Industry Updates, SEM, Google Adwords

COVID-19’s Impact on Consumer Search Marketing – Behaviour & Intent

The ongoing impact of COVID-19 on Australian businesses is unprecedented to say the least.

With such a high level of unpredictability in the market, we are seeing advertisers decrease or halt all spend.
But are advertisers right in the way they are changing their ad spends? Are their customers still searching for their products or services and interesting in buying them?
We have analysed just under 150 websites and more than 18 million unique search queries to try and understand how COVID-19 was /and is affecting consumers’ search behaviour & intent – search marketing.

State-Of-Play

A recent IAB Australia report /’COVID-19 Digital Ad Impact Study’ finds –

‘21% of respondents say they have paused all their ad spend, 57% have decreased some of their spend and 15% say they have in-creased or maintained spend.’

 

With forced business closures, evolving isolation measures, and changing consumer needs, busi-nesses are being forced to evaluate whether they operate at all, let alone advertise.

So – we analysed just under 150 websites and over 18 million unique search queries to try and understand – just exactly how COVID-19 is affecting consumer:

  • Search ‘Behaviour’ – Are they still searching? If so, what has happened to search volumes?
  • Search ‘Intent’ – Are they still buying? and therefore, clicking through to their clients’ acquisition focused websites?

The Data

Most of our typical search analysis and forecasting tools, are not providing us with an understanding around what’s going on within the AU market. These tools being –

  • Keyword Planners – have limited data, and limited ability to predict volume.
  • Google Trends – only shows relative search volumes, doesn’t indicate intent.
  • Google Analytics – doesn’t show search volume or queries, only website visits.

 

We therefore used Google Search Console (GSC) which proved great to serve as an indicator for user search intent – allowing us to analyse millions of keywords, track queries, and website click-throughs /CTR metrics.

The data used stems from Australia, comparing October 2019 – March 2020 to the same period last year (year-on-year /YoY).

The three metrics used to understand consumer behaviour and intent are:

 

MetricDefinitionIndication
ImpressionsHow many times a website appears organically in Google / Search VolumeConsumer behaviour
CTR (Click Through Rate)The ratio of clicks to impressions (clicks / impressions)Consumer Intent
ClicksVisits to the websiteConsumer Intent

 

The data was then grouped by vertical to limit anomalies and to better understand the broader impact. What emerged from these 12 verticals were the following – 3 distinct groups:

  • Neutral Impactthese verticals showed little to no unexpected movement during the period.
  • Negative Impactthese verticals were significantly affected, especially during late March.
  • Positive Impactthese verticals bucked the overall trend, showing growth and coming out stronger.

As there are other factors in play, for example the site might have better organic visibility (SEO) this year over last, the best way of reading the data is to look at the % trend lines across all three metrics.

Neutral Impact

These verticals show little to no disruption in the trend of said three key metrics – continuing trends seen in late 2019 through early 2020.

Security

Security saw continued YoY growth in Impressions through the start of 2020, on trend from the end of 2019. Clicks and CTR follow similarly static movement through the period. March shows additional seasonality across all metrics but follows a similar YoY increase.

Professional Services

Professional services saw continued YoY growth in Impressions from mid-January, while Clicks re-mains strong until February.

This vertical could almost come under positive impact, but we are yet to see the growth in Click volume to indicate higher engagement YoY. March demonstrated a drop in Click volume compared to 2019s seasonal high, but remains stable MoM indicating little impact.

Negative Impact - Changing Intent

There’s no surprise that this is our biggest category of verticals, and what we see here can be further grouped into two main trends – Changing Intent and Industry Collapse.

 

In cases with changing intent, we see search volumes remain stable or even experience growth while the click-throughs to the websites drop significantly.

This indicates a change in intent, people are still searching, but the nature of their enquiry has changed. Users might be looking for advice, browsing for alternatives or looking up new regulations. Google & Microsoft have both re-leased their findings.

B2B

Demonstrating this change in intent perfectly, B2B, while showing a slightly negative Impression trend YoY, shows a significant drop in engagement with Clicks decreasing 34% YoY at the end of March, and CTR dropping 31% YoY. The bump in early March possibly indicating users reacting to stimulus package announcements on the 11th.

