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2024: Local SEO for COVID-consciousness

Author: Miriam Ellis

an image of author Miriam Ellis, accompanied by various search-related iconography, including a map and a magnifying glass

Business owners and local SEOs are constantly looking for ways to increase conversions and sales by even a fraction of a percent. Considering that nearly 60% of the U.S. population suffers from a chronic illness, it’s very likely that you’re missing the opportunity to serve huge audiences of health- and safety-conscious customers unless you’ve specifically planned ways to connect with them. 


And because smaller local enterprises are frequently operating in highly competitive environments, one of the deepest questions business owners and digital marketers can ask is:

 

“Am I helping everyone I possibly can?”


Take note of the following statistics:



These groups are at the highest risk of serious illness and mortality from COVID, and, as economic policy and societal fatigue declared the pandemic as “over” in the United States (despite continuing contagion and mortality), many individuals in these large statistical demographics have been left behind.


Rise to the challenge and expand your customer base (or hold your ground against competitors) by simply helping underserved and vulnerable individuals. By offering and marketing your COVID-conscious services (curbside pick-up, masking policy, telehealth, etc.), you can appeal to a new group of prospective customers, while improving your local SEO for members of this high-intent audience.



Table of contents:




DE&I for local businesses: Recognizing and serving “invisible” customers


I am a member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council at Moz, and have learned how important it is for local business owners to apply these principles to the “post-COVID” scenario. 


While less consumer-centric (or, simply, less-motivated) competitors may overlook valuable customer service opportunities by dropping safety protocols, your local business (or your clients’) can listen, learn, and act to implement DE&I policies that give you a unique selling proposition—one that not only widens your potential audience, but also showcases your brand’s ethics. 


Consider the following social media posts from potential customers when assessing the need and potential impact of your COVID-related offerings:


A screenshot of a Twitter thread by @baddestmamajama, which reads:”If you own a brick and mortar business, I implore you to consider adaptations for high risk covid clients. Have early morning hours or one day a week where masks are required. Let guests know if you’ve upgraded air filtration or other measures.”

In some sectors, like local beauty services, continuing with your masking policy can enable repeat customers to keep coming to your business (and protect your staff). If you stop supporting their requirements, don’t be surprised when they start supporting your competitors instead.


A tweet by @jedilora that reads “I had a massage this week to deal with severe back pain. She requires masks on both herself and clients, and has an air filter in the room and only has one client in the space at a time with ten minutes in between the filter to work. She can barely keep up with demand.”

The opposite is true as well: If your competitors stop supporting vulnerable customers, those customers might turn to you if you can accommodate their needs.


A twitter thread in which @hyperhouse tweeted “Please also update your websites so if you’ve dropped protocols, we know.” with a reply from @grenadine that says “That part, finding out when you walk in the door is brutal”

And, for your repeat customers who might be surprised to see that your COVID policies are no longer in effect, finding out when they step through your door can feel personal—especially if they’ve traveled to visit your business or need to scramble to find an alternative at the last minute.


This small smattering of sentiment captures both the pain customers feel at being treated with indifference and the relief they experience when COVID-conscious local businesses make a plan to serve them (not to mention the loyalty that can build). 


While the need for COVID-friendly services (curbside pick-up, social distancing, etc.) remains, I’m sure you’ve noticed they are far less common than they were even just a year ago. This gap has customers turning to platforms like Reddit to share tips on locating COVID-conscious hairdressers, dentists, and so on.


A reddit post in r/masks4all titled “how to find a hairdresser that is covid-safe”: “Hi all. I’m in the UK and have just moved from the area I’ve been living for years. I’m in a new town and I have no idea where to go for a haircut where I’ll feel safe (am clinically vulnerable). Is my only option to reach out personally to every/any salon I come across so see what they’re happy to do?”
A Reddit post in which a user suggests tips about finding covid-friendly services. User flankr6 suggests searching for “haircuts for homebound seniors” and having someone travel to them. The second one highlights their positive experience with a dermatologist

A reddit post in r/raleigh titled “Covid-conscious dentist?” in which the user asks if there is a dentist in the area that still implements in-office masking.

In this setting, the inclusion principle of DE&I means welcoming as many people as possible to your business with dignity and respect. And, if your local competitors have dropped their safety protocols, your business can be the one that steps up to serve these valued community members.


