Operating During COVID-19: Helpful Tips for Local Businesses
Local businesses know better than any other model what it means to fully participate in community life. You are the good neighbors who are there to serve, inspire, and sustain the people and traditions that make your town a unique and enjoyable place to call home.
As we explore this topic of what local businesses can do during the COVID-19 pandemic, I want to honor all that you have always done to take care of your community as a local business owner or marketer. Thank you.
In this article, you will find local SEO tips that could make a difference for your business in the coming weeks, innovative resources for support, advice from my own tight-knit community of some of the world’s best local SEOs, and some serious thinking about building a better local future.
Adhere to all regulations
First and foremost, start each day with a review of both local and national news to be sure you are complying with the evolving regulations for your city, county, and country. Policies designed to mitigate the harm of COVID-19 vary widely from region to region, and your business must keep informed of which forms of service you are allowed to offer in this dynamic scenario.
And, while social media can be a great connector within your community at any time, beware of misinformation and, sadly, scams in the days ahead. Get your news from sources you trust, and if you are not certain about interpreting a guideline, directly contact local authorities. This article does not take the place of laws and regulations specific to your community.
The most helpful thing any local business can do right now, whether it’s deemed an essential or non-essential service, is to provide accurate information to its community. There are three key places to do this:
Google My Business
“More than ever, your Google Business Profile is a critical communication nexus with your customers”. —Mike Blumenthal, GatherUp
Local businesses know just how big a role Google plays as intermediary between brands and the public. This remains true during this difficult time however, Google’s local product is not running at full strength. Joy Hawkins’ article for Local University on March 23 details the limited support for or complete discontinuation of Google Q&As, posts, descriptions, reviews, and owner responses. It’s an evolving scenario, with local SEOs reporting different outcomes each day. For example, some practitioners have been able to get some, but not all, Google posts to publish.
As of writing this, there are four fields you can utilize to communicate current information to customers via GMB, but please be aware that some edits may take several days to go into effect:
Google is allowing businesses to edit their business name field to reflect that they are offering curbside service, takeout, and delivery. For example, if your current name is “John’s Grill”, you are allowed to temporarily change your name to “John’s Grill — Delivery Available”.
If regulations are keeping you at home but you still want customers to be able to reach you on your home or cell phone for information, update your work answering machine to reflect the changes and edit your GMB phone number to the appropriate new number.
Hours of operation
The discussion on how best to show that your business either has no hours or limited new hours is ongoing. I believe the best route for the present is to use Google’s method of setting special hours. This option should be especially useful for multi-location enterprises who can set special hours via the API.
Be advised, however, that there are some instances of agencies setting special hours for clients and then clients receiving emails from Google asking if the business has closed. This can alarm those clients. However, to date, it appears that when Google receives responses to this prompt that yes, the business is closed, they simply put a message about this on the listing rather than remove the listing entirely.
On March 25, Google implemented a “temporarily closed” button inside the “Info” tab of the GMB dashboard, as reported by Joy Hawkins. Utilizing this button may temporarily decrease your rankings, but you will be able to remove the label in the future and I strongly hope (but cannot guarantee) that this will remove any effects of suppression. I recommend using this button if it applies to your business because we must put safety first over any other consideration.
COVID-19 update posts
Google has newly created a Google posts type that you’ll see as an option in your GMB dashboard. While other post types have been published sporadically, I am seeing examples of the COVID-19 Update posts going live. Try to fit as much information as you can about the changed status of your business into one of these posts.
In addition to the edits you make to your GMB listing, update your most visible local business listings on other platforms to the best of your ability, including on:
- Bing: A “Temporarily closed” business status is available in the Bing Places dashboard. This is currently not available in the API.
- Yelp: Yelp has introduced a new field called “temporarily closed”. This is meant to be used by businesses which are or will be closed (but not on a permanent basis) due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Businesses need to indicate the “end date” for when this business status will end. Given the uncertainty surrounding timelines, Yelp is allowing users to provide an “estimate” for the end date which they can always update later. Special opening hours can be added on Yelp itself, too. Neither field is available in the API.
Google My Business may be experiencing support issues right now, but thank goodness you still have full control of your website as a home base for conveying important information to the public. Here’s a quick checklist of suggested items to update on your site as soon as you can:
- Put a site wide banner on all pages of the website with key information such as “temporarily closed”, “drive-up service available 9-5 Monday – Friday” or “storefront closed but we can still ship to you.”
- Provide the most complete information about how your business has been affected by COVID-19, and detail any services that remain available to customers.
