To protect the NHS and minimise the impact of COVID-19, Boris Johnson announced last week that the UK is in lockdown, with strict rules in place regarding quarantining, shielding and social distancing. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise – and with uncertainty regarding the duration of the lockdown, with some estimates suggesting it could be in place for as long as 18 months – UK business owners are understandably nervous.

Much is still unknown and predictions for the UK economy, and indeed the global economy, seem to vary wildly. We felt it might be helpful to stick to what we know; to offer advice based on our experience of doing SEO and marketing in previous economic crises, and to offer some perspectives on managing SEO through periods of social change.

Be human and be useful

This is probably the most obvious thing that can be said, but I’m going to start with it because it’s so important. People are suffering, dying and grieving. People are anxious and scared, about their health, their families and their livelihoods. This is a crisis and, as such, it demands an appropriate level of corporate and marketing responsibility.

Don’t add to the misinformation that is already out there. Be objective and be useful. Don’t create panic, but don’t downplay the situation and encourage any behaviour which could put lives at risk. And if you can help people, just help. No strings.

Most importantly, be sensitive. Take a deep breath before every piece of marketing activity and really think about the impact it could have on people’s health – physically, mentally and emotionally.

COVID-19 will be remembered for generations to come. In fact, I suspect that we may currently be living through a pivotal point in time which will, in retrospect, define the next generational demographic. The world may not be the same after COVID-19. In the same way that Gen Y remembers the world before 9/11 but Gen Z (born after 1995) doesn’t, people born after 2015 won’t remember the world before a global pandemic ripped through our society and culture and shook us to our core. They will likely share a collective identity and worldview distinct from any that came before them.

If you can help people, just help. No strings.

One thing is for sure. The way you present yourself and your contribution during this crisis will likely be remembered long after the pandemic is over.

Planning your SEO budget

Every marketer is facing tough decisions about budgets right now. The unknowns will make this an especially scary time for people who haven’t managed SEO or marketing budgets through recessions before. I remember what it was like when it happened to me in 2008.

There is no golden rule to budget management at times like this, but we can learn lessons from previous periods of economic strain such as the 2008 financial crisis, the so-called ‘double-dip’ of 2012, and the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum. We are not in entirely uncharted waters here.

The first thing to understand is that there are actually four budget (and strategy) decisions to be made right now. And they do need to be made, right now. These are defined by four periods of distinctly different SEO focus:

  1. Short-term research and adjustment (where we are right now)
  2. Medium-term survival – ‘temporary norm’
  3. Exit curve
  4. Long-term strategy and the ‘new norm’

1. Short Term: Research & Adjustment

Start with research. Don’t panic and don’t make knee-jerk reactions. Spend a few weeks taking very measured steps while the dust settles. Unless you have a compelling reason to invest more than usual, leave your budget as it is.

In the first few weeks of economic or social uncertainty, your customers are going to change, so your keywords should change to reflect that too. Needs, desires and priorities are already shifting due to coronavirus and they have been for several weeks now; and I would say more dramatically than we have seen through any recession in recent times, certainly since Google launched in 1998.

Fortunately, there are tools available to help you identify these shifting behaviours, the most important being Google Trends.

You’ll need to combine that data with product expertise, knowledge of your customers, out-of-the-box thinking and a healthy dose of common sense, but the insights you unearth will be invaluable for informing your next moves.

Try to identify and diagnose short-term shifts in behaviour. Will they last? Not all new behaviours become trends. Some fleeting, knee-jerk reactions should be anticipated. Furthermore, not all trends are ‘opportunities’. Some behaviours should not, ethically speaking, be capitalised on. Find the behaviours where a commercial response is ethically warranted.

For example, with this approach, we identified “delivery boxes” as a growing term in a niche we work in. We identified it very early, which enabled us to get one of our clients from position #82 to #1 in just 10 days. Meanwhile, the term continued to grow in interest, just as we had anticipated.

If you can find keywords and topics like this one, which was previously not very popular, it’s unlikely that other websites will have ever paid them any serious attention in their SEO strategy. That means they should be relatively easy to optimise for. Contrary to popular belief, with the right strategy and a good team, you can indeed move quickly and pivot your SEO.

Just remember that these new ‘trends’ may subside. Don’t just drop your previous best-sellers and top keywords unless you are 100% sure they will never be popular again.

2. Medium-Term: Survival & The Temporary Norm

Once you have adjusted your approach and identified reliable behaviour trends which are relevant to your niche, you will need to make a decision on how hard you push your SEO through the crisis. Now that you have a clearer picture of the opportunities and obstacles ahead, you can start making informed decisions about your budget.

