Episode 54: COVID-19 Google Ad grants and how to temporarily close a website

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What's in this episode?

In this episode you'll hear Mark Williams-Cook talk about:

Google My Business policy changes: Changes to GMB policy that helps restaurants and food stores that are now offering delivery during COVID-19.

COVID-19 Google Ad grants: Some details on the $340M of Google Ads credit that Google is giving small and medium businesses.

SEO and e-commerce: Advice on what to do and what not to do when shuttering your e-commerce store temporarily over the Coronvirus period.

Show notes

GMB changes

Google Ads grants

How to pause your business online blog

Helping users easily access content blog


MC: Welcome to episode 54 of the Search with Candour podcast. Recorded on Sunday the 29th of March 2020, my name is Mark Williams-Cook and today we'll just be talking about more things, more actions your business can take during coronavirus including Google announcing ad grants for small and medium businesses using their Google ads platform and how to properly shut your e-commerce website, while protecting your rankings.

Before we kick off talking about ad grants, I want to mention a change in policy to Google My Business that has happened since we've had the coronavirus pandemic. So normally when you are listing your business on Google My Business, there are a set of rules you have to obey in terms of how you can name, how you can title your business. Generally this just means that it needs to be your actual or common business name; there has been an exception made now to these rules which is that if you are a business, such as a restaurant or a grocery type store in the u.s., you are now allowed to add delivery available or takeout available or something similar to your actual business name for the time being. So that's something that's not normally allowed, you're not really allowed to add in about services or how you provide them in your actual business name, but this is a guideline they've decided to change, given the circumstances, because it's helpful for users to be able to see this information easily.

This was confirmed on the local search forums by Joy Hawkins and it's important to note that this isn't an excuse for everyone to try and take advantage of this, this is really primarily targeting as we said supermarket type shops, restaurants - if you are in a more high-risk category it's definitely not worth considering doing. The Google view on this and the view you should take really should be answering the question, is it going to be the best change for consumers? Do you genuinely offer this delivery service? And are they expecting and wanting it? If the answer is yes, then that's something you could look at doing. Updating your title that way, apart from making it easy for users to see that you offer this delivery service, it's very likely to improve your ranking in the one-box, the local boxes, for those kinds of searches as well.

Okay, Google Ad grants for small businesses. Google has earmarked 340 million dollars in Google Ads credits which will be available to all SMB, small medium businesses, with active accounts over the past year. credit notifications are going to appear in your Google ad accounts and those credits will be usable at any point, redeemable at any point, until December 31st 2020, so that ended this year across all the advertising platforms. I’ll link to the Google post that they made about this which is in their support section. The post says “Covid19 ad credits for Google Ads small medium-sized businesses. We want to help alleviate some of the cost for small and medium-sized businesses to stay in touch with their customers during this challenging time, that's why we're giving SMBs worldwide three hundred and forty million dollars in ad credits which can be used at any point until the end of 2020 across our Google ads platforms. SMBs who have been active advertisers since the beginning of 2019 will see a credit notification appear in their Google Ads account in the coming months. This is part of a larger commitment from Google to support SMB's health organizations and governments and health workers on the front line of this global pandemic.

So if you've basically been using Google Ads since the start of last year, beginning of 2019, you'll be able to expect a notification about these ad credits. Now it doesn't go into any more detail about what Google is defining as an active advertiser since the beginning of 2019, I assume that doesn't mean you've got to have spent money every single day between the beginning of 2019 and now, I assume this means that your ad account must have been billed just prior to this time and within this time frame as well. There isn't any kind of guidance as to exactly how much each individual company will get or whether it'll be the same depending on the ad spend, it might be a percentage or so, but they've obviously done this calculation because they've earmarked the 340 million dollars and in terms of when you'll see that, again I've scoured around and the best information I could find says that it's going to be available over the next few months.

Google did specifically say, I found in another post, that this was actually part of a system that they were building and rolling out which is why there's going to be this delay - if you know any charities that actually do Google ads, you probably know Google does already have a not-for-profit credit system whereby, if you're a registered charity there's a - I believe it’s three or ten thousand dollars a month in ad spend that you can get from Google. So this kind of mechanism is already in place, but this is something they're gonna be rolling out now across, obviously all of these small medium business accounts, which is really great.

