The subject of health and wellness is incredibly complex. The human body is a machine with a million moving parts, which must uphold a delicate balance of nutrition, hormones, neurotransmitters, and processes to keep us all upright and moving.
The field of healthcare, for obvious reasons, is ripe with business opportunities – even now. Whether it’s a business disrupting existing areas, research shaking up our knowledge of how health works, or snake oil salespeople peddling the latest cleanse, there’s near-infinite room for more business and more content on the web.
The trouble is, there are repercussions for getting it wrong.
With many subjects online, being wrong doesn’t really matter. Someone who posted incorrect information for a video game tutorial might make a bunch of people frustrated and angry, but that doesn’t have significant repercussions. Someone with a guide on how to paint like Bob Ross can help others paint, but even if the tutorial is poorly done, the worst possible outcome is a bad painting.
However, the repercussions are much more significant regarding health and wellness. Bad health advice can lead to short-term pain and illness, long-term pain, disfigurement, and even death. Moreover, no one is immune; even well-connected and well-funded people like Steve Jobs can fall victim to misguided beliefs.
The biggest problem is that, since the body is so complex and so many different factors are at play, it’s challenging to say what does and doesn’t work with certainty. There’s an ongoing renaissance focusing on herbal remedies and traditional medicine that does work. Of course, in many cases, modern medicine can refine the active ingredients into new medications rather than relying on inconsistently grown plants.
What does this have to do with SEO, Google, and healthcare businesses?
Relevance and truth are not always connected. The problem is that Google does not want to be the judge of fact. They don’t want to judge whether or not what is on a website is accurate, just whether or not it’s relevant to the query – this is why so much blatant misinformation and incorrect non-facts come up so often.
But, Google recognizes that they wield massive power, and the winds of responsibility are shifting. Before, they could hide behind simply being a middleman; it’s not their problem if the information out there is terrible; they don’t control the information sources. Right? Well, maybe, but Google also has a ton of influence on it, and they could take action to get rid of at least the worst and most dangerous misinformation.
That’s where YMYL comes into play.
YMYL affects three main categories of information: health, finance, and law. All three of these are topics where the individual in question can experience severe, possibly life-long repercussions if the wrong information is followed.
Healthcare businesses fall squarely into this category. The wrong kind of healthcare can immensely damage their readers’ health.
Again, though, Google does not want to be the judge of fact. They don’t judge the content of a healthcare site. So, what does YMYL do?
YMYL is one-half of a coin. The other side is E-A-T, which is what Google looks for in a content publisher.
Since Google isn’t going to fact-check every healthcare post online, instead, they needed to find ways to determine whether or not a healthcare website is trustworthy. So, they created E-A-T as an algorithmic way to give good sites more relevance and clout and knock down websites that are just making unsubstantiated claims on a free website with no visible author name or credentials.
These apply to the website hosting the content, its author, and the content itself.
We dug a bit deeper into E-A-T in our post about this same issue regarding law firms, which you can read here.
YMYL and E-A-T affect healthcare sites differently from how they affect law firms. Moreover, Google has improved the healthcare aspects of the algorithm with more nuance in subsequent algorithm updates, like the Medic update.
How do Google’s unique policies toward healthcare websites affect healthcare businesses? We’ve distilled it down into five key points.
Now, we’ve said that Google doesn’t want to be a judge of fact, but what they’re willing to do is shift the blame and do it anyway.
If you didn’t know, Google employs legions of freelancers as “search raters” who use a comprehensive guidelines document to judge web results and spot-check the algorithm. Their data either reinforces the algorithm, split-test algorithmic changes, or provides training data for machine learning algorithms.
One section in the rater guidelines (readable publicly here) says this:
“High E-A-T information pages on scientific topics should be produced by people or organizations with appropriate scientific expertise and represent well-established scientific consensus on issues where such consensus exists.”
A healthcare business springing up out of nowhere, trying to sell an antiparasitic to fight a viral infection, will likely be demoted because it goes against the scientific consensus that viruses are not parasites and an antiparasitic won’t affect them – just to use a recent, relevant example.
Google does not itself judge whether or not a given medical treatment works. Instead, they shift the responsibility to content creators and healthcare businesses. If you want to promote treatment, you need authoritative people to promote it for you, and the scientific community must commonly agree it is effective if it’s been tested before.
