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Doing SEO on Sites During the COVID-19 Pandemic: In Search [Episode 69]

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[This is a general summary of the podcast and not a word for word transcript.]

Telling Tales About Doing SEO During COVID-19: Summary of Episode #69

In Search SEO Banner 69

The podcast welcomes Simon Cox who shares how he’s handled SEO in the wake of COVID-19:

  • What changes have COVID-19 brought to both local and non-local sites?
  • How to approach content generation during COVID-19 as intent has changed so drastically
  • What to consider about working on your site’s optimization post-crisis

Plus, how to stay in touch with what Google’s up to… tips on keeping your ear to the SEO ground!


Mordy Oberstein (Host)
Sapir Karabello (Co-Host)
Simon Cox of Cox & Co (Special Guest)


Simon Cox's Website
The Corona Pub
How Google's Entity Understanding Has Advanced


Site Speed Is a Small Google Ranking Factor
Completion of Mobile-First Indexing to Be Delayed
Google’s Q1 Earnings Released
Some Search Console Reports Changed Slightly
Google’s Submit a Question Feature Expands

Follow the podcast on Twitter

How to Know Where Google Is at & Where It’s Going [00:07:39 - 00:22:44]


One of the main goals of this podcast is to educate our listeners and offer a way to see things differently. Not just to share new information, but to share a new "directional look at things.” Today we want to share how you can get a feel of where Google is going.

In all honesty, it can be hard figuring out where Google's heading, what it’s thinking, and how it’s approaching things. One of the most powerful analyses that you can do is just some good old playing around on the SERP. Doing so is a look at what Google is now showing, what it did show, what it’s not showing, and what messages we can take away from all this.

Let’s take a look at some examples starting with the visual orientation of the SERP. Google announced a while back that "big changes” are coming to images yet this never really materialized. This is our point as if you look at what Google publicly says you don’t really get a directional look at where their search engine is heading and what Google is really thinking.

So Mordy was playing around with the SERP and it struck him that Google really has kept to this visual model. More images, more thumbnails, and more how-to carousels. And it struck Mordy that it’s not about making the mobile SERP look more striking. It’s not about using images to make the SERP more dynamic, appealing, or even engaging, it’s that Google reasons that you’re going to decide what to click on via the image. In other words, on a device where text is less noticeable, Google is trying to push the user to make a click choice via the image. The ‘How-to’ carousel is the best example where based on what you see in the image will determine what specific step you’ll click on.

There are, however, issues with the images used in the How-to feature as they can be too small at times. They might come up as a screenshot of something that’s worthless. Knowing this gap is important because if we know it and you know it, at some point Google will create guidelines around it so that webmasters can fix it.

In other words, images are not ancillary on mobile. It’s not bonus content that Google throws in to make the SERP look less boring. Maybe that’s what it once was, but seeing how imagery on mobile has developed, Mordy thinks Google is using images to push the user in a certain direction… as a way of guiding the user.

Here’s another example. A while back Mordy talked about how Google was getting super detailed in sports Knowledge Panels by showing a carousel of players by position. All that is gone now except for one team (from the teams Mordy was looking at)… the New York Yankees! They had a tab for the best Yankee pitchers of all-time listed.

This got Mordy thinking. Perhaps, previously, when Google was showing the player position it was flexing its muscle. It was testing what they can do whereas now they know what they can do but don’t know yet where it makes sense to show it. Perhaps Google decided to only show it in cases where the player position is really unique to a team or perhaps only if there was a lot of engagement.

It’s an interesting theme. Google may release something to see how well it can be implemented and then pull back once it knows it works and then try to be more strategic in its implementation.

And you can do this analysis yourself. See what sites Google shows for a keyword, what sites don’t they, and what it all means.

The point is the only way to see where Google is really heading and what they’re thinking is to feel out the SERP in a thematic sort of way.

How to Handle SEO and Websites in the Wake of COVID-19: A Conversation with Simon Cox [00:22:49 - 01:07:43]


Mordy: Welcome to another In Search SEO podcast interview session. Today we have with us a bread baking, geography knowing, Twitter chat fiend. You may know him by his beard. He is the great Simon Cox. Welcome!

Simon: Thank you.

M: By the way, I have a lot of questions to ask you but first, what is your favorite bread?

S: That's a really difficult question. I love all types of bread. A good sourdough with a hotdog. I've actually never baked one of those but I've had some fantastic ones in the past so that's probably my favorite.

M: I haven't had sourdough bread in a long time. I love sourdough bread, sourdough pretzels, everything sourdough.

