In the second half of 2020, where should search marketers be focusing their strategy, resources and efforts? Rebecca Sentance rounds up seven factors that are set to influence search marketing over the remainder of the year.
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, search has provided a much-needed portal to all kinds of information, products and services.
As people’s needs and circumstances shifted dramatically due to the pandemic, they have been seeking out things they might never have searched for before – like home fitness equipment, hairdressing tools, or DIY materials – and are also looking for new ways to accomplish things like banking, shopping, or remote working. At the heart of it all has been search.
As a result of this, search data has served as a kind of barometer for the changes in people’s daily lives – from spikes in searches for virus symptoms and treatments to queries about online grocery shopping, hand gel, and things to do in lockdown. It is a goldmine of information for marketers who know how to tap into it.
With that said, like marketers across all disciplines, search marketers have been contending with slashed budgets and spending (particularly in the realm of paid search), a radically changing customer base with demands that barely resemble those of before the pandemic, and the need to completely reinvent how they market to consumers. Although search is a vital channel (particularly for businesses that are newly online and want to advertise their offerings), it hasn’t always been straightforward to take advantage of. Marketers have had to keep a sharp eye on search trends, get creative, and strategise on the fly.
As we move into the second half of 2020, lockdown measures are easing slightly, but the immediate future still seems uncertain. Where should search marketers be focusing their attention, and what should they be keeping an eye out for? Here are seven factors that look set to shape search marketing in H2 2020.
Jump to section:
- The need for research: new questions and problems
- Shifting seasonal trends
- Local SEO
- Shifting emphasis from paid to organic
- Optimising for Amazon
- Tools and automation
- Page Experience (and goodbye, AMP?)
1. The need for research: new questions and problems
As I alluded to in the introduction to this article, search data speaks volumes about the changing day-to-day needs of consumers and the impact that Covid-19 has had on their lives.
There’s no data available yet on whether the overall volume of web searches has increased due to the coronavirus crisis, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that more searches have been conducted as a whole in 2020 as people rely more heavily on the internet for information and access to businesses and services, and the coronavirus crisis gives rise to new questions and problems.
A Pi Datametrics report, ‘How search demand has changed in 2020’, published in June, tracked significant year-on-year rises in UK search demand across eight categories: health and household (295%), fitness equipment and classes (293%), home and garden (91%), things to do at home (73%), sportswear and loungewear (60%), food and drink (57%), electricals (51%) and e-learning (44%). A further two categories, online gambling and insurance, saw notable increases (34% and 10%, respectively).
Year on year change in search volume, tracked by Pi Datametrics, illustrates the extent to which search volume has grown across many categories. (Source: Pi Datametrics)
For some of the highest-growth categories, this represented an increase of anywhere between 10 million and 40 million additional UK searches over the January-April period – which is a lot of demand to capitalise on. And even though we’re less likely to see these huge volume increases in the second half of 2020, keeping a close eye on search trends will still reveal a lot about the high-growth search areas that you can capitalise on, and the unmet needs in your sector that you might be able to cater to.
A good search data or keyword research tool can provide this information, but a lot of it is also available for free through Google Trends (which gives insight into trending search topics in different parts of the world) and Rising Retail Categories (a new tool that Google released to help retailers during the coronavirus pandemic that gives week-by-week, month-by-month or year-by-year data on the fastest-growing retail categories and the top search queries within those areas). As an extra tip, you can cross-reference these with Answer the Public to get natural language search queries and long-tail keywords for each topic.
Nor is this technique limited to categories where search interest is growing. Even for a sector like travel where search volume may have dropped off significantly, keeping on top of the research consumers are carrying out can tell you about the small pockets of demand that are growing. In a recent article about how travel brands can inspire confidence in the sector through content strategy and SEO, Croud’s Laura Green pointed to two areas of rising search interest in the travel sector: searches for ‘where to go for winter sun’, which were increasing as would-be travellers researched the possibility of a winter break to replace summer plans that were stymied by the coronavirus crisis; and searches for ‘staycation’, which showed that consumers were looking for safe alternatives to a tourism-heavy trip abroad.
She also noted that searches for ‘travel quarantine’ had been picking up interest throughout May, showing that there was an appetite for understanding how feasible it might be to travel overseas – and providing an opportunity for travel brands to step in and provide that information.
Some of these areas of demand will showcase an intent to purchase, while others (like ‘travel quarantine’) provide an opportunity for informational content that will satisfy customers’ search queries and keep your brand top-of-mind – which could later lead to a sale or further business. Either way, keeping on top of what consumers are researching, the questions they are asking and the information they are seeking out will help you to market more effectively in the second half of 2020.
