Well, I’ll go ahead and say it – the last couple of months have been strange and alarming. Between the travel lockdowns, social distancing restrictions, workplace changes, business shutdowns, and a record number of unemployment claims, it seems that there’s almost nothing in our world that hasn’t been altered by COVID-19.
We haven’t seen an interruption to commerce and society like this since the last World War, or maybe when the Spanish Flu swept the world just over 100 years ago. COVID-19 is fundamentally altering how the world works (and for good reason), but one of the biggest changes we’ve seen is how people are shopping online. With purchases now broadly categorized as “essential” and “non-essential”, people have changed how they shop in ways that few could have anticipated.
Now that both March and April have passed, we’re able to truly see just how much COVID-19 has changed digital commerce, which industries are benefiting and struggling, and where we might be headed over the next few months.
How Google has Handled COVID-19
Search engines have been a fact of life for nearly 30 years, and during a major event like COVID-19, the need for fast and accurate information is more important than ever. Google and other search engines have been working hard to make sure people are finding the best-possible information, which has resulted in more search volatility than we’ve seen in years.
Search engines are not messing around when it comes to adjusting and improving results. False information can get people hurt, or even killed, especially when it comes to COVID-19. Companies like Google worry about how this information is communicated on their platform, which is why they made significant updates to health-based search results through March and early April. The search giant even adjusted its search results page to provide local statistics, national resources, information on symptoms, top stories, and a map of infection hotspots when a user searches for just about anything related to “coronavirus” or “COVID-19”.
Google’s main focus is ensuring that trusted, well-known groups who should be providing reliable information, like the CDC and the National Health Institute, take the top spots. This doesn’t mean that every health-related domain is benefitting – many have been pushed into lower rankings because they aren’t trusted enough for the current situation, don’t relate to current searches, or are focused on saving money in healthcare. Even Wikipedia has begun to see significant ranking reductions simply because there’s a chance its users can spread false information by editing content.
Organic Revenue for Essential and Non-Essential Products
This major overhaul in search results doesn’t seem to have extended too far beyond health-based queries. Domains selling “non-essential” products haven’t seen much, if any, changes to search results. Google is content to let these domains maintain value and return to them once things are back to some form of normal. On the other hand, if you sell “essential” products, you’ve likely seen a major increase in organic transactions.
Social distancing has significantly altered our way of life and our online habits. As companies began to temporarily close offices, we saw millions of people suddenly start working remotely, many for the first time. This led to an immediate surge in sales for home office supplies. On top of that, these same people now can’t go to the gym or visit their favorite restaurants, so we’ve also seen a sharp increase in home workout equipment sales and searches for online recipes and food delivery.
The same can be said for home entertainment – video game sales are through the roof, streaming and overall internet usage is way up, and parents are buying arts and crafts supplies in bulk to keep their kids happy and busy. There’s even been a noted increase in the number of people taking online courses and completing training programs.
Some industries are seeing revenue increases simply because of consumer anxiety. Gun & ammo manufactures and survival equipment suppliers saw incredible increases in online shopping behavior from February into March and April. We saw the same thing happen across the country with toilet paper, hand sanitizer, soap, and just about all cleaning products. While store shelves work to return to normal, it’s entirely possible that these industries could have a second surge.
But this doesn’t mean that every business has seen a revenue boom from COVID-19. While the idea of what is and isn’t “essential” differs from person to person, social distancing guidelines have led to a major drop in sales for items like party supplies, camping equipment, home decor, and even fashion-focused items, like shoes, clothes, and jewelry (though makeup sales are up).
Things have managed to change as we’ve progressed through May. Many businesses are starting to see gradual revenue and activity increases, and if states continue to carefully and intelligently loosen restrictions, it’s likely that we’ll start to see numbers matching up with this time last year.
What CQL Has Observed Through COVID-19
COVID-19 and the state-ordered social distancing rules affected everyone at CQL, both professionally and personally. Even with the Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor offices now working completely from home, we’ve maintained our focus on supporting our clients and ensuring they can manage marketing and commerce issues posed by the pandemic.
CQL has seen both sides of the COVID coin – we’ve had some clients experience huge and unexpected levels of online traffic and sales, while others have endured year-over-year revenue and activity drops as consumers change their shopping habits. One client has even seen traffic and transaction levels that mirror their usual Black Friday or Cyber Monday traffic… and it’s happened almost every single day since the stay-at-home orders began.
This isn’t just limited to CQL – businesses across the world are changing tactics and finding new and effective ways to serve customers. There’s been a surge in app update or development projects, particularly in the medical field, and many companies are retooling their product selection and services to meet changing customer needs.
What’s Next for SEO in the Time of COVID-19?
This is a tough question to answer, particularly since we’re still figuring out how to handle COVID-19 as a nation.
While there was a massive drop in “non-essential” organic transactions in March (right when businesses began closing and social distancing was implemented), we’ve been watching a slow but steady increase in the number of “non-essential” online purchases. Easter weekend seemed to help spur this increase even more and we’re now seeing many commerce clients getting much closer to last year’s organic revenue and session figures.
In my opinion, it’s likely that we’ll see things begin to return to normal (or some form of normal) over the next few months as states begin loosening or outright eliminating social restrictions. But every company needs to be prepared for the other possibility: we could also see a second wave of infections begin, which could reignite social distancing restrictions and further alter digital commerce trends. Being prepared for either eventuality is important, no matter your industry or audience.
In any event, the last few months are going to cast a long shadow and heavily influence how we shop and interact in the future. Right now, things are looking up and we’ll likely see this gradual organic activity increase continue as we head through the rest of May. If we’re lucky, the worst of it is behind us, but everyone should be prepared for COVID-19’s presence to linger in digital commerce for years to come.
How CQL Can Help Your Business Stay Healthy
Even with the changes to our own workplace and communication strategies, CQL has maintained total support for clients affected by COVID-19. We’re still developing new solutions, improving commerce platforms and technologies, and helping clients serve their customers in new ways.
Contact us today if you’d like to know more about how to digitally transform your business in light of COVID-19’s impact and what we can do to support your goals as all of us undergo these changes in modern digital commerce.