Google Medic: How to SEO Proof Your Site in the Trust Authority Era

Cory Hedgepeth | | , ,
Google Medic: How to SEO Proof Your Site in the Trust Authority Era

In August of 2018, Google released one of their most substantial updates in recent memory. The update, labeled by many as the “medic update,” substantially affected many of the web’s most popular health and financial sites.

For a number of site owners, the medic update is a continuing work in progress as well as a thorn in their sides.

In other words, the Google medic update was and continues to be an algorithmic monster that many site owners and operators continue to battle.

This article will explore what Google Medic is, why it affected the sites it affected (both good and bad), and what a site owner can and should do to both preserve and increase site traffic from a general RankBrain perspective.

Google Medic Update: An ‘Unhealthy’ Explanation

While many websites were affected (both adversely and positively), health sites seemed to take it on the chin the hardest.

Hence, we are calling it the “medic” update.

But what did it all REALLY mean? And is all lost for those websites that seemed to lose most of their traffic? Where are we now?

Let’s get started with the basics.

Google Medic: What You Need To Know To Start

The SEO business is a funny thing (at least, sometimes). Many SEO companies tend to stake their marketing and sales claims in a “reading the Google tea leaves” pitch.

It’s a sales play. But it’s also a bit of an industry infection.

No one (well, almost no one) possesses privileged Google search algorithm information.

So, whenever Google updates its search algorithm robustly or expansively, the first place we should all go is to Google themselves.

Ah, I love the smell of common sense in the morning!

On the same morning that many health sites were in a full-fledged state of panic, Google’s official public liaison Twitter account was, well, “liaisoning” away.

Google’s statement served to verify to the SEO community of what it already suspected or understood. A fresh new Google search algorithmic update was live, and it was a beast; or as Google described it, a “broad core algorithmic update.”

Google also let all site owners know that there is “no fix,” per se, except for a continued (or renewed – I’ll get to that in a bit) effort to create excellent content.

You know when you come down with a bad cold, and the doctor tells you to drink lots of water? That’s Google’s “no fix except create great content” line in a nutshell. It sounds awful to hear when you are down, but it’s probably the truest words you’ll ever hear.

OK, hold up for a second.

Didn’t Google just tell us what the issue is?

Kind of.

Sort of.

OK, not really at all.

Let’s take a breath.

I’m going to clear up the confusion regarding how we approach the Google Medic update shortly.

But first, let’s look at who and what took the brunt of this update’s thrashing.

YMYL – How Google Medic Sought To Protect Us

“Your Money, Your Life”

What matters more to a person than their money and their lives? And what type of content verticals are most conducive to influencing these things?

Google Medic’s main algorithmic purpose was to figure this out and diminish exposure of “less trustworthy” results. It seems they found that health sites and financial sites are critical to our modern well-being. So they prioritized them.

Try to cure your cold by eating raw chicken meat or invest your retirement money into a get rich quick pyramid scheme, and your life will probably turn out worse than before. Google wants to prevent this by eliminating less reliable search results that could detrimentally affect YMYL.

It isn’t all consumer protectionism at play, either.

Google also sought to reduce liability for itself.

“Google told me to eat raw chicken, so I did!”

Yuck. For everyone. Maybe even for Google.

Google expressed in an official statement that “Google Medic” is a broad sweeping update.

It perhaps is.

But yeah, it really isn’t.

Statistically speaking, it is clear and evident that Google Medic harshly affected health sites and some financial sites above and beyond any other niche. In fact, it isn’t even close.

One of the most notable examples of Google Medic’s colossal adverse effects in the health sector is Dr. Axe.

If you’ve ever searched anything related to holistic or alternative health, you’ve surely found Dr. Axe’s URLs in your Google Search results.

Let’s have a closer look via my super fancy graph that will explain everything.

How Google Medic Update Impacted Some Sites

OK, it might be a slight exaggeration to imply through dramatic illustration Dr. Axe is THAT down in the dumps, but it is also difficult to ignore the substantial losses his site experienced after Google Medic wiped nearly 70% of his Google organic traffic in a matter of a month and a half.

And the situation is even worse for Dr. Axe.

The damage continued into January of this year. SEMRush stats show Axe’s site now at 1.8 million in monthly organic sessions.

It is possible that Google Medic hasn’t shown its bottom, yet.

I’m going to discuss why Dr. Axe is still feeling the Google Medic side effects a bit below; however, for now, let’s stay on course with the caveat that we understand the Google Medic Update to be a continuing algorithmic enhancement to Google Search.

