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https://relativityseo.com/seo-services/ Greg Sterling – Search Engine Land News On Search Engines, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) & Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Fri, 22 May 2020 21:13:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.4.1 Let’s hope COVID-19 isn’t a ‘mass extinction event’ for small businesses /lets-hope-covid-19-isnt-a-mass-extinction-event-for-small-businesses-335026 Fri, 22 May 2020 21:13:09 +0000 /?p=335026 SMBs spend billions annually on digital advertising and marketing services.

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Most of the attention surrounding the economic fallout from COVID-19 has focused on job losses — now 38.6 million since March. Census data also indicate that roughly 47% of U.S. households have been impacted by layoffs or salary reductions.

Somewhat less attention has been paid to COVID-19’s effect on small businesses (SMBs) and the related implications for the digital marketing ecosystem. According to an Alignable survey of more than 300,000 small businesses, roughly 85% have now been affected, mostly in the form of lost revenues and layoffs. About 75% of SMBs have applied for help from the Payroll Protection Program, although less than 40% had successfully received funds as of early May.

Source: Alignable

Only a few months of cash

Of the roughly 30 million small businesses in the U.S., more than 90% have fewer than 10 employees. SMBs are responsible for about 48% of U.S. jobs; and between 2005 and 2019, 64% of new jobs were created by small businesses, according to U.S. government data.

But small businesses now face an existential threat unlike anything in the last 75 years. Surveys and data from major banks, Facebook and others show that two-thirds of SMBs have only a few months of cash reserves on hand and often less than that. Putting aside partisan politics, this recognition is undoubtedly part of the motivation to reopen the economy right now.

The survival of small businesses as a group matters to digital marketers, agencies and SaaS companies because SMB spending represents billions of dollars annually. Most of Google and Facebook’s advertisers technically qualify as small businesses. And while there are no entirely reliable estimates of aggregate SMB marketing spending, it’s a very big number.

Billions in marketing spend at risk

Historically, SMBs spent roughly $6,000 on average on advertising and marketing each year, though often less. Let’s conservatively assume that the universe of SMB marketing spenders is 6 million. Hypothetically, that would represent $36 billion in annual marketing spend, some of which still goes to traditional media and offline marketing. But companies such as Intuit have argued the SMB holistic marketing spend annually exceeds $100 billion.

These budgets would obviously be lost to the digital marketing ecosystem if SMBs fail. Various surveys and forecasts have attempted to quantify the permanent closure risk but there’s no consensus. One academic study published earlier this month estimated that 2% of SMBs in the U.S. have already closed. However, other survey-based estimates argue that between 7 million and roughly 12 million SMBs could be at risk of permanently closing if the economy doesn’t “return to normal” by the end of the year.

Help and self-interest from big tech

In this context a mix of duty and self-interest has motivated all the major tech companies to offer SMB support, in a variety of forms:

  • Google introduced support links for business profiles earlier this month for the U.S. Canada, UK, and other English speaking markets. It allows business owners to add a donation and/or gift card link to their profiles, together with a message about why the funds are needed and how they’ll be used. For donations, Google has partnered with PayPal and GoFundMe. For gift cards, the company is working with Square, Toast and others. Google also previously pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in SMB aid, including $340 million in ad credits.
  • Facebook previously made $100 million available in grants (including ad credits) to small businesses, with $40 million of that dedicated to the U.S. market. The company also has partnerships with a range of companies to enable consumers to buy gift cards and vouchers on local business profiles. Facebook Shops, the cross-app e-commerce platform the company announced this week, is aimed at small businesses moving online.
  • Yelp has made a range of tools and services available for free to small business, especially restaurants and bars. It also implemented an SMB relief program worth $25 million, consisting of waived ad fees, free ads and various product upgrades.
  • Bing donate button: In partnership with GoFundMe, Bing allows merchants to place a  donate button on their local listings pages.
  • Nextdoor also offers offers gift card purchasing and GoFundMe campaigns, by including a link on the business profile page.  

There are numerous other relief efforts, such as Help Main Street, trying to help the small business market with free services and funding. The outstanding question — for which there doesn’t currently seem to be an answer — is: is any of this helping? Are these links and programs actually generating funds and revenue for local business owners?

