How the Coronavirus has Impacted SEO
Reading Time: 16 minutes
The world seems like an alternative reality at the moment as countries go into lockdown or recommend self-isolation to slow down the spread of coronavirus and safeguard the health industry. In these unknown times, we want to first start off by saying that we hope that everyone stays safe and well and doesn’t get too bored being stuck indoors. Hopefully, we can help you stave off some of this boredom by bringing you up to date with all the latest SEO news, and trust us when we say there is a lot to get through!
This current pandemic the world is facing does make talking about SEO a bit more difficult. After all, everyone is so worried about their loved ones and wondering when we will get back to normality that something like this might seem not important. However, the coronavirus has had an enormous impact on the digital and search marketing industry and is vital to know. COVID-19 has resulted in changes being made to the SERP, Google My Business listings, Google ads, and more.
If that wasn’t all, SEO experts have also got to contend with the serious changes that Google has implemented recently, completely non-coronavirus related, but that is changing the SEO game. This includes the migration of right-side feature snippets and the stricter FAQ markup guidelines that have been released.
The fun never ends in digital marketing! Let’s jump straight in and see just what the latest changes to SEO are in April 2020.
SEO Changes due to COVID-19
First of all, let’s take a look at just what the effect of COVID-19 has had on SEO. The pandemic has bought up several different problems for Google. Consequently, this has led to one thing in an effort to deal with these issues: change, and a fair bit of it! The areas in question which have had the most change includes:
- The SERP
- Google My Business
- Google Ads
We will look at each of these areas that are facing the change so that you are fully up to date, starting with the SERP updates.
COVID-19 SERP Updates: What changes have been made?
We are going to kickstart the SERP updates with the most important changes that have been made amid the coronavirus panic. Due to so many people being affected by this virus, Google has made it easier for users to access the information regarding it. Also, these updates mean that the sites will be able to deal with the crisis, too, as people head to their sites in flocks.
SERP features make information about COVID-19 more accessible
This current situation is unlike anything we have had to deal with. In times, such as this, people turn to experts, the news, and articles that can help them understand what this virus is, what they can do, and the latest updates on the situation. With the number of people wanting to know this information, Google has implemented a number of new features that will make it easier to obtain all the crucial details that people want and need to know about the virus.
The implementation of these different features has happened over a period of time, and as such, has evolved with the times. When the virus first started to spread, Google was showing information within the SOS panel, including the government’s warnings as well as a general summary of the virus.
However, as the virus began to progress and become worse, Google took the changes one step further and launched a COVID-19 website that provided users with the information they needed on the virus. The website offered:
- Information on the spread of the virus in every nation
- Recent alerts to keep people up to date
- People the chance to donate to relief efforts in battling the virus
However, Google wasn’t happy with users having to access this website via a specific URL in order to get a deep look at the virus. Not many people (besides those in the SEO world) would even know this URL, and the chances of them actually using this were slim. So by the end of March, Google had transplanted the COVID-19 site they had created to the SERP itself. Instead of the information being placed on a website, when people searched for a coronavirus related term, such as “coronavirus tips,” the information would be displayed right in front of them.
This makes finding information on COVID-19 incredibly easy for users everywhere, so hats off to Google for achieving that! People could read up the symptoms of the coronavirus and the latest stats on cases around the world in the sidebar, which would follow you down the page as you scroll down. When clicking on a tab within the sidebar, it will reload that specific related SERP while keeping both the sidebar and the information to the right-hand side of the page clearly visible.
Having briefly mentioned the information that is included in the sidebar previously, it is important to note just how much detail Google has included in regards to the stats, which can be found at the very top above the basic virus information. It informs the user of when it was last updated and can be viewed as a chart or a visual diagram. Simply by clicking on the data panel, you will discover the specific page that offers a deep look into the virus, such as how it has spread from country to country. People want to know as much as they can about COVID-19, including details such as this, and discovering the accurate information in such a streamlined way is only benefitting Google users.
New methods to help manage organic listings during COVID-19
Amid all this crisis, many are worried about their websites and their organic listings. Given everything else that is going on, it can be difficult to go about alerting your customers of any changes that have been made. Fortunately, one change that can aid you in the regard comes from the newly released structured data markup from Schema.org, which Google supports. This updated data markup will include formats that indicate if a website represents a coronavirus testing facility, whether it is an established or temporary facility to cope with the pandemic. In addition, in response to global change that has seen people transitioning to working online, the updated data markup is helping businesses inform users if an event is cancelled, postponed, or rescheduled to be carried out online in due course. If this wasn’t all, the markup also allows sites to produce a label that presents a special announcement to their users.
This data markup was fast-tracked due to the coronavirus impact, and many businesses are thankful.