More Than Axe Got Ax’d

Google Medic’s lashing of health sites didn’t stop at Dr. Axe’s website. Websites such as Mercola, LiveStrong.com, SeriousEats.com, Pillsbury.com (yep, seriously), and MensHealth all experienced similar catastrophic drops in Google organic traffic.

This doesn’t account for all the smaller alternative health websites that lost most of their traffic. It is easier, for our purposes, to focus on larger properties.

Some Financial Sites Went Google Bankrupt, Also

Although the brunt of Google Medic’s hammering bruised and battered the health industry, the financial sector also took its share of hard hits.

Much like your health, your finances most certainly affect your life.

Century21, one of the longest-standing real estate agencies in the world, saw half of its traffic vanish since August 1st. Much in the same way as Dr. Axe’s fall from Google grace, Century21 took an initial hard hit and then continued a steady decline after that.

Not every health site and indeed not every financial site are cast into dystopian SERPS following Google Medic.

In fact, some are thriving in a post-Medic world. And it’s important to understand why this is the case.

The Strange Case Of Healthline.com

If you’ve ever searched any health-related topics, then you’ve most likely seen HealthLine.com appear in your search results.

Founded by Dr. James Norman in 1999, HealthLine is now one of the web’s most visible, successful online properties.

HealthLine owns Livestrong (mentioned earlier as a site harshly affected by Google Medic) and Drugs.com (somewhat positively affected).

HealthLine is as YMYL as any website online today.

But for some reason, HealthLine thrived where others held on for dear life.

So why did HealthLine experience a boost in SEO while Dr. Axe suffered a collapse?

The answer is alive and well inside Google’s perception of trust authority.

As Google gets better and better at determining content trustworthiness and legitimacy, a dramatic reshuffle in the SERPs is an ultimate consequence.

For Google, they not only want to put the most legitimate content at the top of the rankings but they also likely want to lower their corporate liability.

Dr. Axe, while extremely popular, is not a medical doctor.

He is, by his own website admission, a certified doctor of natural medicine, doctor of chiropractic and clinical nutritionist. While that’s impressive in its own right, it isn’t the same as having a valid medical degree.

Additionally, Dr. Axe, over the years, gained a reputation in an alternative health space that has often been at odds with Google and Facebook (more on that below).

In 2018, Facebook took aim at “fake news” websites when it deleted a series of large-sized Pages in the alternative health sector.

Google’s Medic update is potentially a similar, though softer, culling of websites the company doesn’t feel are of the highest trustworthiness.

HealthLine is a repository of health articles authored by medical doctors and certified nutritionists. Dr. Axe is a health site authored by a chiropractor.

I’m not saying it’s right, nor that it benefits the consumer (more on that later); I’m simply conveying my interpretation of the facts.

So what does the strange case of HealthLine.com show us?

Authorship Legitimacy Matters…Probably a Whole Lot

The disparity in between Dr. Axe’s Medic results and HealthLine.com’s Medic results show us that Google is especially concerned with health content being validated by verifiable, credentialed authors.

Dr. Axe’s content is well-written, well-sourced, and beautifully laid out on both the desktop and mobile browsers. Probably more so than HealthLine’s content.

Additionally, Dr. Axe’s site boasts a slew of powerful, authority-driven website backlinks, such as HuffPo.

But the authorship on Axe’s site may leave some to be desired.

But what’s more?

(And there is more)

The Marketing Voice

Dr. Axe is successful because he markets a number of products under his valuable brand. In fact, Axe runs an entire store full with natural illness cure solutions.

Here’s one I found in rotation of a recent post.

Blog Post from Dr. Axe Hit By Google Medic

Upon refresh of the same article page, the “essential oils training” seminar is replaced by an “advanced strategies to heal leaky gut” webinar.

And, according to the ad, “space is limited.”

In contrast, HealthLine’s articles possess Google AdSense ads but do not attempt to funnel the consumer to any products.

So what do we make of this?

Let’s start with a more scientific and less-anecdotal approach.

We need to answer the question – how does Google feel about natural cures or product marketing?

We can’t do this in the organic realm for the obvious reasons, but we can do it with Google’s AdSense platform which has iron-clad policies in place.

Adsense has an entire policy page for healthcare and medicines. Pharmaceutical companies are one of AdSense’s biggest buyers. As well, they are one of AdSense’s most heavily policed.

Pharmaceutical companies must abide by strict advertising restrictions.

When we go further down the line, we note the Adsense policy subsection “Unapproved substances.”

And there, we get a deeper insight into how Google, from a general standpoint, may approach natural medicines.

