Podcast #109

Content Quality Check: The Impact of Google’s SEO Spam Update on Healthcare Marketing

Stay ahead of the game with insights on Google's March 2024 core update. Our hosts, Cardinal’s Chief Growth Officer, Lauren Leone and VP Earned and Owned Media, Rob Sauter, dive into the spam targeting update and explore its impact on healthcare marketing. In this episode, you’ll get tactical advice on content evaluation and learn how leading teams are adapting, prioritizing quality over shortcuts. Join the conversation on Google's mission to elevate user experience through quality-driven search results.

Episode Highlights:

Rob Sauter: A lot of people are playing with AI. Again, we use AI as well. It’s a great tool. The trick is it really needs to be an assist and a means to an end. We go through great lengths to find great quotes, great snippets, great first party data. We ask providers, we ask partners, we ask anyone we could find, how do we take an element, and take a piece of content, and enrich it with something that only we have? Insight that you can only find from us through that first party, through our experts or providers, through our friends. That’s what separates AI supported content versus just purely spammed AI.

Episode Overview

In this episode, Lauren Leone and Rob Sauter explore the recent Google SEO Core update, known as the Spam Update. As advocates of ethical SEO practices, our hosts explore how this update impacts marketers and why it’s a win for those prioritizing quality content.

The update, rolled out in early March, targets low-quality content and spam tactics, aligning with Google’s user-first approach. With a mission to enhance search experience, Google aims to reduce unoriginal and manipulative content by 40%, favoring authentic and valuable sources.

Rob breaks down the update, shedding light on spammy practices like backlink manipulation and AI-driven content generation. He emphasizes the importance of human input in content creation, distinguishing between AI as an assistive tool and AI-driven spam.

The discussion extends to tactics that may trigger penalties, such as excessive content posting and duplicative content strategies, especially in multi-location setups. Rob advises vigilance in assessing content quality and strategy alignment to avoid negative impacts on organic search performance.

Looking ahead, the conversation touches on the evolution of SEO and Google’s continuous algorithm updates. Despite shifts in search behavior and AI advancements, healthcare remains a high consideration industry, demanding nuanced and personalized content. While Google strives for relevance and reliability, ethical SEO practices remain paramount for sustained visibility and user engagement.

Related Resources

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: Healthcare Marketing Podcast. My name is Lauren Leone. You guys know me as our Chief Growth Officer. I’m here with Rob Sauter, who is our VP of Owned and Earned Media. We are here to talk about something that you all have probably seen on your feeds, which is the most recent Google SEO Core update, affectionately called the Spam Update. This is a fun one. As marketers who believe in white hat growth SEO, we love these kinds of updates because it actually boosts the work that we do, the work that we encourage our clients to do. Rob, let’s jump in and I want you to just start with telling everybody a little bit about what this update is, why it matters, when it happened.

Rob Sauter: Sure. Yes. It happened just in the beginning of March. It does take several weeks to roll out, so really, it’s sort of happening now, maybe by the time this is posted [unintelligible 00:01:15]

Lauren Leone: [crosstalk] We’re in it.

Rob Sauter: -a little bit in the past, but yes, we’re in it now. Like you said, it’s a low quality content and spam targeted update. This is the whole idea and Google hasn’t changed their mind on this for a really long time. Google’s people first, experience first, and they want to make sure that frankly, Google continues to dominate the search market. To do that, they have to give people results they’re looking for. They’re actually very bold. They are in their opinion, this update is going to actually, and this is out of their mouth, a quote from them that said we expect that the combination of this update and some of the previous efforts, they’re reducing low quality, unoriginal content by 40%.

That’s a huge cut to the spam, to the junk, to what they often refer to as content created for the algorithms. That should help. It should help a lot of people find what they’re looking for and give people the– match that intent, try to cut down all the sewer and stuff, nonsense that AI has supported the execution of, but existed before AI anyway, good for good SEO professionals.