As you know, as we talked about in the last episode, we've seen lots of lots of companies having to kind of clam up in some ways, reduce costs, But the performance marketing side of things, so generally the search especially the PPC because it is very trackable and you can see what you're spending, what you're getting back and these tend to be the last types of marketing or advertising to be cut. However because of the type of changes some businesses have had to make, it means Google Ads itself is less profitable and by that I mean, for instance, with some of the e-commerce clients I've been working with, to protect their staff they've had to start working on rotations, so they can keep staff the recommended distance apart and isolate them in warehouses and this means, in some cases, they're actually getting three times as many staff involved as they normally would because they’ve got this isolation and rotation. So having the ad grants is another way that businesses can reduce the overall cost and try and get some kind of return out of the marketing spend at the moment. So we'll update you as soon as I see these go live, I checked all of our accounts today, I haven't seen any of these notifications but it's something to look out for over the next couple of weeks.

How to pause your business online in Google search is some advice that has been published on the Google Webmaster central blog and again, this is something I've seen a few ecommerce sites do that I've had close contact with, which is for whatever reason they've decided at the moment for either public health, health of their staff, that they've decided to pause all of their operations at the moment, not just in store but some have chosen to do this online as well. And I've seen a few different ways people have tried to do this and I've had to jump in a few times and make recommendations about this because obviously, if you make large fundamental changes to how your website is appearing, what's publicly accessible, this is going to have ramifications potentially on how the site gets crawled, indexed and ultimately ranks.

So Google's published some of this advice and I'm gonna read through it and just clarify a few of the points that they've made. I'm gonna start with what not to do and so it should be obvious, but please don't, if you aren't gonna pause your e-commerce business, don't just disable or take down the whole website, it's an extreme measure and if you do this obviously what's gonna happen is search engines that crawl your site, they're not gonna understand the context of why you've done this, all that they're gonna see is the objective - hey there was pages for these products, this category, there isn't now, so I assume they're gonna stay gone and after days, maybe weeks, you're gonna find those pages will drop out at the index you won't rank for them, so when you do reopen the the store you'll find that, at best, there will be a time gap before you start ranking again. So Google's recommendations on what not to do - obviously, their first thing is don't disable the whole website and they say, ‘as a last resort you may decide to disable the whole website, this is an extreme measure that should only be taken for a very short period of time, a few days at most, as it will otherwise have significant effects on the website in search, even when implemented properly. That's why it's highly recommended to only limit your site's functionality instead.’ So we'll talk about that and just chop out bits that you don't want people to do.

‘Keep in mind that your customers may also want to find information about your products, your services and your company, even if you're not selling anything right now.’ and I think that's a really interesting point as well. We've seen quite a few companies pick up more social media, they’ve put more into social media as well as during this time to stay in contact with their customers. We've seen lots of people already starting to do searches about things they're gonna do “when this is all over” and I think people are spending more time on the internet, so it is really important to to keep your products, your services, your company, invisible. And they say, ‘If you decide you do need to do this’ - so that means disable your website, they give you some options.

So the first one is, if you need to urgently disable your site for one to two days then return an informational error page with a 503 HTTP result code, instead of all content. So this means when you load a webpage, you get a coded response from the server that tells it what's going on; so if everything's working well your browser says, hey can I have this page and the response code they get is normally 200 which means okay and it delivers you the content, you've probably all seen a 404 - we all know what that is, it's 404 it means it's not found, so Google’s saying don't do this, don't just delete pages. If you're just removing them for a few days, there is a response code which is a 503, which is a server response code for service unavailable and it just indicates to Google that it's temporarily unavailable. If you need to disable the site for a longer time then provide an indexable homepage as a placeholder for users to find and search by using the 200 HTTP status code - so this basically means just put a page up, don't let the whole thing error because if the whole site just starts coming up not found, that's when Google might start just dropping pages and you're gonna have a tougher time getting your site ranking again.

Finally they say, if you quickly need to hide your site in search while you consider the options you can temporarily remove it from search. So the “temporarily remove it from search” is actually part of the removal tools that Google provides. So you can do this from within Google search console, so you can log in there and you can choose to temporarily block URLs which will stop them appearing in search.

So Google provides some more specific information to elaborate on “why we don't recommend disabling the whole website” here are some of the side effects; one, your customers won't know what's happening with your business if they can't find your business online at all. Two, your customers can't find or read first-hand information about your business and its products and services - for example reviews, specs, past orders, repair guides or manuals won't be findable, third party information may not be as correct or comprehensive as what you can provide, this also affects future purchase decisions. So we did discuss this in the last episode with Kevin Indig and we talked about clearly communicating your company's response to coronavirus, covid19 - whether you are shutting or whether you are continuing business to acknowledge what's going on and if you are open, letting people know what steps you've taken to keep them and your staff safe and how your products or services may differ in terms of service or delivery during that time or if you are closing the business, leave as much discoverable and open as possible and let people clearly know what's happening.

