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How to preserve your SEO during temporary closure for Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

McDonalds Coronavirus Message

How to preserve your SEO during temporary closure for Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

As the UK government’s social distancing strategy develops, we have seen much tighter restrictions on many types of business, including the forced closure of leisure venues including pubs, clubs, gyms and restaurants. Our charity clients are also having to postpone key fundraising events and the impact on events businesses is the same.

If your organisation is affected it is essential that you communicate any changes to your customers, and digital offers literally hundreds of ways to do this on your website and other channels.

However, in the rush to keep customers informed digital marketers must also be mindful of the risks that changes to their digital profile can bring. These can include long-lasting damage to your organic search engine visibility.

For many organisations organic search is the biggest source of both website traffic and conversions. Rash decisions about how you update your website could cause hard-won ranking positions to be lost, resulting in reduced traffic and conversions that may never fully recover.

This article sets out:

  • What should you communicate to your customers?
  • How should you communicate these changes on your website?
  • How to kill your rankings – don’t do these things!
  • What to avoid
  • The SEO compliant way to keep your customers informed

What should you communicate to your customers?

The best examples we’ve seen of COVID-19 messaging:

  • Are positive and empathetic, often written and signed by a senior leader within the organisation, and prioritise the needs of the customer before the needs of the business
  • Provide simple clarity on key information such as changes to opening hours, temporary closures, dates/timelines and next steps
  • Direct customers to the most appropriate communication channels to get additional questions answered
Virgin Active COVID 19 Notice

How should you communicate these changes on your website?

Along with great examples of messaging, we’ve also seen terrible technical implementations of COVID-19 alerts and notices on a large number of websites.

These include over-reliance on cookie-based banners (which are hard to find again once dismissed), information overload by adding COVID-19 notices alongside chat buttons, cookie banners, special offers and other calls to action, or targeting just the homepage and ignoring popular services or location pages.

Before we get into the nitty gritty SEO requirements, here’s a general checklist to help make sure your approach puts users first. If you can answer yes to these questions, you’re on the right track:

  • Is your update available to every person that visits your website, regardless of their point of entry?
  • Can it be clearly seen on all devices?
  • Have you removed conflicting notifications or CTAs to offer a low-stress user journey to the most important information?
  • Do you clearly signpost the best way to get additional support if customers have unanswered questions?
  • Do you offer a range of channels through which customers can receive updates as things change? (including social media and email alerts for example)
  • Are all new subscription and contact forms GDPR-compliant?

How to kill your rankings – don’t do these things!

So now you’ve nailed your tone of voice, have written clear guidance for customers, and offered easy ways for them to stay updated as things change. Now it’s time to make sure that the method you use to update your website doesn’t undo any of the hard work you’ve put into being indexed and ranked by Google along with other search engines.

Whilst it is important to ensure the message is seen by everyone, it is also vital that any website notifications do not impact how the site is crawled and indexed. These are testing times for all businesses, but your goal should be to emerge from the current crisis in a stronger position than before so you are perfectly placed to capitalise once restrictions are lifted.

Let’s start with a rundown of the fastest ways to damage your organic search engine visibility, DO NOT do any of these:

Removing or substantially changing valuable content on your website

It is important that any content that drives rankings – including product, category or editorial pages – is not changed or deleted from the site, even if it is not as useful or entirely relevant during the crisis.

It will be useful again when business as usual returns, and deleting or changing key website content now is likely to result in:

  • Lost organic ranking positions
  • Increased future SEO costs
  • Increased broken links and 404 errors
  • Unnecessary redirects
  • Poor user experience
  • Barriers to the flow of link equity through the site

Preventing search engines from crawling or indexing content

Do not disallow crawling of important pages using either the robots.txt file, or by setting a meta robots tag or X-robots tag to ‘no-index’ on valuable pages.

It is vital that Google is still able to access all of your site’s content. Preventing search engines from crawling and indexing your pages will hurt your rankings and lose organic search traffic that may never fully recover.

Creating unnecessary redirects

Earlier we stressed the importance of ensuring all of your customers see your latest updates, regardless of where they enter your site. Unfortunately, many organisations have taken a blunt approach to this, and used sitewide redirects to force users to land on their COVID-19 information.

Whilst this may work from a comms and user journey point of view – and is very quick and easy to implement – it is likely to have a lasting negative impact on your website’s organic search performance.

A sitewide 301 permanent redirect tells Google that all of your other pages no longer exist. It’s similar to marking every other page as non-indexable.

302 redirects are temporary, so these are preferable as Google should understand this is not a permanent change. However, if the 302 redirect remains for an extended period of time search engines may assume that the redirect is in fact permanent and was labelled as a 302 by mistake.

Sooner or later, it is likely that landing pages redirected by either method will lose their ranking positions and eventually drop out of Google’s index entirely. It is also worth noting that removing redirects does not mean organic rankings will magically reappear.

Google’s view of your website can be delicate, and pages that jump in and out of the index can create a long-lasting negative impression.

What to avoid

So with those major risks avoided, there’s one more approach we’ve seen this week but would not recommend. Changing the static HTML of every page to incorporate new COVID-19 messaging is another bad idea.

