If you are reading this, chances are you have invested countless hours and thousands of dollars trying to recover your traffic. The Google Medic Update that affected alternative health sites felt like a major gut punch for many of us. Worse yet, nobody has been able to elaborate on what Google’s vague terms like “high-quality content” or “scientific consensus” entail.
I fully empathize with the anger, the hurt, and the fear of what’s to come. However, this article will be about how we can improve scientifically and transcend what’s happening.
As a former academic scientist with multiple natural health credentials, I believe medicine that works should not be alternative. And we can create this transformation together with scientific literacy.
In this article, I explain my observation from a medical and scientific perspective.
In Part 2, I cover how to avoid censorship and new opportunities to create and rank with high-ROI content.
Is Google censoring alternative health in the Medic Update?
According to the October 14, 2020, Google’s Quality Evaluator Guidelines page 20, one of the bullet points that described E-A-T (expertise-authority-trust) states that:
“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.”
Google is also working with Mayo Clinic to better surface health content and appointed Dr. David Feinberg to be the VP of Google Health.
This signals the end of days where you can hire “SEO writers” to Google around and put together an article and expect it to rank. Instead, your content needs to address the scientific consensus and communicate clinically sound information.
Now, let’s deconstruct what that means and what’s going on. First, I’ll explain to you what Google really is censoring and what led to that. Then, I’ll explain the scientific rationale from my observation as a content creator with a science background.
Is it alternative health, or is it bad science?
The Google update affected not just health but also other industries, such as insurance, financial, legal, and practically anything else that requires expertise. Therefore, it looks more like they’re attempting to filter out good and correct information rather than wholesale censoring one field over another.
Alternative medicine seems to have been caught in the crossfire because a segment of the industry is associated with pseudoscience.
I wholeheartedly believe that it’s possible to do good science to support the safety and effectiveness of natural treatments. And the search terms in alternative medicine are still producing results, so it’s not like we’re ultimately doomed.
Neither alternative nor conventional medicine is immune to bad science, although alternative medicine may be perceived as “bad science” because we’re subject to less regulatory oversight. [Note that I’m not pro-regulations. I’m only a proponent of better evidence-based communications for both conventional and alternative medicine.]
Some bad science practices involve:
- Establishing wrongful causality, such as based on one’s anecdote or other correlative observations, and assuming that the finding applies to everyone
- Disregard of the basic understanding of well-established science and human physiology
- Assuming that positive test tube or animal data means clinical effectiveness
- Cherry-picking only the studies that support one’s agenda, even though results have been mixed
- Making up studies or results that don’t exist
- Miscitation or claiming the reference says something when it doesn’t
- Echoing any of the above bullet points from another blogger or influencer
I’ve made some of these mistakes myself. Early in my career as a science blog writer, I peddled the benefits of remedies, such as curcumin, as an effective treatment for diseases. I truly believed that curcumin could be helpful for these diseases.
For example, the headings might say “Curcumin treats cancer” because it reduced tumor size in a mouse study. Although the article cited PubMed studies, the medical world (and perhaps Google) could consider this bad science because it assumed that animal results applied to humans without any clinical data.
To a scientist like me, I understand that not all animal results apply to humans. But to lay readers, content like this can cause them to avoid medical treatment and self-treat with something that has no clinical backing. This kind of content is what Google considers harmful, which can lead to a ranking penalty.
Another level of bad science includes inadequate or biased experimental designs, or studies rigged to give a specific outcome. However, when it comes to content marketing, we are primarily concerned with communicating science rather than performing the experiments. Therefore, I will focus on science communications here.
What is the “medical consensus’ that Google is referring to?
Medical societies usually take the very conservative approach of only making “consensus” recommendations for or against certain treatment (here referred inclusively for any diagnosis, tools, and remedies) based on large clinical trials or meta-analyses, where such data exist.
However, such consensus is rare due to a few reasons.
Often, trying to understand the causality and identify effective treatments involves decades of experiments and scientific discourse.
The struggles to answer these questions are further complicated by the ethical and logistical constraints of conducting well-designed experiments in humans.
In a perfect world, you would perform a large clinical trial where you randomize people into groups. One group receives a placebo, and the other group gets the treatment. Both groups need to be blinded to the identity of the treatments. The human mind is so powerful that you can think yourself sick and well, so the experimental designs need to account for that.
Now, in a less than perfect world with limited resources, researchers can only measure the effects of natural or controversial treatments in smaller and less than ideal settings. There is less funding for natural medicine, so we often lack large-scale clinical trials that would otherwise be feasible for conventional treatments.
To practice good scientific communications, you need to explain to your readers the extent of evidence backing your claim when the scientific consensus does not exist. If it is anything less than clinical trials, consider that the evidence may have limited applicability to your readers.
However, it is okay to reiterate the results of the study and say that it is promising, as long as you include the specific context that leads to positive results.
These disclaimers need to be right in the context of the health claims you’re making in your article. An inconspicuous disclaimer that says people need to consult their doctors at the end of the article will not suffice.
I find that these constraints are remarkably similar to the Federal Trade Commission rules regarding making health claims. However, the FTC generally does not regulate health claims that do not lead to sales.
There are different levels of valid evidence. At the lowest level, you have animal and test-tube studies, followed by case studies, and observational studies. Clinical anecdotes are also an acceptable form of evidence.
In fact, I’ve often found case studies or personal stories on the first page of search results, suggesting that these are okay to share as long as it’s clear that your articles are not meant to replace medical advice.
Search result #7, “My Fertility Journey with a Uterine Septum,” is a personal story from a patient, not an expert. Notice, also, that Google delivered a variety of content about Uterine Septum, including clinics, blogs, Wikipedia, personal stories, academic articles, and physician’s reference guide.
What Google is trying to do is to shift general health-related search results towards being more compliant with the conventional medical paradigm. I believe “medical authority” is a different ranking parameter from the other 200 Google Ranking Factors.
What’s working vs. not after the Medic Update?
- Big-brand domains with high medical authority will overtake other domains for general search terms that don’t indicate intent for alternative medicine results. These domains tend to communicate the conventional medicine’s view on alternative treatments.
- Smaller sites from trusted clinics and specialist medical doctors may rank above the big-brand sites for content related to their expertise, even if the content is controversial. In these cases, trust signals, including patient reviews, scientific publications, and academic appointments, are considered to determine the site’s medical authority. A local clinic may also rank well in the local search results.
- Clinical anecdotes and patient stories sometimes rank on the first page of search results, as long as they are not meant to replace medical advice.
- Domains or content that disregard these paradigms or may cause a medical doctor to be uncomfortable may be penalized.
In the next article, I will cover specific factors that can lead to Medic SEO penalty and opportunities that still exist post-Medic updates.