Your inclusive, COVID-conscious business plan


By offering some (or all) of the following customer services, you can maximize your ability to accommodate the COVID-conscious members of your community, potentially expanding your customer base and improving both your reputation and loyalty ratings (I’ll discuss where to broadcast these offerings in the next section):


  • Masked shopping hours

  • Least busy hours

  • Masked day of the week

  • Hours for seniors, people with a wide variety of health conditions, and families with children too young to be vaccinated

  • Masked appointments

  • Outdoor appointments

  • Ventilation and filtering for in-person visits

  • Sanitization and hand sanitizer 

  • Delivery

  • Curbside pickup and buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS)

  • Teleservices


At a minimum, you should ensure that your vulnerable customers are able to access basic necessities as safely as possible. Particularly for businesses that operate in Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) industries like medicine and finance, which have a responsibility to provide equal access to all.


In addition, any truly consumer-centric local business should broadcast its willingness to meet customer expectations: Political grandstanding, economic policy, and non-inclusive advertising have resulted in countless people with long COVID (a spectrum of disabilities and health conditions), the elderly, and millions of bereaved families who have lost loved ones feel that they are either forgotten or derided by society—unfairly isolated. 


Imagine the difference these customers might feel if your local business offered these expressions of care:


  • 1:1 phone support that acknowledges that a customer cannot risk coming into a physical store, with a caring response like, “We’ll come out to you, with a mask on. Don’t worry! We want you to be safe.”

  • Personalized notes in delivery to customers you’ve come to know well, with statements like, “We really miss seeing you in the shop, but we’re so glad we still have the chance to serve you with this delivery. If you ever need anything, please just ring us. We’re all thinking about you.”

  • Online, radio, local TV, and local news statements of solidarity with at-risk community members, including statements of intent that your business is still here to serve the public in safer ways.

  • Special offers for people requiring greater safety protocols. 


Within my own circle, I can easily recall multiple incidents of local brands getting it right and wrong when implementing COVID-conscious DE&I: 


One elder I know patronized a pizza restaurant for 30 years and had continued to do so once the pandemic began because they briefly offered masked, curbside pickup. Then they dropped this service, and refused to walk outside to their parking lot to hand them a pizza, despite them writing the owner a personal email explaining their loyalty, age, and pre-existing health conditions. 

The business treated them with total indifference, lost a very regular customer, and are undoubtedly seeing profits drop from their thoughtless policy.


On the flip-side, a local greengrocer listened to the needs of a customer with an auto-immune condition and arranged for them to drive up, be shown the farm shop’s inventory, purchase it over the phone and placed in the trunk of their car, making a major difference to that family’s access to fresh, seasonal produce and nutrition. 


It’s easy to see which of these two scenarios exemplifies the excellent customer service all local SMBs rely on to succeed.


How to publicize your COVID-friendly offers and services


Once you have a DE&I plan for continuing to serve COVID-conscious customers, you have four main venues for promoting your offers:


  • Your Google Business Profile

  • Your business website

  • Your business’s social media profiles

  • Offline (in-store, etc.)


Your Google Business Profile

Your local business listing (Google Business Profile) may be the most visible and important piece of online real estate for your shop, and it offers some flexible features for marketing your safety protocols. 


An example of a google business profile, showing hours, reviews, popular times, etc.

Unfortunately, in keeping with the myth that COVID is over, Google removed the attributes that it formerly offered for addressing safety practices (thus shifting the burden on to vulnerable audiences), but these fields are still available to help you broadcast your services:


  • Profile description — Your GBP business description can summarize your ongoing or new safety practices and offerings. There is a 750-character limit for this field, but that should be enough for you to at least tell customers to call you to inquire about COVID-related accommodations.

  • Photos — Keep taking fresh photos of home delivery, masked service, and amenities like curbside pickup so customers can see that you have not ended your safety policies.

  • Profile updates — GBP updates (formerly known as GBP Posts) are excellent for writing mini-blog posts about your COVID safety practices and offerings. Recent dates on these will help COVID-conscious customers choose you.

  • Videos — The photos section of your GBP also supports video uploads. Upload a brief video with your warmest welcome to your most-vulnerable community members and a demonstration of all the amenities and practices you are offering them.