2. Shifting seasonal trends
Throughout the year, there would normally be certain seasonal trends that marketers could ‘budget’ for and plan their search marketing campaigns around: for example, the onset of warm weather and the summer holidays tends to lead to an uptick in interest in buying outdoor furniture, gardening tools and equipment, and summery gear as consumers prepare for the holidays.
This year, the coronavirus pandemic has roundly disrupted those trends. Some have disappeared altogether – the lack of summer travel has meant that swimwear brands, for one, have needed to resort to creative tactics to sell swimming costumes – while others have been shifted forwards. The lockdown (combined with bursts of warm weather) prompted many consumers to buy outdoor furniture months earlier than the otherwise would have done, bringing forward a seasonal peak that would normally have taken place in the late spring or early summer.
These seasonal shifts will have a knock-on effect on demand later in the year that search marketers will need to account for. Consumers may not be searching for outdoor furniture or gardening tools during the summer as they’ve already purchased these items, but there might instead be demand for purchases that they didn’t have the opportunity to make earlier in the year (such as with the aforementioned winter getaways).
To a certain extent, marketers always need to be prepared for unpredictability and shifts in trends – unseasonably warm weather early on in the year, for example, can prompt a run on items that retailers weren’t expecting to sell until much later in the year. But these kinds of trends can at least be reliably mapped to weather patterns and temperature rises; the coronavirus crisis has created trends that to a large extent operate independently of the patterns that marketers are used to planning their campaigns around. It doesn’t matter how good the weather is if consumers are unable to go out to parks and pubs or visit tourist attractions, and are unable to host gatherings; other dependable patterns, like the daily commute, have been disrupted by working from home.
Similarly, the relaxation of restrictions on movement and travel will likely result in a burst of pent-up demand that defies the usual seasonal trends, as people organise gatherings, sight-see and travel abroad at times when they would have normally been less willing to. Some seasonal trends may be amplified – come the winter holidays, people may throw more lavish gatherings if they are able to and spend more money on gifts, food and alcohol. They may have more disposable income due to having saved money on travel, commuting and going out earlier in the year. Then again, due to economic uncertainty and the loss of income, many people will not.
In some cases, the loss of seasonal demand will mean needing to create it in order to generate search interest and sales. In the example I previously mentioned of swimwear retailers getting creative to sell their product, Modern Retail has detailed how New York-based swimwear brand Andie Swim sold a record 30,000 swimsuits in May by advertising the use of bathing suits for activities like yoga. Believe it or not, Google Trends data for the search term “swimwear yoga” does show a modest spike in search interest for the term in May, with search demand projected to rise further through July based on partial data.
Google Trends data for the search term “swimwear yoga” between July 21 2019 and June 21 2020. Source: Google Trends
In other cases, determining how consumers will behave without seasonal trends to rely on will simply mean keeping a much closer eye on the search data available (see point 1) and paying attention to other signals such as website traffic, ad clicks, and social chatter that can indicate what people are thinking and planning.
3. Local SEO
Speaking of changing patterns, here’s one that potentially has wider long-term ramifications for search and marketing: working from home. As I alluded to in my last point, the shift to working from home has disrupted several of the patterns that marketers and advertisers used to be able to plan around: the daily commute through train and tube stations, the presence of office workers in cities, and other workday-related trends like lunch breaks spent in cafés and shops.
While some workplaces have reopened as virus-related restrictions have eased, many companies have found that remote and flexible working is more viable than they had previously considered, and have shifted either partly or fully to a permanent remote working model.
This has had a knock-on effect for local businesses in both cities and suburban areas. Businesses in cities that sprang up to serve an office-based workforce have seen footfall drop off dramatically, even as the lockdown has eased, while suburban businesses have seen an unexpected surge in customers as home-based workers shop locally, patronise nearby cafés on their lunch break and generally spend more money in their immediate vicinity than they otherwise would have done.
It’s worth bearing in mind what this will mean for local search. Assuming that non-essential businesses can safely remain open, it may be worth allocating more time and resources to local SEO to capitalise on any ‘near me’ searches that are taking place as remote workers look for places to shop and eat in their local area.
Even if you aren’t expecting a surge in footfall (or if business has dropped off), Google has introduced new features for businesses’ Google My Business profiles to help them drive revenue during Covid-19. One of these is Support Links, a feature that allows businesses to add donation and gift card links to their GMB profile along with a message appealing to customers to support their business. The only conditions are that a business needs to have verified its profile before 1st March 2020 and have a physical storefront.
Don’t forget that Google My Business Posts also exist as an option for publishing updates and other timely information.