Advice from Google: How to operate your site during COVID-19
The world is currently facing a new type of normal. This “new normal” has resulted in change in numerous ways. One thing that has taken many by surprise is the attitude Google has taken during these times. Google is known for not divulging very much when it concerns telling people how to manage their site. However, unprecedented times have altered this. As a result of the panic and worry that the virus is causing, Google has released a set of recommendations that advise sites on how to structure their business and/or site during this time should they need to suspend operations temporarily.
One stand out recommendation Google made, and it was apparently clear in this guide, was that you should not disable your site. Doing so, in Google’s words, would be classed as “extreme measures.” Disabling your site, and then trying to start back up again after this pandemic is not going to be easy, it is important to say. Not only would it be difficult for customers to find you when you start up, but you may lose customers along the way too if they head to your site expecting to find you and can’t. When you start up, who’s to say that they haven’t found someone else to go to? Plus, anything you or your clients achieved in SEO tactics would be in vain. So, please do remember that this should be your last resort. However, Google has provided the steps to take if you do need to do so.
Amongst the recommendations that Google has provided on what you can do, you can find the following information about what you should do during COVID-19:
- Disable the cart functionality – this doesn’t change your site’s visibility
- Tell your customers what is going on – using pop-ups and banners – about changes made to your business, such as delays and delivery options
- Update your structured data to be appropriate for your current product availability
- Check your merchant center feed
- Tell Google about your updates
They have also provided guides and advice for:
- Small businesses
- Medical clinics – even offering specific advice to health sites about what type of language to use that will be able to be understood best by the readers and handy title tips on how to reflect the page’s content.
Google is truly the gift that keeps on giving recently!
Google will continue to show new content that is behind paywalls
Despite the frustration that many face daily when clicking on an article to read only to find that you need to pay to read it, Google will not be limiting the paywalled news content and would not give users a way to hide these results. The decision behind this came about after pressure was put on Google surrounding the coronavirus. They wanted to provide the best information for their users. Sometimes this meant that paywalled content would be there. However, there have been many paywalls that have been dropped amid the virus concerns.
While this is understandable during this time that Google only wants to show the best information, once all the coronavirus is no more, will it still be a practical approach? Is Google really making it easy for users to find content? Some might be willing to pay to access, but not everyone will, so this is worth watching out for as the year progresses.
COVID-19 Google My Business Updates: What changes have been made?
Businesses of all sizes around the world are facing difficult times ahead as the economic future is uncertain, but local businesses especially are feeling the effect of the coronavirus, with many being forced to close. The changes are a lot to come to terms with. Unfortunately, the changes don’t just stop there. As a result of the huge adjustments, how they operate on Google My Business (as well as the SERP) has changed too.
Google has advised all businesses to update their operating hours. Many supermarkets in the UK have shortened their opening hours to cope with the panic buying that continues to take place. So businesses that are still able to be open during this time need to inform their customers of their latest opening hours, whether this is longer or shorter than before. Google is urging businesses to look at their description and ensure that it is relevant to the current times.
Changed status updates from Google
Google is dishing out the updates across the SERP itself but also Google My Business and local listings. They have provided status updates for businesses to make use of during the COVID-19 crisis. This includes:
- Temporarily closed status
Many countries around the world have implemented a lockdown in an attempt to slow down the virus. The UK has been one such country that has done this. Therefore, all businesses classed as non-essential has been forced to shut down, some temporarily, and unfortunately, many possibly permanently. While some of these businesses may be able to transfer to online-only during this period of time, others may not and may have to temporarily stop business until the pandemic is over. Google has since created a “temporarily closed” status for Google My Business to place on your listing.
- Takeaway status
Among those non-essential businesses that have had to shut in the UK is that of restaurants. One thing the government hasn’t banned, however, is takeaways. Therefore, in an effort to continue their business, many small restaurants are opting to offer a takeaway service that can be delivered to residents in the local area. As long as they are following the strict guidelines: not paying by cash and only taking the food (left on the doorstep) once the delivery driver has walked away, restaurants can find success with this. Fortunately, people can alert their customers of this change, thanks to Google. They are allowing businesses to temporarily add a “delivery available” status on their listing name. It is not yet known whether this will be a permanent change or not.
Interesting fact alert: Google is showing, in the Discover More Places carousel, both takeaway and delivery cards as the first two options, as people are restricted on where they go nowadays. In addition, they are showing new attributes in the Local Panel that indicates whether eateries have dine-in, takeout, or delivery options available by using a clear red cross or a green tick next to it.
Google My Business elements that are not functioning
There have been several elements on Google My Business that are not functioning, something which Google has recognised and put down to the pandemic. The current issues the listing is facing includes:
- Google Reviews. At this present time, you are unable to leave a review. Nor are you able to reply to an existing review on there. It will result in a pop up that never appears.
- The ability to create a new short name is not available. Any new businesses to GMB will be unable to create the short unique URL that will aid them in connecting with their customers.
