We’ve all heard bold statements about how the world will never be the same following the current pandemic. And while it’s certainly true to say that the global marketplace has experienced unprecedented shifts in consumer behavior over the last year, it’s worth noting that global, of course, also entails local.
In a time characterized by continuous change, we have witnessed not only health but also economic, leadership, social justice, and climate crises worldwide – and certainly at the local level. In this environment of continued uncertainty, brands are having to adapt their marketing approach to meet local consumer needs.
The big question is: are these temporary changes, or has COVID-19 changed local marketing forever? And how have search engines adapted to these local marketing changes to keep up with the ongoing pandemic?
The Pace of Local Marketing Changes Have Accelerated Dramatically
We used to see Special Hours used in GMB several times a year—for holidays or unexpected extreme weather events, for example. These Special Hours affect either the entire brand or small, relatively isolated segments.
However, now we’re seeing brands managing Special Hours, temporary closures, and other business interruptions several times a month across regions or even at the individual store level. The need to adapt to public health recommendations, COVID outbreaks, government regulations, and even supply chain issues have driven ongoing, unpredictable business interruptions that demand frequent, timely customer communication.
As consumers have reevaluated their lifestyles, they have also begun to demand more – in action and information – from brands.
Search Engines Feed the Need for Location Info with Enhanced Attributes in Local Listings
More eyes are on local listings now than ever before, and search engines have added new features and functions to address rapidly changing consumer needs. With increased local visibility, so too comes the opportunity for marketers to set expectations for customers in an uncertain time.
The need for increased information related to time-sensitive announcements, operating hours, and safety practices (among other issues) has made attributes a critical tool for brands. Google and other search platforms have continued to add new features and attributes throughout the pandemic. We anticipate more new attributes to come in the future as consumer needs continue to shift.
These increased information fields support brands and businesses to better communicate key service information to consumers, providing local marketers with the ability to better prepare for ongoing or intermittent business interruptions. So which new attributes are likely to stay for a while? Here are a few we think are here to stay:
- Shop online or socially-distanced options such as curbside pickup, contactless delivery, and BOPIS. These terms have been trending as consumers seek ways to stay out of indoor spaces and, in many cases, can no longer take in-store shopping options as a given.
- Information on safety protocols such as mask-wearing and temperature check requirements for customers, as well as transparency around staff safety requirements, provide insight into both customer experience and employee welfare. This information satisfies customer curiosities around how they might engage with a brand or business in the new physically distant world. It also fulfills the craving consumers have for transparency around corporate values and the treatment of employees.
- Online service options (such as classes, appointments, or estimates, for example) are increasingly demanded by consumers. It makes sense to have information as to their availability (or not) front and center in search. With a reported 77% of Gen Zers believing that companies should be offering new digital ways to engage with existing products and services, we’re provided with a glimpse into the mind and expectations of the customer of the future.
Armed with the knowledge of what new attributes are available, brands should regularly check how their listings appear across platforms, including both Google Search and Maps. Adding details about alternative business operations and the use of attributes, photos, and Google Posts help customers understand what to expect from their next customer service interaction.
Standard attributes such as announcements, special hours, and short-term closures have been introduced by Bing Places, as well. Additionally, Bing introduced links to GoFundMe Campaigns to help businesses offset pandemic-related financial losses, seemingly reflecting the global desire to see empathy from organizations in the current climate. You can find more information on Bing’s COVID attributes platform here.
In addition to its pandemic-related attributes, Yelp added a new COVID-19 Updates section focused on social distancing terms and frequently sought details such as safety protocols and delivery and dine-in details. Find expert tips to help optimize your Yelp listing for the new normal here.
Clean, Accurate Location Data Across the Local Search Ecosystem is Key
Clean data is essential across your brand’s local search footprint, but it can be challenging to keep up to date at the enterprise level and manage data at scale. However, given that local listings accuracy is foundational to your customers’ discovery and conversion experience, and critical for SEO.
Google insists that data is kept up to date; in fact, they warn that “businesses may find a disclaimer on their profile to let customers know that their business info may not be up-to-date.” Aside from basic brand integrity, let’s consider the impact of outdated information for a moment.
As a brand-conscious business, you want to set the stage for every in-location experience with accurate, comprehensive information on local listings. You are setting an expectation for your customers. If, for example, your retail store hours have changed, or you’ve implemented temporary closures as a result of the pandemic, you need customers to understand where and how they can engage with your brand at any given time.
If most of your locations offer a curbside pickup option but one outlier does not, customers expecting that service will be disappointed and may even leave a negative review or worse, visit your competitor. Similarly, if your hours are out of date and a customer drives to your location only to find your business closed, user experience suffers. It’s critical that wherever consistency of service isn’t possible, it is clear to the customer in search.
Key Takeaways for Moving Forward in Local Search
Wherever possible, find ways to offer virtual services to your customer base. Whether or not they lean on digital ways to engage, we know that customers are increasingly demanding more and varied options. To get started thinking about what’s possible, review all of the options Google and other search platforms have available – such as Posts and Events for example, which allow you to highlight COVID-specific information.
Remember to use structured data on your Local Pages, too, to help Google understand the most important content on your page and achieve featured snippets in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).
Health and safety attributes will continue to be of utmost importance and whatever your business type, these should be clearly communicated to customers. If your business listings do not clearly communicate your requirements for masks, distancing, or reservations in a restaurant, for example, can lead to poor customer experience and even conflict or negative reviews.
Unpredictable change manifested in global crises throughout 2020 provided a catalyst for transformation for many businesses and entire industries. As you step back and evaluate the seemingly constantly changing operating environment, be sure to leverage new tools and insights available.
As a starting point, it’s a good idea to audit your local search presence to see what opportunities may be available to enhance your brand’s footprint at the local level. Additionally, check our blog often as we continue to cover the latest local marketing changes and how they impact enterprise brands.