The notion of optimising for local search all but went out the window for most businesses when the pandemic hit, but as many venues (from retailers to pubs, restaurants and leisure centres) start to open back up, now is the time to start thinking local again – taking into account the way that working habits have changed and what that might mean.
4. Shifting emphasis from paid to organic
In April, Google dropped a major announcement about the future of Google Shopping: from the 27th onwards, it would be free for merchants in the US to list their products on Shopping, with the change rolling out to the rest of the world by the end of the year.
This change, which had been in the works for some time but had been brought forward due to the Covid-19 pandemic to help retailers drive sales online, effectively transformed one of the biggest pay-to-play venues into an organic space.
And that wasn’t all: in late June Google announced that it was also bringing free retail listings to Google Search, again starting in the US. These listings will appear in a dedicated ‘product knowledge panel’ that resembles Google’s knowledge panel for informational searches, but with a carousel of product images at the top.
Product knowledge panels will appear on the Google SERP. Source: Google
While there will still be Google Shopping ads present in both Google Search and the Google Shopping tab, these changes represent a significant shift away from paid search towards organic listings. As the change rolls out beyond the US, search marketers will need to decide how they want to allocate their resources between organic and paid Shopping listings, and paid search teams may find themselves working more closely with SEOs to share knowledge and tactics.
For search marketers working with retail brands and clients, the change to Google Shopping could shape their strategy in the second half of 2020. It will give smaller businesses and those who don’t have the budget for paid search ads a chance to enter the playing field, and for businesses who had previously invested in Shopping ads, they will have the option to either shift that budget somewhere else, or keep spending for guaranteed visibility.
As John Earnshaw, Chief Product Officer at Pi Datametrics, pointed out in Econsultancy’s round-up of expert takes on the Google Shopping announcement, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how the new organic Google Shopping will work. “From an organic perspective, a big question is – under the paid-for layer – if these are truly organic results, how will they be ranked? That last bit for me is the most interesting question.”
A test and learn approach to Shopping, with expertise pooled between PPC and SEO specialists, will be key to developing a solid strategy for H2 2020.
5. Optimising for Amazon
As the coronavirus pandemic took hold and consumer behaviour shifted overwhelmingly towards online channels, particularly online shopping channels, one company was thoroughly in its element: Amazon.
While Amazon has come in for criticism of the way it treated its employees during the height of the pandemic, and for its treatment of third-party sellers after it announced that it would only dedicate warehouse space to essential items, the ecommerce titan has become more vital to consumers than ever, and is taking an increasingly large chunk of product search. Indeed, the move by Google to make Shopping listings free is clearly a response to this.
As consumers have developed new habits around browsing and purchasing online, many of those habits are being formed around Amazon. As Dan Barker points out in the ‘Competing with Amazon‘ section of his insightful article ‘7 factors that will shape ecommerce in the second half of 2020’ (which is essential reading in its entirety),
“Many more customers are buying online right now, and many of them have formed habits around Amazon. Speaking very generally: The less ‘savvy’ a customer, the less they’re likely to compare several sellers, and the more likely they’ll simply go ‘Amazon by default’. You only have to look at how many Amazon deliveries arrive on your street vs every other company to get an idea how much Covid-19 has impacted the largest online retailer in the country’s levels of demand.”
Dan outlines a number of tips for creating a competitive advantage in an Amazon-dominated world, including communicating your brand and becoming an authoritative content source, the bottom line for search marketers is that you can’t afford to underestimate Amazon’s role as a product search engine and source of search traffic. Optimising for Amazon, advertising with Amazon and managing your reputation on Amazon are all crucial considerations in 2020 for search marketers working in retail.
Ratings and Reviews Best Practice Guide: The Amazon Effect
Search marketers have an increasing number of tools at their disposal that provide new insights, analyse data, and streamline or automate many of the tasks that used to occupy their time, allowing them to dedicate more attention to innovation and strategy. From keyword research software to scripts and excel functions to SEO auditing tools, the range of tools available to search marketers keeps growing in breadth and sophistication.
While the tail end of a global crisis might seem like a less-than-ideal time to be investing in shiny new tools or automation solutions, there is a compelling argument to be made that now is the perfect time for search marketers to arm themselves with better software and tools. Lemuel Park, CTO at content performance marketing and SEO platform BrightEdge, which released a real-time automation tool called BrightEdge Autopilot last year, argues that automation allows marketers to do more with less and keep up with the increased demand for search insights and optimisation.
“The demand for SEO as a discipline is at all time high as marketers are asked to more with less. During these times of pandemic organizations are searching for the most affordable and cost-effective ways to understand shifts in consumer behaviour and demand volatility while optimizing content for all their digital channels.
