Google is an entranced part of the internet in general, but particularly the SEO industry. Love it or hate it, SEOs must indulge its every whim, knowing the tight grip it has on the reins of online power. And to keep meeting Google’s standards, you must keep up with its periodic updates — miss something important, and your hard-earned rankings can rapidly vanish.
While not all updates to the Google algorithm are documented, and no updates, however major, are ever fully documented (the more people know, the more they can game the system), the biggest updates are introduced to the SEO community, and invariably given informal names.
The most recent of these have come to be known as the Medic update. Why is this, and what’s the broader significance of this update? Here are 5 things you should know:
It heavily affected the medical industry
On August 1st, Google rolled out a fresh core algorithm update, and the effects were quite dramatic in many cases. Noted SEO expert Barry Schwartz wrote at length about it the following week, noting that the bulk of the ranking shifts were for websites in the medical industry, and that description stuck: the update came to be known as the Medic update.
After the health industry, the industries most widely affected were e-commerce, business, finance, and technology. In trying to glean the exact nature of the update, SEOs looked at the common qualities of the sites that saw their rankings shift, and reached the following conclusion:
The focus was on YMYL sites
YMYL, meaning “Your Money or Your Life”, describes a type of site that provides content capable of significantly affecting someone’s well-being, whether medical, legal, or financial. Google has outright identified sites that provide the following as meeting the YMYL criteria:
- Payment services (e.g. stores or banking services).
- Financial advice (e.g. investment tips or planning tools).
- Medical information (e.g. mental health practices or drug suggestions).
- Legal information (e.g. will creation or citizenship requirements).
- Official news updates (e.g. government rulings or international events).
This list isn’t comprehensive, though, and there are no doubt many other types of site that could reasonably be considered YMYL. Given the general criteria of YMYL and the industries affected the Medic update, it certainly seems that one of the primary goals of the update was to address ranking medical and financial sites that weren’t measuring up to their positions.
It seems to have been driven by quality rater feedback
While a search crawler could plausibly identify a website as meeting the YMYL criteria (looking for keywords pertaining to the medical field, for instance), it isn’t capable of accurately assessing the quality of the site, which is where Google’s quality raters come in. Knowing the shortcomings of automated crawlers, Google maintains a team of quality raters (we don’t know exactly how many, but somewhere north of 10,000) to manually review ranked sites based on the Google search quality rating guidelines.
The feedback that results from that rating process doesn’t directly affect individual rankings. Instead, it feeds back into the algorithm, affecting the direction of subsequent updates. What seems to be the case with the Medic update is that quality raters were dissatisfied with the quality of websites ranking well for YMYL search terms, and their feedback led Google to make adjustments in an effort to ensure higher result quality.
It ties in with the idea of “beneficial purpose”
The search quality rating guidelines were significantly updated in July (not far off the Medic update, notably), and one of the various things added was the need for a quality rater to think about the “beneficial purpose” of each site they review. The content of a site may be high-quality, but is it truly relevant to the visitor’s desires? It it 100% worthy of their visit?
This ultimately boils down to a stronger awareness of semantic intent, and the push to prioritize sites that don’t just use the right keywords but also provide the right results. An ecommerce store, for instance, must walk a delicate line: it needs to sell products to make money, but it must also be good for the customer.
We may live in a time when stores are bought and sold online as digital assets, but that’s no excuse for having short-term thinking. Under YMYL assessment criteria, an ecommerce store that seems configured to use every trick in the book to drum up sales with no intention of providing a good customer experience will be viewed very harshly.
It puts emphasis on E-A-T
So how do you change course to deal with this significant change? Well, it really comes down to E-A-T, meaning expertise, authority, and trustworthiness. These three things are central to Google’s quality rating system, as well as user experience in general. You shouldn’t need a reminder to focus on them, admittedly, but here’s how you can do just that:
- Expertise. For your site content to warrant a high ranking for a given term, it should demonstrate some meaningful expertise in the area. This doesn’t have to be formal expertise, however — it’s mainly a matter of clearly showing that you know what you’re talking about and producing exceptional content. If you’re not an expert on the topics you’re blogging about, do some more research, or start writing about what you do know.
- Authority. Authorship isn’t always clear online, and when it isn’t, the influence stems from the attached organization. Think about how Moz is influential for SEO, or how HubSpot is influential for digital marketing. If you can establish authority in your field, even your broadest opinions will be considered valuable.
- Trustworthiness. With large sums of money changing hands on a daily basis, there’s a lot on the line in the medical, e-commerce and finance worlds. A visitor to a site should be able to trust the company and should be given solid reasons to trust it. Consider offering money-back guarantees, plenty of strong reviews, and clear social media accessibility.
Ultimately, the Medic update isn’t a seismic shift in the SEO world: it’s a natural move towards higher standards for sites with the potential to cause great harm if not kept in check.
To avoid suffering in the rankings when further updates of this kind come along, you need only do your best to provide a valuable experience for your target audience, consistently working to show that you take the needs of your visitors very seriously.
A comment from a friend and expert blogger Victoria Green an e-commerce marketing expert and freelance writer who thinks the Medic update was long overdue. You can read more of her work at her blog Victoria Ecommerce.