In this post, I aim to provide suggestions, starting points as to the lasting impact Covid-19 might have on search, how we use Google and also the tech we use to make those searches.
I do, of course, appreciate that in the scheme of things it may seem that the impact Covid-19 has on search matters little. To counter this, I would argue it matters not because of search itself but because of how people use search and the impact this has on all businesses.
In my opinion, there are fundamental changes coming that will impact any business that chooses to ignore them. Putting a more positive spin on it, there are also great opportunities.
To give a brief overview of what follows, I will quickly talk through the four categories of change brought by Covid-19 and then look in detail at how search might change, what these changes mean and give thought to how to prepare for what’s coming. At the end, I offer up my credentials, why you should pay the slightest bit of notice to my predictions.
The Four Types of Change Brought by Covid-19
- Changes that will definitely stick
There are the changes that Covid-19 accelerated and there is now no going back. Shopping is likely to fall into this category. Shopping will never be the same again; whatever you buy in future it’s far more likely to be via online shopping, with browsing replaced by greater ability to return things you don’t want.
2. Changes that might stick
The second category will be those things that may return to pre Covid-19 methods, or there may be regional and national variations.
Visiting the doctor could be one of these – the process of speaking to your GP via video technology has seemed to work superbly and there must be a sense that this can now replace many face-to-face appointments. However, will this become the norm? It may be that, for now, some practices embrace the chance to change, others find it easier to return to how things were. That said, it’s probably safe to assume social distancing will be encouraged in any doctor’s waiting room for now on.
Education also falls into this camp – tertiary education is likely to become far more online, remote-learning based but that cannot happen at primary and secondary level unless we are to consign a generation of children to severe mental health problems.
3. Changes that will prove to have been short-term
The third category would be changes that came in for Covid-19 but won’t last and won’t accelerate long-term change. Sadly this will probably include a lot of things that would be really good to retain – like appreciating our key workers more, checking elderly neighbours are OK and generally being less insular.
I’m not convinced any changes relating to search fall into this category/
4. Changes that are coming, but are less obvious
The fourth category will be changes that haven’t happened yet, or are in their infancy, but they are coming because of Covid-19.
As we don’t know what they are, its perhaps pointless to speculate so I’ll move on, though I feel I should generate one example for sake of completion!
Maybe something like a general move out of cities and to cheaper, isolated parts of the country. If you can move out of London and buy a five-bedroom house on the seafront 200 miles away why not do so if you no longer have to commute in, it’s just remote meetings?
Why Any of This Matters To Search
The changes matter because they affect our behaviour and, in may cases, push us into carrying out ever more tasks online. If we are to perform tasks online we have to know how to do them, or find the right sites and resources. For that we need search.
If we want to buy a car online rather than by visiting a showroom, we have to search for car dealers via Google or other search engine, if we want to educate our 10-year-old online we may need to search for appropriate learning resources.
As change accelerates it may not even be a choice. The shoe shop won’t keep its expensive physical presence just because you like browsing for shoes in an actual store. If footfall drops beyond a certain point, the store will shut and the business, and then industry will become fully online. At that point, there is no choice; you want shoes – then you buy them online. Think of it like Blockbusters – if you want movie night and fancy something not in your collection then you browse online, there is no physical store from which you hire a movie for the night.
This pattern will be repeated across thousands of sectors and specific examples. If all medical check-ups are via Zoom then your preference for speaking to someone face-to-face becomes as irrelevant as it is now if you want to speak to a mobile phone customer service technician in person.
It matters because search will no longer be on the periphery. It won’t be a nice to have, or something that can be ignored, search will become fundamental to how everyone gets their information.
Putting my neck on the line, these are my predictions.
Post Covid-19 Search Predictions
- Search will become the main source of custom for many retailers.
In December 2019, 19.5% of all clothing and shoe purchase in the UK were via online shopping (statistic according to Statista.com) – this accounted for billions of pounds, but it is also a very clear minority. Most shopping for clothes, textiles and shoes was in store, in town centres and malls.
The overall figures for online purchasing as a percentage of total retail sales show that the pace of change, the move towards online buying had been surprisingly slow – right up until May of this year.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics, with the trend shown below, show a steady increase over the past five years from around 12% to closer to 19% – however it is worth noting that before Covid-19, the highest percentage figure seen was the 21.6% in November 2018, this almost 3% higher than February 2020.
The impact of Covid-19 is pretty clear.
Obviously, the relative increase in online purchasing can be explained by the lack of choice, it was shop online or not at all in many cases. However, I don’t think the line will do an about-turn and head back down to 20, 21%. It may fall back to 25%, but even that is a figure that would have otherwise taken to the mid-2020s to reach.
Buying online will become a habit and as people buy a couple more things online, the balance will shift and they’ll start buying almost everything online. If you’re not going to go to the shopping centre to buy shoes, then you also won’t wander past the clothes store and pop in, or the toy emporium, or the watch sellers.
The pace of change won’t be uniform, but there will quickly be retail sectors that pivot entirely online. We know that there is always a tipping point when the percentage of sales that occur through store visits drops to a certain level stores will shut their doors for the final time.