Can the combination of government loans and private fundraising keep more small businesses from running out of money? We sincerely hope so; the vitality and character of local communities are at stake.

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More missing Google My Business reviews appearing as publication speed picks up /more-missing-google-my-business-reviews-appearing-as-publication-speed-picks-up-334776 Fri, 15 May 2020 17:29:57 +0000 /?p=334776 Google is now posting user reviews and photos in all countries and the vast majority of business categories.

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In mid-March Google temporarily disabled publication of new reviews, business owner review replies and new Q&A posts. There were other delays in posting new listings or hours and address updates as well. Then, in early April, Google began to slowly publish some of the “backlogged” reviews.

Speed picking up: all countries and most categories. The GMB support site notice was changed to read, “Review replies are now available. New user reviews, new user photos, new short names, and Q&A will gradually return by country and business category.” True to the use of the adverb “gradually,” many local SEOs were complaining that they still weren’t seeing the bulk of their customers’ reviews appear online — until now.

There’s been anecdotal feedback that publication velocity of the sequestered reviews has increased. We reached out to Google to confirm and were told by a spokesperson, “We’re now publishing user reviews and photos in all countries and the vast majority of business categories to help people get helpful up to date information about the places around them. We expect to publish a growing number of user contributions as time progresses.”

Why we care. Google had been working with reduced support staff, but the issues that were impacting review moderation and publication appear to have been resolved. Sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor never paused review publication. Local SEOs and agencies should resume or continue with their review generating/management strategies.

As more states and business locations open up, reviews will take on additional importance as a source of information about the in-store/restaurant or service experience. No longer just about product or service quality, consumers will be looking to reviews and Q&A to determine how well customers are being protected and whether it’s safe (or desirable) to come back to the store.

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Black Friday in April: e-commerce is booming according to three reports /black-friday-in-april-e-commerce-is-booming-according-to-three-reports-334648 Tue, 12 May 2020 18:44:11 +0000 /?p=334648 Store closures crashed traditional retail spending, but online sales are still on fire.

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Retail sales were down 8.7% in March, the steepest decline ever recorded. However in April, e-commerce enjoyed unprecedented growth, aided in part by government stimulus payments. And over the past past week, data released by Adobe, Shopify and PayPal reflect the scale of e-commerce gains and even “Black Friday” level traffic and transactions.

Double and triple-digit digital sales growth. Adobe’s new “Digital Economy Index” released earlier today found that e-commerce grew sequentially by 49% (which is huge) and individual categories experienced even higher growth. For example, electronics sales were up 58% and daily online grocery sales were up 110%. The data come from “trillions of transactions, tens of millions of products, and thousands of retailers.”

Adobe also said that buy-online-pick-up-in-store (BOPIS) orders were up more than 200% year over year in April. This hybrid transaction form, with an online purchase and offline fulfillment is a metaphor for the more digitally integrated future of retail.

BOPIS growth in April

Source: Adobe (May 2020)

Adobe also said that prices remained in check or deflated except in two categories: electronics, whose deflationary slide halted in April and online grocery, which saw price increases. By contrast, online clothing prices experienced “the largest April price decrease in years.”

Merchant demand exploding, consumer demand massive. In its first quarter of 2020 earnings report, e-commerce platform Shopify beat analysts’ expectations and announced annual revenue growth of 47% and gross merchandise volume increases (value of sales through the platform) of 46%, while in-store transactions fell 71% because of store closures. Shopify enables e-commerce for both small businesses and larger enterprises.

Earlier, in mid-April, Shopify CTO Jean-Michel Lemieux tweeted that the company was experiencing “Black Friday level traffic every day” and adding “thousands” of merchants to the platform during the pandemic.

Download the Periodic Table of Digital Commerce Marketing.

