Google’s March 2019 core quality update: Stories of recovery
Here's an early look at a nutrition, small e-commerce and larger informational site after the March update. Each made changes based on clues from Google’s Quality Raters’ Guidelines; all saw gains in traffic after the update.
On March 12, Google released an update to its algorithms that had a significant impact on quite a few sites across the web. Many, but not all, of the sites that saw improvements or losses had previously been impacted by updates on Aug. 1, 2018 (Medic) or Sept. 27, 2018. Some sites that saw big changes were medical related, but this was not an update that affected only medical sites. From what we can see, this change had an impact on many sites considered to be YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) sites.
In this article, we will share with you some stories of either full or partial recovery, along with an idea of what types of quality changes each site has made.
It is important to note that we cannot say with certainty whether these changes were the main reason why these sites saw improvements. However, we do see that a large number of sites we monitor that made changes based on clues found in Google’s Quality Raters’ Guidelines that saw some type of gains in traffic from Google in conjunction with this update.
Why pay attention to the ‘Quality Raters’ Guidelines?
The QRG is a document that is meant to serve as a textbook or guide to help Google’s team of Quality Raters assess websites. These raters are used to help Google engineers, who craft their algorithms, to determine whether the algorithms are doing what they want them to do.
Google’s VP of Search, Ben Gomes, told us that while Google’s algorithms do not completely reflect what is in the QRG, if something is in these guidelines, the engineers want to be able to algorithmically measure it. He said, “They don’t tell you how the algorithm is ranking results, but they fundamentally show what the algorithm should do.”
With this knowledge in mind, we have been assessing sites in the eyes of the Quality Raters’ Guidelines for a couple of years now.
A full discussion on what can be learned from the QRG is beyond the scope of what we can cover in one article. In the following examples, we will show you what changes were implemented based on the QRG so that you can hopefully make improvements on your site as well.
Case #1: Nutrition site
This site was one of the many nutrition sites that saw big drops in conjunction with the August 1 update. After reviewing the site, we made the following recommendations:
Include more E-A-T related info on the home page and about page
The QRG tell the raters that it is important to be able to easily determine what the “beneficial purpose” of a page is.
It’s not like this particular website had absolutely no beneficial purpose. But, when users went to the site, it was not clear why the site existed.
The site owner added content above the fold that helped users to understand not only what they would learn from browsing this site, but why this particular site should be trusted above all others. They bragged about how much experience they had. They were also incredibly clear about explaining how the site monetizes to help users to trust them more.
While this site already had authoritative authors, they also worked to demonstrate that authority strongly on the site. They did this by writing excellent author bios that extolled the authors’ education and other qualifications.
Added clear information on terms and conditions
The QRG instruct the raters to find information on payment, exchanges and returns:
It is also important to make sure that you have clear contact information on the site. It can be considered a sign of low quality if it is missing.
Improved their review profile online
The QRG instruct the raters to find as much review information as possible about a YMYL business.
When we did our site review for this client, we did similar searches such as:
clientdomain.com reviews -site:clientdomain.com
What this search will do is show us sites that have reviewed this client’s business. We found that many of the reviews for their service and their products were one to two-star reviews. The company worked hard to respond to those reviews and also to ask truly satisfied users to review them online. Now, when you do a similar search, you can see a good number of four and five-star reviews for them.
But wait? Does this mean that Google uses information from third-party sites? We don’t know precisely how Google uses review information online, but a Google patent gives us some clues as to how they might go about algorithmically determining whether a site has reputation issues. They can apparently look at many different places where they can find reputation information, and glean info from multiple sources.
The patent describes how Google potentially has a method: “for analyzing a corpus of user reviews to associate one or more descriptive segments of text extracted from the user reviews with one or more entities (e.g., products, product creators, product vendors).” Or, in other words, they can look at a subset of user reviews to extract words to analyze in regards to entities such as a particular brand.
This patent says:
“…user reviews may be gathered from one or more of blog or social network postings, emails, articles written for websites or for printed publications such as magazines or newspapers, postings made to a user review section of an online vendor or marketplace, or even user reviews submitted to various existing user review clearinghouses.”
