OK Google, how do I get more business during the pandemic?

How voice and local search optimization can help you reach your displaced market.

Whatever stage of the pandemic your state is in, if you’re brick-and-mortar businesses, you face some tough promotional problems:

  • How do you let your customers know if you’re open?
  • How do you inform the public about new hours and policies?
  • How do you reach your market in real time, when they need what you offer, but don’t know about you?
  • How do you find new customers when foot-traffic is down?

Even if you’ve emailed and called as many of your customers as possible to let them know if and when you’ll be open for business, you still won’t have reached everyone. Not to mention, if you’re a shop or restaurant that relies on a bustling location for attracting new customers, you’re facing a problem a sandwich board can’t fix.

Independent shops, regionally-based chains and service providers, restaurant groups—anything that relies on its physical location for driving business—are up against an unprecedented challenge that traditional marketing channels are poorly equipped to address. And not every business can simply spin-up online sales to pick up the slack. But there are digital marketing tactics that can help you bridge the gap with your displaced market. In this article, we’ll explore three techniques that can help businesses reconnect with their customers:

  1. Local on-site SEO – This includes basic content optimization on a business’s website that makes it easier for that site to appear in searches where location is contextually relevant. For example: “Chinese takeout in Ann Arbor” or even “Chinese takeout near me.” 
  2. Voice search optimization – Voice search is the fastest growing source of queries on the web. It is commonly used in situations where location and immediacy are critical to the search. Think of someone in their car trying to find the nearest gas station, all while keeping their hands on the wheel.
  3. Google My Business – This free service from Google is vital for a couple reasons. When effectively maintained, it will appear in the “knowledge graph” on the right side of desktop browsers and at the top of mobile browsers for branded searches (queries where the searcher has used your actual business name). Your GMB listing will also reinforce that your business website is relevant to a specific region.

Where has your market gone?

Before we dive further into the tactics, let’s explore the market shifts that have been brought about by the pandemic and will need to be addressed. Consider the following target audience use cases for doing business during the pandemic:

  • Many of your customers have continued engagement, even during lockdown, because your business was able to continue some level of operations. You may have also earned new customers because an alternative was not open. 
  • Loyal customers are eagerly awaiting your reopening and will seek out your specific business when they need what you offer. 
  • Semi-regular customers would likely use your services, but you’ve fallen from their awareness due to priority shifts. 
  • You have many non-regular, one-time, or seasonal customers due to the uniqueness of your offerings or location. They do not seek your products or services so much as happen upon them at the right time.

Most businesses will likely consider some combination of these use cases as an accurate depiction of their market situation. 

Now, if we consider the customer’s dilemma, we can see there are some critical decision points that influence the market’s interaction with a business: 

  1. Do I want or need product or service X? 
  2. Where would I normally go for X? (Business Y)
  3. Is business Y open? 
  4. If so, have business hours changed? Are there new policies in place?
  5. Is there a health risk involved to going to business Y?
  6. Are there alternatives to business Y or product/service X?

When we align the decision tree with each audience use case, we can identify overlaps and consider strategies to address them. A food fanatic may regularly check to see when their favorite farm-to-table restaurant is open again, while the parent looking for something different for dinner may not be aware that the same restaurant will be introducing take-home meal kits, and the out-of-towner who’s here for a medical appointment has no idea what’s open, close to the hospital, and offers healthy food. 

In each of these examples it becomes significantly easier to connect with the prospective customer when that farm-to-table restaurant has optimized its website for local and voice searches and has also optimized its GMB listing. Doing this means its website will no longer need to compete with the whole internet for terms like “farm-to-table restaurants,” “meal-kits,” or “healthy food near the hospital.” The restaurant’s business information will instead be more likely to appear when it is immediately relevant to the searcher, and therefore most likely to generate business. 

Meet your market where they are.

In the before times, we could take so much about how businesses operate for granted. Mid-morning on a weekday? Of course the pharmacy is open! Many types of established businesses, or those in great locations, could count on their customers to find them, even if they didn’t have a lot of information on their website. 

Lockdowns and stay-home orders have changed all of that—there’s not a lot we can take for granted when it comes to business in the “new normal.” And when you factor in that phone books and hometown newspapers are no longer available as reliable local promotion channels, it’s easy to see why businesses that are not already plugged in digitally are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to connecting with their local market. You need to meet your market where they are, and the data is clear. They are using the internet to find answers to their everyday questions, including questions like whether or not you are open. 

During the past decade or so we have all become reliant on the internet as our primary source of information—often through our mobile devices. This is where more traditionally-marketed brick-and-mortar businesses can achieve some quick and lasting wins when it comes to operating during the pandemic (not to mention just doing business in general). When you have a website that is well optimized for location-based and voice searches and a well-configured GMB listing, it will help ensure you get in front of your market right when they are looking for you. Here’s how:

Local on-site SEO

By default, Google automatically factors a searcher’s location into every query. This allows it to serve the most relevant results for the searcher. Google’s complex algorithm is designed to understand search intent based on word choice. In fact, if you search only the terms “Chinese takeout,” your results will be based on your location even though you did not type in a city. Add “near me” and you’ll get a list that is even more pin-pointed to your exact position on a map. 

