On July 30, the World Health Organization (WHO), marked the 7-month anniversary of the COVID-19 outbreak. When the virus first began to spread, none of us could have imagined how our world, and our lives, would be impacted by this virulent disease. All over the world, we have seen innovation, resilience, and solidarity as we learned to maneuver through this global crisis, that for many of us is unprecedented, together.  

In the wake of international lockdowns and shelter-in-place restrictions, people worldwide continue to heavily depend on digital mediums to stay connected, informed, and to run their businesses. 

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)—also identified as small to medium businesses (SMBs) in the US—represent 99% of all businesses in the European Union (EU). Faced with a socially distant world, more and more international SMEs have had to transform the way they conduct business to weather the storm of COVID-19.


Digital Transformation 

Even before the pandemic struck, many SMEs in Europe were at a disadvantage digitally. In a 2018 study conducted by digital marketing and local search association, SIINDA, and British website powerhouse, Silktide, nearly 40,000,000 data points across Europe were analyzed to uncover information about digital readiness—including website quality, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and social media. Conducted across 8 European countries, including Germany, Switzerland, Slovakia, Czechia, and the Republic of Ireland, this study revealed many weaknesses SMEs faced in the digital landscape. 

  • 71% of websites had NOT been updated within the previous 60 days, and 46% of websites had not been updated in over a year.
  • 60% of websites did NOT have an analytics tool in place to track and understand visitor behavior on their site.
  • More than 37% of websites analyzed were NOT optimized for mobile phones or tablets.
  • Only 19% of surveyed SMEs had SSL certificates on their website—the standard technology that keeps an internet connection secure and safeguards sensitive data.
  • Only 5% were selling their products or services online.

According to SIINDA General Manager, Kimberli Lewis, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed a clear digital divide—SMEs who pivoted quickly during the outbreak already had a strong digital foundation in place and were actively investing in digital integration when the pandemic began in January of 2020. “SMEs suddenly had new needs. We as digital marketing agencies have to rise and meet those needs. We must teach our clients about the different strategies and tools available to them to keep them successful moving forward, even after the pandemic.”

And it wasn’t only Europe struggling to adapt to market changes initiated by the pandemic. According to Miguel Angel Vives Garcia, VP of Product Development at ADN de Sección Amarilla, when faced with shelter-in-place orders and closures, many SMEs in Mexico were devastated by their lack of online presence. “When COVID-19 hit Mexico, many small businesses didn’t have a website; they only had their Facebook profile to do business. They didn’t know how to go from a Facebook profile to a website. These small business owners, they’re scared they will lose everything. At the end of the day, we have to help them.” 

And that’s exactly what Sección Amarilla did. ADN de Sección Amarilla partnered with BANAMEX, one of Mexico’s largest banks, to create a program for SMEs to receive a basic website and listing on Sección Amarilla at no charge. Additionally, they implemented simple e-commerce sites at an affordable, reduced price to help Mexico’s small businesses recover from the upheaval caused by COVID-19. This campaign, Tira Esquina, has helped over 2000 businesses in Mexico improve their online visibility.

Similarly, in South Africa, many small businesses had social presence with a Facebook page, but no website. Byron Moorgas, CEO of Always Innovative Solutions said, “SMEs in South Africa realized very quickly—Facebook, while an incredible tool in marketing your business, is no replacement for an active, optimized, and working website.” 

Digital Acceleration

As SMEs across the globe faced more restrictions, it became very apparent—to survive, everything had to move online. For many years, business owners have known that digital transformation and integration was essential. However, the pandemic made the deployment of digital solutions absolutely necessary, opposed to a luxury, as social distancing compacted years of digital growth and evolution into just a few short months. 

This has been most apparent with e-commerce. In the Digital Economy Index Report released by Adobe on June 12 of this year, total online spending in May hit $82.5 billion, up 77% year over year. In an interview with Forbes, Vivek Pandya, Adobe’s Digital Insights Manager stated, “According to our data, it would’ve taken between 4 and 6 years to get to the levels that we saw in May if the growth continued at the same levels it was at for the past few years.” 


Focus on Local Search

With most of the world implementing some measure of quarantine to slow the virus’ spread, more people are at home searching the internet than ever before, with 44% of people worldwide spending even longer amounts of time on social media (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.). 

With this surge in internet usage, it is no longer enough to simply be online. SMEs need to be found online and that requires critical website optimizations and basic SEO to appear in local searches. 

Local businesses build community and a sense of togetherness, something we desperately need now. Many consumers see the difficulties faced by their favorite local shops and have rallied behind them.

Canva released a survey in which 71% of respondents shifted their shopping habits to support small and local businesses rather than big corporations or chains, with 79% of respondents claiming the pandemic changed their perspective on just how important small businesses are to their community.

Consumers increasingly favor products made and sold locally. In recent study by Kantar, “65% of people favor buying goods and services from their own country. This increases for those who consider themselves sustainability active (79%) or engaged (72%). China has become the country most championing ‘buy local’ with 87% expressing this view, followed by Italy (81%), South Korea (76%) and Spain (73%). 


How to Rank Locally in Your Country

The practices and nature of local SEO stays fairly consistent in the European Union and other international markets as well as North America. Each website and business vertical will certainly have its own set of challenges. But here are a few of the foundational tasks SMEs should implement to rank locally, no matter what country they are in:

  • Google My Business / Business Directories
  • Location Based Keywords
  • Website Copy that Reflects Local Commerce Possibilities
  • Paid Campaigns that Help Facilitate Organic Ranking
  • Generic Top-Level Domain(gTLD) vs Country Code Top-Level Domain (ccTLD)
  • hrefLang on Specific Pages to Rank in Different Language (if applicable)
  • Increase Trust with Reviews / Links and Other Common SEO Tactics
  • Mobile-Commerce Capabilities a Must for the EU.

The technology of today is more powerful than ever in targeting local customers. With COVID-19 forcing everyone online, now is the time for SMEs to fully digitize their business. Businesses will not be able to stay relevant into the future beyond this pandemic without these changes. 

To hear more about the EU, Mexico, and South Africa’s response to the pandemic, watch our international Search Sessions panel or read the recap if you don’t have time to watch the full webinar!


Sara Beth (or SB for short), is the former Senior Manager of Partner Marketing at Boostability. A graduate of Utah Valley University, SB studied writing and stage management as part of her B.A.—skills she used every day to help Boostability partners increase their revenue and execute on results-driven SEO strategies. Specializing in SEO content creation and management, SB also brings 15+ years of event coordination to the table. In her free time, Sara Beth is an avid reader, board gamer, Dolly Parton lover, and coffee enthusiast.