Five lines from that section stand out:

Herbal and dietary supplements with active pharmaceutical or dangerous ingredients

False or misleading health claims, including claims implying that a product is as effective as prescription drugs or controlled substances

Non-government approved products that are marketed in a way that implies that they’re safe or effective for use in preventing, curing, or treating a particular disease or ailment

Products that have been subject to any government or regulatory action or warning

Products with names that are confusingly similar to an unapproved pharmaceutical or supplement or controlled substance

Every one of those points could pertain to Axe’s store in some facet.

Axe does run some AdSense ads, but it is likely his ad campaigns are scrutinized deeply before acceptance.

If we consider all of this, we might determine that Axe’s store, which he displays throughout his content, influenced his organic downswing.

And this same logic flies when it comes to financial sites. In March of 2018, AdSense banned cryptocurrency advertisers.

This maintains our assumed hypothesis that Google, as a company, is concerned with preventing people from being fleeced financially.

For the record, cryptocurrency websites have experienced a downswing, but that’s likely due to a growing public disinterest.

So What’s The Big Difference Between Axe and Healthline?

Healthline articles do not push a product. Axe’s articles heavily push products.

Healthline feels like a resource that is legitimately attempting to help us. Axe’s content feels like a marketing funnel.

If Google looked at Axe’s site, which is likely, then his site’s optics were indeed to his detriment.

In this way, we determine that Google’s Rankbrain potentially attempts to establish legitimacy based on the deployment of affiliate links.

So what now?

I’m glad you asked.

Google Medic And The Great Content Fire

For the past decade, site owners and SEO pundits have observed an obvious realization in Google’s pursuit to advance its search engine quality.

It wants spectacular content.

In February of 2011, the Google Panda update infamously changed the way site owners and SEO experts approach SEO. Yes, technical, on-page SEO remained extremely imperative to success, but thin, lackluster content would be penalized.

Panda changed the way we look at “keyword stuffing” and duplicated content.

It created “content awareness.”

Google’s Hummingbird update in 2013 drove the “if your content is crud, you won’t be seen” point home.

So What Does Any Of This Have To Do With Google Medic?

Two things, most notably.

  1. Poor content will continually be ushered out with every Google update.
  2. Um, we might not know what “poor content” is.

Wait, what?

In traditional terms, site owners achieving “great content” resulted in the following process:

  1. Determine important/profitable keywords.
  2. Create a content idea based on this keyword.
  3. Deploy headers featuring longer tail strings from that keyword.
  4. Determine the best articles that rank for this term, calculate word length.
  5. Beat that word length.

What does ALL OF THAT come down to?

Longer articles.

This prompted a slew of sites to begin “extending content.” It also prompted loads of new content that breached word counts of competitive articles.

The longer articles most definitely helped ramp up some content quality (enter the sound of Google patting itself on the back now). However, it is clear that just being longer isn’t always being better (men everywhere cheer loudly).

Just increasing length of articles won’t cut it in the Rankbrain world.

Rankbrain is Google’s artificial intelligence that seeks to boost SERP quality by determining the quality of content through a number of reliable statistical factors. Google Medic is Rankbrain’s aficionado in the most critical matters (health, finances).

In other words, Google Medic is an extra layer of intelligence that’s seeking to help Google lower corporate liability and increase consumer safety in their SERPs.

”But I’m Not a Holistic, Alternative Health, Coconut Oil Loving Site…”

There is little doubt that financial and health sites are at the heart of Google Medic’s scrutiny. We’ve proven this statistically. We’ve created a relationship between AdSense policy and potential Google philosophy. We’ve looked at real web examples that support our claims.

So we’ve proven that non-health and non-financial websites are in the clear.

No, really, we haven’t at all.

Google Medic Could Expand Its Reach…

No one from Google is saying that Google Medic sought to temper the reach of health sites. We’ve extracted that conclusion from the data.

In the same respect, no one from Google is going to confirm that certain niches are more protected by RankBrain’s algorithm than others.

A movie review website isn’t life or death stuff. If you end up seeing another Nicolas Cage movie because a review site gave it five pretty pickles, well, that’s on you. While your eyes may burn and singe during the movie experience, you’ll live.

That doesn’t mean, however, that RankBrain won’t expand its concept of what niches are important to the livelihood of web surfers. It also does not mean that RankBrain won’t start deploying similar quality checks to all niches just to improve its SERPs.

That said, let’s tie all we’ve learned together.

RankBrain And Medic Guide To Survive

This is where we tie RankBrain as a core capacity to its internal update, Google Medic, the enforcer (think Swayze from Roadhouse – The Roadhouse is RankBrain, Medic is Dalton).