As that happens, people will have to match their browsing intent with a business that serves their need. That’s all search is and so search will become key to sending customers to (virtual) stores.
- Many Local companies will become that bit less local
Let’s use a small independent retailer as an example – a local fishmonger, the sort of store that still thrives in a busy town centre with high, regular footfall (or at least did pre Covid-19).
With online shopping that bit more ingrained into people’s routines, trips into town become less regular and so the fishmonger, perhaps not the sole purpose of visits in the past but a nice extra is no longer visited. ‘I can always add fish to the supermarket order’ ‘I’m not going into town just to buy fish…’
Trade solely via people walkingthe into store might be insufficient to stay viable, however this is also true for most of the fishmongers in the local towns. Slowly – maybe not all that slowly – they close as physical stores and yet the demand hasn’t entirely disappeared. People who enjoy eating fish still like eating fish.
Instead, customers increasingly take to online searches and local becomes that bit of a wider area – they need someone who will deliver, so probably a company within 20 miles, but it doesn’t have to be from their own town, within walking distance. The business they will end up choosing will be quite local, but also have a good reputation and be easy to discover online
We have seen this pattern already with takeaways. It used to be that you’d go to your nearest takeaway, or at least one in your town. Now, thanks to JustEat and similar online ordering platforms such as Deliveroo, any takeaway that is willing to deliver to your front door is an option. If a takeaway has a high average rating and is reasonably priced, you’ll pick that over the one down the road given that in either case, it’s a 50-minute wait until it arrives.
In 2018, 55% of meal deliveries were ordered online – 10 years earlier it hardly existed as an option.
The most successful takeaways now have a perfectly run system whereby they cover a radius that gives them a healthy potential customer base whilst remaining manageable for deliveries and they work hard for a reputation for quality that makes them the go-to choice.
For search, this will mean companies need to carefully consider which locations they should be targetting and perhaps casting their net wider than was previously the case. They need to think what area they can realistically cover and then become the leading choice within that area.
Long-tail keywords will be crucial – a topic I cover in-depth in a dedicated post.
One extra point here is a shout out to a fascinating development in my town, Urmston, where an app called Shocal has created a local all-in-one search and delivery service. Using a restaurant not set-up for delivery as an example, they can have a presence on Shocal, a customer orders as they would through JustEast and the delivery element is facilitated through the Schocal team and their drivers.
It is the JustEat model but for a wide range of businesses – flower shops, the local, independent bookstore, a pharmacy and many more.
- Reviews will become more important to ranking
We know that reviews and especially those on Google’s own platform already have an impact on search rankings.
For local businesses, all other things, being equal, the business that has superb reviews will rank higher for searches related to their services in that locality. Podium cover this in a superb post on their site.
The reviews of course also help to determine which businesses show up in the featured boxes, for instance, the results that show a small map listing and, as Podium suggests, businesses with lower than 4-star reviews may be automatically filtered out.
Until now, though, the reviews were just one factor going towards ranking and there will have been an acceptance that many superb businesses simply don’t get a whole lot of online reviews. People visit the store in person, they buy stuff, they leave, they don’t then go online to rate the experience.
As much of shopping pivots to online, leaving reviews will become far more commonplace; clued-up businesses will encourage customers to leave positive reviews.
We already see this in a cynical way with many Amazon purchases – how many times have you seen a little note in the packaging, or follow-up emails saying you get a free gift if you post a 5-star review and send them the link. For the retailer, the tiny cost of a free good – probably something they were struggling to shift anyway – is well worth it to get positive reviews and move up the results for related searches on Amazon.
With more shopping online, search engines will assume with justification that online reviews matter more – the model of the superb physical store that simply doesn’t garner online reviews will largely cease to exist.
Companies should be giving thought now to how they can encourage their most loyal customers to leave a fair review.
- Paid search will get a lot more expensive
Paid search works on a basic, but effective model whereby you bid to be shown. If you have a highly competitive term such as ‘Reliable Family Car’ there’s going to be competition from every car manufacturer and lots of local dealers too. Consequently, it will cost a significant amount in the world of Pay Per Click advertising to get shown in a prominent position.
For a more local term, it might currently be affordable for a local business to market in this way – taking my local town, you won’t have to break the bank to get shown for car dealer Urmston.
As more people choose to browse and purchase online, this will change. There will be more demand to appear prominently for any local term and so the price will go up.
The fishmonger we mentioned earlier, if they are becoming reliant on online custom then they’re going to need to appear for Fishmonger and all the local towns. The problem is, so will the other local fishmongers and this competition only serves to drive the prices upwards.
The search engines could also push up the rates – they will know that their importance as a mechanism in matching demand to supply has increased.
The likely rise in PPC costs only further convinces me that organic search is what any business should be concentrating on. There are no ongoing costs and there are longer-term benefits. PPC still has a place of course if it delivers custom at a rate you deem reasonable or serves to boost awareness of your business. However, as a general rule, organic > paid.
- A lot of people will overcomplicate pages and sites as they try to rank
I think a lot of people with an interest in search obsess too much about Google’s algorithm and then any change made to it.
