Where do you get information about your health?
A recent study by the Pew Research Center found approximately 8 out of 10 Americans use search engines to learn about their symptoms before scheduling an appointment with a doctor. Of that group, an overwhelming majority ( 90 percent) said they started with sites such as WebMD that are geared toward providing medical information.
Why are more people turning to the Internet – famously a haven for only the most accurate, fact-checked information and definitely nothing harmful or misleading – when it comes to their health? And how can the medical industry adapt to compete with the WebMDs of the world? The answer is surprisingly simple: Beat them at their own game with a smart, aggressive content marketing strategy.
The Age of the Online Diagnosis
Perhaps this trend in online search is a natural extension of the online shopping age, where people can read Yelp reviews of everything from a nearby taco truck to their child’s third-grade social studies teacher. Or maybe it’s the result of our innate desire for confirmation bias, whether it’s a political stance or a potentially life-threatening illness.
Unlike your doctor, the writer of a given WebMD article can’t know if your headache is a symptom of a hangover or a brain tumor, so any information they provide must be as general as possible. This sort of thing can cause certain people undue stress, leaving them open to trusting disreputable claims from online health gurus selling the 21st-century version of snake oil.
The good news is that some search engines, Google in particular, have taken notice of this phenomenon and consistently tweak their ranking algorithm in an attempt to police user behavior.
Google’s “Medic Update”
In August 2018, Google rolled out another update to their search algorithm. As usual, the tech giant was tight-lipped about the parameters of this update, leaving SEO experts to speculate its intent. They noticed the rankings for websites across a variety of industries were affected, but sites with a health and wellness focus seemed to be impacted the most. This culminated in Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Roundtable coining the nickname “Medic Update,” which stuck.
To understand why this update was such a game-changer, you need to understand how Google handles algorithm updates. Instead of spelling out each update and explaining proper SEO tactics ad nauseam, they elected to publish what they call their Search Quality Rating Guidelines (SQRG). This 160-plus page document is updated frequently and goes into excruciating detail regarding the minutiae of why certain websites rank higher than others. Think of it as Google’s Bible when it comes to their search algorithm.
Fun fact: If you flip through the SQRG (and it’s a real page-turner, I assure you), Google actually has a specific term for the type of websites that just so happened to be most affected by the Medic Update: YMYL, or “Your Money or Your Life.”
If this sounds like something you’d hear some two-bit thug say in an old episode of Dragnet, you’re not alone.
What Are YMYL Pages?
“Some types of pages could potentially impact the future happiness, health, financial stability, or safety of users,” Google says in the SQRG. “We call such pages ‘Your Money or Your Life’ pages, or YMYL.’”
Section 2.3 provides specific examples of YMYL web pages:
- Shopping or financial transaction pages: web pages that allow users to make purchases, transfer money, pay bills, etc. online (such as online stores and online banking pages).
- Financial information pages: web pages that provide advice or information about investments, taxes, retirement planning, home purchase, paying for college, buying insurance, etc.
- Medical information pages: web pages that provide advice or information about health, drugs, specific diseases or conditions, mental health, nutrition, etc.
- Legal information pages: web pages that provide legal advice or information on topics such as divorce, child custody, creating a will, becoming a citizen, etc.
- News articles or public/official information pages important for having an informed citizenry: web pages that include information about local/state/national government processes, policies, people, and laws; disaster response services; government programs and social services; news about important topics such as international events, business, politics, science, and technology; etc.
- Other: there are many other topics that you may consider YMYL, such as child adoption, car safety information, etc.
Google’s rationale for holding YMYL pages (and their content) to a higher standard is because “low-quality YMYL pages could potentially negatively impact users’ happiness, health, financial stability, or safety.”
When this section of the SQRG was created back in 2013, Google seemed to foreshadow what current events have proven disastrously true: If it’s on the Internet, people will read it – and, more importantly, believe it.