Before we get going if you don't mind just letting us know who you are, what you do, and how people can find you.

S: I'm Simon Cox, you can find me on Twitter at my handle, @SimonCox. I work with my wife and we have a tiny boutique agency called Cox & Co-Creative. We really do a mixture of things. My wife does business leads and marketing and I do marketing support as well as SEO. I like doing technical SEO mostly like migrations. What people hate a lot I like quite a lot.

M: Yeah, I hate stuff like that. Good for you for doing that.

S: I like diving in and understanding why things aren't working well.

M: That makes you doubly brave. You're doing technical SEO and you're working with your wife.

S: Yes, well, she's great.

M: So we're going to talk about COVID-19 and local businesses. To kick it off, what have you seen? What's going on there? You mentioned to me you have a couple of interesting cases that you're working on. Please, lay it out for us.

S: Yeah, the most interesting one is a local florist who we picked up as a client a couple of years ago and we built her a small website. We built that site with the express intention of adding e-commerce onto that site in the future and the decision to add that was made in December.

M: Wow, good timing.

S: Yes, it was meant to be in time for UK Mother's Day which in the UK is on the 22nd of March. We got it ready during February essentially as a single page as we wanted to keep it simple. So I built this on a Perch content management system and built a single page with a few items on it. My wife took some pictures and the client herself took some good pictures as well.

During the run-up to Mother's Day, COVID-19 started rampaging around and people were talking about social distancing. So we're thinking that Mother's Day is the most important day for her because it's when she makes the most profit. It's a big time for most florists so she was really quite worried about what was going to happen. So she started getting some sales through the e-commerce page. She got lots of telephone calls which is a normal thing. People were looking at the e-commerce page we built and ordering by telephone as opposed to actually going through the online cart which is great.

So the day before Mother's Day, she decided that she wasn't going to actually open the shop on Sunday to the public and instead to just make up the orders and do deliveries. The day after, on Monday, she decided to keep doing that. I've missed a bit to mention. Before that, we helped her set up all sorts of things to do in the shop to keep the staff safe with processes where people could come into the shop and get wiped down, hand sanitizer, and to keep everything clean and handy. But Sunday and Monday she was there by herself and on Monday night we had a full lockdown in the UK so she had to close up the shop. So on Tuesday, I turned off the payment system on the e-commerce page. And that was it for two weeks, nothing.

She kept her social media going and then she got one or two phone calls from people saying if she’s doing any flowers for Easter and she rang us up and we had a good long chat. So we decided to relaunch the e-commerce page but with Easter flowers. At that point, several things happened. Getting flowers from Holland, which is where most of the flowers come from for most of Europe was getting difficult because there were not enough drivers. So she started sourcing locally. There is a huge amount of flower growers in the UK and they're just sitting there with all these plants dying. So she's got some local suppliers now and she started putting stuff together for Easter. We reopened the shop and within an hour she had three orders.

So far this month she made more money than last month even though last month was Mother's Day. It was a combination of having that shopping e-commerce page on the site that has been absolutely vital to it. And it really wasn't difficult to put together. To take a step back, you can buy florist turnkey systems where it has everything like customer management and all the rest of it but they're structured like a classic e-commerce site and they're just horrible. There's no humanity in it.

M: That’s an interesting point. It's a local business so I would assume you don't want something cookie-cutter like that.

S: Exactly. Also, with that sort of thing, you really can't do SEO very much. Whereas what I built, it's not perfect, but as far as my knowledge it’s not bad. It’s ranking really well which brings a lot of customers.

M: So did you have to adjust the page in order to calm people's fears about COVID-19? Were there messages about COVID-19 on the e-commerce page or the homepage?

S: Yes, on the homepage. Lots of messages were written in there about how they're running the business. You can buy online or order through the telephone and they will now deliver free as they used to have a five-pound charge for deliveries.

M: Yeah, that makes sense.

Do you think she saw more sales this past month because of Easter or because of people wanting a little more color in their lives?

S: Definitely a lot of that. I've got access to the cart and I can see the messages people are leaving. There's a lot of flowers for families or for birthdays, stuff like that which is great. People do want color in their lives. They want to normalize bits and pieces of it.

M: Yeah, I did the same thing where I ordered a book to my uncle who was stuck by himself as he had the virus for a week or two.

S: What book?

M: It was about the NFL.

What else have you seen going on out there?