They focus on beating the algorithm or at least having everything perfect and forget all that a search engine really wants to do.
All a search engine wants to do is match the user intent to a result that matches that intent. If their intent is to find a cake shop that delivers handmade birthday cakes, then the search engine needs to display the best local cakemakers.
With natural language processing now so advanced and the algorithm refined to promote quality content over gimmicks, the key for any page is to be well written, honest, focussed on the terms it aims to rank for (but without being spammy) and add in extra context = this in the form of reviews, delivery times and other useful information.
Using the cake shop example, if your site is clearly about being a baker or cake maker, you have lots of good reviews you can link to and you are based close to areas you say you can deliver to then half the battle is done. The job in writing content for search, whether that is hiring a professional or the business owner writing the page themselves, is simply to formulate this information in a sensible way.
My fear is that as businesses come to rely on Google sending eyeballs their way they will be exploited by people claiming search is more complicated than it actually is and encouraging them to pay for site redesigns and a level of content that is not required.
Instead, business owners should start planning now and thinking about the terms they would like to rank for – for instance the different services they offer and the localities they cover, this broken into numerous individual pages.
My guide to long tail keywords is this way.
- There will be a subtle move back to larger screens
The majority of internet usage in the UK is on smartphones as the graph below (source: statscounter Global Stats) indicates and the trend for the past decade has been from desktop to mobile (with tablet always a distant third).
The pattern is driven by lifestyle and also device sophistication – our smartphones are of course now computers that can stream video, take photos, enable us to engage with social media and do everything a laptop can do.
For search this has meant the phone is as good as any other device for seeking out answers to queries, especially with voice search removing the horrors of predictive text. The majority of my recent experience has been in sport, and the pattern there has been more notable than elsewhere – up to 80% of sport site usage and also searches for results, scores and fixtures is on mobiles.
We won’t see a sudden about-turn, but maybe there will be a slight shunt back the other way with desktop usage growing a little relatively.
In the post Covid-19 world, it seems certain that working from home will be more common; more of us will set up nice home offices with our desktop, Mac or laptop and maybe a couple of screens and, if we’re honest, we won’t always be using those screens for paid work sent from our employer.
We will search for things – things we need to buy, services we need to order and, if you’re like me, the random searches that are driven by your runaway brain (what was the best selling single of 1989, who played at least 10 league games for Arsenal in the 1990-91 season, which film sequels have higher IMDB ratings than the first film?).
Our usage of larger screens away from the office environment will increase and so this will filter through to search.
Whether this means much for those designing sites is debatable. Sites need to be designed with a mobile-first philosophy, ensuring the design works superbly on that platform as well as on larger screens. All too often, people focus on the larger screen, how beautiful it looks on a 4k monitor, with checking on a smartphone a bit of an afterthought.
Desktop usage might grow a little, bucking the trend of a decade, but mobile should still be first.
One tip would be to keep an eye out for future search result differences between desktop and mobile – i.e. types of results that show on different platforms (the importance of maps on smartphones, vs the greater space on desktop so extra room for question and answer featured boxes). These might create opportunities for those targetting increased traffic via search.
- New Personalised Search Features Will Emerge
Search is of course already highly personalised. You get results based on your location, on your past interactions with companies and also related to past searches.
If you search for items related to guitars and then search for strings, the search engine knows the context that this search is likely to mean guitar strings – Google will use your search history from the previous 180 days to inform new searches, although they also state that searches are only personalised in the minority of cases.
My theory, this one perhaps a bit more if a hunch, is that we will quickly see new personalised features trialled and also quietly dropped in many cases, often without us even noticing they even came briefly into being.
Searches from contacts and close friends such as social media friends could have additional importance – this could also apply to shopping platforms such as Amazon, who wouldn’t value reviews from known contacts over the star ratings of strangers? (especially when so many reviews are essentially bought).
It may also be that a search as simple as ‘things to do here’ when you visit a new town brings up more personalised results based on the activities you typically search for.
These changes aren’t specifically driven by Covid-19 but they will be accelerated simply through the greater usage of search and how it becomes integral to a greater number of people.
A key debate will, of course, relate to utility vs privacy – if I visit a new town with my family do I want the search engine to know I have two children and typically seek out quiet activities with an autism-friendly hour for our eldest son? Maybe.
I have spent considerable time focussing on how to optimise for search for large organisations and small businesses.
At the BBC, I spent three years as senior development journalist and then heading an analytics team; one huge challenge was to increase traffic from search as site loyalty increasingly becomes something we could not take for granted.
I have also worked with major sport bodies in a consultancy role to help them improve their performance via search – looking at how best they can use their editorial resource to increase site browsers and also tackle questions pertinent to their organisational aims (for instance how to attract younger users or how to increase site loyalty).
My work also includes SEO audits and writing copy for a huge range of businesses, everything from dental surgeries to car dealerships to water jet cutters to a company selling welcome mats.
Search and its importance in bringing people to their site is perhaps the sole unifying factor between them all.
Will we see accelerated changes to search? How do you think things will change and will this be for the better or worse? What new opportunities will emerge? Let me know in the comments!