As businesses search for ways to reach their customers through purely digital channels, Google wants to position itself as essential to their online operations.

In April, Google took the significant step of making it free for businesses in the United States to list products on Google Shopping, with the change due to roll out to other parts of the world later in 2020.

While this was a move that Google had been planning to make before the coronavirus crisis escalated across the globe, the tech giant stated that it was “advancing plans” to make Shopping free in a bid to help small businesses survive and transition to selling online as other sources of revenue have abruptly dried up.

Nor is the Shopping change the only Google development that has come about during the coronavirus crisis. Across organic search, Google Ads and other Google products like Maps, Google has been pioneering and testing new features that are designed to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of the coronavirus crisis – and drive more use of Google’s products and services, of course.

Some of them, like search results surfacing coronavirus testing locations, will no doubt be phased out once the pandemic subsides; but just as we can expect there to be a lasting impact from the coronavirus crisis on the way we do business and live our lives, we can expect these changes and new features to have lasting relevance as well.

But what will that mean for how we do search marketing? Let’s look at some of the recent updates introduced by Google in response to the coronavirus crisis and what they could mean for search marketing in the future.

Rising Retail Categories

Since people’s lives have been completely transformed by the coronavirus, the way they shop and the things that they shop for have been transformed as well. Unsurprisingly, there is a huge appetite at the moment for data that shows exactly what those changes are: which parts of retail are doing well, which are struggling, and how big the surges or drops in consumer interest are.

On 7th May, Google announced the launch of a new tool on Think With Google: Rising Retail Categories. Essentially it works like a product-oriented version of Google Trends, showing how search intent for different product categories has risen over time. For any given country (right now the tool only gives data for the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia) users can view a list of the top trending categories on a week-by-week, month-by-month or year-by-year basis, sorted by percentage increase. They can also select a category to drill down into it and view the top search queries for that particular product category.

For example, when I trialled the tool, the top four rising product categories in the UK on a monthly basis were sneeze guards, up 600% (no surprise there); party streamers and curtains, up 500% (most likely a hold-over from the VE Day celebrations); skin insect repellent, up 400% (a bit optimistic for May in the UK, but then April did see some amazingly summery weather) and cocktail & barware tool sets, up 100%. Some of the top searches in these categories included “Perspex screen” and “1000mm sneeze guard”; “ve day bunting”; “citriodiol” and “mosi guard”; and “cocktail making kit”.

While the tool provides some interesting insights, it’s not without its drawbacks: for example, a pure percentage increase figure gives no indication of how much search interest there was in a topic before, or even how much there is now, which means that a sharp spike in interest may not necessarily equal that much opportunity.

Drilling down into each category shows the extent to which an uptick in search interest can be driven by searches for a specific brand or product, particularly in the week-by-week data:

A list of the top trending categories in a particular time span, with Lint Rollers highlighted. On the right is a list of the top growing queries in this category, which are mostly variations on 'chom chom roller'.

However, this could still be useful data to retailers and marketers interested in tracking more micro trends. A map below the trending categories list also shows which area the top searches are most concentrated in, which could be useful for geographic targeting, although there’s a predictable skew towards populated regions.

Google has pledged to update the tool with fresh data every day for at least “the next few months” – but if retailers come to rely on the tool as part of their marketing and merchandising strategies, it’s easy to imagine it becoming a more permanent fixture. Even without a global pandemic altering consumer behaviour, product search can often be dominated by sudden swings and surges of interest, and it would be very useful to be able to get an insight into what those are on a regular basis, particularly if Google adds to the tool with additional regions and insights.

Having this sort of free data at search marketers’ fingertips on a permanent basis could be bad news for platforms that have built their business around providing insights into search trends, but would help retailers – particularly smaller and newer businesses – understand where to focus their efforts when it comes to search marketing, as well as the kinds of queries that consumers are making that relate to their products. This could help inform the timing and approach of PPC campaigns, as well as the keywords that they need to focus on for SEO.

It could also, as Google outlined in its announcement post, help retailers to pivot more strategically if they want to branch out with a different product range or promote different products.

While it’s by no means a substitute for conducting product and keyword research as part of a full search marketing strategy, Google’s Rising Retail Categories could be useful in giving retailers a steer in a sector that looks as though it will be uncertain for some time to come.

‘Curbside pickup’ for local shopping ads

Since the end of April, Google has been testing a new feature for Local Inventory Ads: curbside pickup badges, which allow retailers to indicate whether they offer the option for drivers to collect products from outside a store without leaving their vehicle.

