Panic Buying Is The New Backlink

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by andrewsho

One of the benefits of society freaking out about a particular topic is that it can drive online behavior that affects SEO performance. For example, currently over the past few weeks, we have been experiencing a shortage of baby formula.

While the shortage is a hardship for parents, it has been a boon for websites that have baby formula in stock. Here is the Google click data for various baby formula product pages on a retailer site comparing the past 28 days to the previous 28 days:

This data makes sense. People want baby formula. This site has it in stock. They get clicks. But the interesting part is what happened to the rankings for these pages:

As you can see several pages were not ranking at all for these queries, but most of them went from ranking virtually nowhere to ranking on page one/two for these queries. I am too lazy to pull together the data, but all of these were intermittently ranking on page 2 or 3 for various “baby formula” queries, which often shows up as average position = 0 in GSC. They then basically locked into place and started surging in mid-April, which I guess is when people started freaking out. Here’s an example of average position for one URL that is pretty common across all of these pages:
Here’s what I think happened:

  1. This URL sometimes ranked on page 2+ for various queries. Google occasionally tested it out at the bottom of page 1, but clearly no one cared, so it kept dropping. I have a Hotline Bling analogy for what’s going on here, but I’ll leave it at that.
  2. In mid-April, moms across the country clicked on Amazon or or whatever was showing up at the top of the SERPs for “baby formula” searches but these sites were now out of stock. So they pogo-sticked back to the SERPs, scrolled down and kept clicking.
  3. As Google saw searchers en masse behaving this way, it started to demote those out of stock sites and push up those which were still in stock. But those sites quickly went out of stock, which caused more pogo-sticking, more scrolling and more clicking on URLs further down the SERP, and perhaps even on page two, causing Google to promote previously-low-ranked URLs higher up the SERPs.
  4. As Google promoted the in-stock URLs, it also expanded the number of keywords the URL ranked for. The above page got impressions for only 11 keywords in March. In April, it ranked for 27 keywords. In May, it ranked for 141.

This is what I think happened to the particular URL above. You can see when it went out of stock, the rankings started to decline. I don’t have all the data, but I actually think it initially went out of stock for a week or so at the end of April, then had it back in stock for a week or so in May.

All these pages are currently out of stock and all of their rankings are now declining.

We saw a similar thing happen with a client site and “hand sanitizer” searches at the beginning of the pandemic. The same with “hair dye” and “hair clipper” searches about two months in, when everyone realized they needed a haircut.

Here’s the TLDR:

  1. This is yet another datapoint that suggests that CTR can be very influential to rankings, particularly when it happens on a set of related queries at scale across a wide geography (this is a national retailer site).
  2. When panic buying happens like this, you likely have a short window to take advantage of it.  Implement a form on your PDPs for people to sign up for alerts about when an item is back in stock. You might be able to build a targeted list quickly in situations like these and you never know when the next collective freakout is going to happen.
  3. Add a big statement about what you are doing about the shortage to these pages, or create a new page that links to them. Maybe even create an offer for related products (e.g. “Because we’re out of formula, we want to show parents we care, so 5% off on your next diapers order.”). Not only might you get some new customers, you are also likely to get a lot of backlinks, which should help SEO performance for the site in general.So remember, just because the whole world is in a panic, doesn’t mean the SEO team has to be.
  4. UPDATE: Cory Howell rightly pointed out that Google may reduce search visibility for out of stock items. Regardless how you get there, the end result will still be the same. And Google may not 100% trust a site to get “out of stock” right, so it likely looks at other signals like CTR to confirm. Or not. Hey, what do you want? What part of I am an SEO blogger did you not understand?





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