Stop Thinking Long, Start Thinking Time

The knee-jerk reaction to “increase content length” based on our competitors’ content length needs to take a pause. Content length is only one metric to consider.

The important factor is “time on site.” Google Analytics’ Time On Site metric can tell us if people are spending good time on our site.

Improving time on site can be done via the following (notice, it isn’t just content length):

  1. Content length (clearly, it can help)
  2. Hooks: strategically placing hooks in your text that alert the reader of more exciting content ahead. I will talk more about this later! Do you see what I did there?
  3. Video content: watching videos takes time.
  4. Page breaks: Indent, don’t slaughter a page with super long paragraphs.
  5. Use images to break up concepts, ideas.

Get Legit With Your Authors

Wait, doesn’t this ONLY apply to health sites?

Not in the slightest.

Your content’s authorship matters now more than ever. It is possible that it matters MORE to health sites, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t critical to all sites.

In 2014, Google ended their Google Authorship program. The Google Authorship program allowed web authors to relate and interlink all of their work around the web. You signed up for the program and then used an authorship tag wherever you wrote. You could build a reputation as an author. Your author profile image and description could be parsed into rich snippets.

The authorship program only lasted for three years. Some naturally assumed that Google gave up on caring about web authors.

But that isn’t likely true.

Google’s John Mueller publicly stated that Google was somewhat displeased with the way authorship displayed on mobile and desktop search results.

Google also noted that the snippets did not inspire more clicks.

But those two criticisms hardly amount to an aborted philosophy, which is all we in the SEO space should care about in the end.

Google Authorship was created to deploy an algorithm that observed trust in authors and ranked more trusted authors’ content creations higher.

Google did not abandon the philosophy, just the way they achieve it.

The Google Authorship program proves that Google has long been concerned with author validity. The RankBrain AI search algorithm helps to eliminate a need for authorship tags in determining trusted authors. Google Medic is RankBrain’s internal update that makes sure that all the web’s most critical content has an extra layer of trusted author protection.

But today, there is no need for Google to attempt to validate content authors laboriously. Many writers use LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

You can create a nifty author box that features the author’s bio, social accounts, and image.

Market With Caution

Sites which market affiliate programs or offers of any sort almost always profit more than sites which utilize ads as their main source of income.

That’s not any secret.

This isn’t the place I tell site owners to dump their offers.

No way, no how.

But, if possible, there might be ways to soften the marketing of affiliate links in general.

In places where it is possible, it never hurts to try lead generation plus onboarding process on your content pages.

Relax, I will explain.

Rather than have a big offer that clearly Google’s AI can detect, maybe try capturing the email or phone number of the surfer and then utilizing a triggered email response.

This gets the offer into the surfer’s inbox, which converts higher than on-page affiliate offers most of the time.

It gets the affiliate offer off the page and lowers chances Google may consider your content biased. Depending on the affiliate offer or type of product, many newsletter software services offer amazing automation capacity. You can run entire newsletter onboarding events with both.

Understandably, this isn’t always a possibility. But it never hurts to consider other potential ways to sell products and reduce SEO risks.

Could Google Medic Collapse?

I told you I’d get here. Now, here we are.

Is it possible that Google Medic will reverse its trend?

It is possible because Medic could prompt a number of users to dig deeper in the search results for content that is more in line with how they live.

Some people love Dr. Axe and other holistic driven sites. They may not find establishment content to their liking.

Most likely, Google’s RankBrain will simply adjust cases that were hit hard through its natural AI structure.

Medic is probably here to stay, but RankBrain is constantly learning and correcting and imposing.

The Final Thought

Google’s Medic update targeted health and financial sites. YMYL, or “your money, your life,” seems to be the driving determiner of which sites are affected the most.

A site’s content could be improved by utilizing trusted authors with real Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook accounts. Reeling in heavy marketing of product offers might help remove the appearance of bias in the content; thereby, increasing trust.

If your site creates content in the financial or health sectors, you need to be extremely careful with ensuring trust throughout your entire site.

About The Author

Cory Hedgepeth is a staff writer and Senior Digital Marketing Strategist for Direct Online Marketing. He covers trending news in search engine optimization, email marketing, and social media. Cory has contributed to Clutch, CustomerThink, the Institute For Entrepreneurial Excellence at Pitt, and major publications like USA Today over the span of 10-plus years. His career in digital marketing began in 2001. Today he consults for global brands on search engine optimization strategy, including content marketing efforts. He’s a diehard Kansas City Chiefs fan who bravely faces their annual playoff choke jobs.

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