PayPal CEO Dan Schulman echoed this sentiment on his company’s first-quarter earnings call saying, “On May 1st, we had our largest single day of transactions in our history, larger than last year’s transactions on Black Friday or Cyber Monday.” He added that the company was seeing “unprecedented demand” for its products and services:

  • Roughly 250,000 net new active accounts per day.
  • In April, an all-time record of 7.4 million net new customers.
  • Q2 expectation is 15 million to 20 million net new accounts
  • Revenue growth of 35% for PayPal online checkout in April

PayPal’s integration with Google Merchant Center to enable retailers to onboard organic and paid product listings across Google went live this week.

Why we care. The jobs situation, with more than 30 million people filing for unemployment, clouds the outlook for recovery. However, online spending is a significant bright spot for merchants, brands and the marketers that serve them. As states and stores open up, consumer reaction will be uneven and may be tempered by fear of infection. However, digital commerce is 100% safe, and the buying behaviors that have become established in the past two months are unlikely to go away.

In many categories for the foreseeable future, then, consumers are likely to prefer online transactions and BOPIS to in-store visits.

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Stores have been closed so location data isn’t relevant, right? Wrong. /stores-have-been-closed-so-location-data-isnt-relevant-right-wrong-334562 Mon, 11 May 2020 21:03:55 +0000 /?p=334562 Driving online sales and other use cases for location data during the pandemic.

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Until COVID-19 hit, location data was being used by marketers for real-world audience insights and online-to-offline attribution. And while smartphone data has gotten attention as part of “contact tracing,” one could assume marketing use cases for location data have all but disappeared.

What consumers are actually doing. But that’s definitely not the case. Many marketers are using location data for real-time insights about what consumers are doing on the ground — literally. Surveys reflect attitudes, hopes and fears. But behavior is often different.

As a basic matter, “You can see how people actually responding to the guidance they’ve been given,” observes Duncan McCall, CEO of PlaceIQ. “Are they going out, are they staying home?”

“There’s a surprising amount of movement going on out there,” he says. “Because there’s essentially no federal guidance, as in Europe, local markets look very different.” That’s especially true now that more than 30 U.S. states are relaxing lockdown restrictions in uneven ways, while others are being more cautious.

I asked McCall what kinds of patterns or trends he had observed during the lockdowns. He quickly rattled off a few examples. He told me, for one, “People are making fewer trips to the grocery store but they’re staying longer each time.” He also said people are going to different markets than they might have before, because of convenience, crowds or wait times.

Source: PlaceIQ

Fundamental behavior changes on display. McCall also said that among the major fast-food chains, foot traffic had dropped to all of them except Sonic, because it doesn’t have a dine-in business; it’s all drive through. Another quarantine use case, for retailers, looks at past store visits to identify loyal customers for retargeting or email messaging, to prevent leakage.

Location data can equally be used to drive online sales. McCall pointed to an earlier case study involving retailer Urban Outfitters in which PlaceIQ was able to locate specific buyer personas through real-world behavior and then work with a partner to reach those people online to deliver e-commerce (rather than in-store) sales.

“People’s behavior has been fundamentally changed [by COVID-19] in multiple different ways,” McCall says. “Location data allows you to understand on a daily basis, how that behavior is changing and how it’s different in different cities and regions.”

The value of this kind of insight is self-evident as local economies open in non-uniform ways. Are people going back into businesses, restaurants and retailers, and who’s actually showing up? Marketers can make assumptions based on past data but they may no longer apply.

Source: PlaceIQ

“You’ve got to use data and tools to understand your customers,” McCall says. “This is going to force everybody to be smarter.”

Why we care. In a downturn new buyer segments often emerge. They can be more aligned with economic self-confidence or caution rather than traditional demographics. However, in the U.S., region, age, race, politics and class will all factor in near-term consumer behavior, as America moves ahead with reopening.

Location data can be an indispensable tool in understanding how customers and prospects are behaving in this highly unpredictable environment. On this Friday’s Live with Search Engine Land, I’ll be exploring these topics in more depth and detail: What is location data telling us about consumers and the potential for recovery?

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The return of retail stores: If you reopen will they come? /the-return-of-retail-stores-if-you-reopen-will-they-come-334460 Mon, 11 May 2020 13:11:16 +0000 /?p=334460 Surveys say consumers will be cautious, but foot traffic from Georgia suggests the novelty of offline shopping may lure some people back into stores.

