As the largest, most influential search engine, Google faces a daily challenge in how they can best present results to users. In the early days of the internet, webmaster & designers were able to game the elaborate algorithms that determined search engine rank positions (SERPs) through relatively easy mechanisms: they would load websites with keywords, optimize all anchor text, comment on every blog to gain a link back to their website, and so much more. Their tactics were incredibly effective for a long time, which meant that the results you were seeing were skewed heavily in favor of those companies and individuals who were savvy enough to manipulate their Google rank position, but who may likely have provided no value (or worse, provided spam or a dangerous/virus containing website). As such, Google has a vested interest in updating the algorithms that determine search results in an attempt to eliminate the ability to blatantly manipulate the system: if they don’t provide the best results, they run the risk of losing market share to other search engine providers like Bing & Yahoo.
As such, Google changes their search algorithm roughly 500-600 times per year. Moz has an amazing timeline of all the changes, both major and minor, that affect search engine results and thus the strategy employed by those trying to gain a high-visibility online presence. Some of the changes will almost never affect our clients; for instance, those involving e-commerce and selling material goods online. However, there are some Google algorithm changes that every physician, dentist, surgeon, or veterinarian should be aware of, because they directly impact how you’ll want to present your practice online.
The 4 Big Google Algorithm Changes Affecting Healthcare Websites
Google Algorithm Update: Panda
Launched in February 2011, this change was foreshadowed by many of the smaller changes made in previous months. The initial rollout cracked down on thin content, content farms, sites with high ad-to-content ratios, and a number of other quality issues. Essentially, this update was meant to devalue those website with low quality content, forcing marketers and SEO experts to change their tactic from putting out spammy, low-quality content; specifically, it focused on devaluing the sort of content you could buy at a content farm, often written by those with a poor grasp on language or created through a content spinning program.
Over the years, Panda has been updated countless times, with the most recent noteworthy update coming in September of 2014. With each update, Google drills deeper into identifying the signals that indicate that the website is trying to gain an unfair advantage within SERPs. As a rolling launch, some websites were affected right away- some may yet still be affected. Some websites saw their traffic virtually disappear overnight. Due to the heavy impact Panda can have, we at Physician Referral Marketing keep watch on reported changes to it to ensure that our clients are protected.
Takeaways from the Panda update: Remove all duplicate pages/content from your site, or otherwise add a ‘noindex’ meta tag to pages that must remain as a duplicate. In addition, try to improve the user experience on the website: low engagement with the website is a major signal to Google that the website is not providing what the searcher wanted to find. Engagement can be measured by bounce rate, number of pages viewed, and interaction with forms/buttons.
Google Algorithm Update: Penguin
Launched in April of 2012, Penguin sought to reduce the practice of webspam & over-optimization. The Penguin update focused on a number of factors, such as keyword stuffing and unnatural link building. Google’s own Matt Cutts wrote about Penguin and their efforts to reward high-quality sites through elevated SERP, and included some examples of what NOT to do within his post. The Penguin update really decreased the number of spammy websites that show up in the average Google search. In December of 2014 a Google representative said that Penguin had shifted to continuous updates, moving away from infrequent, major updates- meaning, Google will continuously be tweaking Penguin to ensure that it catches more and more spammy attempts at SEO.
Takeaways from the Penguin update: Ensure that links on your website are natural, meaning that they flow and make sense within the content/context of the verbiage. Continuously monitor backlinks via Google webmaster tools; if there are backlinks from low quality websites that use anchor text within your niche (keywords you’re trying to rank for), and work with the referring website to remove the link or disavow the links. Because of the impact these bad backlinks can have, we recommend that website owners check Google webmaster tools at least once a month.
Google Algorithm Update: Hummingbird
We’ve written about the Hummingbird updates impact to SEO before, and we have reason to continue to cite this update as something critical to understand. Google rolled out Hummingbird in August 2013, with the intent that it would fundamentally change the way that the search giant looked at websites, effectively replacing the old algorithm with a new one that incorporated elements of the old model (elements that include the Panda & Penguin updates). Google searches have shifted to ‘conversational searches’, with Google recognizing the meaning behind words & their context. In essence, this is Google getting smarter to accommodate changes in the way we’re searching; namely, the shift to people using Siri and voice recognition to search via their mobile device, and placing value in ALL the words within a Google search query, rather than looking individual keyword matches. Named Hummingbird due to it being ‘precise and swift’, it oddly didn’t have the heavy, immediate effect that Panda & Penguin had on organic traffic. However, we’re seeing a shift in the sort of websites being delivered in search results overall- emphasis is being placed on the things Google knows about YOU as a searcher, through the use of social indicators (social channel signals), location, previous actions, as well as the phrasing of the search itself. Almost imperceptible to most website owners, the change has been most strongly felt in end users.
Takeaways from the Hummingbird update: Because the goal of Hummingbird is to provide pages that match the meaning of search queries, attention should be paid to who the website audience is and what sort of questions they might be asking. Take, for example “foot pain” as a search term: prior to Hummingbird, there was little need to think outside of the keyword; post Hummingbird, a better tactic is to think in terms of what a patient might ask, such as “why does my foot hurt?” or “symptoms of foot pain and tingling after jogging”. Focus on building your engagement on social media & social signals as well, whether they be likes, shares of your content, or tagging posts.
Google Algorithm Update: Pigeon
updatesLaunched in July 2014, Pigeon was the local SEO update we’ve all been waiting for. For our clients, local visibility is absolutely priority #1, directly opposite the strategy of e-commerce websites and national brands. This update expanded the depth that Google mines data during a simple search, using more of the ranking signals they use in web search along with search features such as Knowledge Graph, spelling correction, synonyms and more. Additionally, Google said that this new algorithm improves their distance and location ranking parameters. This update virtually eliminated duplicate entries in search results displaying local results, whereas prior it was entirely possible to have your website listed multiple times in the SERPs for a keyword/phrase. Some of the Google Local listings have been affected, with some listings dropping off entirely and others gaining traction.
Takeaways from the Pigeon update: It’s essential to ensure NAP (name, address, phone) consistency across local listings & directories. Implement a strong local visibility SEO strategy that includes creation of content that will appeal to local searchers. After this update, we’ve strongly recommended our local listings distribution, a once-per-year mass listings update we offer our clients. At a cost of roughly $100 per location once per year, it’s one of the smartest, cheapest investments a practice can make.
With Google changing their tactics on a regular basis, it’s folly to think that the average doctor, dentist, surgeon or veterinarian office is able to stay on top of SEO. The fact is, most SEO providers have a hard time keeping up with changes, especially those groups who provide their own website platform (I’m looking at you, Officite) that restrict critical components used to rank, and those groups that recycle content across each client within the same niche. These four major changes to the way Google views websites and the process of searching have made it increasingly difficult to maintain high visibility through old methodologies- a boon to some, and a bane to others.
For those interested in increasing the Google rank of their medical or dental website, we encourage you to contact us to discuss