Lauren Leone: Yes, that’s why we like it, right? We hope to see the good guys rising, the good guys being the ones that invest in good content, original content that understand that writing for the patient is the first objective. Talk a little bit about, so what does writing for the algorithm mean? All these companies or organizations that are going to potentially be dinged by this that have been not people first, what might it look like? What have they been doing that might get penalized?

Rob Sauter: Yes. There’s two different things. I’ll cover the more complicated one first, because this one’s probably less likely. Most people who are not wearing gray or black hats would probably not even know about this one, but there has been some backlink and monetization efforts going on where people were either paying to get strong backlinks from industries they weren’t even in, boosting their visibility in places they really shouldn’t be. Also people using sort of recycling authority, again, through backlinks in sort of a black hat way to gain visibility in places where they really have no authority, but they’re again, they’re farming that authority through these backlinks and giving themselves opportunities to rank. Again, that’s manipulation 101 of the algorithm. That’s going away in a big way.

One of the people are probably most interested in is this idea of spam. You ask yourself like, “Well, I’ve been using AI, am I in trouble?” It depends and probably not. If you’re using AI as an end and not a means to an end, that’s generally what Google is trying to stop. There are tools out there where you can just give a couple of keywords and set a schedule and say, “Post one thing a day that targets this keyword, go,” and it will just every day, post a piece of content at infinitum. You can set up a lot of them.

That’s what they’re looking to stop. It’s unoriginal. It’s not being boosted, supported, made better by a human element. There’s no opinion. There’s no first party data. It’s just pure AI scraping and placing and that is not good. Another thing you see, and it’s nice– I guess it’s a good thing to be able to say this, healthcare is not often at the very cutting edge of these types of things. It tends to be a more battlefield industry in retail, travel, things like that. They’re out there also creating pages for keywords.

Imagine a page around a specific travel destination. Instead of having one really valuable, nice, solid page where they cover most of the main keywords, drive more of the traffic, they’ll create 50 pages. They’ll tweak just little bits of elements here and there on that page and make sure that they can then rank number one across all 50 of those keywords with effectively the same page. They can leverage tools like AI and things like that to get that done. Again, that’s spammy. You don’t really need all those pages and you’re really only making those pages to maximize your search engine results page and your search engine performance.

Again, that’s not what the best user experience calls for. Again, you shouldn’t theoretically accidentally find yourself on the wrong end of this update. You should know if you’re using something.

Lauren Leone: You’ve been doing those things. Yes.

Rob Sauter: [unintelligible 00:05:26], but a lot of people are playing with AI. Again, we use AI as well. It’s a great tool. The trick is it really needs to be an assist and a means to an end. We go through great lengths to find great quotes, great snippets, great first party data. We ask providers, we ask partners, we ask anyone we could find, how do we take an element, and take a piece of content, and enrich it with something that only we have? Insight that you can only find from us, again, through that first party, through our experts or providers, through our friends. That’s what separates sort of AI supported data, AI supported content versus just purely spammed AI.

Lauren Leone: Let’s say I’m a CMO and I’ve been working with an agency, I’ve got in-house team, I’m not in the weeds, what am I looking for? How do I know if I’m doing the wrong things? Are there any examples I might see in my own content or on my site that may raise a flag to say I could become a victim of this and I should revise my strategy quickly?

Rob Sauter: Yes, it’d be– There’s some red flags. Obviously, I think number one is just look at how often you’re posting content. If it appears as though recently, suddenly you’re posting a lot more content than you were before and you didn’t beef up that team or you didn’t hire a new agency or a new content organization, there’s a good chance there’s something going on that may fall into that spam category, but not necessarily.

You’re probably going to have to ask your team to be transparent. Especially if you’re not in the [unintelligible 00:06:53], you’re not going to be able to check for code, you’re not going to recognize anything like that. I think it just comes down to asking the team about the strategy. You may be able to just read the content as well. If you’re not seeing in the– especially the latest content created, and especially if you’re seeing an uptick in content, are you seeing that first-party touch? Are you seeing that care? Are you seeing that content quality that’s not just more generic, more broad base, more of what AI can get to you?

