Responding To Pandemic Search Ranking Changes

There is a massive shift happening in the way people search right now, and no one saw it coming. As the COVID-19 pandemic forced many inside, the amount of search traffic has exploded. With this in mind, how have your traffic and rankings been affected? If you’ve not read our detailed SEO Site Audit post for COVID-19, I suggest you do. It may provide some insight as to what’s going on with your website.

News-related queries and shopping terms are up across the board. What you may have had a strong ranking for in the past may no longer be the case. Top-ranking sites in March may have moved down from page 1, while CDC, local news, and featured snippets are taking over top spots in search. You see as searching has changed – Google is trying to stay relevant based on search intent. This is a strong expression of its AI-based search algorithm in action.

Google Disinformation Quality GuidelinesGoogle can and will make edits they deem necessary, even when you may have ranked on merit. In fact, during a time of crisis, Google has guidelines set to modify the ranking of authoritative sites based on signals from their algorithms and human review [How Google fights disinformation].

Searcher behavior is creating some challenges for Google and Bing. Trending queries give a strong signal, based on locations to what people are searching for or have interest in. So what about all the sites that used to be relevant for those searches before COVID-19? This is a crisis-driven behavior that is creating bias to top search results and it won’t be long term.

If you are taking SEO seriously, then the why and how a person conducts a search needs to be top of mind. Do they want to buy something, or are they looking for someone to answer a question? Google’s premise in life (and to appease stockholders) is to offer the most relevant result, and they’ve grown their toolset to become pretty good at it. So it’s very important to make sure that your content matches a searcher’s intent.

Technology and Tools to Understand


RankBrain is Google’s search AI. It’s a top signal (one of three) in Google’s search algorithm. They created it to handle the increased number of search queries ongoing. Right now, it has a lot to deal with and sort to display relevant search results to users. For example, think about oil prices and how a barrel of crude is a negative cost. There are many people searching about how to buy a barrel of oil or futures. Another example is the stimulus check. Users were searching for information on who will get it, when is it coming, and how. Those have been some trending searches that are now fading. Google’s RankBrain needs to determine intent and frequency, then cross-compare with authority, content, and links. This allows it to determine which sites to show you in what order.

In the past 30 days, the searches for restaurants have declined, while food and grocery delivery have surged.

Google Trends Grocery

As you can imagine a surge in mobile searches has increased as well. This all points to the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is modifying how people search and behave online. For SEO, the same foundation principals still apply today and now this is confirmation that “you need to keep growing with the changes.”

Google Trends

No one told us in SEO school; that we’d need to learn Pandemic Search Ranking skills. One tool I favor is Google Trends. If you’ve not been a user of Trends or Keyword Alerts, you should start now. Both Google products are free to use, and both provide great insight that helps when cross-referenced with your site traffic analytics and internal sales. You can see trending keywords or phrases broken down by region and time. Utilizing keyword tools can give traffic estimates or other suggestions to create logical data points on how you can be relevant and make your site show up for these terms.

Key Points To Focus On

Quality Content

Publish relevant content your audience wants to read about frequently. That helps to play to your authority and also helps Google to display relevant content to its users. Google still needs help with finding your content, so how well it’s written, how timely it is, and how it is spread will give them more signals to reference. Google provides us “webmasters” with guidelines on how they rate websites, so while it can be time-intensive once you get your playbook written it, it can be straightforward with the right plan.


If your topic and content are not relevant to your audience, then why would Google want to display you in its results? Think about how people will relate your products or services at different times and allow Trends and Alerts to guide you to relevancy. Right now, you cannot eat at a restaurant in my state, but I can likely get take-out, GrubHub delivery, or buy a gift card to support them. If a restaurant does not have this information that is easy to find or use, specifically optimized for mobile, then you’re making it tough for Google to understand that you’re an authority. Others will have this information and, based on Trends, Google will display them, not you. You are already forgotten as an end-user hit the back button 10 seconds ago.

ABC – Always Be Closing

Like the famous movie quote from Glengarry Glen Ross, you need to get into a mindset that marketing never stops. Another quote I like is “In every sale someone is being sold: either you sell them on why to do business with you, or they sell you on why they won’t.” In either case, you can’t put aside the efforts of marketing yourself if you’re aiming for success – even in a time of crisis.

Once you achieve certain rankings rest assured that competition will take note, and when search intent and trends change, you could lose your position and traffic. This pandemic has shown the marketing world and SEO’s that nothing is set in stone. Things evolve and if you don’t, your customers will.

It’s time to get a plan together during this downtime to prepare for the near future of how you market your business online.

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