Education

Education saw growth stagnate in February, with the YoY growth experienced in late 2019 steadily reducing. The vertical did not experience the typical upward trend toward key intake periods in early months of the year.

As things continue to decrease toward March, we see a large spike in search volume around the 15th as uncertainty grows around the status of educational institutions in the face of term beginning and school closures.

CTR indicates again a change in intent, with the influx of new searches not in line with client offerings, e.g. users searching for advice, government regulation, etc. We then see the all too familiar tail-off toward the end of March, trending down YoY.

Insurance

Initially showing fluctuating but positive YoY growth, insurance also saw a mid-March crash in CTR resulting in Clicks dropping 19% YoY.

Indications of the impact of new regulations and government funding, as well as a growth, then eventual decline, in search impressions possibly off the back of insurance policies not covering pandemics, and people cancelling or pausing insurance policies for travel.

Real Estate

While YoY Impressions continue positive movement, we see a drop then stagnation toward mid-March in Clicks, with users still browsing but with open houses and auctions cancelled, the market is effectively on hold until restrictions are lifted or alternative processes are established. Window-shopping continues through March while CTR drops.

Negative Impact - Industry Collapse

These verticals experienced significant drops across all 3 key-metrics, most occurring in March, but some since early January. These were the first and most affected verticals by legislative changes, social distancing, and travel bans – by way of an industrial collapse – and all show very similar trends.

Travel

Unsurprisingly the hardest hit vertical, with global case numbers continuing to rise through January and travel bans being introduced from early February, we see significant drop off in all metrics through to March.

Once venues are forced to close, and full travel bans come into effect, the decline continues to accelerate, before flattening out a to an eventual 85% drop in Clicks, 47% drop in Im-pressions, and 71% drop in CTR YoY at the end of March.

With bans still in place, we expect this trend to continue through to April and for the foreseeable future.

Hospitality

While un-phased through key seasonal periods through Christmas, New Years Eve and Australia Day, hospitality starts to slow toward the end of February with increasing legislative measures announced.

March begins the steep decline off the back of the first Australian deaths and increasing social distancing and venue restrictions as hospitality venues were forced to close in the last weeks of March.

Leisure

Similarly, Leisure experienced YoY growth until mid-January, but as cases continued to rise through-out February, we see search volume resist the seasonal trends experienced in the prior period.

While clicks continued to remain higher YoY through February, we see the trend dip then eventually crash in mid-March as continued measures are implemented. Additionally – as venues are forced to close amid new regulations.

Positive Impact

Surprisingly some verticals not only avoided the negative impact of COVID-19 but saw growth throughout the period.

Lending

While experiencing some positive growth in Impressions YoY toward the end of March, the trend is more indicative of seasonal increases in the prior period.

Excluding this dip – we see Loans come out relatively unscathed at the end of March, returning to a comfortable YoY Growth.

Clicks are maintained through January and February then experience growth toward late March. As increasing financial uncertainty faces many Australians and businesses, we see Lending as a key growth area.

Retail

Despite Australian consumer preference toward brick and mortar, retail has shown sustained YoY growth as well as a significant upward trend toward the end of March across Impressions and Clicks, while CTR remains stable.

While the surge in impressions also indicates a change in intent, with users looking for information around new store hours, product availabilities, etc. – the increase in Clicks demonstrates a sustained engagement. Retailers with e-commerce capability will be well positioned to take advantage of this surge in activity.

Superannuation

Unsurprisingly as financial uncertainty and super accessibility conditions change, we see a surge in search volume and engagement for superannuation.

Presenting the strongest case of growth across all verticals, ‘super’ sees sustained YoY performance through the start of 2020 by growth taking-off towards February-end into March – with Impressions peaking at 72% higher and Clicks 136% higher YoY. And (unsurprisingly), peaking on the day of the announcement of early super access.

In Conclusion ..

While we definitely feel the impact across the majority of Verticals, it’s not allbad news.

As Australia continues to navigate the pandemic, businesses have opportunities to excel in growth verticals, and apply learnings where possible from those succeeding.

As the situation continues to develop, we will keep updating the data on our website to monitor and further understand the new dynamics of search through this period.

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