Your business website

In terms of your business’s online presence, your website is the only channel that you have complete control over. This means you have the freedom to highlight your COVID-friendly services without character or placement restrictions, and you can even optimize content to rank for relevant queries (further increasing your website’s ability to turn online visitors into in-person customers).


Consider featuring the following elements on your local business’s website:


  • COVID-conscious landing page — Have a dedicated landing page outlining all of your COVID-conscious offerings and link to it from your homepage, your DE&I policy page (if you have one), and from high up in your navigational structure so that it can be easily found.



  • Safety measures — Put all your safety measures on this page, including your employee health policies, sanitization practices, ventilation and filtration, and masking policy.

  • Least popular times — List your least popular hours on this page, as this can help vulnerable members who are willing to come inside plan their visit.

  • After hours options — If you have after-hours options for vulnerable customers, be sure to list those as well.

  • Mission statement — Create a mission statement of solidarity with your COVID-conscious customers; let them know you haven’t abandoned them.


  • Private appointments — If you offer 1:1 masked, private appointments, either at your premises or at customers’ homes, explain how that works and include CTAs for booking appointments.


Your business’s social media profiles

Your social channels are one of your best vehicles for communicating up-to-date safety information to your customers. 


Regularly publish reminders that your business is COVID-aware and still offering services to keep your community informed.


A screenshot of an Instagram post by oldflamemending. The image is a mask with “Please mask up” written on it, and the caption tells followers why the business is still masking in-person.

  • Profiles — Put a statement of COVID-conscious customer service on your social profile bio or description. This way, potential customers know at a glance whether or not to consider your business as an option.

  • Videos — Film short videos offering your expressions of care for vulnerable customers. This kind of communication can go a long way in making potential customers feel seen, which is critical for first-time customers as well as long-term loyalty.

  • Images — The same images of your safety practices that you’re (ideally) putting on your Google Business Profile can be shared on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and X (Twitter). 


It’s important to be realistic about the possibility that any expression of support for vulnerable people on social media may bring trolls and hate-mongers out of the woodwork. You are likely to get some ugly comments in response to any DE&I-related action you publish. 


Taking the high road isn’t always easy; keep in mind that your goal is to connect with real, local people who need your help, so you are free to ignore the nonsense of random passersby.

Offline (in-store, etc.)

Some communities don’t have reliable access to the internet, and one recent study found 7% of the US population doesn’t use it. Fortunately, your relationships with customers, your premise signage, and your public voice can help you get the word out about your COVID-conscious practices in the following ways:



  • Word-of-mouth campaigns — Chances are good that customers you see in person have loved ones you’re not seeing (because they are indefinitely stuck at home due to the ongoing effects of the pandemic). Train staff to let in-person shoppers know you’ve got a broad menu of service options for vulnerable members.

  • Storefront signage — COVID-conscious folk are still driving and walking by your store. Make connections with large, visible signage detailing your safer offerings.

  • In-store signage — At-risk individuals may be under significant stress coming into your store, despite them wearing a mask. In-store signage highlighting home delivery or curbside service can increase their comfort and give them new reasons to be a loyal patron of your business.

  • Local press — Local business owners have significant power to shape the communities they serve. If you’re interviewed by or featured in local news, articles, or blog posts, take a minute to mention your ongoing safety precautions. Enlist publishers to help you get the word out that vulnerable community members haven’t been forgotten.


Bring your business to everyone, equally


“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”  — Mahatma Gandhi

By embracing an overlooked consumer segment, you are practically guaranteed repeat business.


Sixty-three percent of customers who leave reviews do so to show appreciation, and 73% do so to let others know of their experience, according to Moz. Through the reviews they leave, members of underserved communities can help inform others of your offerings while simultaneously benefitting your local SEO. Combine that with optimized, safety-related content on your website and some offline/in-store messaging and you’ll be driving search visibility and foot traffic to your business—all while doing the right thing.


To learn more about making your website accessible, read our resource, “Website accessibility and SEO: How they’re related and why it matters,” by Rejoice Ojiaku.


 

Miriam Ellis

Miriam Ellis is a local SEO columnist and consultant. She has been cited as one of the top five most prolific women writers in the SEO industry. Miriam is also an award-winning fine artist and her work can be seen at MiriamEllis.com.Twitter | Linkedin 



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