Summing up 2020: how the shift toward local and online shopping transformed SEO

This year, we witnessed a dramatic shift in the lives of people all across the world. 2020 has changed the way we perceive time and space, interact with people and brands, and look at things we once took for granted. It has taught us patience and flexibility: in order to survive, businesses had to quickly embrace the new reality and adapt to changes in consumer behavior. 

To understand exactly how all of the changes we faced impacted SEO, SE Ranking reached out to 10 experts and asked them to answer 5 questions about 2020’s SEO trends. 

  1. Is SEO more popular now that most businesses have gone digital? 
  2. How to conquer the local SERP to cater to people looking for goods and services nearby?
  3. Will the tendency to shop locally prevail in the post-COVID world?
  4. Which SERP features besides the Local Pack can Google introduce to fulfill current user needs?
  5. What can businesses do to better manage their online reputation?

Below, you can quickly get to know our experts and see what they have to say on the topic. If you are interested in finding out what a specific expert has to say, click on their profile picture, and read only the answers provided by the selected expert. Use the right-hand navigation bar to switch between experts and hit the View all answers button to see every expert’s answer to every single question. You’re also at liberty to use the table of contents to navigate to a particular question. 

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Meet the experts

Mindy Weinstein
Alan Rabinowitz
Jason Barnard
Remon Hendriksen
Marina Apukhtina
Ihor Kolesnikov
Owain Lloyd-Williams
Craig Campbell
Ric Rodriguez
Bartjan Pieter Sonneveld
01
In 2020, many brands, including small businesses, have established their online presence to adapt to the lockdown reality. With this regard, is there a notable shift to more businesses being willing to invest in SEO?‍

Many businesses do lean towards SEO

Mindy Weinstein

I have witnessed a lot more interest in SEO among small and mid-size businesses, especially B2C organizations. Many retailers are looking to improve (or develop) their e-commerce presence. Service-oriented businesses have also been creative in transitioning online, which has further increased the need for SEO.

Alan Rabinowitz

From my perspective, there does not seem to be a smaller number of SEO requests. What I do see is a slower timeframe for some businesses to jump in, but the SEO industry remains strong, maybe even stronger now than before the pandemic and every business needs an audience and many businesses have created new products and services and need to market them.

Jason Barnard

The initial reaction was generally fear about the future that put a brake on investment in anything (on or offline). As that initial knee-jerk reaction has subsided, there has been a gradual rise in awareness that the world has fundamentally changed and that there has been a big swing towards online for commerce (local or not).

As a local business, it has always been important to ensure that information about everything from opening hours to availability is up-to-date online (Bing, Google, Facebook...). But in a lockdown situation and almost certainly a post-COVID-19 world, that becomes the "survive-or-thrive decider". Local businesses that understand that situation are investing more online.

Remon Hendriksen

At the beginning of the lockdown, I was a bit afraid that investments in SEO would also be stopped. The opposite has turned out to be true. Companies, and in particular SMBs, see to a

large extent the urgency of a good online presence, especially in an organic way.

Marina Apukhtina

SEO definitely works for B2C businesses. And size doesn’t matter. 

Without SEO, MacPaw wouldn’t be where it is today and nor would millions of other popular brands. 

Ihor Kolesnikov

SEO has always been a strategy that’s capable of driving quality website traffic. Now, with regard to the pandemic and everything Google does in terms of local SEO, I can see many businesses finally make use of the opportunities SEO has to offer, and in my opinion, the trend toward promoting small businesses organically will keep growing in the next few years. 

Craig Campbell

I think people for sure doubled down and used this time wisely, when you have the time it makes total sense to knuckle down and fix all the elements on your own site that you simply never have the time to do. I saw an increase in people asking for work to be done both development-wise and on the marketing side.cr

Bartjan Pieter Sonneveld

The willingness [to invest in SEO] is clearly visible, yet I do not observe this trend in every industry. The turbulent aftermath of COVID-19 affected each industry or even individual businesses quite divergently. Financial and insurance companies are still recalibrating strategy, restructuring their businesses, while companies in industries such as apparel, lifestyle, and electronics seem to have increased budgets.