You can see this in two of the most prominent healthcare sites online today, WebMD and Healthline. Both lace their sites with links to sources of information to back up their claims.
E-A-T focuses a lot on the authority and trust of the person writing the content on your site – this is why you rarely see highly-ranked healthcare sites with posts by “HealthSite Admin.” Instead, they’re written and published by people with Ph.D., MD, or other medically-relevant titles.
Of course, most healthcare businesses cannot employ a doctor to write for them. Instead, the content is produced by someone else (often a ghostwriter) and then “medically reviewed by X doctor.” Again, you see this a lot on sites like WebMD.
This goes beyond just having someone with a medical doctorate review your content. Healthcare businesses benefit from having reviewers or writers with specialties in a relevant field and a positive reputation – this is because there are a lot of doctors out there who either misrepresent themselves or use unrelated medical degrees to make claims (chiropractors giving advice on non-musculoskeletal issues, for example), or who are just plain fraudulent.
A prominent example is Andrew Wakefield; a former physician turned antivaccine activist who certainly earned a medical degree but whose advice is broadly discredited in the medical community. Despite his prominence, he isn’t a high E-A-T source for medical information.
You can likely already see the overlap. Wakefield’s claims also go against the scientific consensus, so a website featuring his advice would violate both this and #1.
Most healthcare businesses are not capable of producing their authoritative studies, hiring specialist MDs, or bringing on first-party sources. Some do, and that’s fine! Many, though, are viewed with skepticism. After all, a study performed showing that a specific product cures a particular ailment may not be valid when it’s sponsored by the company that produces that product. At the very least, there’s a conflict of interest that you must address.
Many blog posts and various articles have a new link, either to an internal resource or an external source, in nearly every sentence. Others, like Healthline, use icons and scripts to call out specific links to authoritative sources and use a variety of other links as well – this is why the majority of health-related websites and content that ranks well today are positively full of links.
If your healthcare business cannot bring trusted doctors on staff to write or review your content for you, the next best thing is to cite as many sources as possible to back up your claim. The more broadly your claims are supported throughout the industry, the less likely you are to run into problems with authority and trust.
Healthcare and health businesses have a lot more scrutiny upon them regarding trust signals.
Trust signals for a healthcare business can include:
Consider: if you visit a website for a business and it’s little more than a landing page with high-pressure sales copy, a store page to check out, and a bunch of flashy graphic design, will you trust it? Even if they say a doctor reviews their information, if you can’t find anything else about that doctor online, you’re not as likely to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Again, you can see how this particular aspect of trust and authority overlaps several others. E-A-T is all about trustworthy information, so it all approaches the same problem from different angles.
Content marketing is a huge element of success, even for businesses on the modern internet. For one thing, without many pages full of relevant information, it’s challenging to rank for keyword queries because you don’t have the space to use those keywords. After all, you can’t rank for a topic you don’t cover.
Google does help with this a little. Their semantic indexing and machine learning allow for a lot of contextual ranking, and many sites find they rank for keywords they don’t use because they use synonyms. Even so, a website with only a few pages will have a more challenging time ranking than one with hundreds.
In the healthcare business, even if your end goal is to sell a product, a blog full of helpful information on the subject is very valuable. It shows that you have concerns beyond simply making a profit. It allows you to showcase expertise in your narrow product, your industry, and the medical specialty as a whole. And, of course, it gives people many more options for finding your site and business in the first place.
Now, if all of the above sounds like content marketing and SEO, it is. E-A-T applies to all websites today; it’s more enforced and stricter with sites that fall into the YMYL categories, including healthcare businesses. Chances are pretty good that this will continue, as well, as pressure mounts on Google to be ethical with their results rather than simply impartial. How will things evolve in the coming years? Time will tell, but one thing is sure: your money and your life will see intense scrutiny.
Do you run a healthcare website, and if so, are you having issues with the YMYL update or improving your E-A-T score? Is your website optimized with Schema, and are you fact-checking your posts? Did you notice a drop after the latest core update? Please let me know in the comments below or give us a call today to see how we can help! We specialize in the healthcare industry and can help you take your healthcare site to the next level.