- Edit location landing pages in bulk or individually to reflect closures, new hours, and new temporary offers.
- Be sure hours of operation are accurate everywhere they are mentioned on the website, including the homepage, contact page, about page, and landing pages.
- If your main contact phone number has changed due to the situation, update that number everywhere it exists on the website. Don’t overlook headers, footers, or sidebars as places your contact info may be.
- If you have a blog, use it to keep the public updated about the availability of products and services.
- Be sure your website contains highly visible links to any social media platforms you are using to provide updated information.
- It would be a worthy public service right now to create new content about local resources in your community for all kinds of basic needs.
Social media and email
“Make it clear what you’re doing, such as things like home delivery or curbside pickup. And mention it EVERYWHERE. The companies that are being successful with this are telling people non-stop how they can still support them. Additionally, don’t be afraid to reach out to people who have supported you via social media in the past and ask them to mention what you’re doing.” —Dana DiTomaso, Kick Point
Whether your customers’ social community is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or another platform, there has never been a more vital time to make use of the instant communication these sites provide. It was Fred Rogers who famously said that in times of crisis, we should “look for the helpers.” People will be looking to your brand for help and, also, seeking ways that they can help, too.
If you can make the time to utilize social media to highlight not just your own services, but the services you discover are being provided by other businesses in your city, you will be strengthening your community. Ask your followers and customers to amplify information that can make life safer or better right now.
And, of course, email is one of the best tools presently at your disposal to message your entire base about changed conditions and special offers. My best practice advice for the present is to be sure you’re only communicating what is truly necessary. I’ve seen some examples of brands (which shall remain nameless) exploiting COVID-19 for senseless self-promotion instead of putting customers’ concerns and needs first. Don’t go that route. Be a helper!
Beyond your local business listing, websites, social media platforms, and email, don’t overlook offline media for making further, helpful informational contributions. Call into local radio shows and get in touch with local newspapers if you have facts or offers that can help the public.
Operate as fully as you can
“Find out what support is being made available for you at [the] government level, tap into this as soon as you can — it’s likely there will be a lot of paperwork and many hoops through which you’ll need to jump.” —Claire Carlile, Claire Carlile Marketing
While the social safety net differs widely from country to country, research any offers of support being made to your business and make use of them to remain as operational as possible for the duration of this pandemic. Here are six adjustments your business should carefully consider to determine whether implementation is possible:
1. Fulfill essentials
If your business meets local, state, or federal regulations that enable it to continue operating because it’s deemed “essential”, here are the ways different business models are adapting to current conditions:
- Some healthcare appointments can be handled via phone or virtual meetings, and some medical facilities are offering drive-up testing.
- Drivethrough, delivery, and curbside pickup are enabling some brands to offer takeout meals, groceries, prescriptions, and other necessary goods to customers.
- Supermarkets and grocery stores without built-in delivery fleets are contracting with third parties for this service.
- Farms and ranches can offer honor system roadside stands to allow customers to access fresh produce, dairy products, and meats with proper social distancing.
- Companies that care for vulnerable populations, banking, laundry, and fuel can implement and communicate the extra steps they are taking to adhere to sanitation guidelines for the safety of customers and staff.
- Brands and organizations that donate goods and services to fulfill essential needs are taking an active role in community support, too.
2. Evaluate e-commerce
If your local business already has an e-commerce component on its website, you’re many steps ahead in being well set up to keep selling via delivery. If you’ve not yet implemented any form of online selling, investigate the following options:
- If you have a credit card processing machine, the most basic solution is to take orders over the phone and then ship them, allow curbside pickup, or deliver them.
- If you lack a credit card processing service, PayPal invoicing can work in a pinch.
- If your site is built on WordPress and you’re quite comfortable with that platform, Moz’s own Sha Menz highly recommends the ease of the WooCommerce plugin for getting online shopping set up with PayPal as a built-in payment option. It allows easy setup of flat rate or free shipping and local pickup options. WooCommerce automatically sends order confirmation emails to both owner and customer and even supports creation of discount coupons.
- Pointy is a simple device that lets you scan product barcodes and have them catalogued online. Read my 2019 interview with the company’s CEO and determine whether Pointy plus shipping could be a solution to keep you in business in the coming months.
- If you’ve determined that robust investing in e-commerce is a wise move for the present and future, I found this 2020 overview of options from Shopify to Volusion to Magento very useful. Don’t overlook the Moz blog’s e-commerce category for free, expert advice.