There are two sides to this though…

On the one hand, there is the question of affordability. Clearly, you can’t spend budget you don’t have. But by not making knee-jerk decisions until this stage, you can maintain a baseline of activity allowing you to benchmark. Furthermore, by assessing short-to-medium range goals and analysing new keywords and behaviours, affordability can now be framed in the context of potential ROI, as should always be the case with SEO.

Be patient. I would say it’s almost a certainty that throughout April, the lockdown will cause a reduction in consumer spending, partly due to panic and anxiety, but also because people will be coming to terms with their new financial situation and budgeting accordingly. You need to assess the affordability of SEO once spending has bounced back from the initial slump.

Alongside short-term affordability, you also need to think about the potential scope of opportunity for increased ROI over the longer-term. It is an unfortunate fact that some businesses will fail during the crisis. Some will be forced to reduce their marketing investment due to affordability, and others will simply get nervous and reduce their spending.

While it may seem callous, having less competition than you usually do creates a huge opportunity in SEO. It means growth is easier to achieve. If affordability isn’t an obstacle, then there is a very strong argument for increasing your SEO budget and growing your market share while others falter.

After 2008, I was often asked how certain brands managed to grow when others around them in the same industry were going under. More often than not, the ones who succeeded were just lucky enough to have capital and resources at their disposal, and brave enough to use them!

3. Exit Curve: Planning For Recovery

Recessions and economic downturns are temporary. Even as the weight of the current situation builds and forces you to look at the very real short-term implications for your business, it’s still as important as ever to keep sight of the long-term.

Having done SEO through 2008, 2012 and 2016, I’ve seen first-hand how important it is to plan your business’s growth in the inevitable period of economic recovery that follows. If you fail to do so, you could lose significant market share to competitors (both new and established) and fail to regain momentum.

The exit curve can be as dangerous as the downturn. And there is usually less support available at the point of exit than there was on the way in.

With any luck, the pandemic will be under control sooner rather than later. If that happens, the economic recovery could begin much sooner than we saw with previous recessions, leaving you even less time to plan, let alone execute a recovery strategy to pivot your SEO to whatever follows. I’m almost certain we’ll see that catching out a lot of businesses.

Furthermore, one defining characteristic of this downturn is that it is not due to failures of the underlying economic infrastructure. In 2008 we saw banks begging for bailouts, hedge funds being destroyed, markets collapsing, currencies dropping in value and consumer confidence was left in tatters.

The exit curve can be as dangerous as the downturn. And there is usually less support available at the point of exit than there was on the way in.

While there will certainly be some lasting social-economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic (especially related to a jump in unemployment once the furlough scheme ends), the fundamental spending ability of the working class is being somewhat maintained through the government’s unprecedented support scheme. Spending is the engine that drives the economy, so by bailing out the workers this time, the government is betting on the markets staying afloat.

It is very likely, of course, that we will still find ourselves in a recession and we almost certainly will be facing new levels of austerity, but nevertheless it is not entirely unrealistic to think that the exit curve as we leave lockdown could be steep. The announcement might come with little warning, trading might suddenly pick up, and a large proportion of your customer-base could suddenly return to previous spending levels, so long as they can go back to work ‘as normal’.

Certain industries are expecting to see a spike in sales immediately after lockdown ends. Others will see a sharp dropoff in sales, with spend-fatigued customers. The key is to be prepared.

4. Long-Term Strategy: The ‘New Norm’

None of us can predict the outcome of this. Lockdown may end in May 2020, or it could be August 2021. The government’s scheme may largely protect the economy, or it may only minimise the potentially huge impact.

Have contingency measures in place. Plan for a recession with severe austerity measures, where consumer spending and consumer confidence are low. In that scenario, you’ll need to be ready to target price-sensitive customers and focus on short-term ROI from your SEO budget.

But also plan for a full economic recovery where, despite inevitable austerity measures, consumer confidence remains high. After all, rather than being a ‘crash’ akin to 2008, this lockdown is really more of a ‘pause’. You may find yourself cash-rich and able to invest in longer-term SEO campaign goals.

Plan for all of these scenarios now, or you might be blindsided by the recovery. How can you quickly position your brand to play to your strengths in any of the scenarios you’ve imagined? How will you shape your messaging and how might that affect your content strategy and keywords?

Here’s a good place to start whenever you are facing uncertainty:

  • If you’re an established brand with heritage on your side, then leverage your familiarity, Comfort people by reminding them that you are a port in stormy seas. This is not the first time you’ve been tested. In times of crisis, people look for stability and you can offer it to them.
  • If you’re a young, small or nimble business, you should already be talking about how quickly you are adapting to meet your customer’s needs. Focus your efforts on the long-tail keywords and new behaviours identified in your initial research.

If you are concerned about how to manage your SEO through the coronavirus pandemic, or you just want some friendly experts to bounce ideas off, we are happy to help.

We’re all in this together.

Contact our experts for a no-obligation consultation.