This has been an extremely hard time for most people across the entire world as COVID-19 starts to spread. So many businesses have been severely impacted. For most, the financial effects of the world protecting itself from the virus are drastic. For a few, business is absolutely booming.
Normally, when we write our weekly SEO newsletter, we try to discern whether Google made any significant updates to their search algorithms. This week though, almost every site that we monitor is seeing wildly unusual traffic patterns.
Our goal in this article is to help you try and make sense of things. Whether you are an SEO or a business owner, our hope is that we will help you to decipher traffic patterns and do all that you can to mitigate losses.
What are SEOs saying about the impact of Coronavirus on their clients’ businesses?
On Tuesday, March 17, we asked SEOs to share with us what kind of impact their clients were seeing. As you can see, there are far more businesses that are suffering than thriving.
How has COVID-19 affected your site's organic traffic (or your clients') sites? I'd love for you to leave a comment as to what you see is happening & what kind of niche you are in. We'll publish the results in newsletter.
— Marie Haynes (@Marie_Haynes) March 17, 2020
Here are some of replies:
- 30-40% of small businesses in Australia are expected to close their doors as a result. We've had clients call in tears with debt and no exit strategy, we're working as hard as we can but it's tough to see people go through such heartache, especially following the bushfires. - Nik Ranger
- Addiction niche - we are seeing declines. Thought it was an algo update but looks like it’s coronavirus. - Rachel Daniel
- Painting Parties. Have had to shut shop until things become better. - Sai Priya Mahajan
- Horse racing suspended in the U.K. from tomorrow so our traffic will drop dramatically. It’s for the best though. - The Tipster League
- Travel. Currently -50% and counting - Carlos Arruda
- Parenting advice - down substantially (30-40%). Dramatic late last week, but we started seeing some declines (about 10%) during week of March 2nd. - Daniel Diaz
- Native advertising. We’re seeing a slight decline. Joinative
- Motorsports ... impressions & clicks dropped through the floor, as expected. Avg CTR and position remain roughly the same. LeeTechTinkerer
- Saw about a 40% decline starting around Tuesday and hitting a low on Saturday. E-commerce - fashion. Chris T.
- Travel. It’s a bloodbath. And when you factor in the Nov 8 update… - Laura & Lance
While you would think that medical sites would see more traffic at this time, those who rely on patients to come into their offices are struggling.
- Health care. Diagnostic imaging, specifically. Metrics still up year over year but growth sharply down over the past week. Most trends right now point to cancellations/reschedules coming in from patients who are afraid to visit medical facilities due to fear of getting sick. - Jason Schwanke
- Health niche. Starting around 3/1, organic sessions down across the board, except for sessions to pharmacy location pages, which have increased. Rank remains stable. - John Vantine
Some financial sites are down despite the fact that the world is clamouring for information on the struggling stock market.
- Personal finance, down about 25% with no major rank changes. - Jim Malec
- Personal Finance. Down -30% since lockdown. Rankings for main keywords are still intact. -Jason Acidre
- In Spain finances -60% - F Martin
Some SEO companies are already losing clients.
- Lost an hourly contract worth a few thousand dollars per week and delayed the launch of a new project. - Charles Floate
Although some have reported no change.
- My personal website: SEO & Web development - No Change - Infosolutions Goa
Some people have reported that rankings and traffic have remained stable, but conversions are down.
- Our traffic remains similar but our conversion rates have plummeted. I work for a company that sells various higher priced "luxury" products to an older demographic and the uncertainty definitely seems to be impacting their willingness to purchase at this time. - Brandon Wilson
- Our traffic levels have declined slightly (retail) but the real concern is conversion. People simply aren’t parting with their money, presumably due to a lack of confidence/uncertainty. Worrying times indeed. - Adam Owen Hirst
- It's dropped off a little - down 9% in a last 30 days vs previous 30 days comparison. Where we've really seen the impact is orders - they're at roughly a third of their normal levels. People are browsing, they just aren't spending. (Site is footwear ecommerce). - Dartacus
- Traffic is almost same but conversions going down. Atul Thanvi
And then there are a few business owners and SEOs who are seeing great increases in traffic.
- Huge improvements! But then to be expected for online grocery retailer! - Stefan Mustieles
- Health screening industry. Solid gains. - Sumant Vasan
- With the cancellation of most major conferences and events, there has been a big shift in how big and small businesses are planning future events. And with that we're seeing increasing interest in live streaming and monetizing live events via PPV and subscription. - Amir Shahzeidi
- Big improvement. We talk about remote work, remote teams. Carlo Borja
- Same-day grocery delivery service for a major UK retailer so huge increases particularly over last 48hours as UK goes into full panic buying mode. Users seeing our service as solution to self-isolating and inability to secure advance delivery slots for weekly/large baskets - Dom Kennan
- Online dating site, improvements. - Walter Avalos
- Preparedness niche - Up 300+% - Andrew Pontius
- Puzzle store online has been through the roof! Brad Sacks
What are we seeing at MHC?