Are you seeing your own doctors and your own providers quoted? Are you seeing statistics and insights from people at your organization linked and incorporated into these pieces of content? Because if you’re seeing all that, then you’re probably pretty confident that your team’s doing a really good job creating valuable, rich, insightful content. Frankly, that can’t really be done by AI, not in a generic way at the very least. Those are some of the good things to watch out for.

Obviously too, you suddenly see a huge impact here for organic results. It could be that you got smacked and Google found you and found out you were doing something naughty and punished you for it, and maybe even either asked you to remove that element or if the worst case, they’ve gone through a serious delisting and that’s sort of the worst of the worst. That is what you absolutely want to avoid because even if you get delisted, and you do the right things, and you change everything and you plead for forgiveness, Google puts you on ice for a little while. And when it finally lets you off ice, it takes a long time for you to crawl back up to where you were and it can seriously hurt your business.

The risk/reward here, it’s a scary one. If you’re thinking about trying to beat this system, my advice would be probably not worth the risk because there’s another algorithm update coming in the next month or so and they’re not done here.

Lauren Leone: I want to get into that in a minute. I want to understand how this algorithm relates to ones that had happened over the past year or two that we know about and ones to come. I do have a question, one more very tactical question on the content side of things of what you might be looking out for. We work with a lot of multi-location clients and some strategies like, I have a service, let’s say it’s a medical dermatology page, and I have 100 locations. I want to take that really great medical dermatology page, service page, and I want to go into my site structure, IA, and I want to do a slash location slash medical dermatology and I want to have that page a hundred times. Does that fall into this?

Talk to me about how organizations might be using content either in multi-site environments or in a single site where they’re marketing hundreds of locations. I know that maybe falls a little bit more in the duplicate space, but what should they be looking out for there?

Rob Sauter: Yes. I would agree with what you’re– I was going to say exactly what you just did. That falls more into that duplicative content piece and there’s a way to do that. You can pin and article back to a pillar page around that topic and you can have a link in it, even a location-based piece of content. That said, you probably don’t want to index that way. You probably don’t want to build your site that way. Now, obviously, if you have multiple locations that are not- -domained on the same website, that will not be duplicate, because obviously Google will see those as different domains all together with different scores, et cetera.

In theory, you could use similar content that way. Obviously, you should have a different organic keyword strategy at each location, so the content though similar in many ways, would still probably be written differently. You’d push the most important parts of that business, push the location-based keywords for that business, et cetera. At the end of the day, how different are any dentist’s office on earth, right? You go, they all offer the same general things, the same general support. You can say that about physical therapy and urgent care. Although they all have different doctors, they all have different approaches, different offices, different locations, it’s still generally the same service in different places.

Google’s not looking to hunt you down, but I do think that if you’re following the best practices of SDO and SDO strategy, you’re probably not doing it that way from an index perspective. You’re probably pillaring it back to a core pillar page around services and care. If you’re not indexed or you’re canonical or it’s back to that other page, you could still have some of that up there and it wouldn’t necessarily– it wouldn’t fall under this, especially if you’re also tweaking it to maximize impact at each location.

Lauren Leone: Getting into the algorithms maybe of the past and to come and how the algorithm changes, we know the helpful content update was– that shook some ground in healthcare. We saw it in certain verticals that had tendencies to produce a lot of content for content’s sake. Addiction was one of them, for example. How is this different? How is it a continuation of that initiative and what do you anticipate is coming next?

Rob Sauter: Yes, it’s definitely– at the core, it’s a continuation. The goal remains the same, which is to make sure that the Google platform is providing good, valuable information and content for individuals. That still remains some of their key metrics. As Google finds out which content to rank, they’re looking at things like actual engagement metrics of human people going and engaging with this content. If people are showing the content’s bad by not clicking on it at all or spending very little time, having huge bounce rates, you’re already getting punched. It’s a point in which already you need to be helpful.

