Buying panic is the new back link

One of the benefits of the company freaking out on a particular topic is that it can drive online behaviors that impact SEO performance. For example, we have currently been experiencing a shortage of infant formula in the last few weeks.

While the shortage is a burden for parents, it has been a boon to websites that have baby formulas in stock. Here is Google’s click data for various infant product pages on a retailer site comparing the last 28 days to the previous 28 days:

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

As you can see, several pages weren’t ranked at all for these queries, but most of them went from ranking virtually nowhere to ranking on page one / two for these queries. I’m too lazy to put the data together, but all of these have been placed intermittently on page 2 or 3 for various “baby milk” queries, which often show up as average position = 0 in GSC. So they basically stuck in place and started climbing in mid-April, which I guess is when people started going crazy. Here is an example of an average position for a URL that is quite common on all of these pages:
Here’s what I think happened:

  1. This URL is sometimes ranked on page 2+ for various queries. Google occasionally tested it 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 that way.
  2. In mid-April, moms across the country clicked on Amazon or or whatever was at the top of the SERPs for “baby milk” searches, but these sites were now out of stock. Then they went back to the SERPs, scrolled down and kept clicking.
  3. When Google saw searchers doing this en masse, it started downgrading sites that were out of stock and increasing those that were still in stock. But those sites quickly sold out, which caused more pogo-sticking, more scrolling, and more clicks on the URLs further down the SERP and possibly even on the second page, causing Google to promote previously low ranking URLs further. high in the SERPs.
  4. As Google has promoted URLs in stock, it has also expanded the number of keywords the URL is ranked for. The page above received impressions for just 11 keywords in March. In April it ranked for 27 keywords. In May it was ranked for 141.

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

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

We saw a similar thing happen with a customer’s site and searches for “hand sanitizer” at the start of the pandemic. Same with searches for “hair dye” and “hair clipper” after about two months, when everyone realized they needed a haircut.

Here is the TLDR:

  1. This is another data point that suggests that CTR can be very influential for rankings, particularly when it occurs on a large-scale series of related queries across a large geographic area (this is a national retailer site) .
  2. When panic buying happens this way, you probably have a short window to take advantage of it. Implement a form on your PDPs to allow people to sign up to receive alerts when an item is back in stock. You may be able to quickly build a targeted list in situations like these, and you never know when the next collective madness will happen.
  3. Add a big statement about what you are doing regarding the shortage of these pages or create a new page that links to them. Maybe even create an offer for related products (eg “Since we’re done with the formula, we want to show parents that we care, so 5% off your next diaper order.”). Not only could you get new customers, but you’re also likely to get a lot of backlinks, which should help your site’s overall SEO performance. 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 can reduce search visibility for out of stock items. Regardless of how you get there, the end result will always be the same. And Google might not 100% trust a site to be “sold out” the right way, so it probably 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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