In early August 2018, Google implemented major changes to their core algorithm. It had a particularly strong impact on websites in the YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) spaces. In late September 2018, and to a lesser later in the fall, more big tremors hit the same ranking factors.
ClickSteam’s two largest clients are in the vaping and cannabis sectors, so we’ve analyzed a plethora of data to understand how to improve and continue growing our clients’ Google ranking in “Your Health” niches. Here’s what we learned.
The Medic Update Used Very Different Ranking Factors Than Fall 2018 Algorithm Update
The smaller of these two clients, a cannabis sector start-up got a boost from the Medic update. The other client site, a top 3 Global site in vaping eCommerce— and a first mover in the space—was receiving roughly 85,000 visits a month and jumped to 225,000 visits after the October update. They were at 360,000 visits from Google organic search in January 2019.
What We Learned From The Fall Update
Google hones in on Expertise, Trust, Authority (E.A.T) signals for these topics because they are sensitive for users, and accurate information is critical. Content marketing for a site in the marijuana sector, for example, is now very different than for sites about Victorian literature: you will probably survive bad advice about the latter, but if you turn to CBD and terpenes to help treat cancer, bad advice could put you in a very, very bad place. Building Expertise, Authority, and Trust for websites in these your-money-or-your life sectors requires bleeding edge strategy. This is not your father’s SEO anymore.
There is little consensus on how to “dial-up” optimization efforts for YMYL websites. In fact, the only consensus I found from speaking with dozens of top SEOs since then is that they can’t isolate or simplify into a handful of factors. Where they‑ and I— agree is it heavily relies on machine learning. Machine learning can act on scores of different patterns vs. a limited detection from a finite number of rules and directives with other programmatic algorithms. So, a website needs to check as many boxes as possible; do not go all-in on a few possible signal— that could be affected by a self-learning algorithm.
Case Study, MyFreedomSmokes.com
ClickStream’s vaping client provides an unusual case study. MyFreedomSmokes has some clear differences, and also clear similarities with its competitors. Here’s the good that could only have helped.
1. GMB Listings
They have one of the most successful Google My Business profiles in their industry. Without giving away secret sauce, this is clearly a big box to check yes. Google does not own the 1000s of business listing websites where people try to get links and citations. So, go crazy on your local listing website citations and with review sites if you like.
But, first and foremost there is one place Google has total and complete control over ratings and other information about your company: Their Google My Business product. The data they own on your listing and reviews there is totally reliable for their algorithms. For your reviews on sites like yelp.com? Not so much — 5x less.
Our client’s biggest competitor had a problem showing the main headquarters in more than one location. In fact, over the past 3 years of working with “YMYL” sector sites, it was clear this company had a potential problem with where they’re actually based. Also, their “about us” and listing citations didn’t read as a truly transparent persona. This site got hit hard by the fall 2018 algo updates.
Reliable Onsite, Technical Implementation
As mentioned, ClickStream’s client was one of the 1st successful eTail sites for vaping. They did have technical challenges with constantly changing, large inventory. However, we completed two very comprehensive SEO audits about a year before these new algo changes, and the site scored higher than it’s competitors on technical SEO metrics. If clean code (site architecture, directives for off-site resources, canonicalization, etc.) and fast loading pages can help build “trust,” in the eyes of Google, they had it. It’s not a big leap to imagine reliable= trustworthy.
In the three years we did their SEO, there was never “aggressive” optimizing. Keyword optimization and link outreach were never rushed. Their links were natural even to the naked eye, If indeed Google is now using machine learning for more than just semantic analysis, than they have a more strict “sniff test” now for judging links. Google’s algorithm is far better now at judging links from outreach vs. from a website’s EAT that organically generates links.
Our client had a very long-term track record. None of the sites new to their sector in the last three years got a remotely similar boost from the YMYL updates. With their successful competitors, link building was done on a big scale but over time.