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Analysis shows COVID-19 has altered how, where Americans go online

A woman works on a laptop computer in Domino Park in New York City on May 17 as the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic has created distinct shifts in the way Americans spend time online. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/d25ac7a4027c6a4faa3aad2914aea1fd/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
A woman works on a laptop computer in Domino Park in New York City on May 17 as the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic has created distinct shifts in the way Americans spend time online. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 14 (UPI) -- Much like what's been seen in the brick-and-mortar economy, the coronavirus pandemic is producing clear winners and losers online, according to an analysis of web traffic in the United States.

Average traffic per month to the top five most-visited websites across 11 categories jumped by 4.4% during the first half of 2020 compared with last year as the health crisis increasingly turned Americans toward the Internet for work, shopping and entertainment, web analytics firm SimilarWeb concluded this month.

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Some types of websites benefited far more than others.

For instance, even though unemployment in the United States rose dramatically in the spring -- from a historically low 3.5% to nearly 15% in April -- top career sites like Indeed, Monster and Careerbuilder did not benefit.

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The top five job sites, in fact, saw markedly lower traffic compared with the first half of 2019 -- including a decline of nearly 35% for Monster, the report showed.

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What seems to be a disconnect between high unemployment rates and lower traffic for career sites could be explained by several factors, experts say. The enhanced federal unemployment payment of $600 per week is one.

"What we found when we looked into this is that visits were down both because employers were slower to post new openings because they were hiring less," SimilarWeb Marketing Insights Manager Ilana Marks told UPI.

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"And, also, because of the provisions [like the $600 payment], there was less incentive to go back to work."

But, she added, the situation has changed in recent weeks.

"We are now seeing an uptrend in employer traffic to these sites -- a bigger demand from them," Marks said. "This means companies are starting to get back onto the hiring train.

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"There had been a total freeze in both the supply and demand sides of the career website category -- something that was completely unprecedented."

Out-of-work Americans stopped receiving the enhanced benefit near the end of July when the program expired. Negotiators have not agreed on a replacement benefit.

The report showed that other online losers were not as unexpected.

Major hotel booking sites saw a severe decline in traffic as demand for travel dried up amid stay-home orders nationwide and restrictions on air and foreign travel. Traffic to the top five accommodations sites sank by more than 30%.

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Traffic to websites for brick-and-mortar department stores also slowed, as the sector endured one of its worst periods in history.

Retailers including Neiman Marcus, J.C. Penney, Lord & Taylor and several others declared bankruptcy after the pandemic arrived in the United States, and traffic to the top department store sites declined by nearly one-fifth.

On the other side of the spectrum, the new post-COVID normal saw substantial increases to other sectors online.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest e-commerce retailers like Amazon, Walmart and Target saw great influxes of traffic, including a 9% hike for Target, the SimilarWeb analysis showed -- also a reflection of Americans being forced to live their lives under unprecedented restrictions.

Also on the rise is the percentage of users who convert their visits into actual purchases, illustrating how online shopping has grown to include everyday, household necessities.

For the first time since observations began, SimilarWeb said, conversion rates were higher during the first half of a year than in the second, when year-end holiday sales occur.

"To see higher conversion rates higher now than during the holidays and Black Friday, when they're usually through the roof, really speaks to the 'purchase intent' now," Marks said. "People are ordering essential goods online, and so you're seeing the online marketplaces shooting up in traffic."

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Top news websites also benefited with a traffic increase of 22%, as users searched for the latest information on the pandemic -- and porn websites also showed substantial increases in traffic, generating more than $1 billion per month compared to $885 million a year ago.

The health crisis has led to some other unprecedented changes, including where flows of traffic originate, SimilarWeb found. In one of the greatest changes from last year, traffic from desktop computers outstripped that from mobile devices.

"People are now at home, and they're spending more time in front of their computer screens, so they're shifting away from looking at things on their phone while on the go," Marks said.

"The shift was 1.9 percentage points, which sounds small, but that translates into 1.9 percent of 6.1 billion visits to these sites -- that's very significant."

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