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The news has been filled recently with images of angry protesters agitating for the “reopening” of local businesses. That’s now happening in many places around the country: Georgia, Texas, Florida, Colorado and numerous other states. Yet polls continue to indicate consumers remain nervous about COVID-19, raising the basic question: if you open it will they come?

Two-thirds won’t go into a retail clothing store. A recent survey from the Washington Post and University of Maryland found that while a majority of consumers (56%) are comfortable shopping in a grocery store, 67% aren’t comfortable with the idea of going into a retail clothing store and 78% don’t want to go into a restaurant for a sit-down meal.

Another survey from Fluent highlights consumer ambivalence about the pandemic. The company found that only 34% of respondents said they were comfortable with governors lifting stay-at-home restrictions. Yet another, seemingly contrary finding in the survey is that 60% of the audience is “calm and collected or neutral” about COVID-19, while 38% are “nervous or very nervous.”

Stores where consumers feel safe. This apparent contradiction suggests confusion and complicated feelings about resuming “normal” activities. People want to return to their familiar routines, including shopping, but are worried and lack a clear understanding of whether it’s actually safe to do so.

Survey data from First Insight revealed a hierarchy of store discomfort. These individuals were asked in which types of stores they would feel safe or very safe. Only grocery stores and drug stores cleared 50%:

  • Grocery stores — 54%
  • Drug stores — 50%
  • Big box retailers — 45%
  • Warehouse clubs — 43%
  • Local small businesses — 43%
  • Department stores — 37%
  • Shopping malls — 33%

Foot traffic tells a different story. But smartphone location data from a little over a week ago, when Georgia allowed the reopening of multiple business categories, showed more than 60,000 people flooded into the state from neighboring states — presumably to shop, get their haircut and eat in restaurants. Additionally, Shoe Carnival, which is in the process of reopening its US store locations, said that there was “brisk” foot traffic over its initial reopening weekend in Georgia.

Foursquare location data validate these findings and observations. The company said in a blog post, “Georgia began reopening non-essential businesses on Friday, April 24. Since then, visits to health and beauty services, gyms as well as restaurants have seen significant upticks. Notably, restaurant visitation rose the most in rural and suburban areas. There was some increase in foot traffic to dining rooms in urban areas, but visitation didn’t jump nearly as drastically.”

These data points indicate that despite survey findings suggesting majorities will avoid stores, there’s sufficient pent-up demand for offline experiences that large numbers of people may turn out for store reopenings. We really won’t know until several weeks pass what aggregate consumer behavior will look like. As the Foursquare post, suggests, I would speculate it’s going to vary widely by store category, demographics, region and even political affiliation. (This is all going to complicate brand communication to customers.)

No ‘return to normal’ anytime soon. Whether the Georgia data is predictive of national trends is unclear, but marketers should not mistake any initial burst of enthusiasm among shoppers for a “return to normal.” Indeed, there’s a risk of increased infections and mortality as more people move about and congregate in public places.

We’re in a new normal (or new abnormal), where e-commerce is going to play a much larger role in people’s lives. Whereas offline retail has been responsible for 90% of revenues in the last several years, the numbers are going to change. It’s only a question of how much.

More digital-first shoppers being created. A recent survey from SmarterHQ found that while nearly 37% of respondents said they would return to stores to shop for “non-essentials,” 26% would now shop primarily online (other respondents said they wouldn’t be shopping for non-essentials).

There are plenty of other surveys indicating e-commerce will continue to grow in many cases at the expense of stores, which are imposing new safety protocols and restrictions as they reopen. Best Buy for example will only allow shopping by appointment for the foreseeable future; Apple will require face masks and temperature checks. While these measures are for the safety of customers, they may create enough friction and inconvenience that consumers find going into stores not worth the effort.

Finally, Yotpo found in a survey focused on mobile and text messaging behaviors, that time spent on mobile devices has grown 30% post-pandemic. The company also discovered that 57% of consumers are shopping online more than before, and 65% prefer to do that shopping on smartphones rather than a PC or tablet. The smartphone is at the center of e-commerce going forward.