At MHC, we are seeing a mixture of effects from Covid-19. For some sites that sell medical supplies such as surgical masks and gloves, business is booming.
Some of our clients are bloggers who have posts on home remedies for illness, or recipes for homemade hand sanitizer or soap. They are doing well as well.
Some of our medical information sites have had individual articles about the effects of Coronavirus that are garnering a lot of attention.
Many of our clients who discuss financial matters, especially the stock market, are seeing an incredible traffic boost.
But sadly, we have more losers than winners in our profile this week. In some cases we can make sense of the losses. For example, the following sites are all ones that used to thrive on providing information to world travelers. As very few people are traveling due to the virus, it makes sense that traffic is down. Most of these sites started seeing declines in early March and traffic continues to trend downwards.
For many e-Commerce stores, there is a gradual decline that is probably due to people being uncertain about spending money until worldwide fears over the virus calm down. The most common pattern is to see a slow gradual decline that starts in early March.
We’re also seeing similar declines in many of the affiliate and lead-gen sites that we monitor.
At this point, we have not seen a drop in requests for SEO help coming through the MHC contact form. We also have not had requests for cancellations of pre-booked work. So far, other than having our staff work remotely, it is essentially business as usual for us. We are quite aware though, that nothing in the world should be considered stable right now. It should also be noted that we do not do a lot of work with businesses that rely on foot traffic. Our heart goes out to those of you who are SEO’s who have a large client base of businesses who are struggling.
Some tips for making sense of your data in these challenging times
For some of you who are reading this article, your site’s traffic patterns will be easy to decipher. If you run a website discussing traveling to Italy, for example, of course traffic is going to be down. But for many of you, it might be challenging to determine whether the drops in traffic that you are seeing are related to COVID-19 or something else.
While we do feel that the vast majority of the web has been affected in some way by COVID-19, if your website sees a dramatic decline in traffic, other causes must not be completely ruled out.
It is our hope that Google does not push out any drastic algorithm updates during this difficult time. Barry Schwartz ran a poll asking whether SEOs felt that Google should stop pushing search algorithm updates during the COVID-19 outbreak. In reply to this, Google’s John Mueller commented, “What would you consider an update?”
We were encouraged by this possibly cryptic comment. As we all know, Google updates their algorithm many times per day. In 2017, Gary Illyes told us that Google has “3 updates a day [on] average.” Danny Sullivan, via the Google Search Liaison Twitter account has told us that “Each day, Google usually releases one or more changes designed to improve [their] results.” He also said that occasionally though they will push out a more broad core algorithm update which happens “several times per year.”
Will Google update their search algorithms in the midst of this outbreak? Most definitely yes! Life goes on, and the Google search engineers will likely be continually working on producing the most helpful results. We would imagine that Google is working hard on making it a low likelihood that people can find ways to rank websites that take advantage of people who are suffering due to the virus.
It is our hope, however, that Google does not push out a significant core update that will have a drastic effect on many websites as they have done in the past with updates like Medic, the June 3 core update, or the most recent January Core update. If we do feel that this has happened, we will update you via our SEO newsletter (published weekly).
With all of this said, we would like to offer the following tips for determining whether traffic changes are due to Coronavirus, or whether something else is going on.
1) Have you made any significant changes to your site?
While this may sound obvious, the first thing that should be considered when assessing a traffic drop is whether you have made any significant changes to your site. If you have just launched a new design, switched from http to https, or significantly changed your content, be careful not to just assume that Coronavirus is the cause for your drop.
While this post is a few years old, the information is still quite applicable today. If you are seeing drops in traffic that you cannot attribute directly to COVID-19, we would encourage you to read, “Your traffic drop may not be because of a penalty! Complete list of reasons for your traffic to drop,” written by Marie Haynes in 2014.
2) Look for seasonal patterns
For some sites, it may be common to see a drop in traffic that happens at this time of year. If you are not sure whether this is the case for you, you can go to Google analytics and look at Year over Year Google Organic traffic. You can follow these steps:
- Go to Google Analytics.
- In the left sidebar, click on Acquisition → Source/Medium and then you can choose google/organic.
- Set the date to show a decent amount of time. We like to see a one year view when looking at YOY traffic. Then, compare this to the previous year.