I think the difference in this wave of algorithm updates is this is starting to attack not only the output, but also the means to the end. I would argue that in some ways this content that you would consider spammy, it’s hard to make that really valuable, helpful content. It’s tricky. Now, good AI can do pretty good, right, but still, it’s a struggle to make really good without having any human involvement at all AI content. In this case, it’s also trying to stop people from pursuing and diving down the funnel of how can I get AI to do all the work and how should I be using AI as a means to an end and a support vessel.

They’re trying to keep good SEO minded experts and organizations and companies supported, I think in a way by giving them tools and giving them guidance and instructions on the right way to do this. We’ve seen more and more updates than we’ve seen in a long time. I’ve always said that if you have a professional team and you consider yourself a professional SEO, bring on the updates. Keep them coming. The people who are falling asleep at the wheel or the people who aren’t doing it the right way, it’s only going to hurt them. If you have that professional group, that professional staff, the internal agency, otherwise, this is a good thing. This makes it harder to do SEO well, which means it’s going to reward the people who are putting that time and effort, and skill set against it.

I think as we keep moving forward, it’s going to be more of the same. I think tech is going to keep moving fast and Google is going to have to keep up with it. We’re going to see changes in the way people approach SEO. We might even see people starting to try to optimize for AI results and people starting to optimize for some of these other cool things that people are bringing to market. I think interestingly, though, all those concerns you hear, and I wrote about this at one point recently, but all those concerns you hear about search volume dropping and zero-click searches rising. It’s all true, but I think it’s going to impact more the searches, “What can I make with chicken for dinner tonight?” and, “Who was that actor in that movie?”

Those are all Google searches that people just don’t often think about. We all think about our own business searches, our own context, but in reality, healthcare is still going to be a high consideration element. No matter what, I don’t think it’s– I think it’s going to be a long time before you simply just say, “Hey, ChatGPT, which heart surgeon should I choose?” and that you just go with that option without doing any of your own research.

It’s just not something our generation is going to be ready for. Maybe our kids will start to get to a point where they have that level of trust, but at the end of the day, oftentimes what we’re talking about in healthcare is our body and people will go the extra mile, spend the extra time and do the extra research.

Lauren Leone: It’s interesting, even let’s say when that does come, we’re already focused on, “Hey, Google, what is the best heart surgeon near me in Atlanta?” In theory, it may not shift that much in how we interact, but it is interesting to think, I’m sure we’ve all seen when you’ve gone to Google over the past couple of weeks, the little purple like AI… trying to generate an answer for you. I think where I’ve seen it is in the upper funnel informational research type of queries. When we’re in performance marketing, this find a solution near me to take an action still is very much going to produce the types of helpful results that bring up, our clients’ websites with their location or service pages, providing information on how to go about getting a service.

Rob Sauter: The answer is not always black and white in healthcare either. Just like buying a car and what’s the best car for me is come to options. What do you want? You want a fast one, you want a safe one, you want a cheap one, and you want a fancy one. It’s the same in healthcare in a lot of ways when you talk about behavioral. There’s a lot of different approaches to behavioral nowadays where you can get the classic therapy, and you can go to a complete retreat type environment, you can do online therapy, you can do in-person therapy, there’s medication, there’s some scientific approaches.

There’re so many different right answers. Especially with HIPAA existing, I still think it’s going to be a long, long time before we’re inputting that type of personal information into an AI platform that would actually be able to have a good answer for us individually. It’s still going to be a bit of a it depends. That often is the answer when it’s a high consideration purchase. It’s not, what’s the best chewing gum? That could be an easy suggestion. But when you look–

Lauren Leone: I don’t know, we could debate that probably, spearmint or peppermint.