Why we care. J. Crew and Neiman Marcus just declared bankruptcy and JCPenney is expected to next week. Other traditional retailers will be accelerating closure of under-performing stores and not open new ones. Digital commerce will take center stage as stores partly take on supporting roles as showrooms, fulfillment centers and places to return unwanted products purchased online.

Make no mistake, people will go back into stores and maybe in large numbers over the next month. And retailers that can provide a well-run omnichannel experience still have advantages over pure-play digital commerce marketers. But we’re in a new, existential time for traditional retail. And it’s one that is likely to see the fundamental rules of commerce evolve and change irrevocably over the next 12 months.

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New Google ‘Rising Retail Categories’ tool exposes fast-growing product searches /new-google-rising-retail-categories-tool-exposes-fast-growing-product-searches-334359 Thu, 07 May 2020 11:00:59 +0000 /?p=334359 This is the first time Google says it has provided this kind of data to the public.

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During the COVID-19 lockdowns consumer behavior has changed dramatically. Needs-driven spending has largely replaced discretionary spending; online shopping — sometimes with curbside pickup — has supplanted in-store buying. And all this may soon change again, as local economies and retailers “open up.”

Offering insight into consumer demand. In the current crisis, product search is an area that is dynamic and rapidly evolving, according to Google. So the company is introducing what it’s calling Rising Retail Categories, within the ThinkWithGoogle domain. Google said, in a blog post announcing the new tool, “we’ve heard from our retail and brand manufacturing partners that they are hungry for more insights on how consumer interests are changing, given dynamic fluctuations in consumer demand.”

Rising Retail Categories trending products and queries

Fast-growing categories and queries. Quite similar to Google Trends, Rising Retail Categories exposes “fast-growing, product-related categories,” their associated queries and the geographic areas where product categories are trending the most. Google adds, “This is the first time we have provided this type of insight on the product categories that people are searching for.”

Data is available for the US, UK and Australia. A drop-down menu allows users to see top-trending products and queries by week, month or year. Google says the data will be updated daily.

In its blog post, Google offered several use cases for the data, including content creation, promotion and product development. Certainly the data is interesting but it’s limited, notwithstanding Google’s statement about it being presented for the first time.

Why we care. Rising Retail Categories is now one of a number of search-data-driven tools and resources available on ThinkWithGoogle. Microsoft is publishing search trends by vertical during COVID-19. There are also multiple SaaS and martech companies that have visibility into e-commerce trends and shopping queries. However, they generally don’t offer free research to the public.

There are also keyword research tools that can generate helpful data on product search queries, though they don’t offer this type of information. So while the product-trend data you can get from from Google’s Rising Retail Categories appears relatively modest it’s still interesting and potentially helpful to selected brand marketers and small businesses.

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Less than essential: Why smart speakers are like smartwatches, not smartphones /less-than-essential-why-smart-speakers-are-like-smartwatches-not-smartphones-334239 Wed, 06 May 2020 12:40:25 +0000 /?p=334239 The devices have reached 50% of US homes, but fallen flat as a channel

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Are smart speakers more like smartphones or smartwatches? Almost 85% of U.S. adults own a smartphone, while only about 16% of Americans own a smartwatch. In more ways than one the better analogy for smart speakers is the smartwatch.

Even though there are now approximately 126 million smart speakers in 60 million U.S. households, according to the latest Smart Audio Report from NPR and Edison Research, these devices have not turned into the compelling marketing or commerce channel that many (including me) had envisioned when Amazon released its first Echo in November 2014.

Nearly six years later, the user experience and technology have not fundamentally evolved. Two obvious exceptions are the availability of screens and back-end leaps in natural language processing and machine understanding. But those improvements have not brought about transformative changes in usage or performance. And the advent of voice apps/skills/actions have not added significant utility or enjoyment.

Falling short of their potential as a channel

This is not to say smart speakers are a disappointment. They’re remarkable multi-function units controlled by voice and and powered by a massively sophisticated cloud infrastructure. They can deliver all kinds of valuable information and content on demand. They can also control numerous smart home functions. But it does not appear they will realize their potential as a commerce channel or as a marketing platform — at least not in the foreseeable future.