“The insights that SEO provides with regard to consumer behaviour is essential in times of volatility and demand fluctuation – especially when looked at in real-time. Automation certainly helps marketers do more with less, especially when resources are low and rapid response is needed. The need for automation is definitely accelerating and it is becoming mission critical.”
Investing in better tools doesn’t even have to cost money. You don’t have to look far in the world of search marketing to find recommendations for free tools; some of them have paid upgrades or premium equivalents that might be more effective, but they’ll give you a sense of what the right tools can do. In this article, I’ve referenced two free sources of search data that Google makes available – Google Trends and Rising Retail Categories, which was released specifically to help marketers during the coronavirus crisis – and there are other longstanding Google tools like Data Studio, Tag Manager and Analytics that provide really useful insights and functionality.
Just two weeks ago, Google announced that its Rich Results Testing Tool, which tests and validates structured data and allows you to preview rich results, was now officially out of beta.
As I’ve mentioned, there’s a world of useful search marketing tools out there beyond Google’s, but they make a decent starting point – and whether you use free or paid tools, Google’s or another solution, it’s just good sense to be using technology to enhance your search marketing in 2020.
7. Page Experience (and goodbye, AMP?)
It is a truth universally acknowledged by SEOs that when Google announces a new ranking signal, it is an Extremely Big Deal. Not least in 2020 when the instances of named, identifiable ranking signals are relatively few and far between (since Google is constantly tweaking its algorithm, and as such can’t make an announcement about every update).
Google has promised that its new Page Experience ranking signal, first announced in May, will not roll out earlier than 2021 and that users will be given six months’ warning before the change is due to be implemented. But now that we know the new signal is on its way, it makes sense to lay the groundwork of preparing for it wherever possible.
Page Experience measures a combination of different signals to judge the user experience of a given webpage, including mobile friendliness, safe-browsing, the use of a secure HTTPS connection and the presence or absence of intrusive pop-ups. These are combined with a new set of metrics dubbed ‘core web vitals’ which relate to the speed, responsiveness and visual stability of a webpage.
For site owners and SEOs wanting to gauge how their websites measure up to the new ranking signal, Google has updated its Lighthouse and PageSpeed Insights tools to surface information and recommendations about Core Web Vitals, on top of the recommendations they were already surfacing about things like mobile friendliness and security. Google Search Console now also provides a dedicated report to help site owners identify areas for improvement. These should provide SEOs and developers with a good starting point for optimising for Page Experience in the second half of 2020.
Google’s Page Experience announcement also contained another nugget of information that has SEOs speculating about the future of AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages, Google’s mobile web-optimised framework that is designed to provide a lightning-fast, streamlined browsing experience). On mobile, Google highlights key news stories for a given search in a feature called ‘Top Stories’, which displays news stories from a select number of websites, primarily in a swipeable ‘card-style’ format.
New stories appearing in Google’s Top Stories feature – all displaying the signature AMP lightning symbol. (Source: Google Search)
Until now, Top Stories has “emphasized” (Google’s words) stories from websites built with AMP. Now, Google is saying that AMP “will no longer be necessary for stories to be featured on Top Stories on mobile; it will be open to any page” and that Page Experience will be a ranking factor, “in addition to the many factors assessed”.
This revelation has already led many search marketers to mentally consign AMP to the infamous (and continually-growing) list of discontinued and failed Google projects. AMP has been a contentious topic among SEOs for years, with many arguing that – despite being an open-source framework – it is yet another Google walled garden, and that contrary to its claims, it doesn’t actually improve the experience of browsing on mobile.
The fact that Google is using the announcement of Page Experience – which should have been a prime opportunity to push AMP – to instead announce a change that makes it far less relevant seems telling. We can expect to see plenty of debates about the future and continued viability of AMP over the coming months as well, alongside the conversations taking place about Page Experience.
Between the need to keep abreast of shifting search trends, the changes to consumer habits and behaviours that are mirrored by search, the increasing arsenal of tools at a search marketer’s disposal and upcoming changes to Google’s products and rankings, it’s an eventful time to be a search marketer. With so many elements of our lives changing and newly-online, search marketers are the ones tasked with keeping abreast of those changes and determining how to surface the right information, products and services in response.
While the immediate future is still highly unpredictable, these six factors form the basis of where I believe marketers should be focusing their efforts in order to take advantage of the opportunities, and ride out the challenges, of the next six months.
Want to look further into the future? Download Econsultancy’s report on The Future of Marketing, which combines insights from a survey of more than 800 marketers and expert interviews to highlight what marketers need to know as we move into the 2020s.