The priorities, in both small and larger companies in industries that are negatively affected, have primarily shifted to cutting cost, firing personnel, selling real estate, to mention a few. But also strong performing online retailers have sometimes cut down on SEO spending. For instance, online retailers with physical stores endure hefty costs caused by strong decreases in offline sales, automatically pressuring the budgets allotted to the online department.

I am convinced that the need for SEO skills and improved organic visibility will definitely grow in the coming years as a result of the pandemic. But for now, it’s still too early for many businesses to scale up investments, especially in SEO.

Technical and on-page SEO are budget-friendly and thus popular in the lockdown narrative

Owain Lloyd-Williams

A shift towards SEO has been particularly accentuated with the economic impact of the pandemic causing many businesses to slash their marketing budgets in other channels like paid search, PPC, and affiliate marketing. While SEO has a spend in terms of resource and expertise, a lot of what can be done, particularly on a technical and on-page SEO basis, don’t usually require additional marketing spend. Brands have certainly clocked on to this and have seen this opportunity coupled with the additional shift to online. Conversely, this has led to a more competitive SEO landscape, so it’s an exciting time to be in search.

Stripped-down marketing budgets: temporary measure and the new normal

Ric Rodriguez

I think we’re seeing two market forces play out—the need to reduce the unnecessary costs to protect the business in the case of cash flow problems and overall increased demand for online channels. If you wanted to solve the latter, you could increase ad spend—but this creates issues around the former. So while I’d like to think this is a notable, long-term shift to prioritriizing search, I feel it’s partly a knee-jerk reaction from the situation. However, as more businesses see value in the channel (whatever the circumstances are that they’ve come to invest in it), I hope they continue to prioritize it in their future plans. 

02
With travel restrictions making consumers seek out nearby businesses, SMBs now have better chances to dominate the SERP. Which SEO best practices can help businesses conquer the local SERPs?

Local businesses listings come first

Mindy Weinstein

First and foremost, small businesses need to ensure they have claimed and updated their local listings with Google My Business. Second, they need to implement basic on-page optimization, including updating titles and H1s with localized keywords. Additionally, small businesses must have accurate and consistent listings and citations in local

Craig Campbell

Local SERP’s should be the basic thing any small local business should take care of, ranking your GMB gets significant traffic and is fairly easy to do. Citations help as Google want to see consistent NAP  (Name, Address & Postcode) of your website and business details. But also remember that user engagement on your GMB will also help you beat the competition—if Google sees your GMB getting more interaction locally then this will help you in the map pack too.

Remon Hendriksen

Above all, make sure that the NAP data is correct and the same everywhere. Too often I still see sites that move to another location and don’t change their new address on external websites where they have a citation. Or worse: they don’t change it in their Google My Business account.

In addition, an up-to-date Google My Business account is crucial. Make sure it is filled as completely as possible and actively work with it: collect reviews, respond to questions, place updates every now and then, etc.

Extra tip: add a UTM-tag to the website URL you entered in GMB. This way you can see exactly how many people come to your website via GMB. This really can be a huge percentage,  especially for local businesses.

Marina Apukhtina

First of all, local companies should update and enhance their Business Profile for Google My Business and Bing Places for Business listings.

A solid GMB profile increases your chances of making your way to the Local Pack and Local Teaser Pack, which show more information about the company such as a short description, photos, reviews, etc.

Ihor Kolesnikov

To promote a website locally, you need to focus on multiple things including your business listings information, citation building, optimizing your website for geo-specific keywords, understanding the needs of your target audience, and working with reviews across various directories. 

Bartjan Pieter Sonneveld

One of the best practices is the proper implementation of JSON schema mark-up “Organization” type. Ideally, you use the “graph” element to combine different types and build strong entities. For example, if businesses offer software, one can create a JSON script with both @types “LocalBusiness” and “WebApplication”. Combining the two scripts with @graph allows for Google to associate the two as being related entities. This in turn helps Google better understand what your business offers and how it can provide relevant information in the SERPs.