If there was a time for people to really engage with these devices it’s now during the stay at-home lockdowns. Think about how video calling/conferencing has taken off. Indeed, the NPR research finds people are using their smart speakers more frequently and consuming more content via these devices. However, the use cases are largely unchanged and the growth is incremental. This has not been the breakthrough moment it might have been.

Most common smart speaker use cases

Source: NPR, Edison Research (May 2020)

The top actions — play music, get the weather, general knowledge question answering, set timers and news or radio listening — are consistent with how people have been using these devices for several years. Younger users (18 – 34) are listening to more news on smart speakers since the beginning of the outbreak, however.

There have been glimpses of search and commerce potential in the past. In the 2017 survey 57% of respondents said they had purchased something using a smart speaker. Those results have not really been replicated since. However, the current survey did find that 18% of smart speaker owners had ordered food and 31% had used a smart speaker or smart display to conduct a local search, while 32% say they had made a phone call.

Unfortunately, we don’t know a great deal more about the nature of these behaviors, their frequency or user satisfaction levels.

Hitting an adoption wall

In January of 2019, NPR estimated there were roughly 118 million smart speakers in U.S. homes. The figure today is 126 million according to the most recent report. That’s less than 10% growth, compared with nearly 80% growth from 2018 to 2019.

The lower-end smart speakers from Google and Amazon are frequently sold for $29 or bundled for free into other product promotions. Accordingly, cost has not been a barrier to adoption. And the bulk of sales have been of the lower cost Google Home Mini and Amazon Echo Dot devices.

Why people don’t own a smart speaker

Source: NPR, Edison Research (May 2020)

There are roughly 124 million households in the U.S., which then suggests 50% penetration and implies significant “headroom” for smart speakers and displays. But while smartphones are perceived as essential, demand for smart speakers is softer — like smartwatches. And some of the past, negative publicity around smart-speaker eavesdropping and rising, general awareness of privacy and technology may blunt or significantly slow further adoption.

The current NPR survey found that distrust of tech companies, eavesdropping and hacking were concerns and purchase barriers for roughly two-thirds of those surveyed who didn’t own a smart speaker or display.

COVID-driven innovation required

In 2017, 42% of NPR survey respondents called their smart speakers “essential to daily life” and there have been favorable satisfaction ratings since that time. The potential remains for commerce and marketing. But despite a few high-profile announcements, brands, retailers and publishers have not been very innovative or creative in the use of these devices, notwithstanding more than 80,000 Alexa skills, which most people don’t use.

The COVID crisis offers a new and more urgent opportunity to experiment and innovate. Retail, restaurants and hotel environments, for example, will require associates to minimize close interaction and offer contactless payments, as well as other “vicarious” or virtual services (e.g., concierge). Smart speakers (and smart displays) were tailor made for this moment. I’m hopeful that someone will seize it and create applications that are truly ingenious and useful — for marketers and consumers alike.

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Shopify launches post-COVID POS, Yelp rolls out omnichannel tools for SMBs /shopify-launches-post-covid-pos-yelp-rolls-out-omnichannel-tools-for-smbs-334114 Mon, 04 May 2020 21:56:32 +0000 /?p=334114 The companies are part of a shift toward deeper integration between online and offline operations.

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Omnichannel has been a buzzword for years in the retail industry and has been vaguely synonymous with digital transformation. But now there’s more urgency, as traditional merchants large and small are having to place more emphasis on technology, e-commerce and integrated online and offline experiences (e.g., BOPIS) during the pandemic.

Shopify and Yelp make parallel moves. Two developments in the small business segment illustrate this omnichannel acceleration clearly. Shopify has launched an updated point-of-sale (POS) system for the post-COVID retail landscape. And Yelp has introduced or enhanced a number of features to better help local business owners compete in a new, more virtual economy.