Rob Sauter: Yes, but it’s hard. I don’t think AI is going to get to a spot soon where it’s reading our body, and reading our information, and reading our preferences, and it rides along in our sunglasses or our watches or whatever, and really has a best me answer. Because even when you ask ChatGPT now, it often gives you a lot to chew on when you ask those types of questions. It gives you different resources to read. It gives you different groups to research. Even when you do something silly like, “What are the best SEO tools I should be researching in 2024?” It doesn’t just give you a list of three. It ends up dumping a whole long list on you and it also encourages you to start clicking around and doing some searches, so we’ll see.

We have a lot to learn about how AI is going to affect all this, but at the end of the day, Google makes so much money in search. Their number one goal is to keep it that way and keep people using Google. They want to keep– Google needs to remain in the vernacular for as long as they can keep it there and to keep it there, it’s all about being reliable. You’ve seen generational shifts come, but Google remained pretty central. Facebook isn’t cool anymore. If you’re under what, five–

Lauren Leone: It’s not? Oh, man.

Rob Sauter: It is for us, yes.

Lauren Leone: Yes, I thought so.

Rob Sauter: We’re fine, right? I don’t think we were cool. We’re still here, right?

Lauren Leone: Yes.

Rob Sauter: Those types of things change but Google doesn’t want that part to change. They don’t want to see Bing take over. They don’t want to see [unintelligible 00:18:00] and these other ones, Yahoo surge.

Lauren Leone: Let me ask you then, Rob, to close us out here. What are you and your team doing differently because of this update?

Rob Sauter: To be honest, not a lot. We’re not the target of this update. We’ve been very clear and we even have clients every now and then who say like, “Think we can get a little more gray hat?” We usually push against it because it could be shortsighted. We don’t want to make a bunch of wins now and then a few months later, the whole thing comes card castley down because we get caught or Google decides that’s not the right way to do it.

We do continue to leverage AI and look for new tools all the time to improve how we do and go about the work. There’s always new platforms and all kinds of things to consider, but at the end of the day, as far as this specific update concerned, we’re staying the course, good quality content. We have never been an agency that recommends a high velocity of– and we don’t want to be the content everyday group because we just don’t see that work.

We see the right, the research, the quality content on a weekly type basis is the pace we like to see. We spend time looking for those quotes. We spend time looking at reviews from patients or papers or things that providers wrote so we could pull that content in and make it rich and engaging. Again, first party, that’s key in digital marketing. Even in a HIPAA environment, there’s so much valuable first party you can pull from each of our clients. Though we are healthcare experts and we know the space, each client’s got a little bit of a different thing because they all expertise and a different fame and certain providers and things like that are all tools that they have that others don’t.

For now, we’re keeping an eye on it. Obviously, we’re looking. We love to see when our competitors or our clients take a hit through things like this. We can see a window to surge ahead, but we’re pretty confident in saying we’ve seen less than a 1% impact across our portfolio from this, which represents the fact that basically 1% within an error margin anyway at this point, but we are unaffected. If, you’re a client ours and you’re seeing this, you’re good. You’re taken care of.

Lauren Leone: If you’re seeing this and you’ve either seen it in the results, you know you’re writing a hundred articles a month, you read the articles and you just say, “There’s no way anyone reviewed this,” raise your hand because if you didn’t see an impact now, to Rob’s point, Google will continue down this path of promoting quality over quantity, of making sure that you’re writing for the consumer first, algorithm second, even though they’re the algorithm. If you don’t believe those things are happening, I think those would be the big takeaways from today’s conversation.

Rob, thank you so much for joining us. We will continue to bring you all updates as Google rolls out subsequent core algorithm updates or even smaller updates that add on to what we’ve seen. We’ll bring you guys any big news in terms of where we’ve seen the hit come. As Rob mentioned, we are about a month out right now from the algorithm change, which is when you first start to see results. We’ll let you guys know as we see it. Thanks again for tuning in to this episode of Ignite and Rob, we’ll see you back here soon.


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 at cardinaldigitalmarketing.com.

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