The Future of Search Engine Marketing - Facts and Post-COVID Trends

by Garry Viner on 
May 28, 2020 | 
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Garry Viner

So here we all are, some months into the post-COVID world, and everything that needs to be written about the effect of the pandemic and possible recession on marketing has already been written, right?

Since the start of February when things got serious for the planet, we’ve all read countless articles on the right tone to take in your messaging, the best way to pivot your business, the marketing channels to invest in and more. Be authentic. Listen to your customers. Work on your website. Promote your brand. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Likewise, within my specific field of Search Engine Marketing, I’ve read many pieces on what this massive change in the way we live means for businesses advertising on Google and Bing. For the most part, though, this tends to be US-centric in nature, or to a lesser extent the UK. What I’m not seeing anywhere, and is of particular interest to me and my clients, is Australian data. Sure Google and Bing are happy to share general trends in search volume across industries, and it’s certainly good to be aware of these. But what would really be useful is an analysis of how the trends in results being reported in the US and elsewhere are mirrored here in Australia.

I thought it would be useful to collate the findings from some of the more interesting articles I’ve seen globally, and identify whether these patterns are consistent with the Australian experience and what learnings we can take away from them. The first place to start here is with a caveat. Studies from overseas that I will refer to are the result of research conducted by large bodies like Acquisio and Wordstream – organisations with access to thousands of clients across every industry imaginable. I don’t have access to that. What I do have access to, though, is Google Trends for changes in search patterns, and the data from my own agency, Rocket. Yes, this is a small sample size (compared to global giants), however across our portfolio of clients we do work with businesses from SMEs to household names, across Search, Display and Shopping campaigns, and within many different industry verticals.

Let’s jump in!

Claim 1: Disruption has meant there are more people searching online

Source: Business 2 Community, SEMRush

I’ve used Google Trends data for Australia to see if this stacks up here, and split industries into two categories – those that have been unaffected or grown during COVID, and those who have suffered over this period.

Here’s data for Australia across both categories. In the first chart we can see sure enough that there are many sectors that have seen increases in search volume over the past quarter, in some cases sizeable. But the thing that unites these industries is that none of these experienced a sharp drop in search volume.

change in search volume Mar 1 - May 30

Conversely, the second chart shows industries that did see a sharp drop, illustrated in blue. However in each case they have seen a subsequent rise in search, shown in orange. In some cases, such as Automotive, search volume is now at a level above pre-COVID levels. For others like Travel, it’s not there yet, but it’s also not far off.

change in search volume

I’ve not charted all industries here, but it is very much the case that across the top-level categories in Google Trends, I found no examples of an industry having suffered from a sharp drop and not subsequently rebounded. Clearly we have seen the worst of the effect of COVID on search volumes here in Australia. People are searching as much as ever, in some industries much more so.

Claim 2: Desktop search has risen

Source: Search Engine Land

The article above was written at the end of March, and sure enough the data was reflected in our numbers for March, with Desktop impressions rising from 50% to 58% and Mobile falling commensurately. This made plenty of sense with more people working from home, and less time spent commuting. But it appears that this phenomenon was short-lived. We now see Desktop numbers actually below those of February. Mobile numbers have almost regained their ground, but the big mover at least in terms of Impressions has been Tablets. It remains to be seen whether this is just an aberration.

share of device

Interestingly, despite the chart below showing that the share of impressions across each device is relatively similar in February and May, the share of conversions has changed quite a bit. Over the period, the proportion of desktop conversions has risen from 49% to 58%, on tablets they’ve risen from 2% to 3%, but on mobile devices, they’ve fallen from 49% to 40%. Mobile seems to be a good place to generate awareness, but don’t count on it for conversions right now.

