software site to see a significant increase in organic traffic. Amongst the replies were SEOs reporting notable organic improvements for remote working sites.

How Should Businesses and SEOs Respond?

Set in motion by the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, these sudden changes in organic performance have understandably generated a second line of discussion amongst digital marketers and the businesses they work for: how should we respond?

For businesses that have seen their organic performance adversely affected by the crisis, the advice we give following Google algorithm updates holds true here – avoid knee jerk reactions and continue to invest. Even if your industry as a whole has seen drops in search volume, there’s still the opportunity to use this time wisely to improve your rankings and come out on top when the outbreak is over.

You may need to adjust your tactics temporarily so that your site(s) can thrive in the long term. There has been plenty of discussion around the most important areas of SEO to focus on during these turbulent times. 

Content Writing

First off, as Aymen Loukil and others note, it’s worth assessing whether your site should have some content related to coronavirus (COVID-19). The pressing matter at hand is to get an official policy published on the site if this is relevant to the business. You may also want to look into producing some fresh top-of-the-funnel content around the crisis, provided it’s helpful, sensitive, and relevant to the site. 

Writing for Search Engine Journal, Adam Heitzman has recommended that SEOs build up a bank of evergreen content during this period. Quite rightly, he argues that “having a stockpile of great content ready to go and out there ahead of time will give you a leg-up on the competition.” Tobias Willmann reiterates this suggestion in another article, making the point that even travel-related content could still prove useful once the current crisis is over.

Instil Confidence and Trust

Luke Carthy’s excellent article on the foreseeable future of ecommerce has a lot to say about how consumer behaviour is changing in response to the crisis. As supply outstrips demand and panic buying sweeps across communities, Luke believes that customers will begin to buy based on confidence and trust rather than price. 

This idea has gained support from other members of the digital marketing community. Ben Garry, content specialist here at Impression, commented that Carthy’s point “cuts right to the core of E-A-T”. His advice to ecommerce sites is that they must be seen to keep their promises: “Tell people realistic delivery dates and don’t promise next day delivery if you can’t back it up. At a time like this, the ability to provide certainty is critical.”

Technical SEO: Page Speed and Crawlability

In the current climate, the crucial point for SEOs is to focus on tactics that can add value to a site in the long term. Increasing the performance of your site(s) by addressing page speed is a perfect place to start, as any incremental gains that you can achieve now will provide SEO and UX benefit for years to come. A recent Impression blog on quick SEO wins recommended compressing large images and using the PageSpeed Insights Tool to get bespoke recommendations for your website.

Finally, optimising the crawlability of your site is a valuable use of time at this stage. Numerous articles have suggested that now is a good time to have a thorough review using Search Console to identify any potential crawling and indexing issues. SEOs should review and update robots.txt file(s) to limit crawl waste.

Rounding Up

There’s no doubt that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic will be remembered as one of the darker periods in world history. It’s important, however, that we all work hard to get through this troubling time and come out of it in the best possible position. 

Although the overall impact of the outbreak on organic performance has been negative, we’ve seen that it’s not all doom and gloom across the board. Many businesses and industries appear to have been relatively unscathed or have even seen improvements.

Where possible, businesses and SEOs alike should stick to their guns and weather it out. You may need to adjust your strategy slightly, but it will all be worth it when you emerge from this with a site that performs better than it ever has, ready for your customers to return.