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SEO and the Coronavirus “update”

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corona virus

by Gianluca Fiorelli

Sometimes you do not need a Google update for seeing your traffic and revenues tanking.

If you are thinking that a Core Update is the worst you can experience as an SEO, I suggest you change your mind.

Covid-19, better known as coronavirus albeit is just one of the many coronaviruses present, can have a stronger or similar impact than a Core Update with the big difference that it is not something you can try to contrast with “better content”.

Simply, people stop searching for the topics, products, and services you offer or – even if they would love to buy your services – they cannot because they cannot move out of their Red Zone.

In this post I will try to present you how the Covid-19 is affecting the organic traffic of healthy websites and because it is the niche that has been mostly affected by the coronavirus “update”, I will present you only travel sites’ cases (the effects are partly visible also in other kinds of websites, like local businesses and some B2B and B2C eCommerce niches).

Especially, my intention when writing this post is to prevent you from something that now is affecting me and Italian SEOs, but that will probably affect you in the next weeks. We Italians are just a few weeks before you in this of Covid-19.

As “an image is worth 1,000 words”, look at the Google Analytics graph if this Italian website specialized in promoting holidays in the island of Sardinia, and targeting only the Italian market:

Organic traffic of specialized travel website during Coronavirus crisis

Scary, isn’t it?

So, let me give you some context to the GA screenshot:

  1. On February 20th, the first Italian cases had been declared;
  2. In just a few days, the Covid-19 confirmed cases went from 3 to 400;
  3. Around February 27th, the first cases of death due to Coronavirus complications started;
  4. In those early days, the Italian government began to present a series of very severe acts with the aim of containing the spread of the infection as much as possible (i.e.: the creation of Red Zones limited to a few little towns in Northern Italy)
  5. Despite the hysteria just after the news and Red Zones declaration, it seemed that people were returning to its pre-coronavirus normality, and returning to think to travel (Sardinia is one the Italian top destinations, especially for people in the North of Italy).
  6. However, things got worse rapidly asap the number of infected people and deaths started multiplying (note: in Italy the number of tests done had been done more widely than in other European countries or the USA), and even stricter resolutions from the government, a mix of hysteria, depression and also – let me tell you – common sense arose again.  
  7. On March 7th, finally, the Italian government decided to declare “Orange Zones” 16 provinces in Northern Italy (amongst them Milan, Padua, Vicenza, Venice and Rimini and others that represent the core of the economical power of Italy). Orange Zones are zones from special measures that are active such as, for example, the prohibition to travel for reasons that are not really justified for family or work reasons.
    In the screenshot above you can easily see what was the effect on a travel site.
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Ok… what about the website, you are maybe asking.

Unfortunately, I cannot cite it, so I ask you to trust me.

It is, as I said, it is a travel website specialized in hotel reservation on the island of Sardinia, one of the top holidays’ destinations for Italians, and its main target is the Italian families (family travel niche)

It is not a masterpiece if we talk of SEO, in fact, we are working on improving its quality both technical and content-wise. It had been mildly it by the last January 2020 Core Update, but during the “Coronavirus update” rollout, its SEO Visibility was practically flat (+0.19 as reported by SISTRIX):

SEO Visibility italian website during the coronavirus update

When it comes to rankings, and despite having to compete against giants like Booking, Expedia, Tripadvisor, and Trivago or other very fierce specialized travel website (to not talk of Google itself), this client of mine if ranking in the top 3 for very competitive keywords like “Hotel Sardegna”, “Last minute Sardegna”, “Offerte Sardegna” (Sardinia offers), “Villaggi Sardegna” (“Villaggi” are an Italian word that partly corresponds to “Resorts”).

Similar is the case of this website 100% specialized in traveling with kids and targeting the Italian market too:

Google Analytics graph of the effects of Coronavirus in the organic traffic of an Italian travel website

In this case, the core strategy of this website always has been to produce high-quality content about travel destinations for families with kids, what to do there, the events for families held in Italian and foreign cities et al… but:

  1. Families with kids between 0 and 12 y/o are the most influenced by the state of panic;
  2. Even if their sons are not going to school (schools have been closed to contain the Covid-19 spread), they still “go to school”, albeit virtually with online lessons and homework;
  3. Now, then, the 16 million Italians – many of them with kids – living in the Orange Zones cannot travel or even move out of their province and strongly urged to go out from home if not strictly necessary;
  4. In the rest of Italy, people can travel with no limitation, albeit the no-travel recommendation is valid also for them. However, considering that public events are now forbidden, museums are close (even churches are closed) and sports events are played with not public, people have no interest in searching for travel to do with their kids or for events to go with them.