Lessons Learned from the Medic Update
Once the dust settled, Search Engine Land scrupulously sifted through the ranking data, highlighting the winners and losers of the Medic Update. For example, one of the most negatively affected domains was Prevention.com, which lost a stunning 53 percent of Google traffic in just over a week. On the flip side, Healthline.com gained about 20 percent more traffic as a result of the update.
Why was there such a large discrepancy between two websites in the same health and wellness vertical? By visiting each site and poking around, the rationale behind these new rankings becomes clearer.
A Tale of Two Lifestyle Blogs
At first glance, Prevention.com looks like any other lifestyle blog, with clickbait-y headlines like “The 22 Best Foods for Weight Loss” and “These Earbuds Helped Me Sleep Soundly for the First Time in Years” (seriously). The front page is filled with bright colors, attention-grabbing headlines, and a liberal use of stock photography – pretty standard stuff.
As you keep scrolling, you may notice new articles load automatically. This is great for binge-reading about diet fads, but not so great if you’re looking for the footer – the section at the bottom of most web pages containing useful things such as copyright and contact information, site navigation, and social media links.
When you finally reach it, the About page is more or less what you’d expect: stock photography, a boilerplate brand statement that highlights their “more than 5 million monthly unique users,” bios for their editorial team (nary a doctor in the bunch), and finally a section where they list a “selection” of the medical experts they consult – which is simply a list of names with little context provided.
This might have been acceptable back in the formative “Geocities Era” of the Internet, but now that online content has the potential to alter an entire political climate quite radically (my tongue could not be planted any deeper in my cheek), this sort of unsourced information won’t fly. You need to provide the receipts. I’m sure “Laurence Sperling, MD” is a real person who worked very hard to get their medical degree, but without any corroborating information – like a bio, an email address, or at the very least a photograph – they’re just words on a page and tell me nothing about why I should trust them or Prevention.com with my health.
Looking back at the evidence above, are you surprised this domain lost 53 percent of Google traffic? Let’s compare it with one that improved its ranking after the Medic Update to see how the two differ.
YMYL Done Right
On the surface, Healthline.com seems very similar to its sister site. We’ve got stock photography, clickbait-y headlines (“Full Body Detox: 9 Ways to Rejuvenate Your Body”), and a pop-up prodding us to subscribe to their newsletter. But there are subtle differences as well: an actual footer with a disclaimer, contact info, and navigation menu. Their articles are also written in a more journalistic style, full of hyperlinks to back-up their claims and quotes from medical professionals (with links to full bios, even!).
Their About page is exhaustive, listing bios and contact links for their management, medical affairs, and nutrition teams – the latter two consisting of doctors, therapists, and certified medical professionals. There’s also an entire page of the Healthline website dedicated to their partnership with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). You’d be hard-pressed to find sources more official than a government agency.
In the end, this all comes back to Google’s SQRG and their emphasis on what they call E-A-T: Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trust. The highest ranking health and wellness sites focus more on providing information than selling a product (like earbuds that somehow help you sleep). These sites have extensive About Us sections; employ a fact-based, journalistic style; and cultivate a prominent external reputation (i.e., Google can find many positive references to the site elsewhere on the Internet).
All is not lost for brands burned by the seismic shift of the Medic Update. To win back Google’s trust and compete with the WebMDs of the world, this industry needs to rethink how they present themselves online and focus on providing more reliably sourced content that speaks directly to the user.
Make the Medic Update Work for You
Danny Sullivan, public search liaison for Google, says there’s no particular “fix” for sites negatively affected by the Medic Update. He does, however, provide some solid advice for future-proofing web pages before new updates arrive:
Want to do better with a broad change? Have great content. Yeah, the same boring answer. But if you want a better idea of what we consider great content, read our raters guidelines. That's like almost 200 pages of things to consider: https://t.co/pO3AHxFVrV
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) August 1, 2018
This emphasis on creating good content is nothing new (I have harped on this point several times myself). Content marketing works because its goals and the client’s goals are the same:
- Grow organic web traffic
- Establish industry expertise
- Develop brand loyalty
- Drive engagement
No matter what industry vertical you’re in, with a strong content marketing strategy, your brand can reach audiences both inside the online space and out. This is especially true in the medical industry, where access to fact-checked, resource-based information can potentially save lives. It just takes a bit of creative thinking to package it properly.
Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trust
When people think of hospitals, they think of doctors and medical professionals who know every last detail about healthcare. They are the bearers of both good and bad news, and their capacity for empathy and steady calm in the face of adversity helps patients find hope in even the worst diagnosis.
Upon visiting a hospital or health network’s website, users expect it to be chock full of info on specific diseases, ailments, and available treatment options. They assume a certain level of trustworthiness and specificity – all the things that sites like WebMD inherently lack. This is the Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trust that Google is looking for, and it’s already baked into the core of the medical industry itself.
Unfortunately, this core is covered with a thick crust of impenetrable industry jargon and boring, legally mandated boilerplate. In some instances, it’s almost as if these websites are daring you to read them.
While there are undoubtedly good reasons for getting the legal department involved in the content creation process, leaning too far in that direction puts readers on the defensive and ultimately does your brand a disservice. Instead, take a page from WebMD’s book and develop a strong, consistent, genuine voice using plain language to build trust with your users. Think of it as your “bedside manner” for the online space.
Rethink Your Content Creation Process
To discern why patients aren’t engaging with your website, take a step back and view the entire user experience from their point of view. Performing a Content Analysis is an excellent way to single out factors that may be responsible for lower engagement. Is the content digestible? Can patients easily find the information they’re looking for? How can they reach out if they have questions?
Keeping the user top-of-mind when creating new content is essential. With the World Wide Web at their fingertips, why should they slog through your website when there are hundreds more just a Google search away?
The following is a step-by-step guide for creating great health and wellness content that we currently utilize for a medical industry client:
- It all starts with keyword research. By finding the terms people are searching for and basing your content around them, you’ll ensure your content ranks well organically. A good SEO team can help you get started.
- Tailor your topic to the user. Think of the questions you would ask if you were a patient searching for information, then structure your content to provide clear answers to those questions.
- Conduct interviews with specialists. There is no more trustworthy source of information about the services your hospital or health center provides than the doctor who performs these treatments.
- Keep your content balanced. Consider the two main audiences for your web content: everyday people seeking information about care, and doctors looking for a place to refer their patients. Balance your language so you’re not confusing the former or patronizing the latter.
- Don’t scare people. They’re likely already stressed about a diagnosis. Instead, provide factual information in a way that stresses the need for a doctor to check symptoms before more serious complications develop.
- Don’t make false claims. Your legal department is likely to bug you about this anyway, but be careful not to promise cures or “silver bullet” types of treatment, lest you leave yourself open to a lawsuit.
- Cite reputable sources. Organizations like the American Cancer Society (ACS), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and National Institutes of Health (NIH) are treasure troves of information, and Google loves to see content sourced from these websites.
- Use internal links. It shows off the breadth of your expertise on a topic. Do you provide 3D mammograms as well as traditional breast cancer screenings? Link to that page in your article so readers can learn more.
- Don’t forget strong CTAs. Calls-to-action are the most effective way to drive engagement. Provide links to contact forms, online scheduling tools, and click-to-call phone numbers so patients can make an appointment without leaving your website.
Future-Proof Your Website with Content Marketing
Brands in the health and wellness sector shouldn’t be scared of the Medic Update – or any further Google updates for that matter. Instead, they should see this as an opportunity to reevaluate and revamp their content strategy.
SEO guru Marie Haynes puts it very plainly in her breakdown of the Medic Update: “If you are selling a health-related product that has either a negative reputation or has no obvious scientific backing, you may find that Google’s algorithms trust you less.”
When you put your trust in the fundamentals of content marketing, you’ll be surprised how easily everything else falls into place. You’ll be insulated from future algorithm updates. Patients will trust your brand with their lives and recommend you to their friends and family. Most importantly, you’ll help educate the public on their health and convince more people to see a doctor, which is ultimately a good thing.
If your brand is interested in taking your web content to the next level, Go Local’s crack team of content strategists can help you get started. Contact us today for more information.