S: We work for a wildlife charity as well. And we thought they were going to drop us on furlough and we'll come back to them after this is all over. But they asked us to help so we've built all sorts of bits and pieces in there. The first thing we did was put together an activities page with lots of things for people to do in lockdown. You've seen quite a few people do that. So they were coloring things out, word searches, puzzles, quizzes, and stuff like that. That's gone down really well.

M: Yeah, it’s content everybody wants.

S: Exactly. A way of keeping the kids quiet.

M: I’m wondering how much of this is technical SEO versus how much of this is like looking at the market, seeing what's needed, and trying to meet that need?

S: The way I look at it it’s the same thing. If you have great content on there, people will come to it. From that point of view, there's no technical SEO in here apart from just making it work correctly. You just need to make sure you've got the content people need right now. It's all about intent. Yes, people want to buy flowers, people want to color in wildlife pictures right now. Normally, in situations like these, you wouldn't be working on a wildlife campaign. We wouldn’t normally have a page of activities but right now it's the right thing and it certainly has gotten a lot of traffic. So yeah, that's from a content SEO point of view.

M: On that point, when you were working with the flowers were you targeting COVID-19 in particular, or were you saying, "Okay, well, let's create a page.”

S: No, not at all. Apart from the messages on the homepage saying this is what we're doing in this situation, I think anything that mentions COVID-19, from an SEO point of view, you might be stepping into troubled waters and you might be seen as trying to profit out of those words. Now, you should tell people what you’re doing but you shouldn't be trying to target COVID-19 as a keyword.

M: Right as you're entering a whole world of authority that you're probably not set up to deal with.

S: Exactly. I was really quite cautious about using those terms anywhere apart from just as a message on the homepage. I'd be surprised if anybody did try to utilize it. Obviously, people get it as you see what's going on.

M: I think Google gets it anyway. I saw the New York Times wrote a whole article on things to do while you're stuck in quarantine. And when I was looking for things to do in New York City, Google was throwing that page in and out of the search results because Google is trying to play around with it. Google understands that things to do in New York City now means something different than it did a month ago. So we're going to throw a page that has nothing to do with New York City per se onto the SERP.

S: I think Google is changing stuff around. We're working from home which means all the Google people are working at home, which means we're more relaxed, which means they come up with more crazy ideas for the SERPs, which means it's going to change even more. Google workers have hours of the day where they’re not commuting anymore so now they have time to go and look at the SERPs but we haven't.

M: Well, that's good. At least you don't have the time because it means you have the client base to keep up with.

S: Yeah, but there is so much going on with SEO. For instance, on the learning front, there are lots of free courses coming out now with lots of people sharing knowledge. It’s all fantastic stuff but I haven't got time to go and look at the loads of really good stuff that people are sharing. Which is wonderful, and actually brilliant for all those in house people that call work.

I feel like I don’t specialize in something and I thought I specialized in technical SEO but even that's fragmenting.

M: How so?

S: Well, when I first started doing SEO, there was just SEO that was it. It was a webmaster making a site that can be searched and indexed. But now we got technical SEO, we've got content SEO, and we have all sorts of different bits within technical SEO. We got people now specializing in structured data. There’s so much going on there and it's still progressing, blossoming, and maturing. I'd love to spend a little more time on that, but I've got other things I need to do.

M: Have you messed around with the SpecialAnnouncement schema?

S: No, I haven't. I would like to and there are probably situations that I can use it but I haven’t gotten around to it.

M: When would be a good situation to use it?

S: It depends on the business. We could use it for the florist but she's back open and running her business in different ways.

M: Do you think it would have made an impact or probably not?

S: No, because the traffic's tiny. For bigger sites with huge traffic then it would probably be worth looking into.

M: How did you generate traffic to her site? Just pure ranking?

S: Yes, mainly pure ranking really helps and that was just getting everything right in the first place, but a lot of GMB work to get it right because the competition was last century.

M: Oh, really? I would expect it to be really hard.

S: Yes and no. From a national level, you have big flora brands with some brands now that are national that deliver through the letterbox where they stick the flowers in the box and they come back to life essentially dehydrating the flowers. But they can't compete on the local level. Here, it's really a case of going in and targeting the village and then the surrounding villages and towns as well. She doesn't do so well in the surrounding towns because they've got florists who are bigger and more developed. The local Google My Business stuff is really powerful.

M: What have you had to do differently for COVID-19 with the florist other than maybe adjusting the hours or whatever within the Google My Business profile?

S: I think we've done a few posts. We’ve mainly kept in touch with people via social media anyway. Other than that, we've really done nothing different in GMB. I know we can change to temporary hours and what have you but we've actually just left it as it is because she's working those hours and you can call on the telephone on those hours. People know you can’t go to the shop. Maybe when they start opening things here again, in the UK, we may need to go there and start saying the shop is open.