Google say also knowledge panels may lose information, like contact phone numbers and your site's logo - so the knowledge panels are when you do a Google search, you've probably all seen the boxes come up where Google's giving you the instant answers about entities, about people, about businesses, such as phone numbers, address, locations that kind of stuff, Google maybe pulling some of that information directly off your site. So again things that maybe look like they're not directly under your control actually are, you're passively providing that information - so if you do delete your site that might go as well. Search console verification will fail and you'll lose all access to information about your business in search. Aggregate reports in Search Console will lose data as pages are dropped from the index.

Lastly they say ramping back up after a prolonged period of time will be significantly harder if your website needs to be re indexed first. Additionally, it's uncertain how long this would take and whether the site would appear similarly in search afterwards and that's really interesting - so if you're ranking and you delete the pages and they don't appear anymore and that happens for a matter of weeks or maybe months and then you republish those pages, even on the same URL, Google saying we can't guarantee they're actually going to go back to ranking the way that they should.

So what should you be doing? So Google's main advice here is about limiting site functionality to minimise the impact in Google search. So this is directly from the Google post they say “If your situation is temporary and you plan to reopen your online business, we recommend keeping your site online and limiting the functionality. For example you might mark items as out of stock or restrict the car and check-out process.” So the idea here is depending on the CMS system you've got, the ecomm platform you've got, the website that's been built for you, it might not be possible to easily restrict the car or a checkout process for you, so they're giving you another option as a kind of hacky way to do this would be just to mark everything is out of stock. So obviously you backup your actual stock levels, put everything out of stock and then you can put a note up saying that you're not doing deliveries at the moment and that you've effectively done the same thing. Your site is still running, the products are still there, they're listed below the information, the links to the pages but the important thing is you're stopping people going through that checkout process, you don't want them to go through. Google says “This is the recommended approach since it minimises any negative effects on your site's presence in search. People can still find your products, read reviews or add wish lists, so they can purchase at a later time. It's also a good practice to” and then they've listed a few extra things if you can do them.

So the first one is disable the cart functionality - “disable cart functionality is the simplest approach and doesn't change anything for your site's visibility in search. Secondly, tell your customers what's going on display a banner or pop up div with the appropriate information for your users, so they're aware of your business's status, mention any known and unusual delays, shipping times, pickup or delivery options etc, so that users continue with the right expectations.” And interestingly, and I mentioned this bit before anyway, before we got to this advice - the interesting point is here Google say, “make sure to follow our guidelines on pop-ups and banners” - so Google, a couple of years ago, 2016 so four years ago now, actually did an update where they specifically targeted sites that had very intrusive pop-ups that got in the way of accessing content, so the idea being if you have a mobile site and as soon as you load it there's a pop-up that grey's out the content, you can't access the navigation and it's trying to get you to do something and by something I mean something there's not a legal requirement - like cookie notifications or opt-ins that kind of thing, so if you're just getting these not important pop-ups there's actually a dial in Google's algorithm there to penalise sites that do that because it's providing users with a bad experience. What Google's actually warning us here, in this advice, is that this algorithm won't necessarily take into consideration the context of what you're trying to do here with this coronavirus update - so they're saying if you've like a massive interstitial or big pop up that's blocking all the content on mobile and people can't use the site, we won't necessarily differentiate between that and a bad pop up, so it could have a negative impact on your ranking. So I'll put a link in as well to the 2016 advice on the Support Center which Google gives on pop-ups and it'd be useful to read through that and make sure that your site alert does follow those guidelines.

Thirdly, Google says, update your structured data, so if your site uses structured data such as products, books, events, make sure to adjust it appropriately reflecting the current product availability or changing events to cancelled. Two important things I’d add here as well, Google has got a algorithm to try and catch people that are abusing structured data, meaning if you have all of your products marked as out of stock on the site but the structured data doesn't match that and says they're in stock, you may trip this penalty in Google. It's a specific structured data penalty that will stop Google actually showing rich results for your site. I've seen that triggered by people before specifically in terms of reviews, where they had they did actually have the reviews but they weren't visible on that page and they had the star review schema there on the page and because Google couldn't find the matching content that it was reporting, actually they got a notice through their Google search consoles saying that that functionality have been disabled, so I think it's just important to - and hopefully it would happen if within your ecomm platform you market everything as out of stock, I would hope that it would automatically update this schema, but just make sure this schema is reflective of that. I also saw Google did make an addition to their event schema for Covid19, which allows you to mark events now as specifically they've been taken online so that's a really good way to to flip that if you've also got a event schema on your site. of course if you've got a Google my business presence, update your actual opening hours to reflect any changes.