- The Q&A element being inaccessible. Currently, you will not be able to answer any questions left by customers. Fortunately, you won’t have to worry that the answer will be incorrect, as nobody will be able to.
Not all these issues have been reported by Google, but they have said the support for GMB is much slower at this present time, which is understandable.
COVID-19 Google Ads Policy: What changes have been made?
Google Ads put a stop to any ads offering face masks as of March 11th, so you will not find any advertisements of face masks anywhere on the SERP. The reason behind this was to stop misleading content, as called so by Google, appearing. Google did not want anyone presenting these face masks as a way of preventing them from catching COVID-19, when, in fact, they would not have a medical benefit to the user wearing them.
Google’s actions were as a result of how people took advantage of the situation. Furthering this, Google proceeded to update their ad policy. This is where the change came!
They wanted to prevent ads that would capitalise from a tragic event, or in this case, a national crisis regarding public health and the emergency surrounding it. For those businesses that looked to take advantage, with a lack of reasonable sensitivity, and raking up prices on vital supplies, Google put a stop to their advertising ploys.
Updates as of April 2020
So far, there has been a lot of changes that have occurred due to COVID-19, but this is only the beginning. There is more to come! The following changes are not related to the coronavirus but are hugely important to everyone interested in SEO. So let’s take a look at them.
The SERP: What changes have been made?
There have been several changes that have occurred. Despite Google making many additional changes due to the coronavirus, they have still been able to provide us with updates, which is exciting news to everyone in SEO. As well as this, they have also carried out tests to the SERP and all their many features.
Google has moved the right side featured snippets
At the beginning of the year, we learnt that Google had duplicated the Featured Snippet URLs, just another one of the issues found with the right side Featured Snippets – otherwise known as the Explore Panel. The right side Featured Snippets appeared, naturally, on the right-hand side of the organic results, so when the URLs that were representing these snippets were duplicated, it became a huge problem. Click through rates dropped massively for sites, and they were feeling the effect of it, and all because there was no representation of them in the main results. They could only ever be found in the Explore Panel. Not ideal for businesses that rely on CTR.
Fortunately, Google fixed the issue and reinserted the duplicated URL, and reported that they did have a plan for future updates regarding the right side Featured Snippets. The plan in question: Moving the snippets into the main results.
By moving the snippets back into the main results, sites no longer have to worry about their position being dropped. Previously, many in the top 1-3 spots in the main results, found themselves as far as position 11. For those that were much further down than these top three, it was clear to see why they panicked.
Some people speculated that this news was the beginning of the end for Featured Snippets. By mid-march, this appeared to be the case. They are no more. Instead, the same information that was found in the Featured Snippets can be found at the top of the main results column.
Nofollow is now officially a hint!
While this change doesn’t change anything practically for SERP experts, it is still fairly exciting, not to mention important, to know. Google announced that as of March 1st, they would be treating the Nofollow link differently. It would no longer be viewed as a directive, but instead, they would be treating the link attribute as a hint. Why? The simple answer is for crawling and indexing purposes.
Google previously ignored Nofollow links, which meant that they were also removing any SEO benefits these links would have received. This was all in an effort to stop web spam as many website owners were benefitting from selling their links previously. However, this has all changed now. Google is now viewing these as hints, and so will detect links with the Nofollow attribute to decided whether it should be included (or excluded) as a signal. In simple terms, if you have a Nofollow link, it will flag to Google as something they should consider.
This is great news for brands looking to build their backlinks. For those looking to stay protected from low-quality links and being penalised, they are still able to, but they also can be considered by Google now. Google says this change is to try and benefit all those on the web.
Google releases stricter FAQ guidelines
As of March 2nd, Google announced something that was music to every SEO expert’s ears, and the start of what might be the end of Spam, hopefully. You could no longer apply the markup for the same FAQ again and again. You would only be able to mark it up once. This came as a result of people abusing the FAQ markup and repeating the same question and answer in multiple FAQ pages. Now, anyone who does this will be in violation of Google’s guidelines.
How does this affect you?
You need to make sure that you remove any instances that you might have the same question and answer across your FAQ pages on your site. Without doing so, you could find that Google will not show your FAQ rich results in their SERP.
Mobile SERP: What changes have been made?
It’s not just the desktop SERP that has seen changes over the last month. The mobile SERP has also had updates and is planning more. While one may be a huge change and the other rather small, it is an exciting couple of changes that look to the future of mobile search.
- Key Moments
Google, for a few months already, has provided mobile users with a breakdown of what is in the video content. In other words, they have been breaking the videos into key moments, also known as “in this video.” However, these moments were only shown for one video on the mobile SERP at any one time. This is no longer the case. Google has announced that they are now showing key moments for multiple videos on the same SERP. Users are able to expand or hide this feature. The exciting update makes it easier for users to find the exact bit of the content they are looking for directly from the search results page.