Neither this website is a masterpiece of SEO, in fact, I am collaborating with them actively since last summer because it received a quite important hit in coincidence with the June 2019 Core Update.

Nevertheless and despite its defects, it is the most relevant and with the biggest organic visibility in its niche.

Could it be worst?

Yes.

Let say you have a series of websites that promote luxury holidays in some of the best regions of Italy (Sardinia, Puglia, Sicily or Tuscany), and that your main market it’s not the Italian one but the international and all of a sudden a health crisis hits your country: surely it is not the best kind of promotion you can have for selling the beauty of Italy and even if the coronavirus cases are very low in the promoted regions (11, 40, 53 and 166 respectively as for March 8th data vs the 4,189 of Lombardy)

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Here below the traffic from Germany to a website marketing Sardinia:

German organic traffic evolution to a website marketing Sardinia during coronavirus crisis

And this below is the organic traffic from UK evolution during these last 3 weeks of a niche travel site specialized in holidays in Sicily:

Considering how much panic and hysteria are all over the western countries (toilet paper now being more searched for than diamonds), this situation was inevitable. Just look at what Google Trends tells us today itself about the interests in the UK related to Florence as a tourist destination:

Moreover, you must consider how much Query Deserves Freshness is totally reshaping the SERPs.

For instance, this is what Google presents when searching for “Travel to Italy“:

Travel to Italy Google.com SERP march 9th 2020

As you can see, and if we exclude the Google Flights and Visual Stories features, right now there is only 1 organic search result, which is not about Italy and coronavirus. Even the most prominent People Also Ask question is about how safe is to travel in Italy now!

I could present here more cases of websites I have direct access to, but the story would be the same in every case.

What does all this mean?

Right now for travel and tourism-based business companies in Italy, the situation is quite dramatic. Refunds by itself do not represent the biggest problem (February and March are low seasons) but the stop of reservations yes. Easter season (next April 12) is given for lost and the summer is getting closer, especially if we consider the holiday season of countries like Germany or the USA.

Many of the less robust online travel companies will be economically strongly affected by this situation and, considering that 5,5 of Italy’s GDP is represented by tourism and related jobs’ categories, the entire economy will be affected too.

Just imagine what could be the effect of a similar crisis in countries like Spain, where tourism represents 14.4% of its GDP.

What SEO can do?

SEO alone, obviously, cannot save a website from a situation of almost 0 revenue that is caused by an uncontrollable external reason like Covid-19.

However, as a good Star Wars fan, I believe that “Rebellions are built on hope”, and SEO can contribute to building this hope.

It is common sense that when the Coronavirus crisis will end (because it will end), people will return probably stronger to desire traveling, especially after having been obliged to not leave their towns for a long period.

SEO is all about the long period, so what we can do now is working for that day, improving the overall quality of the website and making it improve in its organic visibility already. Now it won’t probably mean more traffic and more revenues for everything I explained before, but it will mean instant visibility after, especially when the Query Deserves Freshness impact of travel queries will return to normality.

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In the short term, then, and in preparation for the return to normality, the most important thing is protecting the brand, in this case, Italy ad travel destinations as brands. Not all the country is an Orange Zone, neither everything will be closed to the public from now on. 

It is fundamental, then, to review the editorial planning and strategy for Search:

  1. Discard everything that cannot be achieved. Don’t write guides about what to visit today in Milan, simply because nobody can go to Milan if not for imperious travel or familiar needs. 
  2. Do not promote short terms offers that maybe cannot be fulfilled.
  3. On the contrary, create content that assures people about how to safely travel, if they need to travel, with certain contrasted information.
  4. Create content that makes remember that your destinations will be there when the crisis will end, and promote “book early” campaigns with all the guarantees for cancellations provided clearly.
  5. Optimize for being in an outstanding position for last minute and last second related queries. ASAP the crisis will end, most probably people will desire to escape from their hometowns, which has been a sort of prison for many weeks.
  6. Do not create memes and jokes about the virus and how people react to it. Sure, they are funny, but not appropriate for a brand.
  7. Review your paid campaigns and suspend all those ones that do not have much sense to maintain at this moment. Create your campaigns to promote your destination in the long term and remember that in most of the case the real search session in travel is about 60/90 days long.
  8. Be proactive with your audience. What can you do to facilitate its life in this crisis? If you’re a travel website, facilitate the refunds or offer the possibility to postpone the travel/hotel reserve to a future time with no added cost, even if the date will be in your high season. If you are an eCommerce, make all your product “Prime” and assume the expedition costs. Acts like these are not easy to assume for a business company that is dealing with the economic impact that a crisis like this one means but are those that people tend to remember and that make a brand a Brand.