M: I was going to ask you that. If you had the regular hours up and now we're back to regular business, what's changed?

It's funny because we're talking about changing everything for COVID-19. You have Google My Business, you have Google Posts just for COVID-19, etc. But when you go back to normal, how does the user know that this is just normal? This is not COVID-19 special?

S: That's a very good question. The problem is the shutters came down very quickly on everything on lockdown. Going back into normality I think would be very stretched out and it's just going to change how these things come back in. We’re being very careful about the second spike if that comes along and we’ll have to shut everything down again. So it's really difficult to answer how that's going to work. It really depends on the vertical and the industry and how those things come back. For example, I don't think we're going to see any big stadiums filled this year but I'd expect small shops to open at some point because the supermarkets are open.

M: Right. They need to open at some point.

S: Exactly. We need to keep the economy going, otherwise, it's just a massive burden.

M: That page you created with the activities to do while in quarantine. What do you do with that page now when quarantine is over? Do you kill it?

S: There will be an argument to kill it because it's no longer needed. But actually, I think that should be an evergreen page that they go and update maybe every quarter or every half year. There's a book list on there so you can just add new books on wildlife as they come out. So yes, maybe the puzzles will change once a year but people will go back to that as I can't see any point in getting rid of it. It’s not taking a massive amount of resources to put together and manage it.

M: Yes, it's like repurposing old content. So instead of being what to do in quarantine, the title can change to what to do on a rainy day when you're stuck at home. Do you see a major difference in dealing with a local site in the wake of COVID-19, dealing with their pages, and getting them set up versus a regular e-commerce site or a regular informational site? Outside of GMB and deliveries, from an SEO perspective.

S: Good question. I don't think there is much difference. The local shops have got a smaller catchment area and we'll have to look at things in a much more creative way. Perhaps the local shops will be able to respond a lot quicker to the situations and change their working practices in the first place much quicker than maybe supermarkets.

Not too far from us, about five or six miles away, is a farm shop and they pivoted their farm shop. A few days into the lockdown they had produced a video of how you can drive to their gate, they'd have a board there with a ‘What's in the shop today’ sign which you can then photograph with your phone. You then go and park your car, choose what you want, somebody comes along, takes your order, assembles a package, creates the stuff in it, then they pull your car forward or call your car forward, then you release the boot, they put it in the back of the boot, they shut the boot and then somebody comes up with a big stick and on the end of the stick is the terminal where you can just wave the credit card over it.

M: That's awesome.

S: Yeah, and they did that within a day or two of producing the videos on their website. They've got some very good SEO on that. You start typing in local foods, etc. pops up and you can see how you can go there and pick up your food and pay for it.

M: I have to imagine those things are going to stay. I mean, to whatever extent they will or they won't, but to some degree that's awesome. Why would I want that to change?

S: Well, certain things like that are going to bring people that haven't shopped at your place before and they're going to keep coming in and because they like what you've done there, you've been responsive, you're local, etc. And that's what the bigger companies and national companies got to compete against. They got to compete against all these little local shops that are pivoting quickly to serve their communities.

M: We have that here. The major supermarket has had a hard time keeping up with the deliveries and they've really limited the number of slots that are available. So there's a local supermarket in town here and they're now the go-to place. Now in this particular case, they suck and they've totally blown it but there was a great opportunity there.

S: There's a couple of local pubs here who got shut down immediately of course, and they pivoted and they are delivering. They first started cooking food for vulnerable people, the elderly, and others. I think they were doing it free to start with. They then turned themselves into little bitty shops so you can get all sorts of supplies and they changed their websites, you can order stuff online and go pick it up, etc. And it’s a pub so you can buy beer as well.

M: That's awesome.

That reminds me. You have these big multinational brands like Budweiser where they put out these ads saying we’re here for you and I don't believe it for a second. You're only doing this because you can't sell as much beer so you figure that you might as well come off like you’re nice people so that after this whole thing happens you’ll remember that Budweiser means nice people. But I feel that if a local company or a local brand is doing that you’ll feel there’s a bit of sincerity because you feel connected to them.

S: Very much so and I can't think of anything off the top of my head but I have read quite a few COVID-19 type adverts from loads of emails from big companies talking about COVID-19 and we're here for you and I felt no connection with them whatsoever. Actually, I think that devalues their brands. I think they've done it wrong or they've tried to tap into that or they felt they ought to be tapping into that possibly because it may be a case that if we don't say this then people think we're horrible people,

M: I believe that they have to say something. I get it's a hard spot but when you look at it you see right through it. I have to imagine everybody watching that is either an idiot or sees right through it.