How does this impact you?
While you might be disheartened at the thought of people skipping your video, if users find your content useful on the key moments, then this makes them more likely to click through to your site. Now with this latest update, even if you don’t own that top spot, you still have a chance to attract viewers and CTRs. With video being one of the most popular forms of content, it is likely that this will continue to be a huge focus for Google in improving engagement between business and customer.
The updates for video don’t stop there, however! In the Featured Snippet on desktop, there has been evidence that a YouTube video was found with timestamps of different “key sections” of the video. This could suggest that the feature on mobile could be coming to the desktop, but Google has yet to announce this as far as we are aware.
- Google plans the shift to mobile
Expected to be completed by September 2020, Google has announced that they are planning on moving every single site to its mobile-first index. However, this announcement did come before the coronavirus reached the depth it did globally, so whether this will happen in September is anyone’s guess.
So, how will this affect you?
Google has already moved almost 70% of its websites. Therefore, you may find that you don’t need to do anything at all. However, the remaining 30% have yet to be moved because they are different, whether this is due to content, structured data, images, or their links. So before they move all sites to mobile, Google will be notifying webmasters of any issues they need to address before September.
When switching a domain to mobile-first indexing, the site will see an increase in Googlebot’s crawling, simply because they will be updating your site to the mobile version. It can take some time to do. In order to make the process as easy as possible, Google is recommending that site owners take a look at their guides on what websites need to work well for mobile.
Google My Business Updates: What changes have been made?
In addition to the changes mentioned previously, many changes have taken place on GMB that are completely unrelated to COVID-19. These changes would have happened regardless of how the year played out. Let’s take a look at what else has changed for Google My Business.
- Reviewing content
Before it is published, an image or video that is uploaded to Google My Business will now be reviewed by Google themselves. Whether this is done via a machine or by humans is yet to be said. However, one thing that could occur from this is experiencing a delay in the posting of photos. This is something that many are already not happy about, so it could be that this is further reviewed in the future to make the process quicker, but this is just our guess.
- Separate listings for car dealerships
This new update is great news for car dealerships. Google has announced that a car dealership that has multiple brands can have separate listings for each of the brands they sell. Instead of just having one listing that shows all their brands in one, they can have one for their Ford, Honda, Toyota, Volkswagon, whatever brand they have, they have a separate one that represents their dealership.
- Mentioning specific terms in reviews
After Google tested the reviews, it will now be possible to see how many people have mentioned a specific word or phrase in reviews. In each review, it will bold a word and inform you of how many people also mentioned the same word. However, this doesn’t have to be exact. It can be as close to or similar, such as “child” and “kids.” A pretty cool feature if you ask us!
Update to the Health Knowledge Panel: What changes have been made?
One of the most recent updates is probably one of the most helpful for many people right now. Google has updated the Health Knowledge Panel to include a specialist tab in order to benefit patients in need of help and advice regarding particular medical conditions. Google puts a focus on it is to ensure people have access to the best information. Preceding this latest update, users could click on treatments and symptoms and explore the information about the different health problems they may be suffering from. Now, with this update, they can also find the right doctors they need who have specialist knowledge in that particular ailment. Clicking on this will take you a new SERP that will show these doctors and specialists.
These updates can be found both on mobile and desktop, and vary slightly in design.
Google Ads: What changes have been made?
There have been two additional changes made to Google Ads. One of which benefits one industry, while the other, unfortunately, will not.
- Accident Lawyers
Google has guaranteed accident lawyers’ Local service ads. Normally these ads are used by plumbers and electricians, but now it will also feature accident lawyers.
- Government docs and services
For government docs and services, however, the story is a little different. From May 26th of this year, Google will not allow any ads that help expedite government documents and services to appear on the SERP. Documentation that can be obtained online, such as a passport, will no longer qualify for Google ads, for example.
A lot has changed in a very short space of time in updates to the SERPs, GMB, and more, all of which will impact SEO in some way over the new few weeks and months. The number of changes that have occurred may seem like a lot. But remember: this is mainly down to the coronavirus.
However, while these changes have been made out of negative circumstances, there are some positives, overall. Google gave us helpful tips on how to optimise our sites better, they have provided us with temporary status’ to inform our customers of changes, and they updated their ads policy to ensure people don’t take advantage of the pandemic financially. More than that, they have shown us the potential future in the form of COVID-19 SERP, which is exciting for any person interesting in SEO.
There are a lot of takeaways from this April update, but we hope that you can come away feeling like you are up to date and that we helped keep the boredom at bay for just a little bit while learning something new. Remember, stay home, stay safe, and if you get bored, you could always read this guide again. After all, it is jam-packed with interesting updates, news, and information that any SEO expert will love!
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