Among the long list of Yelp updates discussed in its blog post were:

  • Virtual Service Offerings: an icon that appears in search results to help businesses providing online services such as classes, tutorials, consultations to be more easily identified. There’s also a filter
  • Surfacing takeout, curbside pickup: Yelp is prompting users on the homepage to discover restaurants that offer takeout and now has additional filters for restaurant takeout and delivery options. It will soon be doing the same for curbside pickup.
  • Yelp Collections will offer lists of open, relevant businesses (curated by Yelp’s community team).
  • Yelp Connect is available as a free tool to communicate updates to customers of individual businesses
  • Better COVID banners (available for free and in any category) for business pages to communicate critical information
  • New Business Highlights with COVID-friendly categories such as curbside pickup, giftcards, remote services. These are icons that appear on the business profile.
  • Yelp for Business improved: The company also introduced a new version of Yelp for Business, with a better UI and more data for business owners.

Shopify integrating online and offline sales. Just as Yelp is trying to enable restaurants and service businesses to more effectively move into omnichannel fulfillment, Shopify is doing something similar for SMB retailers who desperately need the help right now.

The company introduced an updated point-of-sale (POS) system that integrates offline and online sales capabilities, orders and payments into “one unified customer experience.” The new POS seems full of useful features, designed to enable merchants to serve online, in-store or curbside customers in a flexible way.

Among them, are app integration, more “actionable insights on store performance and reporting” and mobile checkout for in-store or curbside usage.

Shopify said that “merchants who connected their online and in-store sales with Shopify POS saw revenue increase by 30% year over year.” It added that the company has recently seen a “10-fold increase in retail stores on Shopify adapting to social-distance selling by offering local delivery or buy-online-pickup-in-store.”

Why we care. Local businesses face a crisis far worse than 2008. The vast majority of SMBs have only a few months of cash, if that. In this context, being able to deliver services online or improve visibility to potential customers can mean the difference between survival and failure.

What we’re seeing in these announcements is part of a larger structural shift or acceleration taking place the market, spurred by the coronavirus. Offline sales or fulfillment aren’t going away — they’re going to get really weird over the next few months — but the capacity to sell and fulfill online and better integrate online and offline operations (e.g. BOPIS) will separate the winners from those that fail to adapt.

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Google surfacing more local COVID news content to satisfy massive search demand /google-surfacing-more-local-covid-news-content-to-satisfy-massive-search-demand-334117 Mon, 04 May 2020 19:13:21 +0000 /?p=334117 Local news publishers have struggled to monetize spike in consumer interest.

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Google’s search liaison Danny Sullivan said Monday that Google “has never seen as many searches” as it has for content related to COVID-19. Much of it is tied to local news updates about the virus.

How Google defines local news. Sullivan explains that Google defines “local news content” as material produced by local publishers (e.g. newspapers) or those outside the geographic area if relevant. He adds that in order to better surface high-demand local news content, Google “made a change to help local content surface better within our Top Stories box” and added a new “Local news box” to show local content for coronavirus searches.

Top Stories on Google’s coronavirus SERP

Non-AMP COVID content in Top Stories. Both AMP and non-AMP stories can appear in Top Stories for coronavirus-related news searches. However, AMP-content is still required for non-coronavirus stories to appear in Top Stories.

Sullivan also pointed to Google’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund, which is intended to provide support to local news publishers around the world. According to the Pew Research Center, local newsrooms have “shed” 50% of their employees since 2008. And the pandemic has resulted in significant furloughs and job cuts, even closures, by local news publications.

Why we care. Local news is a critical, trusted communication channel in a public health crisis. However, COVID-19 has been called “an extinction-level event” for local publishers — just as user needs and interest are spiking — due to advertisers pausing campaigns and/or blocking ads from appearing alongside articles about the virus.

The crisis has highlighted the challenges publishers face in monetizing newfound traffic as many advertisers sit out in the name of brand safety. Content exclusions and brand safety technologies often lack the nuance to be able to distinguish article tone and end up blocking all content, including positive pieces, that reference the virus. That hurts publishers and leaves opportunities for advertisers on the table.

What governments and private companies (e.g., Google) do now to support local publications could help preserve local news and prevent the creation of more “local news deserts.” However, the prognosis is not good, unfortunately, without advertiser commitment.

