Google is constantly making changes to their search algorithm to ensure that the results they return for any search query are relevant and most closely match user intent; if you search for cost of root canal, you’re only interested in results that mention the cost, not results that explain the process without ever touching on the cost. Many of these algorithm updates are small and don’t affect a lot of sites, but a few each year are broad core algorithm updates that affect a lot of sites, prompting detailed discussions and analysis to understand what has changed. In the past some of these updates got official names – like Penguin, Panda, and Caffeine – and an explanation from Google about the update that usually included some detail about who and what was affected by the change. But official names have been dropped, and Google is a lot more cagey about sharing any information about the update other than announcing that a broad core algorithm update was released, and usually including the statement:
There’s no “fix” for pages that may perform less well other than to remain focused on building great content. Over time, it may be that your content may rise relative to other pages.
One such announcement went out at the start of August 2018, and it wouldn’t have received much attention if it didn’t coincide with a large number of sites suddenly noticing a sharp drop in rankings and organic traffic. The community dubbed it the Medic update since at first it appeared to affect sites related to the medical and health fields, though it is now clear that many other industries were also affected. But it is the job of SEO specialists to always look for ways to improve the SERP rankings and organic traffic of their client’s websites. Sometimes it is an easy fix, involving a small change to one thing, but other times – as with the Medic update – it requires testing different theories and careful monitoring of search and traffic analytics over a few weeks. Which is what we had to do with a client operating a health-related site that was affected by the August 2018 update.
As can be seen in the above graph, the impact of the Medic update was immediately noticeable, but the most dramatic drop in traffic only happened in September 2018, with a visible recovery starting in March 2019. So, what did we learn, and what can you do to fix a Medic update penalty affecting your own site?
Focus on Trust
Whenever Google happens to confirm an algorithm update, they always remind website operators to remain focused on building great content, and the Page Quality section of Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines refers extensively to E-A-T, an acronym for Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. While Google values a high level of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness on any site, it is particularly important for Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) sites. YMYL sites are sites that provide medical, legal, or financial advice, sites that allow the purchasing of products or services, and other sites where the advice or service provided could have an impact on your health, happiness, or financial stability.
One the easiest ways to establish trust is to ensure your site includes clear and detailed information about the business and the people involved. Make sure the physical address and telephone number(s) for the business are easy to find on the site, and that it matches any other mentions of the address and telephone number found elsewhere on the web, such as Google My Business and other business directories. Reassess your contact page, making sure it isn’t just a contact form, but instead includes details of all the ways in which your customers can contact you. If you have a dedicated customer service or support department, include direct contact details for them if possible, and if your business has multiple branches, include full address and contact details for each.
You can also improve trustworthiness by taking a critical look at your About Us page; and if you don’t have one, now would be a good time to add one. Start by sharing a brief – but still detailed – history of your business, including significant milestones. If there aren’t a lot of employees you can include a section about your team on your About Us page, or, for larger teams, have a separate team page. Adding a short bio for each employee can only help, and if your business is related to medical, legal, or financial industries, include details of each employee’s professional qualifications and industry relevant certifications. If your business falls under a regulated industry, also make mention of the professional bodies your business is registered with, any industry specific certifications it holds, and the bodies customers can escalate complaints to, such as the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA).
For eCommerce sites, making your payment terms and refund and shipping policy clear and easily accessible is extremely important for establishing trust, along with making it easy for shoppers to contact customer service.
Customer ratings and reviews are another strong signal for trustworthiness, so don’t be shy about sharing customer testimonials and reviews on your site. Services such as Trustpilot and Product Review make it possible for you to include customer reviews on your site, but you should also respond to reviews, without neglecting any reviews submitted to your Google My Business listing.
Improve Metadata and Structured Data
Metadata such as page titles and descriptions are usually worded to encourage people to click on your site’s result on search engine result pages, but it is possible – especially for YMYL sites – to be a little too aggressive with the wording. Review your page titles and descriptions – focusing first on pages that were impacted by the Medic update – looking for any words that push potential customers to take action: sign up, immediately, right now, and today are just a few to watch out for. Screaming Frog SEO Spider is a great tool for extracting the page titles and meta descriptions for your site. Rewrite this metadata to be less aggressive, but also see if it is possible to emphasise trust by mentioning certifications, industry bodies you are registered with, and even how many customers trust you – you can do this by mentioning how many reviews your business has, or just how many four and five star ratings you have. This doesn’t need to be done for all pages, instead focus on those most affected after the Medic update and monitor the click-through rate for a few weeks after updating to see if there is any improvement.