Google goes on to say, check your Merchant Center feed, if you use Merchant Center follow best practices for the availability attributes, so again making sure that the data you're providing is matching up with what's on your site. Lastly tell Google about your updates, to ask Google to recrawl a limited number of pages. For example, the home page, you can use the search console for this. For a larger number of pages; for example, all your product pages, use sitemaps. So they're saying if you want these changes to be reflected very quickly in the search results, you can actually go into Google search console and resubmit a specific URL, such as the home page, or resubmit a sitemap and that tends to then poke Googlebot to make it turn up on your site quicker and that will make sure that the results people see within search results will reflect what you've got on your site.

Lastly, Google has a section in which they say other things to consider. ‘Beyond the operation of your website, there are other actions you might want to take to pause your online business in Google search. Firstly, if you hold events look over the new properties for making them virtual, postponed or cancelled’ - again this is linked to in that post. Secondly review the guidance from Google My Business on how to change your business hours or indicate temporary closures. Thirdly, review the resources from Google for small businesses on how to communicate with customers and employees for working remotely and modifying advertising campaigns. Fourthly, understand how to recommend changes to your Google knowledge panel or how to claim it if you haven't already. So this is for if you're getting these knowledge panels to appear for your company entity within search, you can recommend changes if something significant has changed with your business.

And lastly, I’ll just read out - they've got a couple of frequently asked questions that I guess they've had that might be useful to clarify a few more of these points. So they said, “Question: what if I only closed the site for a few weeks? Google answers: Completely closing a site even for just a few weeks can have negative consequences on Google's indexing of your sites. We recommend limiting the site functionality instead. Keep in mind that users may also want to find information about your products or services and your company even if you're currently not selling anything.” So Google's really laying it on thick here that, please don't just turn off your site, because this will have negative impacts for you within search.

“Question: What if I want to exclude all non-essential products? and Google says: That's fine, make sure that people can't buy their non-essential products by limiting the site functionality. Question: Can I ask Google to crawl less during this time? and Google says: Yes you can limit crawling with search console, though it's not recommended for most cases. This may have some impact on the freshness of your results in search. For example, it may take longer for search to reflect that all of your products are currently not available. On the other hand if Googlebot’s crawling causes critical server resource issues, this is a valid approach. We recommend setting a reminder for yourself to reset the crawl rate once you start planning to go back in business.” So as Google says there's actually two things that will happen there; if you slow down the crawl you're gonna have the effect of, Google's not gonna update the pages that you have changed and actually when you do go back into business, if you still got that slower crawl rate, your products and everything aren't going to show it’s available as quickly as they could do. The thing I find a little bit amusing is that Google says “if Google what's crawling causes critical server resource issues, this is a valid approach” because really there shouldn't be a case in 2020, where your website is buckling under Googlebot or legitimate BOTS traffic. You know there's lots of free services, even like CloudFlare, that can can help you with that server load and if the site's starting to creak under just general bot traffic it means you're really in trouble - if you had some good coverage and you got a surge of actual users wanting to buy things, you don't want the site to fall over.

Google says, so we've got a question for Google; how do I get a page indexed or updated quickly and Google says: “To ask Google to recrawl a limited number of pages use search console” and they said, as I said earlier for a larger number of pages, you can use sitemaps. Question: What if I block a specific region from accessing my site? Google's answered, “Google generally crawls from the US so if you block the US, Google search generally won't be able to access your site at all, we don't recommend that you block an entire region from temporarily accessing your site instead, we recommend limiting your site's functionality for that region.” So that's a really important point again. If you've got a multinational ecommerce store or one that serves various areas in the world or you've got the infrastructure in various areas and you still can serve some areas and not others, you don't want to try and block specific regions. The same applies if sites are doing this automatic geographic IP based redirect for users, as Google said here they almost always crawl from the US. So if you redirect everyone to your site based on where you think they are on their IP address, it will actually mean Google will only normally see the US version of your website, they're not going to see the UK, Germany, wherever it is, the other versions.

And lastly Google's answer to the question “should I use the remove tool to remove out of stock products?” and Google says: “No. People won't be able to find first-hand information about your products on search and there might still be third party information for the product that may be incorrect or incomplete. It's better to still allow that page and mark it out of stock, that way people can still understand what's going on even if they can't purchase the item. If you remove the product from search people don't know why it's not there.

So Google's given this information, as I said I’ll link to it - you can get all of the links from this episode at our episode transcription which will be at and really important takeaway for any site whether it's ecommerce or not, you generally want to try and keep it alive and keep all the pages the same while this is going on. If you've got good rankings you need to leave those pages to be accessible, just make sure you're communicating everything as clearly as you can do.

So I hope this advice has been helpful to you, no matter how long this goes on for I'll keep trying to see what's out there in terms of resources in terms of tools that will be able to help everyone and will continue to share anything that we find it might be useful. We will be back on Monday the 6th of April, now going into April and I hope you all stay very safe and continue to listen.

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