Podcast #52

Google Helpful Content Update: How it Impacts Healthcare

Google’s latest “Helpful Content” update continues to prioritize user-centric content over articles written only for its algorithm. As a result, it has become increasingly important for healthcare organizations to have a robust full-funnel content strategy that answers patient questions at each stage of the patient journey while continuing to implement SEO best practices.

Episode Highlights:

John McAlpin

John McAlpin: “In the healthcare realm, we’re seeing addiction treatment centers affected a lot. That’s just because the nature of the beast, where a lot of addiction centers that we find coming to us are stuck in a lot of old-school tactics. They’re writing just content to write.”

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Announcer: Welcome to the Ignite podcast, the only healthcare marketing podcast that digs into the digital strategies and tactics that help you accelerate growth. Each week, Cardinal’s experts explore innovative ways to build your digital presence and attract more patients. Buckle up for another episode of Ignite.

Lauren Leone: Hey everyone, welcome to Ignite, a Healthcare Marketing podcast. We’re back this week, virtually, we’re kicking it old school, like we did in 2020, because John, our Director of Technical SEO and Strategy, just moved out to Colorado. John, great to have you back on the podcast. I think it’s maybe been a year or so since we brought your expertise in. Today, we want to talk about a topic that has been significant in our conversations with current clients over the past two months, and that is Google’s helpful content update.

What we want to understand from John is what is the update, when did it roll out, and most importantly, how is it impacting different client types, and what can you do to refine your strategy as a result of the update? John, I think the most helpful thing we can do to kick this off is to have you just give a rundown of what is the Helpful Content Update.

John McAlpin: Before we can even dive into that, we need to understand that Google has two different types of algorithm updates. They have broad core and targeted. Broad core algorithm updates are basically– Google has so many things they want to cover for their algorithm. There’s not one thing. There’s so many things, we can’t focus on one thing. This is a targeted, meaning they’re specifically targeting content. It’s not faculty, it’s not technical, it’s content.

What the Helpful Content Update does is– It helps further Google’s goal to providing better search results and getting rid of content that just doesn’t help the users.

Lauren: Had a funny thought here. We’ve been working together for years. Google used to call their updates things like animals, right? There used to be the penguin. Now they actually decided to at least call the update exactly what it is, which is helpful to us, as marketers.

John: It’s funny. Those names actually were coined by SEOs, and Google just adopted them, “Oh yes, that’s funny. We’ll start doing that.” Then they’re like, “Okay, maybe we should actually start naming these things, or the SEOs will just have their way and name them what they want.”

Lauren: Of course, Google had to take over and take control, right? [laughs]

John: Yes.

Lauren: This year’s algorithm, I think, is different than ones that we’ve seen in the past. Like you said, it is super targeted on a very specific area of SEO, and honestly, an area of SEO that has maybe been abused in the past. Quantity over quality has been a strategy that SEO’s and SEO companies have used for years, churning and burning articles for the sake of doing it, and not necessarily for the sake of truly helping the end user.

Talk to us about specific elements of the update and how it’s working, how it’s factoring into the algorithm.

John: Google’s doubling down on user intent. They’re trying to demote articles that don’t satisfy the search. What was actually helpful is, they provided examples of content that they’re targeting. They’re looking at articles, and one of my favorite ones is their example of– If you look up, “When does a new season of a show premiere?” Google says, if you go down that article, like halfway through, they’re like, “Oh, well, they haven’t announced a date yet, but we speculate based on–”

It’s not answering the question. Articles like that are getting demoted. Also, people who try to step outside their lanes– If you’re a healthcare company and then you start talking about sports for some reason, articles like that aren’t going to get shown. They want expertise and helpfulness to be upfront.

Lauren: Things like keyword stuffing, thin content, duplicate content. Those have been on our radar for a long time, but how is this update in particular related to those concepts?

John: It’s really Google taking a step back from things that make the algorithm move and get you into the first position. Let’s just focus on the users. Let’s stop writing for search engines and trying to get ranks, and try to actually make something helpful for people. That’s been Google’s goal all along. If you look at every algorithm that they’ve ever made, they’re moving closer and closer to just providing great products.

If you really think like a product-first mindset, and really try to make something truly great, helpful, unique, and stand out– Unique is the big one there, that’s how people are winning.

Lauren: When we think about this update through the lens of healthcare marketing, and what our clients need to know specifically about it, one of the things you’re saying is– Write content that truly helps answers the questions of users. The common question then becomes– How do I find those questions? How do I know what questions I should be writing content about?