Getting your whole Brand SERP under control and not just the GMB profile

Jason Barnard

It has always been vital to control your Brand SERP (a search on your exact match brand name). Since the onset of COVID-19 that control has become even more vital. If you control what appears when someone searches your name, then you can ensure that all the information Google shows is up-to-date and accurate. If the information about you is up to date and accurate, you maximize your chances of getting that visit to your store.

Improving website speed and implementing schema is always a good idea

Owain Lloyd-Williams

Along with getting your site technically in order from an SEO standpoint, now is a good time to focus on the page speed performance. Google’s Core Web Vitals metric is coming in 2021, and it could spell a lot of pain for businesses that aren’t ready or aware of this. Also, you can’t go wrong with full and proper implementation of structured data mark-up on your key product pages if it’s SERP dominance you’re after. 

Being local to rank locally

Ric Rodriguez

In my mind, it’s about two things—clear information and “being local”. If people are looking for you, there’s an expectation that they’ll receive the most accurate and up to date information on your opening times, on what you offer, and how you can help them—and search engines are no different here. Also, we’re dealing with incredibly smart systems that recognize things in terms of “what they actually are” and can understand what a “genuine local business” looks like, from its digital footprint. So you can’t (and absolutely shouldn’t) fake “being local”—but you can emphasize the point through things like having a review policy (and responding to your customers!) and doing real local marketing activity. This won’t only help your search strategy—it’ll create happier customers too. 

Opposite trend: local businesses targeting nationwide markets

Alan Rabinowitz

I do not feel that all businesses are staying local now because some regions are slowly opening and having issues. Many businesses are looking to do more “remote” types of work vs local and are now looking at nationwide strategies to compensate for the lack of people willing to go to an office or store. So businesses have moved to trying to target broader audiences. 

As we progress to more of a new normal, we are starting to see the local terms coming back in. So while some businesses have dominated the local markets, they are now seeing less traffic and need to pivot from a website that says “visit our office” to “virtual services” or both. It seems like the new norm may be more remote working, so companies are changing their older keyword targets to ones that are trending. Anyone not using Google/Twitter trend data is now is missing out on a potential new audience. So trends need to be researched now more than ever.

03
What about larger companies? Should they take some steps to adapt to the new consumers’ behavior and remain competitive in a world where consumers prefer local goods and services? Do you think that the shift towards shopping locally will persist in the post-COVID world?

Old habits may die hard...

Remon Hendriksen

I think it’s good that there is more local acting. Despite this, I do not expect major shifts in this. Post-corona consumers will soon revert to “old” behavior. For larger companies, it is good to think about this, but the impact of buying locally is low I think.

...but since local is now on the rise...

Ihor Kolesnikov

It all depends on the business niche, the company’s geographical location, the type of products or services it offers, delivery methods, etc. With regard to all these factors, larger businesses may badly need to adapt their marketing strategies, or they may do relatively well as it is. What is clear is that now is the time for local businesses to shine. With people being eager to spend locally, small businesses can reap many benefits from the situation. 

...larger companies should also target local markets

Jason Barnard

Hyperlocal is key. Whether you are a large national/multinational company or a local company, offering hyper-local solutions is key. If you are a major national or international brand, being truly local is even more important than ever before. Larger companies with a strong local presence would do well by adapting their approach to integrate better as an active, friendly, and constructive part of the local community.

Owain Lloyd-Williams

One of the fascinating by-products of the post-COVID world is people potentially moving out of cities such as London given the shift to working from home. This in turn could see a revitalization of local economies and services. With this in mind, larger companies should definitely look to consider focusing on local SEO (if they have local presences) and building out landing pages and content to serve particular locations if relevant.  

Craig Campbell

Larger companies should of course look at the local market, it’s ignorant not to as you can pick up a lot from local search. Many locals would still rather use a local company for services and products. I do feel many larger companies completely ignore the local search and focus on nationwide search terms. But if you do your research you will see they are the ones missing out.

Never be ignorant of any type of traffic, anyone out there should be looking to capture as much traffic as they possibly can.