Claim 3: Auction insights reveal less competition

Source: Business 2 Community

This is a difficult one to review in bulk across our accounts, as the interface only gives access at the account level. But I looked into 5 of our key accounts to see if there are any trends. In 4 of the 5 accounts, after COVID hit we saw increases in impression share, indicating other advertisers leaving the market. But the interesting thing here is that in most cases, the effect has become less pronounced over time, with most of the increase in the first month and this reducing over the quarter.

Two of the five accounts below actually had their budgets halved over the period and still saw proportional increases in their share of the market, which just goes to show the extent to which advertisers jumped ship in some industries. And in both these cases, as well as one other, impression share is still a good deal higher than it was for our client than pre-COVID.

change in impression share - key accounts

For the next few claims, I’m referencing two articles which both do a fabulous job of aggregating data across thousands of accounts. I’d love to be able to share some comparisons of metrics before and after COVID but there’s nothing in these that lends itself to an infographic.

Claim 4: Click through rates have risen.

Source: Acquisio, Wordstream

What we have seen at Rocket certainly backs this up. Across Search and Display, we’ve seen big increases in CTR. Right from the start, we identified that changing search patterns did not necessarily imply a lower level of engagement. People have been continuing to browse the web, and they’ve been more likely to engage with ads. There may have been less intent to purchase in the short-term, but users have been gathering information for future decisions all the same.

overall CTR increaseCTR research

Across Search in particular, we’ve consistently seen Month on Month rises in Click Through Rate. Here’s hoping it rises again in June.

Claim 5: The cost of advertising has fallen due to lower competition.

There’s little doubt about this one. We’ve seen CPC declines in all areas other than Branded Search, where perhaps advertisers have been more insistent on protecting their brands recently. This is again good news for advertisers wanting to get more traffic to their websites for the same budget.

overall CPC decreaseCPC results

Claim 6: Conversion rates have fallen due to lower purchase intent

The above two trends have been positive for advertisers. More engagement with ads at a lower price is good news. But here’s the rub. Once at your website, visitors are less likely to convert. Anecdotally you’ve probably been aware of this one too. But unlike the two trends above where the effect of a click is felt immediately, conversions rise over time. A click on an ad in May will affect the CTR and CPC in May. But if someone then converts in June, the CVR for May will rise, as it relates to the click date rather than conversion date.

overall CVR decreaseCVR analysis

This does reinforce what we’ve been telling clients which is that now is the time for getting eyeballs on your products and services, and introducing prospects to your brand. As long as you are not in danger of going out of business in the very near future, it’s less important if conversions are down for a while. They’ve seen you, and you can now remarket to them to your heart’s content. Perhaps you’ve even been able to gain some email addresses, and can nurture them with a steady flow of good content. This is all particularly true for businesses with long sales cycles.

The Wrap Up

So there you have it. What we are seeing in Australia, generally mirrors what has been reported overseas.

  • Across all Google’s top-level industries search volume is on the rise again, although some have a way to go to get back to pre-COVID levels.
  • The cost of advertising has been falling in many areas, although in some channels this is starting to rise again.
  • Engagement with ads gets stronger every month, but willingness to convert has been down, although is now rising across Search.
  • The direct correlation with competition is also reflected in the fact that many businesses have managed to increase their impression share, particularly if they have stayed firm on media spend.
  • Movement of eyeballs to desktop and away from mobile is in the process of being reversed, but desktop remains the place for conversions.

For a detailed approach to SEM and improved marketing results across all digital channels, why not contact Rocket Agency today? You can reach us on 1300 059 620.

Garry Viner
Co-Founder and Senior SEO Strategist | Rocket Agency

As the Co-Founder and Senior SEO Strategist at Rocket Agency, Garry has worked to launch and improve marketing campaigns for leading Australian and international brands including Meriton Suites, Luna Park and Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Garry combines his solid mathematical background with a grounding in actuarial studies with business insight and empathy to create cutting-edge marketing campaigns. As a lifelong learner, he stays up-to-date with martech trends in this fast-moving digital space. At Rocket, he has led a team of PPC and SEO specialists that have run award-winning ad campaigns.

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