Jon Fletcher 2020-08-27

How COVID changed SEO

The slightest thing goes wrong, the natural impulse is always to Google it. Get some information, reassurance, or just confirmation bias to help feel a little better about the situation. 

So, when the biggest global pandemic for 100 years ripped across the world, it’s natural that search traffic was skewed very Corona-heavy. Since the initial breakout, people have settled back into patterns that bend around the disaster—but we’re not back to normal. 

Search behavior is marked by the ‘new normal’ and Google has released a Core Update since the pandemic began. SEO has changed. With many news publications, such as Newsweek, Fox, and MSNBC losing big chunks of crucially important traffic, we’re explaining how COVID has affected search patterns and how Google’s Core Update affected how SERPs respond.

Direct ways that COVID-19 changed our search behavior.

At the start of the pandemic, it soared past classic search topics like sports and news. But over time, people became aware, it was already in the news so actual search interest in the term ‘coronavirus’ has been on a steady decline. 

What Google shows us that is first people search for information—then advice. They ask ‘What’ and then they ask ‘How’. So, as the pandemic progressed the search interest turned from information to searching for more practical advice.

The green dots represent the ‘what is’ searches involving coronavirus and the orange dots the ‘how to’ searches. 

You can see how ‘What’ searches are starting to die out and ‘How’ searches are becoming more prevalent. People learned about the topic and their search internets become more specific and require more unique information. This is what SEO needs to adapt to, the lasting changes in online behavior that are still around now the initial wave has passed. 

We distilled 10 ways that COVID-19 has affected search behavior for the mid to long term: 

People want to find: 

  • Qualified medical information 
  • Reliable government statistics 
  • Up-to-date laws and regulations 
  • Health and prevention advice 
  • Business opening times 
  • ‘At home’ entertainment 
  • ‘Near me’ experiences 
  • Economic and financial news 
  • Entertainment and content 
  • Fewer travel and hotel searches

These 10 search trends then link back to three main components of modern SEO. Medical and official information is Your Money, Your Life (YMYL) which Google has been attempting to make the most trustworthy content possible.

Specific business information, ‘At home’, and ‘Near me’ search modifiers are all about localization and personalization. The SERP needs to know a ‘‘lower quality’’ page might have more valuable information for a localized search than a page.

You can see how the lockdown caused a dramatic fall-off in traffic for ‘near me’ modifiers but now people are allowed out but travel is limited, it is spiking again.

This graph shows the sudden rise in ‘at home’ modifiers at the start of the pandemic. People wanted Yoga at home, baking at home, fitness at home, and content was created to meet these searches.

 Finally, the temporary drop in interest for topics such as travel and tourism and the rise in the need for online entertainment will show us how Google adapts to temporary changes in popular demand. Travel sites are in theory no better or no worse in terms of quality and information but will lose rankings due to relevance adjustments. 

These adjustments aren’t necessarily a bad thing (in SEO terms). There are big differences between relevance adjustments and having major problems throughout a site.

The Google May Core Update

While many anticipated that the May Core update would primarily serve to demote sites that were publishing harmful advice relating to COVID-19, Google is a supertanker. Its search algorithm is actually millions of smaller algorithms. 

Like previous Core updates, the May Core update was a series of adjustments, not a major shift in direction, or even a direct response to the pandemic and the changes dragged with it. Core updates are refinements, and tightenings of some elements, all designed help serve the wider mission of more accurate and satisfying content. 

You can see from this report from SEMRush into the categories of sites that gained ranking positions in this update that the news sector, as a whole, was positive.

But, if the May Core update did damage your organic traffic, there are some changes that have been noticed from the update that could have affected publisher traffic:

YMYL is more important than ever 

Having a high level of EAT is a combination of over 200 pages of factors. You can read our full guide to the search quality guidelines here

But if you have suffered a loss in page ranking on content that was previously successful, has maintained its rank through other core updates, and that you consider having good EAT, it may have been overtaken by pages that are linked to by more authoritative pages. 

As Google begins to understand the quality of written content, link volume will be surpassed by link quality in terms of how it’s prioritized after the update. You can do an honest audit of your content to see if you have high EAT. Take a page and ask yourself:
  • Does the content provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results? 
  • Is the content free from easily-verified factual errors? 
  • Is this content written by an expert or enthusiast who demonstrably knows the topic well? 
  • If you researched the site producing the content, would you come away with the impression that it is well-trusted or widely-recognized as an authority on its topic? 
  • If the content draws on other sources, does it avoid simply copying or rewriting those sources and instead provide substantial additional value and originality? 
  • Does the content provide insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious? 
  • Does the content provide a substantial, complete or comprehensive description of the topic? 
  • Does the content provide original information, reporting, research or analysis?

Thin Content

Thin content landing pages that have been able to maintain rankings because of off-page factors and internal link dynamics are having a harder time keeping their positions in competitive SERPs. 

Thin content is defined as any content that is: 
Duplicate content Scraped content from another website Auto-generated content Invaluable affiliate pagesDoorway pages. 

Fact-checking misinformation 

In Google’s document on how they fight disinformation, they tell us that they want to, “where possible and relevant, elevate authoritative content from trusted sources.” 

Local search rewards well-linked pages 

Sites with a high rate of link acquisitions have triumphed in the search results, even if the link acquisition rate seemed unnaturally high. 

Aggregators and Directories Winning 

Search for a professional service like a lawyer near you and Google knows that you want options - not just a business that is good at SEO. In this update, aggregators and directors of services have gained traction in the rankings.

Rich results are in a state of flux 

“If you are reliant on snippets, recipe carousels, or special feature SERP features, find a solution like AHREFs that allows you to do a very quick SERP Feature gap analysis and include that in your research workflow. 

The topics have changed, the method is the same 

While COVID has made our search behavior more focused than ever, Google’s goals with SEO will not really change. They want to better understand the intent behind searches so will prioritize pages they know deliver answers. 

They want to deliver the answers most likely to be correct, professional, and comprehensive, so will continue to refine EAT, particularly for YMYL pages. Finally, they want to give users the information that they need to make better decisions, not just promote content from pages that know the best ways to ‘game’ SEO.

Latest Articles

‹ Back to Blog Home

Get the headlines

Sign up to get the best headlines direct to your inbox

Your name
Your email