What Shifts in Product Demand Mean for SEO

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If you’re working in e-commerce through the COVID-19 crisis, you’ve likely noticed some wild shifts in the way your products are viewed and consumed by the public. After all, the needs of the entire world have changed in some capacity. It makes sense that purchasing habits have, too.

This shift in demand might require an equal shift in your marketing strategy. As an SEO, you need to make sure that you understand the new demands on your product in the given market, and ensure any on-site changes are SEO-friendly.

These strategies apply not only in the midst of our current pandemic, but also during any rapid or unexpected change in product demand.

E-commerce sites are facing two very different scenarios

With my own e-commerce clients, and as a consumer myself, I’ve noticed two ways that the COVID-19 outbreak is affecting product demand:

1. Your product is suddenly a hot commodity and demand has skyrocketed.

Sporting goods, home office supplies, and backyard furniture have all exploded since social distancing guidelines were imposed.

Roller skates, for example, are having a moment. Lots of people (including me!) have turned to skating and other outdoor activities for recreation. And with many brick-and-mortar stores closed, we’re buying these items online.

[Alt text: Google Trends chart for the keyword “roller skates”, which shows relatively steady numbers until a sharp increase in March 2020]

2. Your product is suddenly less relevant to the market and demand has drastically decreased.

Items like apparel, shoes, and luxury goods are all experiencing this to a degree. Engagement rings — being expensive and tied to a major life event — saw a sharp decrease in search volume in March 2020.

[Alt text: Google Trends chart for the keyword “engagement rings”, which sees relatively steady numbers until a sharp decrease in March 2020.]

These examples fall on opposite ends of a demand spectrum. Take time to analyze your traffic and consider which side of the spectrum your product lands on, so you can make the best of your situation as an SEO and marketer.

If your product is more in demand than ever

You may think it’s all positive when your product is in a season of high demand, especially during an economic downturn. But an unexpected uptick in demand can cause a host of marketing and SEO challenges to contend with. Here are some of the most important considerations to take into account if your products are newly booming.

Manage temporary out-of-stock products

Disrupted supply chains paired with a demand increase is a recipe for an out-of-stock disaster, at least temporarily. If this isn’t something your site typically deals with, you may be the one who has to figure out what to do with these product pages while you wait for a restock.

Dr. Pete has a fantastic article about the best way to handle temporary out-of-stock that you should check out if this is your scenario.

Spoiler alert: please don’t 404 these pages if the product will be restocked. Also, make sure that you’re providing helpful information about where users can find the product in stores, or how they can be notified when it’s back in stock online.

Address common user questions

Given the extreme circumstances we’re collectively experiencing, customers need to be reassured about any contingencies they’ll face when ordering your product. It is critically important to address these pain points with on-site messaging during a sudden uptick in order volume for two reasons:

  1. You are likely unprepared for a massive influx of customer service calls. Even if you are prepared, you should do what you can to spare your customer service reps!
  2. Many customers don’t want to reach out to customer service to get a basic question answered. If they can’t find the information quickly on your site, they’re more likely to find another site to take their money.

If you don’t know what your customers are asking about, there are a few ways to find out:

  • Talk to your customer service reps. They speak with your customers every day, and likely have answered the same questions over and over again. These are the questions to address on-site.
  • Mine your chat logs for repeat questions.
  • See what customers are asking about on social media — check your linked and unlinked mentions!
  • Address anything you know to be a current concern: are there shipping delays? Back ups with your warehouse? Let people know about it up front to save yourself from angry customer messages later.

You can respond to these questions in several different ways on your site. Adding banners, pop-ups, and even prominently displaying your FAQ page are all options. Just make sure your message is easy to find without detracting from important product details.

Moxi Skates provides a great example of this strategy in action. On every product page, they include a “COVID Questions” tab to address changes in operations due to the pandemic. They also have a message directly under the “Add to Cart” button telling users how long they can expect to wait for their skates.

[Alt text: A product page from Moxi Skates that includes a “COVID Questions” tab, describing what customers need to know about the current shipping status of the product.]

Meet your users where they are

If your product is suddenly popular because of a lifestyle change for your customer (such as working from a home office instead of in-office), you could test new language and imagery to keep your products relevant in their new setting.

Vari makes desks and other office furniture, including popular standing desks. Before the pandemic, their homepage featured only in-office business imagery. Now, they prominently feature desk solutions for home learning and work-from-home. This didn’t replace their office-focused messaging, but supplemented it in a useful way.

Notice there’s no overdone “in these trying times” or “now more than ever” language. Rather they’re speaking directly to this newly popular use for their product.

[Alt text: A screen shot from Vari’s homepage that pictures a woman working at a desk. The main text says “Feel at Home Wherever You Work.”]

Find opportunities to create new indexed pages

With the advent of new concepts comes the opportunity for new indexed pages — both on the content and product side.

