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4 Major Trends Caused by COVID-19 and How to Respond [Data]  

May 1, 2020

Our lives have changed so quickly in the past few weeks as COVID-19 became a pandemic. As travel comes to a virtual halt, schools close, and governments react, most of us find ourselves stuck in our homes to avoid and halt the spread of the novel coronavirus. Many small businesses have reacted by reducing or suspending operations and are already feeling the toll on their bottom line.

As people’s behaviors change, their search behaviors change too. We’ve already seen how COVID-19 has impacted Google Ads Results for different industries—and the results are unprecedented. Some industries were well poised for the shifting market, but many are not.

But change doesn’t necessitate failure. As more data emerges and trends become apparent, there’s plenty of room for small businesses to adjust to the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and weather the storm.

At WordStream, we’re looking across tens of thousands of advertisers to understand the impact of COVID-19 on PPC advertising. In this article, we’ll examine several trends that have emerged over recent days and weeks as COVID-19 has spread—and offer viable, actionable strategies for how advertisers can adjust their campaigns to reduce the negative impact of the crisis.

Want more info? Watch Mark's webinar on-demand today!

The trend: COVID-19 plummets store visits by 90% in one month

It may be obvious to state, but as people practice social distancing and avoid unnecessary trips, and as many businesses are forced to close their physical stores or limit their in-store capacity, most brick-and-mortar stores are feeling the pain of limited foot traffic.

In Google Ads, many advertisers track store visit conversions to understand the offline impact of their online advertising. Many local advertisers optimize their PPC campaigns using these metrics and have noticed significant challenges in the past month as COVID-19 effectively eliminates unnecessary foot traffic.

decline in store visits graph

Advertisers began noticing a small drop off in store visits in late February. By the first week of March, store visits were down 24%. As the virus spread exponentially, store visits were down 46% at the beginning of the second week of March. Following the president’s address and the CDC’s global travel warnings, the remaining store visits were down 80% on Thursday, March 12. This past week saw virtually no unnecessary store visits, as store visits hit their current low, down 90% from a month ago.

How to respond: Get your small business online

As traditional brick and mortar businesses suddenly can’t rely on foot traffic to fill their store fronts, now small businesses must focus on their online presence. We haven’t seen Google search traffic diminish too much since the COVID-19 outbreak, so all small businesses should take this time to improve their online web presence fast.

Here are the five steps we recommend.

1. Design a simple website

Your company’s website is the cornerstone to your online presence. Your small business doesn’t need to have a complex website, and you can create a basic website in just an afternoon. Google even supports small businesses with a free website builder!

And as you refine your site’s landing pages, be sure you’re optimizing your landing pages for Google.

2. Get your business on Google My Business

As COVID-19 shuts down businesses, we expect more people to turn to Google to ensure businesses are even open during these uncertain times. By creating a Google My Business account, you can proudly display your business hours, address, posts, photos, and even reviews across Google search and Google Maps.

If you’re already running Google My Business for your business, be sure to update any of your business operations if they’re changed by COVID-19. That includes updating your business hours and phone number, and posting a notice about any changes your customers should know about your business’s operations with respect to COVID-19.

Navigate the changing online advertising landscape with this free small business guide to COVID-19.

3. Engage your customers on social

Your customers expect that your business might change during the pandemic and they’re looking for updates to confirm whether and when you’re open. Some will turn to Google or your website, but many others will try to find your most recent posts on Facebook or Twitter. If they can’t find you on social, they’re less likely to trust you’re still open. Be sure to create a free business page on Facebook and give your customers a periodic update so that they know your business is still open.

4. Get your products online with Google Merchant Center

Traditional retail is struggling with minimal store visits, but ecommerce is an attractive opportunity to keep your sales coming in, even if your customers are stuck inside. To start selling your products online, create a Google Merchant Center account and upload your first products online. You can even use an automated product feed to help keep your products, prices, and inventory updated on Google.