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People choosing trusted brands but marketers pulling brand campaigns /people-choosing-trusted-brands-but-marketers-pulling-brand-campaigns-333992 Thu, 30 Apr 2020 21:40:39 +0000 /?p=333992 Performance marketing is winning, just as consumers may be putting more emphasis on brands.

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Should marketers be investing in top-of-funnel campaigns or performance advertising right now? That question is being hotly debated in a lot of places, including major earnings reports where performance seems to be winning. (We’ll be debating top vs. bottom of the funnel marketing on tomorrow’s Live with Search Engine Land.)

Making the case for brand. New consumer data from Survata makes a strong case for brand marketing and argues that trusted brands are winning during the pandemic. The survey also contains interesting findings about messaging and what consumers want to hear from brands right now.

Survata polled 1,016 U.S. adults on shopping behavior and brand expectations. The company found a strong preference for established brands over private labels or generics in a number of product categories. This seems at least partly at odds with another of the survey’s findings: almost two-thirds (64%) of consumers are cutting back on spending in a significant way.

Brand preference despite spending reductions. According to Survata, “In previous periods of economic uncertainty, generic products have performed better compared to their brand-name counterparts because consumers aren’t willing to pay a premium.” That doesn’t seem to be as true in this unprecedented instance, despite consumer-spending cutbacks.

In numerous product categories (cleaning products, frozen food, coffee, soda and packaged foods) consumers indicated they were much more likely to choose familiar brands. In non-prescription medication and personal care products, however, the audience was more evenly divided with a somewhat higher percentage choosing generics or store brands, presumably to save money.

Consumers becoming more cautious, selective. Multiple recent surveys indicate that consumers are cancelling or delaying purchases in the current economic climate. This is not unexpected but still very worrisome because consumer spending drives 70% of U.S. GDP and is therefore critical to any recovery. Survata found one quarter of respondents intended to cut spending by 30% – 40%, and one in five said they will reduce their budgets by 50% or more.

In contrast to consumer spending cutbacks, major tech company earnings and IAB survey data reflect that advertiser spending recovered a bit in April causing investors to celebrate. However budgets are still short of plan and far from pre-pandemic levels.

Brand messages consumers want to hear. The Survata research also explored consumer expectations of brands and what messages they wanted to hear. There are some surprises here too:

  • Commitment to product availability (36%)
  • Commitment to brand’s employees (25%) 
  • Commitment to product safety (24%)
  • Commitment to controlling price/costs (14%)

Beyond messaging, other buying considerations included price (for a substantial minority), regional product source (is it from a virus-impacted area?) and brand trust. Trust was the most significant factor influencing purchase decisions for 40% of respondents. In addition, consumers are now 3x more likely to research products before buying than prior to the outbreak, according to the survey.

Survata CEO Chris Kelly commented to us in email, “Consumers are clearly very cognizant of a brand’s message right now. While we know consumers expect a brand to be responsive to the current times, it was surprising that so many consumers felt that the most important thing brands should communicate to them was a commitment to their employees. There might be a sense of American ‘in-this-together-ism’ when you unpack that, but it’ll be important for brands to measure the tricky balance of putting out the right messages.”      

Restaurants, vacations and shopping. Asked where they’re looking forward to spending money when the lockdowns end, survey respondents indicated they were most interested in going out to eat, followed by vacation and shopping (in stores):

  1. Dining out a restaurant by a 2:1 margin over #2 travel
  2. Travel 
  3. Retail shopping
  4. Personal recreation or care services (gyms, yoga, massage, hair, etc.)
  5. Sporting events

Why we care. Consumer behavior is shifting and must less predictable right now. We’ve moved in about six weeks from a position of near full employment to roughly 20% unemployment with more to come. That kind of economic whiplash is totally unprecedented.

While marketers should ideally address the full funnel, most no longer have the budget. Accordingly, they’re emphasizing performance campaigns because those are easier to track. Any spending that can’t be justified in terms of clear ROI is being cut in many places. But the Survata data and other evidence indicate that brand visibility may be more important than ever — during the crisis and, especially, when it’s finally over.

To hear more of this discussion and how to measure brand campaigns don’t miss tomorrow’s episode of Live with Search Engine Land.

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