3. Connect virtually
In my very large family, one relative has transitioned her yoga studio to online classes, another is offering secure online psychotherapy appointments, and another is instructing his orchestra on the web. While nothing can replace in-person relationships, virtual meetings are the next-best-thing and could keep many business models operating at a significant level, despite the pandemic. Check out these resources:
4. Use downtime for education
If COVID-19 has somewhat or completely paused your business, it’s my strong hope that there will be better days ahead for you. If, like so many people, you find yourself with much more time on your hands than usual, consider using it to come out of this period of crisis with new business knowledge. Please make use of this list of resources, and I want to give special thanks to my friend, Claire Carlile, for contributing several of these suggestions:
Begin working towards a stronger local future
“I would say generally it’s critical for business owners to connect with one another. To the extent they can join or form groups for support or to share ideas, they should. This is a terrible and scary time but there are also potential opportunities that may emerge with creative thinking. The ‘silver lining’, if there is one here, is the opportunity to reexamine business processes, try new things and think — out of necessity — very creatively about how to move forward. Employees are also a great source of ideas and inspiration.” —Greg Sterling, Search Engine Land
I’d like to close with some positive thinking. Local SEO isn’t just a career for me — it’s a personal belief system that well-resourced communities are the strongest. Every community, town, and city shares roughly the same needs, which we might depict like this:
In this simple chart, we see the framework of a functional, prepared, and healthy society. We see a plan for covering the basic needs of human existence, the cooperation required to run a stable community, contributive roles everyone can play to support life and culture, and relief from inevitable disasters. We see regenerative land and water stewardship, an abundance of skilled educators, medical professionals, artisans, and a peaceful platform for full human expression.
COVID-19 marks the third major disaster my community has lived through in three years. The pandemic and California’s wildfires have taught me to think about the areas in which my county is self-sustaining, and areas in which we are unprepared to take care of one another in both good times and bad. While state and national governments bear a serious responsibility for the well-being of citizens, my genuine belief as a local SEO is that local communities should be doing all they can to self-fulfill as many data points on the chart above as possible.
While it’s said that necessity is the mother of invention, and it certainly makes sense that the present moment would be driving us to invent new solutions to keep our communities safe and well, I find models for sane growth in the work others have already contributed. For me, these are sources of serious inspiration:
- Learn from indigenous cultures around the world about stewardship and community. Here is just one example of how knowledge is being applied by tribes in the Pacific Northwest during the pandemic. In my own state of California, a number of tribes are leading the way in mitigating wildfires via cultural burning, addressing what has become an annual disaster where I live.
- Look at the policies of other countries with a higher index of human happiness than my own. For example, I am a great admirer of Norway’s law of allemannsrett which permits all residents to responsibly roam and camp in most of the country, and more importantly, to harvest natural foods like mushrooms and berries. In my community, most land is behind fences, and even though I know which plants are edible, I can’t access most of them. Given current grocery store shortages, this concept deserves local re-thinking.
- Study the Economic Bill of Rights US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced but didn’t live to see passed. Had this been implemented, my local community would not now be suffering from a shortage of medical providers and denial of medical care, a shortage of nearby farms for complete nutrition, homelessness and unaffordable housing, and a widespread lack of education and essential skills. From a purely commercial standpoint, FDR’s bill could also have prevented the collapse of “Main St.”, which local search marketers have been fighting every day to reverse.
- Join organizations like the American Independent Local Business Alliance which exist to build more resilient local communities via methods like the Buy Local movement and community education. I strongly encourage you to check in with AMIBA for guidance in these times.
Other models and examples may personally inspire you, but I share my friend Greg Sterling’s opinion: now is the time to bring creativity to bear, to connect with fellow local business owners and community members, and to begin planning a more realistic and livable future.
For now, you will have to make those connections virtually, but the goal is to come out of this time of crisis with a determination to make local living more sustainable for everyone. You can start with asking very basic questions like: Where is the nearest farm, and how many people can it feed? What do we need to do to attract more doctors and nurses to this town? Which facilities could be converted here to produce soap, or bathroom tissue, or medical supplies?
I don’t want to downplay the challenge of forward-thinking in a time of disruption, but this I know from being a gardener: new seeds sprout best where the earth is disturbed. You have only to visit the margins of new roads being laid to see how digging is quickly followed by verdant crops of fresh seedlings. Humanity needs to dig deep right now for its best solutions to serious challenges, and this can begin right where you are, locally.
Please allow me to wish many better days ahead to you, your business, and your community, and to work by your side to build a stronger local future.