Google also loves structured – or schema – data because it doesn’t only make it easier for Google to understand the content of your website, it also makes it possible for Google to display rich snippets for your site in SERPs, or within a search feature. Search features includes local packs and related questions, while rich snippets could see your listing on a SERP include site links, product reviews, or even videos. At the very least your site should use the LocalBusiness schema which allows you to add structured markup for your business name, address, contact numbers, business hours, and more. This can be used on multiple addresses, which is necessary if you have more than one branch. If you are an online only business, you could consider listing your customer service operating hours as your business hours. But there are a number of other schema’s you can also add, such as Product, Offering, Review, and even AggregateRating. The Schema website lists all 905 properties you could use, but if you’re looking for a simpler solution, you can use Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper. As with your metadata, you don’t want to be too aggressive with your use of structured markup as Google might view it as spammy and simply ignore it, but done properly, structured markup will benefit you and your customers.
Fix Your Content
A big component of E-A-T is high quality content, and if your site has been affected by the Medic update, a content audit might be necessary. Quality always matters more than quantity, so do a careful assessment of all your content – both standalone pages and blog posts or articles. Look for posts with very similar topics and consider combining them into one post that is more detailed and doesn’t dilute your keyword distribution. Look for grammar and spelling mistakes that are easy to miss when you first write an article, but more noticeable on a second or third reading. Doing this also gives you an opportunity to evaluate the quality of each post, and you can then identify which posts should be removed completely, and which might benefit from a rewrite to improve the quality. You should also look for outdated information and broken links. This can be a mammoth task, so as with your site’s metadata, focus first on underperforming pages and those most impacted by the August 2018 broad core algorithm update.
It is common for sites to use freelance writers to produce most of their content. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but in light of the Medic update and its emphasis on quality, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness, you should consider publishing all posts under your brand name or attributed to certain employees that could be considered experts in the topic. If you attribute posts to employees, look at including a short bio of the employee at the bottom of each post that indicates expertise – such as professional affiliations and qualifications – or link to their bio on your team page. A tax advice article published under the name of a Certified Financial Planner is inherently more trustworthy than if published under the name of a freelance writer who lists yoga as a passion in their bio.
Analyse Incoming Links
In the early days of Google, incoming links was a critical rank signal, and while Google now looks at more than 200 different rank signals, incoming links still carry some weight. But following the Google Penguin update, the quality of incoming links matters most. Low quality, spammy links can see your site being penalised, but Google is also aware that it isn’t always easy to control which sites link to yours, so they created the Disavow Links Tool.
The responsibility still falls to you to monitor all incoming links to your site, and to decide which are low quality links that could negatively affect your site. Google prefers site operators to first contact the site linking to you to try and get them to remove the link, but if this fails, or if you have already been penalised for poor links, you can submit a text file of URLs that Google should ignore via the Disavow Links Tool. Analysing links can be a labour-intensive task, and there is always a risk that you harm your site’s performance by removing links that aren’t of a very high quality, but that also aren’t negatively affecting your site. If you lack the experience or confidence to tackle this task yourself, get a digital agency that specialises in SEO to work on this for you.
Related to this and your site’s content are the sites and pages that you link to. Including verifiable research, data, and statistics in your content boosts the perception of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness of your site, more so when you cite trustworthy sources, and link to these sources. Being negatively affected by the Medic update shouldn’t scare you away from linking to other sites, it should merely steer you towards linking to authoritative sites more often.
When Google says, “There’s no ‘fix’ for pages that may perform less well”, they aren’t saying there’s nothing you can do but to accept your site’s lower ranking and organic traffic. They are instead acknowledging that there are a number of things that could be affecting the E-A-T of your site, but these won’t be the same for all sites. It is up to you and your SEO and content teams or agency to take a critical look at your site, including the points outlined above, and to gradually test changes to each of these, monitor for shifts in rank and organic traffic, and then to adjust your whole site and SEO strategy accordingly, with the emphasis on establishing and highlighting trust, and producing better quality content.