Impact of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) On Google Organic Search Visibility

Lily Ray Lily Ray March 19, 2020 Category Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

The outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in 2020 has created global upheaval as businesses and economies shift to support citizen health and slow infection rates. While newly imposed government measures restricting movement and foot traffic have forced owners to find creative ways to provide services virtually (or brought them to a halt entirely), other industries are seeing unprecedented surges in demand.

The coronavirus has also created significant changes in both online search behavior, as well as the type of content search engines display as a result. In previous articles, I’ve written about Google’s aim to combat misinformation online by surfacing results with the best possible E-A-T (expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness) on their given topic. This is particularly true for YMYL (your money, your life) search queries, which can have an impact on a searchers’ health or wellbeing.

Queries related to “coronavirus” are clearly YMYL in nature, and should generate search results that display the highest possible levels of E-A-T.

Google Displays Various New SERP Features to Address the Coronavirus Emergency

One interesting development of the coronavirus pandemic is that Google’s result page for ‘coronavirus’ queries triggers a variety of new panels to provide users with objective information about the disease. This content is generally pulled from the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control, and other local government resources.

Google's "Help and information" panel for coronavirus resources.
Google’s “Help and information” panel for coronavirus resources.

Similarly, Google displays an “SOS Alert” panel, which doesn’t offer much functionality beyond indicating that the disease is actively creating a state of emergency.

Next, Google shows safety tips, including a video instructing searchers on how to properly wash their hands, along with other tips pulled in directly from the World Health Organization’s website. Google also displays an “Affected Area” panel, with a world map indicating how the outbreak is spreading and displaying its density across different world regions.

Lastly, before displaying any other organic results, Google also shows a “Symptoms” panel including common symptoms of coronavirus, which are also pulled from the World Health Organization website.

How Has Organic Search Visibility Changed For the Query “Coronavirus?”

Using a new feature of Sistrix, which allows us to see how the Google search engine results paged has changed over two specified date ranges for a given query, we can analyze how results for the query “coronavirus” have changed over time.

Comparing the results on January 19th, 2020 to March 19, 2020, a few interesting developments have taken place:

  • The CDC and WHO have moved into the top 4 organic positions and have not fluctuated for all of March.
  • Health publisher websites, such as WebMD, Medical News Today, and Healthline, have fallen off of the top 2 pages of Google, despite normally ranking in top positions for most health queries.
  • Wikipedia has also fallen off the first page. This is purely speculation, but this may be due to the crowdsourced nature of Wikipedia content, which may temporarily contain inaccurate content as its coronavirus page undergoes constant updates.
  • Local governments and highly reputable news sites have filled in the gaps left by health publisher sites and Wikipedia.

Gains and Losses in Organic Search Visibility Across News and Health Websites

Next, we used the Sistrix U.S. Visibility Index to compare changes in organic visibility in the U.S. between January 18, 2020 and March 18, 2020 across a variety of news and health websites. While other factors greatly affected visibility in these categories during this timeframe, such as the U.S. election, coverage on coronavirus gradually ramped up to dominating the news cycle throughout March.

As a result, Google’s search results have seen extreme fluctuations with some interesting outcomes that underscore changes in searcher behavior. From our analysis of approximately 100 news, health, and government websites, below are 30 winners and losers in organic visibility over the past 2 months, leading to some interesting discoveries:

30 Sites With Significant Increases in Organic Visibility in the Past 2 Months

DomainChange in Organic Visibility (Sistrix U.S. Index 1/18/20 - 3/18/20)
dailyburn.com310.18%
verywellhealth.com153.36%
wellnessmama.com104.34%
realclearpolitics.com94.39%
health.clevelandclinic.org83.13%
worldometers.info81.80%
health.com78.36%
nypost.com73.29%
politico.com65.62%
researchgate.net59.96%
aljazeera.com50.24%
msn.com34.13%
money.cnn.com29.82%
cdc.gov29.14%
who.int27.92%
marketwatch.com27.05%
businessinsider.com26.47%
livescience.com25.78%
vox.com22.24%
nhs.uk17.37%
theatlantic.com17.34%
health.pa.gov16.17%
fox.com15.46%
dshs.texas.gov14.77%
health.mil11.44%
mercurynews.com9.52%
mindbodygreen.com9.04%
newscientist.com7.48%
inquirer.com6.78%
cnn.com6.58%

30 Sites With Significant Decreases in Organic Visibility in the Past 2 Months

DomainChange in Organic Visibility (Sistrix U.S. Index 1/18/20 - 3/18/20)
cbsnews.com-43.02%
vice.com-35.78%
rxlist.com-35.21%
my.clevelandclinic.org-32.16%
examine.com-25.20%
webmd.com-24.91%
washingtonpost.com-24.31%
buzzfeed.com-23.35%
wsj.com-23.21%
msnbc.com-22.16%
slate.com-20.54%
forbes.com-19.41%
newyorker.com-19.39%
usnews.com-17.09%
pbs.org-16.93%
drugs.com-16.01%
inc.com-15.96%
independent.co.uk-15.67%
winchesterhospital.org-14.59%
cancer.gov-14.06%
medlineplus.gov-12.17%
usatoday.com-11.05%
thecut.com-9.98%
sciencedaily.com-9.95%
mayoclinic.org-9.00%
wired.com-8.81%
today.com-8.51%
kidshealth.org-8.24%
bbc.co.uk-8.04%
fda.gov-7.90%

Insights

While it’s expected that websites such as the CDC, the WHO, Cleveland Clinic, and other organizations that provide official information on infectious diseases would see increased organic visibility during a pandemic, some other interesting trends have emerged.

For one, Daily Burn, a provider of video workout classes, has been the biggest winner in organic market share, as more and more quarantined searchers have been forced to work out at home.

Wellness Mama, a natural wellness site that has seen volatility as a result of recent algorithm updates, has also seen a huge uptick in organic visibility. This is due to the variety of articles it provides on DIY and natural methods for home cleaning, healthy recipes, and natural replacements for toiletries such as shampoo, mosquito spray, and diapers.

MindBodyGreen is another example of a natural wellness site that has experienced spikes in visibility, much akin to Wellness Mama. They’ve released several content pieces surrounding nutrition, mindful activities, and fitness as more people self-isolate.

Additionally, some websites featuring data and statistics have seen sharp increases in search visibility. One such site, Worldometer, which features live statistics and counts of the world’s births, deaths, and other metrics, has become indispensable for those seeking objective data about the coronavirus around the world.

A variety of news and publisher sites that offer perspectives on recent events, such as The New Yorker, Forbes, Slate, Vice, and Wired, have seen declines in visibility, as coverage of the coronavirus has increased. Sure, these sites are trusted, reputable publications. However, their decline in visibility is likely a result of inadequate E-A-T to be able to compete for keywords specifically related to the coronavirus compared to government agencies and global health organizations.

Simply put, Google appears to be focused on surfacing content from the most trustworthy, expert organizations that specifically focus on global health issues particularly during a time of crisis.

Contact Path Interactive to Learn More About Incorporating E-A-T Into Your SEO Strategy

Displaying sufficient expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness (E-A-T) has become an increasingly important aspect of search engine optimization and is crucial to SEO success for many YMYL (your money, your life) websites. Our SEOs are immersed in E-A-T best practices. If you’ve encountered dips in search traffic, contact us to learn more about incorporating E-A-T considerations into your SEO strategy.

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