And, finally, if you are an SEO and you can afford it, consider the opportunity to support pro-bono the little businesses that are affected by the economic crisis derived by the coronavirus. Helping them passing through this, you will help to the resurge of the economy.

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Google December Product Reviews Update Affects More Than English Language Sites? via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s Product Reviews update was announced to be rolling out to the English language. No mention was made as to if or when it would roll out to other languages. Mueller answered a question as to whether it is rolling out to other languages.

Google December 2021 Product Reviews Update

On December 1, 2021, Google announced on Twitter that a Product Review update would be rolling out that would focus on English language web pages.

The focus of the update was for improving the quality of reviews shown in Google search, specifically targeting review sites.

A Googler tweeted a description of the kinds of sites that would be targeted for demotion in the search rankings:

“Mainly relevant to sites that post articles reviewing products.

Think of sites like “best TVs under $200″.com.

Goal is to improve the quality and usefulness of reviews we show users.”

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Google also published a blog post with more guidance on the product review update that introduced two new best practices that Google’s algorithm would be looking for.

The first best practice was a requirement of evidence that a product was actually handled and reviewed.

The second best practice was to provide links to more than one place that a user could purchase the product.

The Twitter announcement stated that it was rolling out to English language websites. The blog post did not mention what languages it was rolling out to nor did the blog post specify that the product review update was limited to the English language.

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Google’s Mueller Thinking About Product Reviews Update

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Product Review Update Targets More Languages?

The person asking the question was rightly under the impression that the product review update only affected English language search results.

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But he asserted that he was seeing search volatility in the German language that appears to be related to Google’s December 2021 Product Review Update.

This is his question:

“I was seeing some movements in German search as well.

So I was wondering if there could also be an effect on websites in other languages by this product reviews update… because we had lots of movement and volatility in the last weeks.

…My question is, is it possible that the product reviews update affects other sites as well?”

John Mueller answered:

“I don’t know… like other languages?

My assumption was this was global and and across all languages.

But I don’t know what we announced in the blog post specifically.

But usually we try to push the engineering team to make a decision on that so that we can document it properly in the blog post.

I don’t know if that happened with the product reviews update. I don’t recall the complete blog post.

But it’s… from my point of view it seems like something that we could be doing in multiple languages and wouldn’t be tied to English.

And even if it were English initially, it feels like something that is relevant across the board, and we should try to find ways to roll that out to other languages over time as well.

So I’m not particularly surprised that you see changes in Germany.

But I also don’t know what we actually announced with regards to the locations and languages that are involved.”

Does Product Reviews Update Affect More Languages?

While the tweeted announcement specified that the product reviews update was limited to the English language the official blog post did not mention any such limitations.

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Google’s John Mueller offered his opinion that the product reviews update is something that Google could do in multiple languages.

One must wonder if the tweet was meant to communicate that the update was rolling out first in English and subsequently to other languages.

It’s unclear if the product reviews update was rolled out globally to more languages. Hopefully Google will clarify this soon.

Citations

Google Blog Post About Product Reviews Update

Product reviews update and your site

Google’s New Product Reviews Guidelines

Write high quality product reviews

John Mueller Discusses If Product Reviews Update Is Global

Watch Mueller answer the question at the 14:00 Minute Mark

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Survey says: Amazon, Google more trusted with your personal data than Apple is

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survey-says:-amazon,-google-more-trusted-with-your-personal-data-than-apple-is-–-phonearena
 

MacRumors reveals that more people feel better with their personal data in the hands of Amazon and Google than Apple’s. Companies that the public really doesn’t trust when it comes to their personal data include Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram.

The survey asked over 1,000 internet users in the U.S. how much they trusted certain companies such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon to handle their user data and browsing activity responsibly.