Marina Apukhtina

COVID-19 gave a huge opportunity for businesses to better understand the interests of their audience, so they can create and deliver content quickly to meet the demand and personalize offers and promotions to each customers' unique preferences.

And since many customers now deliberately purchase products or services online and locally, you need to understand the specific needs of your customers in every particular area to remain competitive.

That means targeting local search terms

Alan Rabinowitz

Larger companies, if they’re wise, should be pivoting and focusing on maintaining their past keywords and integrating new keywords and trend terms to supplement any loss of traffic. Analytics, Search Console data and Trend tools are much more imperative to businesses now so they can get an understanding of what traffic may have been lost and what their new goals should be.  If a business made changes to their product or services offerings because of the pandemic, then they need to push organic, paid, and social to market these new offerings. A cohesive plan is always the best solution, Search, Social & Ads. 

Making use of digital PR in the local markets

Mindy Weinstein

If larger companies have multiple locations, they should follow the same advice I mentioned for local SERPs, such as managing local business listings and using local search terms. They should also consider digital PR in their main local markets. In other words, are there local events they can sponsor? Are there local news sites where they can be interviewed or contribute? Can they offer local deals?

Understanding the genuine needs of local consumers

Ric Rodriguez

I think we’ll see the impact of the virus on consumer behavior for some time to come. For larger businesses, this means putting the effort into managing your local online presence at a corporate level and not delegating this to regional marketing teams alone. Investing the time (and budget) into making what you have work harder will give you the network effect that smaller competitors can’t have, but if you’re going to do it, you really have to commit to making each store great. This isn’t only a case of fixing your opening hours and hoping for the best—this means listening to your customer complaints, talking to people that leave you reviews and getting to know what your audience in the area is looking for, and translating that into something that is intrinsically “your brand”, but doesn’t lose any of what makes that locality loved by its inhabitants.

04
What about the SERP features other than the Local Pack? As you know, Google now allows users to do more and more actions straight from the SERP, e.g. book a hotel room or a plane ticket. But as the travel industry is now experiencing hard times, do think that the search giant will introduce other feature of the sort in the nearest future? If so, could you share your guesses on what these features will be?

Transformation of travel-related SERP features

Owain Lloyd-Williams

We’ve seen Local Pack change and adapt to a lockdown world by offering details from businesses on different opening hours and availability of products. This has been applied to the travel industry and has been useful in informing consumers on flight and hotel availability from certain businesses. I can only see this continuing, particularly with lockdown being eased and travel companies looking to capitalize on consumer need for holidays to make up for lost revenue. As there are still limits on where we can and can’t go, the need for nuance and accuracy in the data provided by Local Pack is a vital opportunity for brands in this space.

Craig Campbell

Google was already leaning towards booking plane tickets and showing some other travel features and with that industry being hit hard I can see more of the same. Google is smart enough to know that we as humans are all desperate for a holiday, so it's a win-win situation for Google to help the travel business and showcase all of these deals without the need to hop in and out of websites.

How far that actually goes feature-wise though is anyone’s guess.

Mindy Weinstein

I do think Google will continue to look for ways to help users directly in SERPs. Google even states (I’m paraphrasing here) that as technology advances, they will continue to help people find the information they’re searching for. Therefore, it’s not far-fetched to assume that Google will add more features directly into SERPs. I believe there will be more shopping-type features, but I don’t have a solid guess on what they might be :)

Remon Hendriksen

To me, it makes sense that Google is going to do this more and more. I don’t think this has to do with COVID-19, but with Google’s overall dominance in the SERPs that has been going on for some time. Especially in e-commerce, Google will do more and more on this playing field, I think. E-commerce is a huge business and Google is bound to want to take a much bigger piece of the pie.

Ihor Kolesnikov

I am convinced that Google will keep introducing new SERP features to help users find a solution to their problem much faster. While developing new technologies, the search engine will keep polishing existing features. And I believe that more features aimed at helping us book, rent and buy various goods and services will appear. 

