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Google’s John Mueller has stated that Google’s broad core updates have not been targeting health sites. But there is a perception that some health related sites tend to be sensitive to Google updates. What kinds of changes can affect health sites while not specifically targeting health sites?
User Satisfaction Metrics
Google has a long history of using their log files to help deduce what kinds of web pages satisfy users for certain kinds of search queries. Factors like click through rate were used in the past for quality control, for understanding what users want.
Rank Brain and Neural Matching
Over the past few years Google introduced Neural Matching and Rank Brain to help Google better understand search queries (neural matching) and to help Google understand web pages better by matching pages to concepts (rank brain).
In my opinion, a better understanding of what users mean when they ask a query could affect health related sites. Health topics can be divided between strictly scientific meanings and alternative and so-called natural cures.
Thus, if Google better understands that a query requires a scientific response, then it makes sense that sites promoting non-medical alternative solutions will suffer.
It’s not that Google is targeting health sites, but that Google is getting better at understanding what users want and are satisfied with when they make these kinds of queries.
The Mercola managed to sail through the 2018 Google broad core updates, even though it offered the same kind of “alternative” health information that other losing sites offered.
That points in the direction that an additional signal was added or possibly that other signals were dialed down.
Even if your site is not in the health niche, it may be useful to read the conversation about health sites and traffic losses. Whatever is affecting them could be affecting your sites as well.
Dr. Pete Meyers on Health Sites and Traffic Losses
I asked Dr. Pete why health sites tend to keep being affected.
Here is what he offered:
“(1) There’s clearly a correlation between sites impacted in later core updates and the original core update. It seems logical that the levers that Google pulls in a “core” update are going to be qualitatively different than the levers they pull in more routine updates (even if we don’t know what those levers are), so there’s going to be a connection between them.
(2) It seems very likely that any given core update is imperfect and successive core updates will iterate on it. The data we’ve seen matches that assumption, to some degree. That doesn’t mean Core Update #5 is going to reverse Core Update #4, but we can expect that some changes won’t measure up to Google’s expectations and they’ll work to mitigate and refine those changes.
(3) Do we know for a fact that the update didn’t target health sites? I find Google’s language — while often accurate — to be very precise (almost to a fault). I believe that Google wasn’t hand-targeting specific medical sites, but we know that YMYL queries, for example, are very important to them. It’s possible this is even broader — mechanisms, for example, that try to analyze trust in verticals where trust is especially important (or where untrustworthy information is dangerous). Does that mean they “targeted” health sites? No, but they didn’t not target health queries 🙂
(4) Related to #3, something in this article (Google Tweaked Algorithm After Rise in US Shootings) struck me as very interesting:
“In these last few years, there’s been a tragic increase in shootings,” Nayak said. “And it turns out that during these shootings, in the fog of events that are unfolding, a lot of misinformation can arise in various ways.
And so to address that we have developed algorithms that recognize that a bad event is taking place and that we should increase our notions of ‘authority‘, increase the weight of ‘authority‘ in our ranking so that we surface high quality content rather than misinformation in this critical time here.”
That almost makes it sound like authority is situational; in some cases, Google isn’t going to require high authority, since it’s not necessary or not risky. But in other cases they’re going to set a high authority threshold. Note that ‘authority’ here could mean something more akin to trust/expertise than link equity.”
I followed up on Pete’s response saying that the important question, which he addressed and I agree on, is what factors? Authority? Truth?
Here is how Pete answered:
“Yeah, that’s the kicker — How has Google actually translated these ideas into code? Generally speaking, do I think E-A-T is a good idea? Absolutely. You should build Expertise, Authority, and Trust, if you want to build a legitimate business/career. That’s going to be good for marketing, and at least indirectly good for SEO. Does that mean E-A-T is specifically built into the algorithm? No. If E or A or T are built in (which is likely, to some degree), it also doesn’t tell us how that translates into factors.
Of course, Google doesn’t want us to have that granular information that could be gamed.”
Cyrus Shepard on Why Health Sites May Be Sensitive to Updates
Cyrus Shepard contributed several thoughtful ideas about why health related sites seem to be sensitive to Google’s broad core algorithm updates:
“I suspect for YMYL queries, Google is tightening the screws on less reputable sites in 1 of 3 ways:
1. Online Sentiment Analysis.
One of the top sites hit, Mercola.com, has a ton of negative articles written about it. Because it’s in the health space, Google may be extra sensitive to this sentiment.
2. Link-based Signals
Evidence is scant, but it seems Google may be favoring sites with links closer to a trusted seed set. See Bill Slawski’s writeup of Google patents in this area.
3. YMYL Queries
Finally, for YMYL queries, Google may be demoting sites that it sees as dangerous if they disagree with standardized “facts” — such as those obtained from entity graphs. Sites such as Diet Doctor (promotes fasting) and Dr. Mercola (promotes anti-vax theories) disagree with conventional medical wisdom, and could thus be demoted.
In reality, it could be one of these factors, or a combination of all three. Regardless, it’s obvious Google is moving towards presenting a standardized set of information from authoritative sites for YMYL queries.
SEO Signals Lab Facebook Group Opinions
I asked Steve Kang, the admin of the popular SEO Signals Lab Facebook Group (only members can see discussions) to ask members about this topic. A lively discussion ensued.
Verified Facts and Negative Sentiment
A member suggested that medical information is factual and can be cross referenced for validity by published research and regulatory warnings sent by organizations like the FDA to web publishers:
“Health/health care is 1/6 of the economy and deals with critical life-and-death issues. So while there are huge opportunities for fraud or quackery there is also massive amounts of research coupled with massive regulatory oversight.
It’s a simple matter of “Stay in your lane”… you want to talk about acupuncture for pain management? Fine, because this is something that credentialed medical professionals and orgs will discuss. You start talking about acupuncture for depression, it’s bye-bye.”
Crackdown on Fake Information?
Another member commented that increasing government concern over the spread of bad information may play a role. Certainly Google’s users may be concerned about the accuracy of information.
“With governments working to assign accountability to Facebook, Google and et al for fake news, so-called hate postings, etc., tech companies are motivated to avoid liability.
Lawsuits in the health industry offer some of the largest payouts making it a magnet for greedy lawyers and impetus for Google to avoid exposure.
Unless you’re the Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins, Mayo Clinic or an accredited provider, earning authority from Google won’t be easy.”
There are many possible reasons why health sites tend to be sensitive to Google broad core updates. Factors such as what users want to see when they type a query, factual correctness of information and sentiment analysis can all play a role. But we don’t know that as facts.
What is known is that Google has not been targeting health sites. So this means that the changes may affect a broad range of sites, not just health related sites. It may be useful to investigate why some health sites are losing traffic because that may give clues as to what is affecting some non-health websites.
Images by Shutterstock, Modified by Author