- Does traffic usually go down in March? If so, you may be seeing a normal seasonal pattern rather than an impact from COVID-19.
3) Is the drop across all search engines?
As mentioned above, we really hope that Google does not push out a significant algorithm update in these trying times. If they do though, one thing you can sometimes do to determine if an update has affected you, is see whether your traffic drops are visible in Bing as well as Google. Of course, this only works for sites that actually do get a significant amount of Bing traffic.
Here is a site that has seen drops in early March. You can see that both Google and Bing traffic are down, which makes it much less likely that a Google related change affected their traffic.
4) Are certain pages affected?
- In Google Analytics, go to Behavior → Site Content → All Pages
- Determine the date on which traffic starts to decline.
- Compare it to the previous period. For example, in this site below, it would be reasonable to assume that on February 26, traffic began to decline significantly.
When we compare this to the previous period, we can see that most pages across the entire site have seen approximately a 30% drop.
This makes sense for this site as it is a travel website in an area of the world that very few people are traveling to in the midst of COVID-19 fears.
However, for other websites, it is quite clear that certain pages are thriving (or hurting) more than others.
If you do have certain pages that are in high demand, you should be working on optimizing those pages. We have discussed several ideas for on-page optimization in past newsletters, discussing things like keyword research, improving internal linkings, etc. Here are some other good resources as well:
On-Page SEO: The Definitive Guide by Backlinko
On Page Factors by Moz
How to Optimize your Product Pages for SEO by Search Engine People
5) Have keyword rankings changed?
For most of the sites that we monitor that are seeing drops in traffic, not much has changed in their keyword rankings. If you are seeing a drastic drop in traffic, but not much change in keyword rankings, then most likely the issue is that people are just not searching for your topics because of the world’s change in behaviors with this virus.
If you use rank tracking software, this should be easy to investigate. Otherwise, you can learn a lot via Google Search Console.
- Go to the Performance Report
- Click Date → Compare and use a Custom date range. You will want to compare the time frame after your drop in traffic started to the same length of time before the drop.
- Look for changes in “average position”
If you are seeing significant drops in rankings, then it would be good to investigate why. If all of your rankings appear to have dropped significantly, it may be worth investigating whether you have technical issues with your site, or whether, as mentioned above, something other than COVID-19 is at play.
However, for most of our clients who are seeing declines, we are seeing that there is very little significant change in keyword rankings. This usually means that fewer people are searching for your pages. If this is the case, there may not be much that can be done to improve upon the traffic to these pages other than wait for the Coronavirus situation to settle down.
Here is a client that saw a significant decline in impressions and clicks across the board. However, they did not see a drop in keyword rankings. Please note that it is common for keywords to shift a few positions just naturally. If you’re seeing gains or decreases of 1-2 spots, this could just be normal fluctuations in search.
If you are noticing that there are significant sitewide drops in keyword rankings that coincide with your traffic drop, then the drops may not be due to Coronavirus.
6) Have conversions dropped?
If you are not tracking conversions in Google Analytics, you should! It is important to remember that for most businesses, the amount of traffic to a website is secondary in importance to the number of conversions. Of course, if you rely on ad impressions to make money, then you want as much traffic as you can get. But, for most businesses what really matters is whether they are still selling products, making affiliate sales, or generating leads.
We will not go into detail on conversion tracking in this article, but do recommend that you use this as a primary metric to investigate if you have this type of data available.
We would also recommend that if you do notice that certain pages are driving more conversions than others, that you work on optimizing those pages as mentioned above.
Where do we go from here?
There is so much fear and uncertainty in the world right now. In our part of the world, as we write this, we have only a few cases of COVID-19 diagnosed. There is one Coronavirus related death in our province. However, we know that even if we are fortunate enough to not have to deal with overrun hospitals and severe sickness, we cannot escape the financial fallout. The entire world has changed their buying habits. Many businesses will be closed for weeks or even months. It remains to be seen how long we will be in this crisis and what things will look like once we return to “normal”.
Hopefully we will return to being able to congregate in public, but will we ever shake hands with strangers again? Will airlines still be in business? Will conferences still happen? No one can predict the answers to these questions.
At MHC, we will continue to monitor the state of the web. If we do feel that Google has pushed out a significant update, we’ll update you in our newsletter.
We hope that this article has been helpful. If you need more help and are interested in having an MHC site auditor review your site to assess whether your traffic drop is due to Coronavirus or something else, please do reach out to us.
We would also love to hear your comments on this situation. How is COVID-19 impacting your business? Do you have any additional tips that could help other business owners or SEO’s?
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