Amazon and Google are considered by survey respondents to be more trustworthy than Apple

Those surveyed were asked whether they trusted these firms with their personal data “a great deal,” “a good amount,” “not much,” or “not at all.” Respondents could also answer that they had no opinion about a particular company. 18% of those polled said that they trust Apple “a great deal” which topped the 14% received by Google and Amazon.

However, 39% said that they trust Amazon  by “a good amount” with Google picking up 34% of the votes in that same category. Only 26% of those answering said that they trust Apple by “a good amount.” The first two responses, “a great deal” and “a good amount,” are considered positive replies for a company. “Not much” and “not at all” are considered negative responses.

By adding up the scores in the positive categories,

Apple tallied a score of 44% (18% said it trusted Apple with its personal data “a great deal” while 26% said it trusted Apple “a good amount”). But that placed the tech giant third after Amazon’s 53% and Google’s 48%. After Apple, Microsoft finished fourth with 43%, YouTube (which is owned by Google) was fifth with 35%, and Facebook was sixth at 20%.

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Rounding out the remainder of the nine firms in the survey, Instagram placed seventh with a positive score of 19%, WhatsApp was eighth with a score of 15%, and TikTok was last at 12%.

Looking at the scoring for the two negative responses (“not much,” or “not at all”), Facebook had a combined negative score of 72% making it the least trusted company in the survey. TikTok was next at 63% with Instagram following at 60%. WhatsApp and YouTube were both in the middle of the pact at 53% followed next by Google and Microsoft at 47% and 42% respectively. Apple and Amazon each had the lowest combined negative scores at 40% each.

74% of those surveyed called targeted online ads invasive

The survey also found that a whopping 82% of respondents found targeted online ads annoying and 74% called them invasive. Just 27% found such ads helpful. This response doesn’t exactly track the 62% of iOS users who have used Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature to opt-out of being tracked while browsing websites and using apps. The tracking allows third-party firms to send users targeted ads online which is something that they cannot do to users who have opted out.

The 38% of iOS users who decided not to opt out of being tracked might have done so because they find it convenient to receive targeted ads about a certain product that they looked up online. But is ATT actually doing anything?

Marketing strategy consultant Eric Seufert said last summer, “Anyone opting out of tracking right now is basically having the same level of data collected as they were before. Apple hasn’t actually deterred the behavior that they have called out as being so reprehensible, so they are kind of complicit in it happening.”

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The Financial Times says that iPhone users are being lumped together by certain behaviors instead of unique ID numbers in order to send targeted ads. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that the company is working to rebuild its ad infrastructure “using more aggregate or anonymized data.”

Aggregated data is a collection of individual data that is used to create high-level data. Anonymized data is data that removes any information that can be used to identify the people in a group.

When consumers were asked how often do they think that their phones or other tech devices are listening in to them in ways that they didn’t agree to, 72% answered “very often” or “somewhat often.” 28% responded by saying “rarely” or “never.”

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Google’s John Mueller on Brand Mentions via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s John Mueller was asked if “brand mentions” helped with SEO and rankings. John Mueller explained, in detail, how brand mentions are not anything used at Google.

What’s A Brand Mention?

A brand mention is when one website mentions another website. There is an idea in the SEO community that when a website mentions another website’s domain name or URL that Google will see this and count it the same as a link.

Brand Mentions are also known as an implied link. Much was written about this ten years ago after a Google patent that mentions “implied links” surfaced.

There has never been a solid review of why the idea of “brand mentions” has nothing to do with this patent, but I’ll provide a shortened version later in this article.

John Mueller Discussing Brand Mentions

John Mueller Brand Mentions

John Mueller Brand Mentions

Do Brand Mentions Help With Rankings?

The person asking the question wanted to know about brand mentions for the purpose of ranking. The person asking the question has good reason to ask it because the idea of “brand mentions” has never been definitively reviewed.

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The person asked the question:

“Do brand mentions without a link help with SEO rankings?”

Google Does Not Use Brand Mentions

Google’s John Mueller answered that Google does not use the “brand mentions” for any link related purpose.

Mueller explained:

“From my point of view, I don’t think we use those at all for things like PageRank or understanding the link graph of a website.

And just a plain mention is sometimes kind of tricky to figure out anyway.”

That part about it being tricky is interesting.

He didn’t elaborate on why it’s tricky until later in the video where he says it’s hard to understand the subjective context of a website mentioning another website.