Once your first products are online, be sure to regularly optimize your Google shopping feed by following simple best practices for product titles, descriptions, images, and taxonomy to ensure that searchers can easily find your products online.

5. Promote your business online

You’d be surprised how many people can find your business online with just a few simple tools, but even the best search engine optimization can benefit from some additional traffic. Advertising across search and social is easy and these platforms can drive plenty of extra traffic, sales, and loyal customers for small budgets.

  • Google Ads: Reach customers as they search online for your keywords and pay only when interested customers click on your ads! Additionally, you can reach your ideal audiences across Google Maps, display ads, Gmail, and YouTube.
  • Microsoft Advertising: Expand your reach to the second largest search engine in the United States, with 36% of the desktop market share. Many advertisers see even cheaper clicks on Microsoft Advertising than on Google.
  • Facebook ads: With over 70% of the US online population on Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger, Facebook ads is the largest opportunity to get reach your audiences on social media. Facebook advertisers can wide, diverse audiences at low costs.

Advertising online might sound complicated at first, but learning PPC can be simple with the right partner. We recently introduced a series of free, on-demand PPC classes in our Growth Academy to help small businesses learn how to launch and optimize their first online campaigns. You might also check out this post on advertising strategies during COVID-19

The trend: COVID-19 dominates new searches

As both the virus and news spread exponentially, we’re learning about it in real time. It’s dominant in our minds and in our questions on Google search. Over the past few weeks, searches containing “coronavirus” and “COVID” have certainly taken off. These terms are often appended to everyday searches like “travel booking” or “tax preparation.”

Google search interest for the coronavirus in the United States:

new searches graph

But even outside of searches directly about the virus, the implications of our changing world are bringing people to Google with questions we don’t often see asked. Normally, many of these questions have simple answers, but uncertainty breeds confusion for even simple questions.

Google trends insights

From medical necessities, basic needs, and government advisories to Tom Hanks and the 2010 Disney movie Tangled, dormant or brand new searches are becoming incredibly popular. As a result, much of our online marketing is reaching a new audience—often for an unplanned reason. Even on our own website, we’re suddenly seeing extra traffic to this 2017 post for Facebook Live as a result of COVID-19 related searches.

traffic graph for the Facebook Live blog post

How to respond: Adjust your PPC campaigns for new search terms and volume

1. Review your search terms report regularly

No one’s favorite PPC task has become even more important as searches quickly explode related to COVID-19 and the disruption it’s causing in both our world and our ad campaigns. No one knows what will be trending tomorrow, so it’s important to understand what traffic your ads are getting and add new negative keywords quickly to prevent your campaigns from reaching irrelevant panicked searchers.

2. Find new negative keywords before they start trending

All your new keywords run the risk of attracting unsavory or irrelevant searches and wasting your campaign budget. Before tomorrow’s news story breaks and irrelevant search traffic flocks to your ads, find new negative keywords with a keyword tool.

3. Follow trending COVID-19 searches

Google Trends is always a great tool to understand how people are searching online. In response to the sudden surge in coronavirus-related searches, Google Trends recently released a new Google Trend Coronavirus Hub, dedicated to these specific COVID-19 search trends. Review the hub regularly to see how people’s priorities and search interests are reacting to the changing news.

Google trending searches

The trend: Mobile search traffic cut by nearly 25% in March

With many staying indoors, not commuting and not traveling, we’ve already noticed that we’re appreciably less mobile than we were just a few weeks ago. My Fitbit confirms that fact too, honestly. These sedentary behaviors make us much less mobile on search as well, and our paid search campaigns show a large decline in mobile search traffic.

Google search traffic decline

While Google search ad traffic is falling across all devices, it was felt much more on mobile and tablet devices than it was on desktop. Since Monday, March 16, mobile traffic has consistently been down an average of 24% from the last week of February. Tablet traffic is similarly suffering from a 19% drop in the same time period. Desktop traffic is steadier, showing an 18% decline during the week and only a 7% decline on the weekends.

