Stats Can reported that well over 25,000 Ontario businesses were forced to close their doors during the pandemic, with Toronto suffering the most losses.
The businesses that kept their doors open were forced into a pivot-or-perish situation, and found a way to migrate their brick-and-mortar operations online. Suddenly, a lot of businesses found themselves worrying about local search engine optimization (SEO) for the first time ever.
Hundreds of Toronto businesses frantically started building online stores or rebuilding what they already had. Shopify’s earnings more than doubled during the pandemic, as companies across the world scrambled to set up new online stores.
“Over the last year, we’ve met with countless hardworking businesses that are trying to reinvent themselves as an online-first organization,” said Paul Teitelman, a leading SEO consultant in Toronto.
“A lot of feel-good stories have emerged. A lot of businesses have been at the brink of collapse, but they evolved and survived.”
A Seismic Shift in the Online Landscape
Toronto has always been Canada’s most competitive local SEO marketplace. A bicycle shop may compete against 3 or 4 other businesses in a smaller community. But in Toronto, they may have 4 competitors on the same block.
Some businesses in the city have been able to get by for years without giving much thought to their SEO. A restaurant or clothing store may have been able to thrive through sheer foot traffic in a bustling neighbourhood. However, once COVID-19 lockdown closed their doors to the public, they lost their competitive advantage.
The high-end clothing store GOTSTYLE has been a fixture in The Distillery District for a few years after moving from King West. They were previously well known for their in-person fashion sommelier experience, but COVID forced them to find a way to offer some semblance of this experience online. They quickly created a new online guided tour, which enabled visitors to click and buy items as they popped up on-screen.
Trying to Find The New Normal
No city in Ontario has had to deal with as many false starts and stops to the economy as Toronto.
Business owners have had to cope with lockdowns, grey zones, and emergency brakes. Even as The Ontario Government unveils its plan to reopen, Toronto’s business owners have grown accustomed to having the rug pulled from underneath them.
Everyone fantasizes about what things will look like when we go back to normal. We can stop wearing masks. We can meet our friends for long sit-down dinners, and kids can go back to school.
However, it’s hard to imagine Toronto’s businesses ceasing to care about SEO in the new world. Online sales have likely sustained their business during the lockdown, so most business owners have seen what an incredible sales funnel a well-optimized website can be.
Even if they re-open their storefront to the public, don’t expect them to start ignoring their online store. Savvy business owners will realize that, yes, the general public is itching to get outside and do some good old-fashioned shopping again. But they also know that these shoppers have been buying online for over 15 months, and their opinion of what a good online experience should look like has evolved.
In the post-pandemic world, the online store won’t replace the brick-and-mortar store. But the two experiences will have to be as close as possible. The post-pandemic customer will demand it.