Curbside pickup was already a collection option offered by an increasing number of retailers prior to the coronavirus outbreak, providing a convenient experience for customers who had a particular store on their regular driving route, and giving them the option to save on delivery costs as well as time. Since the coronavirus outbreak, it has become increasingly favoured as a way to collect items while minimising the risk of infection (and also save on delivery costs).

Google’s addition of a ‘curbside pickup’ badge to Local Inventory Ads is an acknowledgement of this trend, and a way of providing local businesses with a means to provide more useful information to customers – as well as giving customers information that they might be looking for at a glance. And of course, they’ll be more likely to click on an ad if they feel assured that a product is available and can be collected in a (relatively) safe and hygienic fashion.

Image: blog.google

Curbside pickup badges are the spiritual successor to Google’s store pickup feature, which allows businesses to specify whether a product is available for pickup in store. Both features are available in the countries where local inventory ads have been launched (Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the US and the UK), and advertisers need to have signed up to store pickup and completed the onboarding in order to be eligible for curbside pickup badges.

While it’s possible that the curbside pickup badges won’t transition into a permanent feature of Local Inventory Ads if curbside collection recedes in popularity, there is a clear trend of Google being willing to highlight information that will improve consumer confidence and drive clicks through to their local storefront as well as eventual footfall (or tyrefall) to brick and mortar stores.

This could prove to be an increasingly important tool for retailers if they are to reopen brick and mortar stores and entice customers to shop in them again as the pandemic subsides.

Support links in Google My Business

With many businesses closed indefinitely or extremely restricted in how they can do business during the coronavirus pandemic, business owners have been frantically searching for additional ways to bring in revenue, for example by persuading customers to buy gift cards that can be redeemed once the business is operating more normally.

Earlier this month, Google announced the launch of a feature to facilitate this: support links, which are donation and gift card links that can be added to a company’s Google My Business profile along with a message appealing for customers to support the business. Google has partnered with PayPal and GoFundMe for donations, and Square, Toast, Clover and Vagaro for gift cards.

So far, the support links feature is available for select businesses in the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, although the links won’t be made visible to consumers until later in the month. The only caveats are that businesses must have been verified with Google My Business before March 1st 2020 and have a physical storefront. Businesses are also responsible for setting up their own donation or gift card page through a supported provider.

Image: blog.google

The addition of these links will give a new importance to local SEO even for businesses whose physical storefront is closed. Although research from Reputation.com found that Google My Business impressions across industries suffered a 59% drop in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, the study also found that the impact was already slowing by the end of the month, with some industries – including retail and automotive – beginning to turn the corner.

It also found that clicks to websites and to businesses’ phone information had suffered less of a drop (31% and 21%, respectively), indicating that when customers did search for a business they were relatively likely to follow that up by taking an action, perhaps to seek more information or to look for ways to support the business. Many customers are still using search to look for business information (and they may check back periodically to see if anything has changed) and are seeking ways to support local businesses, particularly those they have a strong relationship with – so adding support links to Google My Business and optimising for local SEO could bring in additional revenue via this channel.

What about the longer term? Unlike with Rising Retail Categories and curbside pickup badges, Google hasn’t said anything about support links being a temporary addition or a test, so chances are good that this will remain permanent in some way.

It’s possible that Google might phase out direct donations once businesses are no longer in such dire straits, but keep gift card links as an additional source of revenue that businesses can bring in via local search and Google. This would have the added benefit of establishing Google My Business as a channel that consumers can use to buy gift cards – meaning more traffic being routed via Google properties, which is Google’s favourite state of affairs.

The importance of search marketing in the coronavirus crisis

While it’s difficult to tell what the future will bring when it comes to the coronavirus crisis, it seems certain that Google will continue to test and develop new features that benefit businesses – and itself. As businesses search for ways to reach their customers through purely digital channels, Google wants to position itself as essential to their online operations – while also presenting itself as a company that wants to help businesses to succeed.

But even though these releases are definitely not pure altruism on Google’s part, they are a reminder of the tools that search marketers now have at their disposal – and the importance of search as a channel for both reaching and understanding consumers.

Search marketers should therefore make the most of this opportunity by familiarising themselves with these tools and thinking about how they can use them to enhance their search marketing strategy, open up new avenues for business, and gain new insights into their customer base.