Coronavirus, Google advises to limit and do not stop the site

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The coronavirus pandemic is now a worldwide tragedy, and its effects are being felt in every area of our lives, including our economy. If a few weeks ago we told of the immediate collapse of tourism-related sites, as the days went by other sectors had to close or reduce their business. For all those who have a business damaged by the situation comes a Google advice, which invites you not to stop the site but to limit its functions: let’s see how.

Lots of sites and activities on hold for the consequences of the lockdowns

A few hours ago, the Google webmasters blog published in fact an article by John Mueller to explain how to “pause your online activity in Google Search”, so to avoid to definitively close the site and to lose all the efforts and the goals achieved so far in terms of rankings and traffic on the search engine.

“With the growth of coronavirus effects,” writes Mueller, “we’ve seen companies all over the world looking for ways to pause their online activities”, and so Google offers an overview of tips on how to temporarily stop the site and minimize impacts with Google Search, “with the prospect of coming back and being there for your customers”.

To resist and find new solutions

This is an unprecedented situation and companies of all kinds are affected. At the moment it is not clear how long the status quo will last, but the restrictions are likely to continue for several weeks, if not months, and therefore companies must have the ability to adapt to meet the new needs of their customers and find solutions to continue doing business. Google’s recommendations apply to any company with an online presence, but are especially designed for those who have stopped selling their products or services online due to the pandemic.

What to do: limit site functionality

The basic advice of Google – if the deadlock is temporary and we plan to reopen the online activity as soon as possible and whenever possible – is to keep the website online and limit its functionality. For example, “you can mark items as out of stock or limit the cart and payment process”.

This is the best approach “since it minimizes the negative effects on the presence of your site in the search”: meaning that people can still find our products, read reviews or add wish lists so they can buy them later.

Other steps

Mueller also lists other “good practices” to be implemented on the site, which also serve to be transparent with users and to provide guidance to the search engine. In particular, you can:
  • Disable the functionality of the cart, the most immediate intervention and that does not change anything for the visibility of the site in Search.
  • Explain to your customers what is going on: show a banner or popup with the appropriate information for users, so that they are aware of the state of the company. Indicates in advance “any delays, expected shipping times, pick-up or delivery options available etc.” so that users can continue in full awareness.
  • Update your structured data. If our site uses structured data (such as Products, Books or Events), we must appropriately update them, indicating the current availability of the product or modifying events in deleted. If we also have a physical store, they recommend updating the structured data of the local activities to reflect the actual opening hours at the moment.
  • Check the Merchant Center feed and follow the best practices for the availability attribute for products shown in Google Shopping.
  • Inform Google about updates. Through the Search Console we can ask Google to repeat the scanning of a limited number of pages (like the home page), or we can use the Sitemap to scan more pages (such as all product pages).

How to manage this emergency situation

In the article are also reported more specific advice: for instance, you can also temporarily block only purchases of all non-essential products, limiting the functionality of the site to items of primary need only.

On the technical side, in most cases it is not advisable to limit the scan with Search Console because it could affect the freshness of the search results. For example, “the search could take longer to check and inform that all your products are currently unavailable,” Mueller says. However, “if the Googlebot scan causes critical issues to the server’s resources, this is a valid approach, but you’ll want to set up a reminder to restore the scanning speed once you start planning to get back into activity” regularly.

Furthermore, you do not need to use the Removal tool to remove your products, but it is preferable to still allow access to that page and mark it as depleted: by removing the product from the search, people do not know why it is not present, while leaving it online “people can still figure out what’s going on, even if they can’t buy the item”.

Finally, it is not a suggested option to block site access from a specific geographic area: “Google generally scans from the US, so if you block the US, Google Search generally will not be able to access your site,” explains Mueller. So it is better to “limit the functionality of your site for that region”.

What not to do: to disable the entire site

There is also an extreme measure, “the very last resource”: to disable the entire website. According to Google, it is an action that should only be taken for a very short period of time, a few days at most, since “otherwise it would have significant effects on the website in Search, even if implemented correctly”.

Even at this stage there may be customers looking for “information about your products, your services and your company, even if you are not selling anything right now”, so “we strongly recommend only limiting the functionality of your site”.

How to disable the site (if necessary)

However, those who want to completely disable the site have some options:
  • If you urgently need to disable the site for a couple of days, you can “return an informative error page with an HTTP 503 status code instead of all regular content”.
  • If you need to disable the site for a longer period of time, “we can offer an indexed homepage in temporary replacement for users, to be found in the search using the HTTP status code 200″.
  • If we want to quickly hide the site from Research while evaluating situations and prospects, we can temporarily remove it with the GSC Removal tool.

Pay attention to any side effect

You need to proceed with caution, because this step is likely to generate problematic side effects for the site, and John Mueller lists some of them.
  • If they can’t suddenly find the website at all, our customers “won’t know what’s going on” in our business.
  • Customers cannot find or read first-hand information about our business and our products and services. For example, “no reviews, details, past orders, repair guides or manuals will be available: third-party information may not be correct or complete” like the information we provide directly, and this often also affects future purchasing decisions.
  • Knowledge panels “may lose information, such as contact phone numbers and website logo”.
  • The verification by Search Console “will not succeed and you will lose all access to information about your activity in Search”: the aggregated reports in Search Console lose the data when the pages are deleted from the Index.
  • To try and recover locations and traffic “after an extended period of time it will be significantly more difficult if your website needs to be reindexed first”. In addition, adds the googler, “you can’t quantify when and if the site will later appear on Google Search in the same way as before”.

Other aspects to consider

In addition to the overall functioning of the website, there are other actions we can take to put our online activity in Google Search on hold. For instance:
  • If we organize/host events, we can refer to the new markup properties to mark whether they will be postponed, cancelled or virtually streamed.
  • If we use Google My Business, we have to change the opening hours or indicate temporary closures.
  • We can suggest changes to our Google knowledge panel (or claim it if we haven’t already done so).
  • Google has activated resources to allow small businesses to communicate with customers and employees, to work on remote and modify advertising campaigns (here some more information).

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