However, if you happen to be the closest Chinese restaurant to the searcher, but Google can’t parse that data from your website, other restaurants will show up first—you will be digitally invisible. This is why local search optimization is so vital right now—you can’t afford to miss anyone who might be looking for you or your offerings. 

By following some basic best practices for local SEO, you can ensure key information on your site is indexed by Google in the context of your location. This includes things like your business name, address, and phone number, but can also extend to your hours and your service offerings. Additionally, you will be able to highlight vital information about changes to your operations in light of the ever-changing pandemic. 

72% of people who perform a local search end up visiting a store within five miles.

source: Hubspot

Voice Optimization

A recent survey indicates that 58% of U.S. consumers have used voice to find information on a local business, with 74% of those consumers doing so on a weekly basis. Other surveys have shown that the top uses for voice include: getting directions (65%), making a phone call (51%), searching for a business (47%), or researching a product or service (44%)—all activities highly relevant to local business.  

Similar to local SEO, voice optimization ensures that the information on your site is accessible and returnable in voice search results. Depending on the searcher’s device of choice, the results could be returned as a single answer, or a limited list of options; these results may be “read,” displayed, or both. When you consider the nature of the top uses for voice search listed above, it’s imperative that key information, such as address, business hours, and phone number, etc., is accessible for branded searches. You simply must “show up” when someone asks, “OK Google, what is the phone number for [Your Business Name]?” 

Ranking in voice search for non-branded queries can be a significant challenge when you are competing with the whole of the internet. However, when the location is relevant to the search—consider our previous “Chinese takeout near me” example—voice optimization can get your restaurant on the short list. 

72% of people who use voice search say it has become part of their daily life.

source: Review 42

Google My Business

Google created a spinoff of its massive index specifically for businesses. Functioning somewhere between the digital versions of phonebook entry and a billboard, Google My Business (GMB) provides a free, customizable profile for any business—all you have to do is claim it. 

GMB listings appear when Google Maps is part of the search results, or as a large “knowledge graph” in the sidebar for branded searches. Data in your listing, things like business hours or phone number, can also be pulled directly into “featured snippets” within the search results. This happens because Google has indexed the information to answer a query directly, eliminating the need for the searcher to click or tap through to your website. If the searcher is using Google voice, an optimized GMB listing will go even further to ensure this data can be provided as the spoken result of a relevant query.  

GMB has lots of other great features that can help you reconnect with your customers, such as Google Posts, photo gallery, Q & A, and reviews. You can also use a local SEO tool like Moz Local, to  aggregate information on other listing websites, such as yellowpages.com and Yelp. We won’t go into all the benefits here, but they are worth exploring as you consider new ways to re-engage your market. 

Learn more about using Google Posts and how to optimize GMB for multiple locations.

With all this in mind, it’s easy to see why GMB is so valuable for location-based searches, not to mention vital to keeping your market informed during the pandemic. An added benefit to a well-optimized GMB listing is that Google’s search algorithm uses it as some level of reinforcement that the information on your website is accurate.

Google provides guidelines for businesses affected by COVID-19 on how to update GMB to reflect adjusted hours, changes to services, delays and closures. 

An average GMB listing accounts for 33 website visits, 14 phone calls, and 12 direction requests per month.

source: BrightLocal

Good SEO now is great SEO for the future

Right now there are two huge shifts that have altered the way we need to engage with the more traditional market segments that go hand in hand with brick-and-mortar business. The sea change brought about by COVID-19 leaves these companies afloat without the traditional methods of promotion that were once the default for local business. Yet, advances in Google’s algorithm and consumer technology mean that SEO is now a powerful strategy for hyper-local marketing. While SEO was once considered only valuable for large regional, national, or international markets, three powerhouse tactics for brick-and-mortar SEO—local and voice optimization on your website and Google My Business—are reliable ways to reach your market where they are:

  • When you optimize your website for local SEO, your website will be more likely to show up for location-based searches, (whether or not the searcher actually types in their location).
  • When you optimize your website for voice search, you help your business “show up” when your offerings are most likely to be immediately relevant to the searcher. 
  • When you optimize your Google My Business listing, you help boost both your local and voice SEO efforts, and have a direct channel to get timely information in front of your audience. 

At Pure Visibility, we love tactics that address both short- and long-term goals. An SEO strategy that focuses on local and voice optimization isn’t just a stopgap to boost business during the pandemic. It’s invaluable for long-term growth as we (eventually) move beyond crisis.