Firstly this can require a lot of resource. Sure, there are clever ways of inserting a message or call to action in a specific location on each page template, but this approach would mean testing (and most likely troubleshooting) on a staging server. And for most digital marketers that means the help of the development team.

For a “permanent” change such as moving to a new office this is the way to go. But the only certainty we have at the moment is that there will be more uncertainty in the months ahead, so we wouldn’t recommend any approach that prevents you from quickly updating your messaging as the situation changes.

Additionally, depending on the amount of content that is going to be changed on each page this may also impact your rankings. As Google begins to crawl the new content and interpret the new messaging that has been introduced there’s a real risk of diluting the clarity of keyword signalling, and negatively impacting the organic rankings of those pages.

The SEO compliant way to keep your customers informed

If you’ve read this far then you definitely care about your customers and your rankings, so put the kettle on and give yourself a pat of the back. As a reward, here’s our recommendation for updating your website in way any digital marketer would be proud of.

Creating a dedicated landing page

Your COVID-19 information page should be a hub of important customer information, that answers their most common questions and offers a range of methods to get in touch should they need further help.

Link to this page as appropriate across your website, update it regularly, and clearly show the date the page was last updated.

Promote this page to all website visitors, on every page of your site

We recommend injecting a notification banner using a javascript overlay, similar to the way most cookie banners work. This is a good way of making sure all of your customers are kept informed, without impacting the crawlability or optimisation of the static content on each of your pages.

Depending on the tool you use to achieve this it should also give you the power to update your messaging as and when required without selling your soul to the development team, or waiting for scheduled releases.

For most CMS-powered websites another easy option is to add a link to your primary and footer navigation menus. These are usually present on every page of the site, and adding in another menu item tends to be relatively easy for the digital marketing team to handle on their own.

Read our guide to the free Google tools that will tell you which pages are the most popular entry points for new and returning users (TL;DR use Google Analytics and Google Search Console).

We recommend adding larger designed creative/banners to push your message as visibly as possible to the user above the fold. This makes sure it cannot be missed, and whilst of course your homepage is essential, you can be confident that you’ve catered for the most important alternative routes into your site too. Changes to your homepage present far less organic risk, as it is not usually an optimised landing page for SEO. Its main SEO value is in distributing authority to the rest of the site, and should be the top-ranking page for people searching for your brand terms. This is unlikely to change if you add a bold COVID-19 call to action.

McDonalds COVID 19 Notice

Maximising new structured data opportunities

During this time there is a need for businesses to keep their audiences in the loop with any reactive changes that may occur. This considered, if organisations are able present updates to their customers inside the search results pages (without the need for a click), they should absolutely try everything they can to do so.

This is where the latest additions to Schema.org version 7.0 come into play.

The latest release contains new, fast-tracked, structured data types which have been accelerated as a result of the business needs during this COVID-19 pandemic.

The latest types include:

SpecialAnnouncement – “A SpecialAnnouncement combines a simple date-stamped textual information update with contextualized Web links and other structured data. It represents an information update made by a locally-oriented organization, for example schools, pharmacies, healthcare providers, community groups, police, local government.”

We recommend businesses utilise this structured data type to broadcast all forthcoming announcements and give them more exposure.

EventAttendanceMode – “The eventAttendanceMode of an event indicates whether it occurs online, offline, or a mix.”

A modification of the Event type, we recommend organizations make the most of the EventAttendanceMode property to keep their audience informed on how they can attend their events moving forward. This may become particularly relevant should organisations begin adjusting their marketing strategies to become more digitally dependant.

CovidTestingFacility – “A CovidTestingFacility is a MedicalClinic where testing for the COVID-19 Coronavirus disease is available. If the facility is being made available from an established Pharmacy, Hotel, or other non-medical organization, multiple types can be listed.”

This structured data type may not be applicable to all, however, use of property will inform audiences which organisations represent either a new or established testing facility.

Maintain SEO activity

As Brexit has shown, it is uncertainty that is most toxic for any business. It may feel like pausing your SEO activity is a good idea to free up time to focus on general or crisis comms depending on how severely your organisation has been affected.

It may be counter-intuitive, but this should only be a last resort.

Instead continue to invest in SEO work so that your website’s organic value doesn’t drop during the pandemic. It will come to an end, and when we return to business as usual the companies, products and services most easily found in search will be best-placed to make a fast and full recovery.

SEO is not reactionary channel and results can’t be switched on at the click of a button. Here’s how to make sure you’re not 2-6 months behind the competition when your company needs it most:

  • Take this opportunity to audit your site and eliminate any drag factors holding back your performance in organic search
  • Explore the opportunity in your market by researching your customers search behaviour – what are they looking for, what problems are they trying to solve, and how does their search behaviour change when they realise their needs?
  • Create a digital content strategy that will keep you in the front of your customers’ minds, maintain trust and engagement, and win the click from new customers as they search for your products and services

As we’ve been seeing on social media this week, when we get back to normal people will remember and buy from the brands that understood their needs, made a real effort to help.

Written by

SEO Manager

Nick Bright
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