Alan Rabinowitz

Google likes to make things faster, and they don’t want you to leave without getting the right answer, they want you to find it on their site as quickly as possible, so they introduced AMP, Answers, Knowledge panels and the ability to use travel related services without leaving Google. Historically data we have in the SEO industry had stated that if a searcher doesn’t find it in the first search, they will do a new search vs. going to page 2. For this reason, targeting Positions 0 Answer boxes, Local Pack, Videos, Images, and travel related features is becoming a necessity for any business that wants search traffic.

In some searches you no longer get 10 organic results, you get paid ads and new search features designed to get you results and answers quicker. So, whether you like the results or not, you need to understand that what Google actually displays in the results of a given keyword, in order to understand what strategies you will need to get visibility from that term. 

On-SERP shopping opportunities

Ric Rodriguez

I always bring this back to a point made by Google’s partnerships lead back in 2018 at Yext’s Onward conference—they’re looking to drive “meaningful engagements and transactions” through (local) search. We saw the first part come to live over the past 18 months with features like posts, messages, etc—but not so much from the second part. I suspect we could see more on this soon—transactions are possible through universal cart within Google Shopping, which we’re seeing expanded to the organic world, and with their acquisition of Pointy, it’s possible we’ll see inventory come to local listings with the ability to shop directly and pick up in-store or have it delivered.

On-SERP food ordering service

Bartjan Pieter Sonneveld

Like many businesses, Google is a company that seeks to maximize profit through its ecosystem of proprietary products and services. It will always adapt to customers’ needs and create products serving that need, preferably with their own SERP tools and snippets. Or even create needs by introducing pioneering features that anticipate a future need in online users. 

As the effects of Covid-19 expand across nations, human search behavior and needs will change. Getting coffee at Starbucks? No, Starbucks will now bring your coffee to your house. Perhaps Google will expand its Food ordering service by introducing online coffee and cake delivery. 

I believe that we are slowly moving towards an entity-first era (instead of mobile-first) in the coming 5-10 years. So perhaps the debate, in the long run, is not about “SERP features” but rather focuses on “features” serving the right information in the right format on the right device or product at the right time. 

Being visible in the feature-rich SERP

Jason Barnard

Like all major online platforms, Google aims to keep users within their walled garden. As such, On-SERP SEO is something every company in every industry needs to deal with today. But tomorrow is already here—push features such as Google Discover mean that Google is suggesting solutions to its users even before they have expressed a need by searching. Brands need to be present even before the SERP! Being present on these push features requires that brands communicate to Google who they are and exactly what they offer not only through GMB but also Google's Knowledge Graph. When these push features kick it, Google is pushing just one single solution to a problem. Make sure it's yours.

05
With more and more people running a Google search before actually interacting with a business, both online and offline, SERM becomes as crucial as ever. To win over the customers you need to care about your brand SERP, user reviews on various dedicated platforms as well as about the offline feedback you get. Could you share some best practices on gathering customer feedback both online and offline and probably think of a method that would allow businesses to combine online and offline data?

Don’t wait for the negative reviews—start building a reputation now

Alan Rabinowitz

Online reputation management (ORM) can be extensive work, typically more than just ranking for one keyword. I always recommend that businesses be proactive with ORM and incorporate it into the business game plan from the get-go.

ORM is not always about a negative since it consists of three stages: Building, Maintaining, and Recovery. The one that most people ignore is Building, which means addressing the reputation from the start and keeping it positive. Instead, most businesses never even focus on ORM at all, they ignore reviews, news, and reputation until something negative has happened. Then it’s like putting out a fire as it’s all people may see. Had they been focused on promoting themselves from the start, it would have been watered down. We recommend that every business focuses on their reputation as early as possible as peer reviews and product reviews are helpful for sales and starting with this approach will help any business keep a positive review of their business or products.

It’s also great to respond to as many reviews as possible, show people you are there, this helps build buyer confidence as they will know if they have an issue, you are there to help!

Show your customers that their feedback matters

Mindy Weinstein

There are so many programs available now to streamline the process of getting customer feedback and reviews that I would suggest signing up for one of them as the first step. Outside of that suggestion, I want to focus on a more old-school recommendation, which is being good humans and providing exceptional service. Not everyone is going to be a happy customer, but doing everything you can to provide a good experience before, during and after a purchase is critical. If someone complains, respond in a constructive way. Customers want to know that you truly care and are listening.