Brand Mentions Are Useful For Building Awareness

Mueller next says that brand mentions may be useful for helping to get the word out about a site, which is about building popularity.

Mueller continued:

“But it can be something that makes people aware of your brand, and from that point of view, could be something where indirectly you might have some kind of an effect from that in that they search for your brand and then …obviously, if they’re searching for your brand then hopefully they find you right away and then they can go to your website.

And if they like what they see there, then again, they can go off and recommend that to other people as well.”

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“Brand Mentions” Are Problematic

Later on at the 58 minute mark another person brings the topic back up and asks how Google could handle spam sites that are mentioning a brand in a negative way.

The person said that one can disavow links but one cannot disavow a “brand mention.”

Mueller agreed and said that’s one of things that makes brand mentions difficult to use for ranking purposes.

John Mueller explained:

“Kind of understanding the almost the subjective context of the mention is really hard.

Is it like a positive mention or a negative mention?

Is it a sarcastic positive mention or a sarcastic negative mention? How can you even tell?

And all of that, together with the fact that there are lots of spammy sites out there and sometimes they just spin content, sometimes they’re malicious with regards to the content that they create…

All of that, I think, makes it really hard to say we can just use that as the same as a link.

…It’s just, I think, too confusing to use as a clear signal.”

Where “Brand Mentions” Come From

The idea of “brand mentions” has bounced around for over ten years.

There were no research papers or patents to support it. “Brand mentions” is literally an idea that someone invented out of thin air.

However the “brand mention” idea took off in 2012 when a patent surfaced that seemed to confirm the idea of brand mentions.

There’s a whole long story to this so I’m just going to condense it.

There’s a patent from 2012 that was misinterpreted in several different ways because most people at the time, myself included, did not read the entire patent from beginning to end.

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The patent itself is about ranking web pages.

The structure of most Google patents consist of introductory paragraphs that discuss what the patent is about and those paragraphs are followed by pages of in-depth description of the details.

The introductory paragraphs that explain what it’s about states:

“Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs… for ranking search results.”

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Pretty much nobody read that beginning part of the patent.

Everyone focused on a single paragraph in the middle of the patent (page 9 out of 16 pages).

In that paragraph there is a mention of something called “implied links.”

The word “implied” is only mentioned four times in the entire patent and all four times are contained within that single paragraph.

So when this patent was discovered, the SEO industry focused on that single paragraph as proof that Google uses brand mentions.

In order to understand what an “implied link” is, you have to scroll all the way back up to the opening paragraphs where the Google patent authors describe something called a “reference query” that is not a link but is nevertheless used for ranking purposes just like a link.

What Is A Reference Query?

A reference query is a search query that contains a reference to a URL or a domain name.

The patent states:

“A reference query for a particular group of resources can be a previously submitted search query that has been categorized as referring to a resource in the particular group of resources.”

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Elsewhere the patent provides a more specific explanation:

“A query can be classified as referring to a particular resource if the query includes a term that is recognized by the system as referring to the particular resource.

…search queries including the term “example.com” can be classified as referring to that home page.”

The summary of the patent, which comes at the beginning of the document, states that it’s about establishing which links to a website are independent and also counting reference queries and with that information creating a “modification factor” which is used to rank web pages.

“…determining, for each of the plurality of groups of resources, a respective count of reference queries; determining, for each of the plurality of groups of resources, a respective group-specific modification factor, wherein the group-specific modification factor for each group is based on the count of independent links and the count of reference queries for the group;”

The entire patent largely rests on those two very important factors, a count of independent inbound links and the count of reference queries. The phrases reference query and reference queries are used 39 times in the patent.

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As noted above, the reference query is used for ranking purposes like a link, but it’s not a link.

The patent states:

“An implied link is a reference to a target resource…”

It’s clear that in this patent, when it mentions the implied link, it’s talking about reference queries, which as explained above simply means when people search using keywords and the domain name of a website.

Idea of Brand Mentions Is False

The whole idea of “brand mentions” became a part of SEO belief systems because of how that patent was misinterpreted.

But now you have the facts and know why “brand mentions” is not real thing.

Plus John Mueller confirmed it.

“Brand mentions” is something completely random that someone in the SEO community invented out of thin air.

Citations

Ranking Search Results Patent

Watch John Mueller discuss “brand mentions” at 44:10 Minute Mark and the brand Mentions second part begins at the 58:12 minute mark

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