John: Obviously, if you’re doing SEO, you’re doing your keyword research. That’s first and foremost. You could also be asking your intake team questions like, “What are the most common questions people are asking?” Creating more robust FAQ content. What we’re seeing a lot in healthcare, especially people who have taken their marketing seriously and really invested in the SEO, is they have really robust content, which is awesome.

It’s what Google wants. People that are getting affected by this update tend to have a lot of good content, but might not have great UX, because UX is starting to become more important too, here. We’re seeing sites that have great content, but poor UX, get demoted.

Lauren: Got you. It’s not just what the content says, but how the content is presented, and ensuring that it’s both helpful in the information, but also in the way that the user interacts with it.

John: Yes. Easier to find and well structured. Now Google’s really focusing on these new search features, where maybe you answer the question six paragraphs down in your content. Now Google can detect that using your heading structure, and how you phrase your question, and get the users to jump right to that section.

Lauren: People also ask questions that come up now in pretty much every search that you ever look for. Clients always want to know, “How do I get in those?” Is this content update part of that?

John: Yes and no. Getting into those is not a for sure thing. We see them come and go, and Google’s always changing them. The thing is, once you click on one of those questions, there’s new questions that appear. One of the things that we really like to do is find out what that logical flow of questions is. We use tools like ask.com, where you’ll put in a question and it’ll populate the next line of events. If someone asks like, “Why does my leg hurt?” They might ask like, symptoms of a broken leg, treatments.

They’ll just go in that logical flow of questions. We try to make sure that we answer all those questions in that same order in our content, but not just answer the questions, it’s how we answer them. We don’t want to answer a question in five sentences because we think more content’s better. We want to answer it directly, easy to understand, than with supporting evidence.

Lauren: Got you.

John: The better you can answer that question, the more likely you’re going to show up.

Lauren: Are the days of 1500-word pages gone, or is it just that robust content needs to be really thoughtful?

John: The latter, because more content is better, but it’s not just content for the sake of content. Google wants you to be very in-depth. They want you to cover every facet of that topic, and with expertise. Expertise does not mean telling a story that’s irrelevant, or going off-topic, you want to actually provide valuable information, and the more of that, the better you’ll do.

Lauren: Is this just applicable to written content, or should we be thinking about this through the lens of imagery, video, other types of content?

John: Google’s getting a lot better at judging UX. How they’re doing that is their machine learning and algorithms, we don’t know, but we know they’re trying to get better at UX. In the future, we’re forecasting that UX is going to be an even bigger part of SEO. There’s no sense in waiting for that to happen. You should start investing now, because remember, Google wants to provide better results and better experiences for users, they are very product-focused

We need to get, not where Google is now, but where they’re going. Yes, invest in video, invest in imagery, invest in well-designed pages. The days of just a big block of content, even though you have heading structures, add in table of contents and jump links, add some supporting video elements and interactive elements. Things that improve the user experience and provide them what they want.

Lauren: Yes. Lots of good tips. I know we have examples of clients where we’ve done not only true SEO work, technical and content production, but introducing to our clients a concept that we are coining SEO UX, whereby SEO is not just adding the content, SEO is designing the page around the content so that it feels digestible and easy for the client to understand. That requires designers and developers, it’s not just the technical SEOs anymore.

John: Yes. The best marketing strategy is an integrated one. You don’t want to silo your departments, you want them all working together, because if UX had their way, you wouldn’t rank, and if SEOs had their way, you wouldn’t convert. You need them both.

Lauren: Yes. Perfectly said. One thing that we haven’t really addressed yet– Very important question, that I’m sure everybody’s dying to know. Who is most affected by this? Give me some examples of what you’re seeing, which websites are feeling the hit?

John: It is all over the place. A lot of them are people that haven’t had SEO, but even the ones who have had SEO work done in the past are getting affected. Some of them are just weird. In the healthcare realm, we’re seeing addiction treatment centers affected a lot. That’s just because the nature of the beast, where a lot of addiction centers that we find coming to us are stuck in a lot of old-school tactics. They’re writing just content to write.

Sometimes, when you’re in a mode of producing a ton of content, you’ll run out of ideas quickly. You’ll start writing about irrelevant things. Google doesn’t want you to write about things that are not in your field. People that are doing more quantity over quality are getting affected. We’re seeing lifestyle on publication magazines and media outlets getting affected because they write about such a variety of things, but not really experts in any one field.

We’re seeing product review sites getting affected due to the user-generated content. There’s so much coming in, that they’re not necessarily trustworthy. Then you have the weird ones. Lyric websites have been shown to get affected. That could be because Google could see that as duplicate content. It’s just a weird one that might just get consequently affected by the algorithm.