With mobile traffic sharply declining in the US, this begins to erode a core tenant of Google’s own “mobile-first” philosophy. Traffic on mobile is generally cheaper for PPC advertisers, so this shift has meaningful implications for PPC strategy in the coming weeks.

How to respond: Adjust your PPC campaigns for less mobile traffic

1. Revisit your device bid adjustments

You may have set a mobile bid adjustment in the past using relevant data at the time, but given the quick shifts in the search landscape, it may be worth revisiting your current device bid adjustments. As more searchers shift back to desktops while spending time inside, expect to see big shifts to their performance across device.

2. Consider smart bidding

It’s clear that we’re in for some surprising paradigm shifts, and it’s going to be difficult to know how search behavior will shift on a dime. Google’s smart bidding strategies may help advertisers by digesting changing data and adjusting their CPC bids in real time to match their goals. When choosing a smart bidding strategy, be sure to consider your goals and campaign budget, as well!

Google's smart bidding strategies

The trend: Cross-network opportunities grow as Google search traffic falls

While people may be spending less time out in brick and mortars and less time on Google search, our internet use is up nearly 50% since COVID-19 became a pandemic. The good news is that you can still reach your prospective customers online—they’re just looking in different places.

changes in ad traffic graph

Since the beginning of March, Google search and Google Shopping may have taken considerable dives, but there’s still plenty of opportunity out there. Bing Search and Google search partners have remained relatively safe and steady places to find your customers and usually have cheaper CPCs than Google search.

On the other hand, finding your customers off the SERP is becoming increasingly easier! This past week, traffic from the Google Display Network grew 13% since the beginning of the month. And YouTube views are soaring—up 21%!

How to respond: Reach your audience on other networks

1. Now more than ever it’s crucial to advertise across networks

We’re all in for a rollercoaster of a ride on the Google SERP over the next few months as behaviors change. With Google search currently beginning to fall, you’ll have to find other networks to help make up some of that loss. Advertising across multiple networks will help mitigate the volatility of just relying on Google search alone. Additionally, we see that by advertising across networks other than Google search, you’ll find new audiences and even increase the number of people who later search for you on Google.

graph for cross-network lift

2. Include Google search partners in your campaigns

Google search partners include many smaller search engines that are powered by Google, like ask.com and countless smaller local search engines. While many may prefer the Google brand of search, the truth is that not every search occurs on Google.com. These partner search engines make up about 10% of Google’s search reach, so consider including them to your campaigns to make up some of the lost search traffic you’re experiencing due to COVID-19.

To include search partners in your campaigns, simply check the “Include Google search partners” box within the networks tab of your campaign settings. To view your ads performance on these search partners, you can segment your data by “Network (with search partners.)”

Google Ads networks

3. Dive into display and YouTube

With so much of your audience spending more time online, now it’s easier than ever to find them while they browse the web, scroll their social feeds, and watch videos online. Consider starting off by remarketing to your past customers and website visitors to bring them back to your site and keep your brand in their mind. When they return to your site, they’re often much more likely to ultimately convert on their return visits!

highly engaged users graph

It’s unfortunately clear that the coronavirus is going to change our daily lives for the next few months at least. Stay safe and healthy, and practice social distancing. While you’re stuck inside, keep an eye on your PPC accounts and the WordStream blog. We’ll be posting regularly with new data and strategies to best adjust your campaigns in these rapidly changing times.

Still have questions? Check out Mark's webinar on-demand today!

Data sources

This report is based on a sample of 15,759 US-based WordStream client accounts in all verticals who were advertising on Google search, display, and YouTube throughout March 2020.

More resources for SMBs and online advertising during COVID-19

Mark Irvine

Mark Irvine

Mark is in charge of strategic partnerships at WordStream. He was named the #1 Most Influential PPC Expert of 2019 by PPC Hero.

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