COVID-19 Organic Search Winners

4 months ago

Since early 2020, the news has been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic. With many news outlets covering stories on the latest COVID-19 developments and the macro impact, we thought it would be interesting to discover which news outlets were the most successful in driving coronavirus-related traffic to their websites, so far. Searches for coronavirus in the United Kingdom between January and June saw the BBC, The Guardian, and The Telegraph capturing over 38% of all organic search traffic. To put this into perspective, three different news outlets drove around 12.4 million visits, from just one search term.

 Organic traffic distribution for coronavirus between January - June 2020

Graph 1: Organic traffic distribution for coronavirus between January – June 2020

Deep dive: organic search intent

We wanted to dig deeper and uncover what exactly caused these sites’ SEO to take off during the pandemic. Was it due to an abundance of news articles, strong domain power, or comprehensive content?

Let’s find out.

In the U.K., March was packed with government updates, specifically when Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown on Monday, March 23. Unsurprisingly, this date was the peak in terms of News & Media traffic in the country.

 All traffic channels from desktop + mobile U.K. web searches to the Top 100 News & Media websites

Graph 2: All traffic channels from desktop + mobile U.K. web searches to the Top 100 News & Media websites

March 2020 was (again, unsurprisingly) the biggest month in News & Media, up by 14.5% YoY.

 YoY comparison for all U.K traffic to News & Media websites

Graph 3: YoY comparison for all U.K traffic to News & Media websites

We found that 35% of U.K. traffic to News & Media websites in March 2020 came from organic search, this translates to approximately 275 million visits.

Stats for Traffic source distribution for News & Media websites in March 2020

Graph 4: Traffic source distribution for News & Media websites in March 2020

When zeroing in on the dates of the national lockdown, March 22 – 23, organic traffic to The Telegraph jumped the most, rising by 35.6%. The Guardian and the BBC saw an increase of 32.9% and 30.7%, respectively. 

Stats for Daily organic search visits from January - June 2020

Graph 5: Daily organic search visits from January – June 2020

Top 100 URLs 

We looked at the top 100 URLs containing the term coronavirus in March from each of these three news sites to find out why they were performing so well organically.

Below is a visual to summarize some of the key points. Note, this only includes data from status code 200 URLs.

BBC Guardian and Telegraph key metrics comparison

Key takeaways:

For March 2020, the BBC received the most organic traffic from the U.K., followed by The Guardian, and The Telegraph. Title length didn’t seem to impact organic results as they were all quite similar, as well as being longer than the “SEO best practice” of title lengths between 50-60 characters. BBC had the lowest average word count yet performed the best, compared to The Telegraph, which had the highest average word count yet performed the worst. Internal links from the same domain did not seem to have a big impact on organic results. While BBC and The Telegraph had similar average referring domains, the latter had significantly fewer backlinks.

Arguably the biggest finding of note: a higher word count did not seem to have a positive impact on organic traffic. Backlinks did appear to have some significance, even though many of these links came from the same domains. 

We also didn’t look into the quality and relevancy of the internal links, backlinks, and referring domains but of course, any SEO consultant would tell you that the more relevant these are, the better.

Let’s switch the focus onto how Google displayed these articles, and whether or not they were prominent on Google and its news tab.

When searching for news articles under coronavirus that were published on March 23, the BBC published nine articles across its BBC News and BBC Sport websites, compared to only four from the Guardian. The Telegraph did not show any results for that date.

Shortly after, in early April 2020, Google introduced a completely new design of the Search Engine Results Pages (SERP) for the keyword coronavirus. The organic traffic gains before and after were very significant, as you can see below:

stats for coronavirus organic search march and april 2020

Notice how Google’s organic traffic change shot up by over 4000% during April, which likely occurred as the new SERP layout for coronavirus had multiple tabs on the left-hand side that changed the URL when they were clicked.

coronavirus overview on google

google coronavirus stats

From these screenshots, we can see that Google was arguably dominating user engagement as the top of the page contains practically every detail necessary for the user. This likely caused a large percentage of no-click searches for any other organic result.

This leaves us with one more question to answer: Who won the most organic search traffic?

Google. The tech giant created an intuitive and informative display for coronavirus related searches and essentially out-competed all of the news publications from April by introducing five tabs of highly searched information.

However, the overview tab still contained the top stories and local news sections, which lead to the respective news sources.

It appears that out of the three news publications that we looked into, the BBC maintained a strong position, receiving the most organic visits throughout the pandemic. While the BBC’s traffic was limited since the new coronavirus SERP layout in April likely caused an increase in no-click searches, it still managed to dominate, appearing prominently in the top results for news articles.

Did organic traffic trends for coronavirus search queries change towards the end of 2020?

The quick answer is yes.

There were significant shifts in search patterns as well as traffic breakdowns to news sites when comparing the peak of the crisis back in March and April of 2020 to the end of 2020. 

The first key change: the traffic trend for COVID as opposed to coronavirus.
traffic trend for covid as opposed to coronavirus

Google Trends identified a plateau of searches for coronavirus, whereas COVID searches began increasing steadily towards the end of 2020.

COVID traffic trend (January – December 2020):

Stats for Covid traffic trend (January - December 2020)

Coronavirus traffic trend (January – December 2020):

Stats for Coronavirus traffic trend (January - December 2020)

It’s evident that the keyword coronavirus was falling off significantly.  

Well, COVID is much easier to type, so that could be why.

But how did the news sites perform throughout January to December 2020?

The BBC was going strong at the beginning of the year, but Google suddenly gained a bigger chunk of the market share in April when it introduced its SERP layout for coronavirus information.

Things changed quite drastically for the tech giant.

COVID market share (January – December 2020):

Stats for Covid market share (January - December 2020)

Coronavirus market share (January – December 2020):

Stats for Coronavirus market share (January - December 2020)

The BBC maintained its dominant position throughout the year. It also gathered the majority of traffic for coronavirus searches and gained more for COVID searches from September.

Google, on the other hand, dropped in market share for COVID searches from 26% in June to a mere 5% in December.

The main reason for this could be that overall knowledge about the virus increased over the course of the year, meaning that there was less need to gather information from Google’s coronavirus SERP layout.

Alternatively, people may have stopped caring as much about the daily figures.

By now we know the organic search winners from the 2020 traffic peak in March and April, but what about December?

Coronavirus organic search winner (December 2020):Stats for Coronavirus organic search winner (December 2020)

Unsurprisingly, the BBC came out on top with a 16.34% traffic share, but the real surprise is how badly Google performed at the end of the year. Google went from having a 16.18% traffic share in April to only 8.95% in December.

Conclusion

2020 was a wild ride in general, but we saw interesting trends in the world of organic search. Some news websites like the BBC managed to build and sustain their traffic throughout the year. This reinforces how a strong brand in and of itself can go a long way in securing regular interest for a brand’s content.

Google illustrated its ability to own SERP. However, changes in searchers’ interests throughout the pandemic likely deteriorated the tech giant’s dominance.

The pandemic continues to be a big influence at the start of 2021. It will be interesting to see how searchers’ perceptions play out throughout this new year. Hopefully, these searches will decrease along with the presence of COVID-19 in our daily lives. 

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This blog was written in collaboration with Jonathan Lev.

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