You don’t need us to tell you that things are a little bizarre at the moment. The world has seemingly pressed the pause button. The global Covid-19 outbreak is having devastating consequences. Hundreds of thousands of people have died worldwide, infections are in the millions and everyone is wondering when it will end.
Governments, organisations and businesses around the world are battling this novel coronavirus. Healthcare systems are the frontline, but the tech giants are also pooling resources to help combat the outbreak. As SEOs we are fighting to keep our client’s businesses running with some sense of normality. We’re also fighting to keep our own interests afloat as well. It leads us on to an interesting question: how can search data help to fight this pandemic?
We’ve split this article in half.
Most importantly, how can this data help slow the spread. How can data be used to help save lives?
Second, how can search data be used to help businesses adapt to suit a socially isolated society?

Saving Lives

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The main life savers are the healthcare workers around the world. We doff our caps to you. They deserve every piece of recognition they get, and more. Neither will search data be as important as the data collected by organisations such as the WHO. But if it helps even a little, why not explore the opportunities?


Whilst not strictly ‘data’ and by no means exclusive to Google, this was one of the first steps taken. If you hadn’t seen it, Google display Coronavirus information directly in the SERPs for related searches. This was in a bid to prevent the spread of misinformation, as an example, here in the UK there are links to NHS resources. In other countries and regions there are links to relevant organisations and information. It’s great to see the tech giants acknowledging the sway they have on the flow of information to the public.
Covid-19 info in search results

Measuring the effectiveness of government guidelines

Another one that you might not consider to be strictly search. Yet one could argue that the Google ecosystem has been driven by search. Google have been incorporating anonymous location based data into their ‘mobility reports‘. The aim behind these reports is to use data from those that have opted into location history to show changes in population movement. Google have created reports for 131 countries and their regions/cities/towns. They have then created ‘high-level categories’ including parks, transport stations and residential premises.
Google have been publishing these reports for around a month. They hope that the data can help public health officials to measure the effectiveness of public measures. At the time of writing in the UK, this means full lockdown. The data may well be useful as governments plan to ease lockdowns, likely in a phased approach.
As a side note, Sky News have been reporting on these mobility trends on an almost daily basis. One might assume that this data comes from Google but in the case of traffic, this has been provided by TomTom.

Flu Trends and Search Data

I was unaware of the Google Flu Trends project until I started researching for this article. At its core, the project looked to use big data and AI (*machine learning) to predict flu epidemics. It worked on the basis that people often use the search engine to answer health related queries. The project was very promising and claimed to be able to spot flu outbreaks up to 2 weeks before the CDC in the US. It did fail though, and at an important time. GFT failed in the 2013 outbreak and also subsequent outbreaks, resulting in the program being scrapped.
It doesn’t mean that search cannot be useful during either Covid-19 or future issues. In an interesting article for the New York Times, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz analyses searches related to a loss of smell. If you look at the Google Trends search data, it does seem to correlate with the outbreak. Whilst Seth looked at the U.S, the UK data correlates in the same fashion. London has seen the most pronounced spike and happens to be the worst struck area of the UK for Covid-19.
Google trend data for 'loss of smell'

So does using search data work? The evidence of GFT would argue not. On the surface it looks great, but as Seth comments, searches are also influenced by the media and awareness. As soon as people here about the correlation, their inquisitiveness takes over and they search, even if they have no symptoms. The waters get very muddied. The data nerds at the tech giants are no doubt looking at how to clean the data to help gain insights. We wish them all the best!

The New Normal

It’s my personal opinion that those who think the world will go back to normal in a month or so are wishful thinkers. Businesses may re-open and travel restrictions eased, but those that can work from home will continue to do so for a lot longer.
The health of the public is the primary concern, as it should be. Simultaneously, there is a significant amount of concern for the economy’s health. Some, including myself, include this as part of the ‘fight’. Countless individuals and businesses are experiencing financial struggles. If search can help to ease this pressure then that would be a good thing.

Pivoting SEO Strategies

Retail stores are shut. The manic crowds of Oxford Circus have vanished. It’s not exclusive to retail. Remote working has become the new norm. People are stuck at home, finding new hobbies and interacting with brands in a heightened digital state. This has an effect on how people search and their needs. As SEOs we need to adapt to this new normal.
There will be businesses that do very well during this period. Amazon’s share price has increased by 25% this year, not surprising. We have seen dramatic increases in sales for companies related home deliveries and sports equipment. That doesn’t mean that businesses can’t adapt. Opportunities are not exclusive to those ‘suited’ to our lockdown living.
SEOs and marketers should be revisiting their targeting strategies and using Google Trends. This data is critical in spotting opportunities within your industry or niche. It can help to educate you on what to expect moving forward, with the caveat that things take longer to return to a normal state. Who knows, this data may help you find longer term opportunities within your business model.


Cleaning the House

At some point, sooner or later, things will return to normal. For those who haven’t look at search as a channel, this is the time to start. Your communications strategy will be imperative in regaining customers in a non-lockdown world.
Many brands are using the time afforded by a slowing down of business to get do some spring cleaning. That can include starting projects that have been pushed back over the weeks, months or even years. For others, it may be a refresh of their communications and SEO strategies. Search data is important in understanding how to gain exposure and conversions. Use Keyword Planner, Google Trends or other platforms such as SEMrush to see how prospects search. This can then inform changes to your strategy to put your best foot forward post Covid-19.
Talking about how search can help businesses attract more customers may seem trivial in such circumstances. We would argue that it is imperative for businesses to survive, or thrive during and after Covid-19. It’s also very interesting to see how search may help inform public health officials. They are the ones tackling macro social, economic and political issues which have no precedent. They are going to want as much information as possible, as long as it is accurate.

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