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SEO, the saviour in times of crisis

by David Colgate

August 19, 2020

When the coronavirus outbreak forced countries around the world into lockdown, brands responded by reducing their ad spend in a bid to cut back on marketing expenses. According to the World Economic Forum, ad spend was down 9% on average across Europe by June while the UK and Germany pulled spending back by a larger 12% each.

Back in April, Marketing Week and Econsultancy conducted a survey of 447 brands in the UK and found that 29% of businesses planned to “stay the course” by maintaining their marketing budgets while 50% said they were making cuts in order to “fight another day”. Meanwhile, only 7% of businesses “seized the opportunity” to invest more in marketing during the outbreak.

As we’ve seen in the past, brands turn to SEO during times of crisis as a low-risk strategy that yields ongoing results.

Marketers trust SEO when times are hard

While a majority of media buyers were cutting their ad budgets, leading brands started to invest more in “cost-effective” marketing strategies, such as organic search, according to Gartner’s Lili Meng.

This theory is reinforced by data from search insights provider Conductor, which illustrates how marketers respond in times of crisis. According to its report, entitled New Trends Reveal the Impact of COVID-19 on Marketing, the most common response to crises - aside from lowering budgets - is to specifically invest more in “lower cost channels” like SEO.

At the same time, 63% of marketers expected SEO to become more important during the outbreak while 66% credited organic search as their best-performing strategy in 2019.

Writing for WordStream, Kristen McCormick explains that SEO has been more important than ever during the outbreak, allowing brands to connect with changing consumer trends with a low-investment strategy. Meanwhile, Jum Yu argues, in this article for Search Engine Watch, that brands need to use SEO during times of crisis to protect their online presence, pivot and prepare for post-crisis success.

When recovery occurs, the top-ranking brands will come out as winners.

As a low-cost strategy, SEO provides a key channel for brands that want to maintain an online presence while reducing their ad spend, which is a common tactic during financial crises. Unlike paid advertising, which stops dead as soon as you pause ad spend, organic search continues to build momentum, keep your business visible and bring customers to you during difficult times.

This applies to businesses of all sizes that can use SEO to help them through economic downturns. However, organic search has also provided a crucial online platform for businesses that were forced to close their doors during lockdown - a channel they will have struggled to survive without.

Small businesses find survival online

According to research from Hitachi Capital UK, 14% of small businesses either partially or fully converted to online enterprises in order to survive the coronavirus outbreak. As a result, the number of businesses offering full-online services has increased by 50% since lockdown was introduced in the UK.

This doesn’t include the portion of businesses that have transitioned to operating partially online since the outbreak began.

Smaller businesses making the online transition are naturally going to turn to SEO as their primary strategy. The outbreak has encouraged consumers to do more of their shopping online and people in the UK are also buying more from local businesses in their area - especially those that offer deliveries and other COVID-safe services.

New trends bring new opportunities

As devastating as the coronavirus outbreak has been, it’s also caused the biggest shift in consumer habits seen in the digital age. These shifts bring new opportunities and you only have to look at the search data to find them.

Google insights reveal interest in clothing, cosmetics and beauty declined significantly during lockdown while searches for “blinds, shades and shutters” were up by 109.95% over a 7-day period.

Makeup and beauty also dropped down the list of priorities while interest in exercise soared and searches for bicycles and home gym equipment also increased as a result. With people being forced to stay at home, we also saw an uptake in searches related to home improvement, DIY and home furnishings.

The outbreak has changed consumer behaviour and brands need to react accordingly.

The latest IMRG Capgemini Online Retail Index shows that online retail sales in the UK surged by 23.8% year-on-year in April - a 10 year high, according to the organisation’s data. The same study shows a 288% increase in online gardening sales, a 102% increase for consumer electronics and an 82% rise in online health and beauty sales.

In this sense, organic search has the potential to save thousands of businesses that can’t survive the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions and the lasting impact upon high street footfall.