Five months ago, “social distance supplies” had no monthly search volume, and likely didn’t mean much to any of us. Yet now it’s the language we use to describe products like hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes, masks, and gloves.

Sure you could call those items “safety supplies”, “cleaning supplies”, or “PPE”, and you might still want to do that, but there’s a new opportunity to use “social distancing supplies” as another relevant semantic grouping that may capture additional search traffic.

Concepts like this can be slow to show promise in keyword research tools, but it’s important as SEOs to be on top of the language users are actually using to refer to new concepts related to our products.

Here are a few ways to spot trends before keyword research tools do:

  1. Monitor internal site search for any novel concepts or terms.
  2. Spend time where your users do — are they in parent groups on Facebook talking about pandemic pods and distance learning? If so, they were likely there discussing these concepts before they were trending in search tools.
  3. Stay connected to the news and watch for anything that might be relevant to your products.

This “At-Home Learning” category page from Target pulls together products including desks and chairs, art supplies, computers, and more in one indexed page, providing a one-stop-shop for new homeschooling parents. At the time of this writing, this page is ranking in position six for the “at home learning” keyword in the United States, which is quite impressive for an e-commerce page in an information-dominated SERP.

[Alt text: A screenshot of Target’s At-Home Learning category. The main text says “Study from home – Find all the supplies, gadgets, furniture & more to help get into a remote learning routine.”]

If your product demand has suddenly decreased

Now we need to talk about the other side of the coin — what if demand for your product has drastically decreased?

Luxury goods, apparel, and anything that includes a “try in-store, buy online” model are struggling.

If you work in marketing at an e-commerce site that’s suffering through the COVID-19 crisis, it may feel like there’s nothing you can do. While you can’t change the market, there are still practical ways you can help your company make the most of the situation.

Highlight your most relevant products

Although some clothing retailers are struggling, many of them have leaned into the stay-at-home situation by creating a loungewear category and prominently featuring it in their marketing. Though loungewear isn’t the primary focus for many of these businesses, nor the most expensive clothing category, it’s more likely to be purchased while customers are staying at home.

Check out Google Trends for “loungewear” — you can see why retailers have heavily promoted this category for the last several months.

[Alt text: Google Trends chart of the keyword “loungewear,” which shows relatively steady numbers until a sharp increase in March 2020.]

Even if you’re not in the apparel business, you can employ this strategy by scanning your product catalog for any lesser-promoted products that could be more relevant in the current climate.

If you can’t find any, consider tweaking your messaging.

Craft messaging for the moment

If your typical brand messaging no longer makes sense given the change in your customers’ lifestyles, you need to update the language you’re using to communicate with them. It doesn’t do your users any good to pretend that we’re not in the middle of a pandemic.

Right now, messaging like “Look good for summer concerts, vacays, and nights out!” just makes me sad. Don’t remind your users that they can’t do those things right now.

Again, your messaging doesn’t have to be doom and gloom, but make sure it fits: “Look good for backyard hangouts, virtual happy hours, and Sunday drives!” is much more appropriate, and positions your product as relevant even in an upside-down world.

Replace in-person experiences with virtual try-ons

Businesses that employ a “try in-person, buy online” model are facing a unique challenge. How do you encourage customers to purchase something, like an engagement ring, without seeing it first in person? Though some users are growing more comfortable with a fully online experience, others still prefer to interact with a salesperson or stylist for this type of purchase.

Creating a virtual try-on experience can be useful in at least partially replacing that in-person component, and can be achieved with dedicated customer service and/or development resources.

Anna Sheffield, a fine jewelry designer, offers live virtual appointments that are prominently featured on their site. This service offers customers a personal touch, and gets them connected with a brand representative who can help encourage a confident purchase without leaving the house.

[Alt text: A screenshot of Anna Sheffield’s virtual appointment information, detailing how users can set up a consultation with a stylist.]

Brilliant Earth, another company that sells wedding rings, uses a tool that allows users to virtually try on rings from home. No additional customer service time required.

[Alt text: A screenshot of Brilliant Earth’s instructions for how to use their virtual engagement ring try on tool.]

Offer buy-now-pay-later

E-commerce sites have more options than ever to extend payment plans to their customers. Afterpay, Affirm, and Klarna are all popular extensions that allow you to offer credit to your customers easily and securely.

For users feeling nervous about buying something that they don’t strictly need during a recession, this could be the difference that causes them to convert.

Summing it up

Change in consumer demand is a challenge that all businesses face, and now more than ever (see what I did there), it’s important for e-commerce SEOs to be responsive to these changes. Although none of us could have predicted what 2020 had in store, we can assess how the market has responded to our products and act accordingly.

What pivots have you or your clients made in e-commerce business models this year? Let me know in the comments!

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