Lauren: When we think about the healthcare clients, like you said, we’ve noticed a trend specifically maybe in some of our addiction and treatment clients, because of the nature of their SEO. Really anyone who has been churning high volume of articles over the past couple of years and not really doing so strategically, could and will be affected by this update.

John: The keyword there– Strategically. We did a comparison of our newer addiction clients and our historic ones. The historic ones, almost all of them have gone through a series of content pruning of removing some of those older articles, combining things that might be duplicate, and making a stronger content foundation. They were not affected, while some of the newer ones were, that haven’t gone through that yet.

Lauren: Do you have a gauge? I know it’s early on, this update just rolled out between August and September of 2022. Do you have a gauge for the clients that were hit, what decreases they were seeing in traffic and conversions?

John: These were actually shockingly dramatic. I’ve seen as much as 50% drops, average. I’ve been seeing 15 to 30%, but I have seen as much as 50% drops, and I wouldn’t have thought of that. It’s also important to note that shortly after this rolled out, Google had several smaller broad core updates. This is very common, when Google will roll out a targeted update, there will be several broad cores after, and because it’s an algorithm, one thing affects many.

They have to do some balancing acts here, and make tweaks to it. That’s just how that works. It may be a lot upfront, but over time, it’ll level itself out.

Lauren: Got you. That calibration is still occurring, but likely the people that were hit are going to remain in that condition until they do some of the hard work, the content pruning, and the reassessment of their content strategy. We know that’s going to take time.

John: Absolutely. Another thing to note here is that once you finish, you say, “Okay, I got it. I go through this whole content pruning update,” it may still take some time for you to recover. Oftentimes, what we see is after someone is hit by an algorithm update, they do all the work and they may not see improvements until the next algorithm update.

Lauren: Anything you could recommend to clients who do the hard work, to send signals to Google, like, “Hey, come recrawl my website and see the work that we’ve done,” anything in search console, or any tips, or tricks?

John: Obviously, you can do a manual request. You can do the inspect URL and fetch a new request, and they can work on that. Google has to see actual change on your website. Say you’re doing content migrations and you’re removing URLs, or merging them. What I would recommend is to do– This is an insider trick, a pro tip. Inspect the URL of the old URL. Let’s say I have URL A and it’s a duplicate of B, so I’m going to redirect it into B.

Inspect URL A, set the redirect, and then go back and request indexing. That is a shortcut to get that process faster. That is a tip straight from Google.

Lauren: Awesome. For those of us who that means nothing to, because we’re not technical experts, hit John up. He can definitely write that one up and help you guys through that. John, I really appreciate all the information you’ve given us. I want to sum up a couple best practices. Really, for Cardinal, in particular, and a lot of agencies that have been doing SEO the right way, this update, it’s more of a benefit.

It’s recognizing the work that these companies have been doing and that they’ve been doing the right way all along. For those people who may have a shift in SEO strategy because of this update, give me the quick summary of the top two to three best practices that they really need to ask their current agency about, or if their agency is not willing to do so, consider potentially finding a new partner who is.

John: I would say there’s three things to keep in mind. One is to really assess your website as a whole. Yes, Google does often rank URLs on an individual basis, but they take the website as a whole. Look and make sure that there’s a place for everything, everything’s in its place, and that every page has a purpose. The second thing that you really want to do is go through the top 10 results and find out what they’re doing.

Look at the US, look at how they’re structuring the order of content, how robustly they’re answering, how they’re answering the questions, and really assess what the commonalities are, and what you’re not doing. Your goal is to do everything your competitors are doing, but better., and more. The third thing you really want to do is get into the head of your users, find out what makes them tick and what makes them convert.

Sometimes you’re so stuck in the mode of doing all the right things, checking all the boxes, that you forget about the user experience. Sometimes what you got to do is just get someone else’s opinion. Go down the hall, ask someone who’s not in your department to look at a page and get their thoughts on it. Someone that’s just not a marketer.

Lauren: Awesome. John, I couldn’t have said it better. I hope these tips help all of our listeners. Thank you for coming on. I know we’re going to have you on a couple more episodes here for this year, so I’m excited to chat with you again soon. Thanks, everyone. Please like, subscribe, comment wherever you’re listening, and join us next week on Ignite.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to this episode of Ignite. Interested in keeping up with the latest trends in healthcare marketing? Subscribe to our podcast and leave a rating and review. For more healthcare marketing tips, visit our blog, @cardinaldigitalmarketing.com.

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