Remon Hendriksen

For SMB, I saw that it is very effective to do a call with a lot of new customers. Ask if everything went well, if they are satisfied, and have any more questions. The positive effects are huge. You can immediately remove any annoyances, you could also collect valuable customer feedback with which you can improve your service or product and you really distinguish yourself from 95% of the competition.

Then send a personal e-mail with the request to leave a review. I can tell you: there will never be a negative review here. Precisely because you spoke to them personally before that.

For large companies there is also a lot of gains to win in this area. Companies that excel in customer service really make a difference these days. Not all companies are able to contact (potential) customers and help people in a really good and effective way.

Owain Lloyd-Williams

Carry out buyer surveys both online and offline. Think about making use of your CRM ventures to encourage new users who have visited the site via your SEO channels by offering promotions and deals that require partaking in reviews. This is a great way to convert users who have discovered your site by the SEO channel and then warmly welcome them into your brand ecosystem. Also, look to reach out to previous satisfied customers who are willing to partake in a review testimony that can also form part of your blog and content strategy.

Ihor Kolesnikov

I believe the key is offering a high-quality product that is designed with regard to the customers’ needs—this is how we have it at SE Ranking. So, if you do your job well, the number of negative reviews should be minimal. We also actively engage with our audience, conduct surveys, and ask our satisfied users to spread the word on some top review platforms where our product is represented. Finally, we constantly monitor our “SERM” keywords to be able to quickly react if something goes wrong. 

Ric Rodriguez

On the first point, I’m a fan of platforms that enable you to bring reviews from different places into one place and run deeper analysis on the output (disclosure: I used to work for Yext and remain an advocate of their work). On the second point, more (better) reviews can show that you’re doing the right things, both for your customer experience, but also as the output of driving more people into your physical locations. I would encourage businesses to consider the value of the channel from the point of view of your customers as well as business growth. If people look for you, they have to find the right information; getting this wrong can be costly—and it’s often a simple thing to fix.

Craig Campbell

Brand SERP is not something new, this is something people should have taken care of years ago, many marketers do brandjacking to try and steal bits of peoples traffic.

But you should take up as much of the Brand SERP landscape as you can using the power of platforms like Linkedin, Twitter, Pinterest and many others to ensure that you have one set up for your brand and you are dominating the first few pages of Google when someone searches for your brand.

This is a common-sense thing to do, and the easiest way to ensure that no brandjacking goes on, and also helps you keep positive things about your brand on the top pages of Google. You retain the control of that, and so we should.

Connect your teams and build communities

Bartjan Pieter Sonneveld

One of the most common pitfalls of online/offline businesses is that they (still) have siloed teams both within online and between online and offline teams. A few years ago, at an offline and online e-commerce brand, we introduced the idea to connect the customer service team directly to the online marketing team (e.g. social, content creation, SEO). The team had countless examples of customer complaints, which proved to be super valuable input for our online growth strategy. 

Build communities and groups as a brand. People like to associate themselves with brands, products or identities and thus like to be part of groups with people who share similar associations. These communities (e.g. forums, events, etc) often automatically provide customers’ experiences with the brand. Easy, honest feedback by people who also want to spent time and effort to grow your brand.

Be in control of your Brand SERP

Jason Barnard

What appears when someone googles your brand name (your Brand SERP) is your new business card, one could even say your new home page. Actively working to ensure that your Brand SERP is accurate, positive, and convincing is critical to your bottom line since everybody who is important to your business will google your brand name at some point in their journey (clients, prospects, potential hires, journalists, partners...). Looking at pages 1 and 2 of your Brand SERP shows you what Google thinks is the most important, relevant and valuable to your audience. So look at that and work to improve every single result—encouraging customers who visit your store to leave a review on Google (and other review platforms that appear on your Brand SERP) is a great start. But also your own site, your GMB, your knowledge panel and third party sites that talk about you.