How COVID-19 Transformed the Local Search Landscape

Over the past year, we’ve seen first-hand from our own client data the dramatic and long-lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these changes are due to drastic shifts in consumer behavior and consumer needs evolving beyond shopping at traditional brick-and-mortar locations. 

To more narrowly define the true impact of the pandemic on the local search landscape, we analyzed over 200,000 Google My Business (GMB) listings across seven diverse verticals from February 2020 to December 2020. We tracked local search views, search volume, clicks to website, clicks to call, and clicks for driving directions month-over-month, and recently published a comprehensive study that outlines our key findings.

When reviewing the data, we saw the dramatic effects of the pandemic, and not a single industry was left unaffected. In a recent webinar we hosted, our panel of search experts discussed those insights as well as key takeaways to empower local marketers to leverage these changes for better economic performance amid uncertain times. This local search discussion included Mick Wilson, VP of Client Success at Rio SEO, Marshall Nyman, an Account Direct at Rio SEO, and Ryan Weber, Director of Client Success at Rio SEO.

May webinar speakers

The industries discussed include: 

  • Business services
  • Financial services
  • Sit-down restaurants
  • Quick service restaurants
  • Retail
  • Healthcare
  • Hospitality

The metrics we tracked in the study include:

  • Search views – When a customer finds your business via Google Search or Google Maps
  • Search volume – Direct (branded searches) and discovery queries (unbranded searches looking for a product and service) 
  • Clicks to website – Clicks to the website link listed in a GMB listing
  • Clicks to call – Clicks on the phone number listed in a GMB listing
  • Clicks for driving directions – Clicks for directions on a GMB listing

In this blog post, we will share the top takeaways from our recent webinar. You can also watch the webinar on-demand by clicking the button below.

watch the webinar

GMB searches and views align with lockdown orders

As we see in the graph below, views for all businesses took a dramatic dip in April, which closely aligns with initial stay-at-home orders across the country. However, shortly after this dip, views picked up again as consumer searches became more informational. They were eager to find out more information regarding a business’ hours of operations, closures, and more. We’ve seen Map and Search views continue to trend upward in 2021 as the COVID-19 vaccine continues to become more readily available.

Local Search Discussion -searches and views

GMB click volume grows

As evidenced in the graph below, conversion actions surpassed pre-pandemic levels throughout 2020. Our speakers note this can largely be attributed to informational needs. Before the pandemic, consumers were more aware of a store’s hours as it likely stayed consistent. Now, hours have shifted and some stores even have specialty hours for higher-risk customers. Additionally, retail saw monumental growth in 2020, which drove up some of the figures in this study. For the purposes of the study, retail includes big-box retailers, grocery stores, and home improvement stores.

Local Search Discussion - Conversions in Action

Quick-service restaurants were better poised for success 

Quick-service restaurants traditionally focus on providing quick, convenient food options for people on the go. Prior to the pandemic, many quick-service restaurants leveraged food delivery apps, drive-thru ordering, and to-go options. Therefore, quick-service restaurants weren’t impacted as much as their sit-down counterparts. 

Sit-down restaurants were undoubtedly one of the hardest-hit industries in 2020, however, in 2021 our panel notes search behavior is picking up again with this vertical. With cooking at home fatigue and anxieties quelling with the vaccine now widely available in the U.S., consumers are now eager for a dine-in experience. In fact, total views for sit-down restaurants rose 41% in March 2021 when compared to February.

sit-down restaurants metrics

Some retailers experienced monumental growth

2020 wasn’t an entirely negative year for some businesses. Certain segments of retail experienced their best year yet. As consumers spent the majority of last year at home, home improvement projects became increasingly popular, along with cooking homemade meals and stocking up on essential supplies. Stores that carried these products saw exponential success amid a largely challenging year. A seasonal climb at the end of 2020 (which aligns with previous holiday shopping behavior) also accounted for retail’s higher figures.

Local search discussion - retail trends

Hospitality recovered slowest across all search metrics

To no surprise, hospitality saw the slowest recovery of all the seven verticals studied. We saw a dramatic dip in searches for hotels beginning in March 2020, only to slightly begin to recover in the summer. Last summer saw a pickup for destinations within driving distance and offered a reprieve from months at home, which some travelers felt comfortable taking advantage of.

While hospitality undoubtedly suffered in 2020, interest is beginning to pick up once again for both national and international travel. According to Think with Google, searches for “resorts near me” have grown by over 80% YoY. Additionally, searches for “travel to” have grown globally by over 100% YoY according to the same research.

Hospitality trends

Local Search Discussion Takeaways

To conclude the webinar, our panel discussed key takeaways and what businesses should expect in the future. Collectively they agreed:

  • Technology will continue to evolve – Now that customers have become accustomed to new fulfillment methods and more digital experiences, businesses need to adapt to their needs or they’ll be left behind.
  • Consumers expect easier shopping methods – Consumers want to purchase products online, have virtual appointments, and expect quick delivery to their doorstep.
  • Consumers intend to continue with many digital behaviors – Even after COVID-19 subsides, consumers indicated that they will leverage restaurant curbside pickup (nearly 50% intend to continue post-COVID-19) or use of digital health-and-wellness tools (70 to 80% intend to continue post-COVID-19).
  • All verticals will continue to recover – From analyzing our local search data on a monthly basis, we’ve seen nearly every vertical experience positive month-over-month growth. The panel anticipates this will continue to be the trend as 2021 progresses.

Watch the Webinar Now


Want more in-depth search insights from the webinar as well as takeaways from the verticals we didn’t cover in the post? Watch the webinar now and download a free copy of the accompanying ebook. 

COVID-19 MPI Data Hero