S: For local companies it's easy. You just reach out to your local audience.

M: Yeah and you do it in a real way. I'm really hoping that one of the silver linings of COVID-19 will be people finally stop falling for stupid marketing.

S: No, that's still going to happen.

M: Yeah, but I'm hoping.

S: I think marketing will be around for a long time still and I think people will still fall for the old stuff because a lot of it is on empathy now and has been for many years. People will go for certain things because they've given the message you want to hear.

M: I guess there's always that large percentage of the population that are just idiots But yeah, I get it.

I'm wondering about something you mentioned before that piqued my interest. You said that the local pubs were switching over and changing their websites. Have you seen an issue with them getting picked up by Google now that they made that change?

S: No, because I wasn't looking at that aspect of it. I didn't really look at the SERP to see if they’re ranking for milk now along with beer. Does it really matter? Again, pubs will be a local audience so if they're not in the local SERPs and haven't bothered to do any SEO at all they're not going to lose out because they're visible locally. Google is attracting people from further away and right now they're not going to get that traffic anyway. At the moment they're just looking after local people. Now, one of the two pups is part of a big chain but I think that they had to do their own page of what they were doing and the other pub is pretty old. From an SEO point of view, the second one is doing quite well anyway and it needs to track people in to keep it alive.

M: Does that almost make SEO at the local level a little bit less relevant?

S: Yes, that's not changed anyway.

From my point of view, what's changed with SEO with COVID-19? Not a lot really. I've seen people spending more time on their sites because suddenly they haven't got shops to sell through anymore.

On the E-com chat a couple of weeks ago, there was a guy who said his channel went from the one that was thought about the least to the one that was suddenly thought about the most internally.

M: That's amazing.

S: Yeah, and I'm sure this is happening everywhere. Suddenly your main channel isn't your hotshot.

M: What do you think of the new shopping thing? Free Google Shopping for everybody.

S: Yeah, that's really interesting. I've heard in the UK it's not going to happen till the end of the year. It’s one of the things that I am going to be looking into. There are a couple of clients I do need to get into that. It's an opportunity if it's there. Give it a year and then Google will turn it all back to paid only and suddenly we've got all these extra retailers who suddenly believe they need to keep doing this and will start paying.

M: That's smart, evil. Evil, but smart.

S: It's a massive honey trap.

M: It might just be me, but I don't care how many listings Google may have, I'm still going to Amazon.

S: Again, I've heard quite a lot of people saying they would rather shop locally if they can then go to Amazon and I think people are focusing on that now.

M: That’s good and I hope that lasts.

S: But if they haven't got it locally, they can go on Amazon anyway and get it tomorrow.

M: I wonder how much goes back to normal afterward. I think from the SEO side not much has changed. Yeah, there’s Google My Business stuff, there’s schema, but I feel that afterwards is where things are going to change because the market might change.

Optimize It or Disavow It

M: What would you rather get right, the opening time in the Local Pack or the image thumbnail that shows up sometimes?

S: I’d go for opening hours. I think that’s more important. If you’ve got a rubbish image and people are clicking because of the image you probably don’t want them as your customer anyways. But they must know when you’re open.

M: But isn’t a picture worth a thousand words?

S: Yes, but a thousand words are too many for telling you when you’re open.

M: Touche. Simon, thank you so much for coming on. I really appreciate it.

S: Thank you so much for inviting me.

SEO News [01:08:14 - 01:11:23]


Site Speed is a Small Google Ranking Factor: Google says that site speed… while great for users is not much of a ranking factor!

Mobile-First Indexing to Be Delayed: Google previously said that all sites would be moved to the mobile-first index by Sept. 1. However, because of Corona, that deadline may be delayed.

Google’s Q1 Earnings Were Decent: Despite the ongoing pandemic, Google’s Q1 earnings were not as bad as expected with year-over-year revenue being up over 10%.

Search Console Reports Slightly Changed: Some of Search Console’s reports will be using a smaller sampling of pages. Reports such as rich results reports will be analyzing fewer pages to improve performance.

Google’s Submit a Question Feature to Expand: Google’s feature to manually submit a question to be answered is expanding beyond COVID-19 queries.

Tune in next Tuesday for a new episode of The In Search SEO Podcast.

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In Search is a weekly SEO podcast featuring some of the biggest names in the search marketing industry.

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