It goes on to describe how they can use natural language processing to determine whether people are generally saying positive or negative things about the business. The patent doesn’t tell us exactly how Google does this, or even if they are doing it, but we know that it is possible for Google to programmatically gather information from around the web to determine if a business has serious reputation issues.
The QRG recognize that every business can get some negative reviews:
It is our opinion that Google is looking at a site’s online reputation and that a site can see negative effects if any of the following is true:
- If they are a YMYL site with almost no reputation information to be found online
- If there is an overwhelmingly negative sentiment about this business
(Note: If you want to learn more about these particular sites, you’ll need to find these sections of the Quality Raters’ Guidelines. Clicking on the links in the QRG will show you screenshots demonstrating even more from these examples.)
Adding appropriate references and keeping content up to date
If you have a site that has medical information, it is essential that you support every single claim that can be scientifically referenced.
It is also important that medical content does not contradict scientific consensus:
We reviewed several sites that were strongly hit August 1 that subsequently did not see recoveries on March 12, most likely for this reason. Many of these sites were full of theories on medicine, nutrition and treatments that are not scientifically backed. If you have content like this on your site, it may make sense to remove it.
For this particular site, they combed through their content and worked hard to fact check every claim they made. They developed a system to show users which pieces of content were most supported by scientific evidence. In our opinion, this contributed greatly to the recent improvements they have seen as it likely improved Google’s ability to trust the medical content on their site.
This site also made some other changes that were based on good SEO practices, and not just info from the QRG, including the following:
- Improving page speed
- Disavowing some unnatural links made years ago
- Fixed some mixed content issues
The result of all of this work was a partial recovery on Sept. 27, 2018, and what appears to be an almost full recovery on March 12:
Case #2: Small e-commerce site
It is important to note that this site is not medical in nature. Still, any site that takes financial transactions is likely a YMYL site. This site had not seen hits with previous core quality updates. They are currently seeing a dramatic increase in traffic since the March Core Quality update. Here were our recommendations.
Added E-A-T related information to the home page and the about page
As mentioned with the site above, this business added a paragraph of text to tell people why they should be considered the experts in their field. While we don’t know whether Google looks specifically at this, we think that it can help inspire trust from your users if they can say, “Ah, there are hundreds of sites in this vertical, but this one looks like the expert, so we’ll trust them.”
Their About page is now a beautiful list of the business’ accomplishments and accolades.
Improved product pages
This site faced the challenge that most eCommerce sites face. They had many products, and each of their product pages used the manufacturer’s stock description. There really was no reason for Google to show its pages over the hundreds of other sites that sold the same products.
They worked hard to not only write unique product descriptions, but they also included other helpful features on product pages such as links to helpful guides, video instructions, and Frequently Asked Questions about each product.
The QRG have several places where they mention that it is a sign of high quality if a site has helpful product pages.
They also worked on reducing the amount of thin content in the index by reducing the number of pages indexed by Google by almost a third. They removed a large number of pages that contained only a single image and also removed many pages that were not likely to ever be landed upon from search.
We’re really hoping these changes stick!
Case #3: Medical Practitioner site
This is a really exciting case study. This site is one that helps people with pain issues. It was hit hard on Aug. 1, 2018, and is appearing to make a full recovery now.
Here are the changes that the site owner made:
Greatly improved author E-A-T
While this site already had authors who were experts, these practitioners were not generally known online as experts. It’s one thing to say that an article was written by a doctor with twenty years of practical experience, but if there is nothing to back this claim up online, we think that it is unlikely that Google will consider this good E-A-T. Remember, the “A” in E-A-T stands for “Authority.” It is important that your authors are recognized online as authorities in their field.
The QRG talk extensively about the importance of author E-A-T. This long section tells us that medical advice needs to be written by people with high medical E-A-T to be considered high quality. Financial advice should be written by someone with high financial E-A-T. Even websites about hobbies can be considered higher quality if they are written by someone with the appropriate E-A-T.
This particular line in the QRG shows us the questions that we should be asking about our E-A-T:
Are you known online as an expert on your topic?
Here are some examples from the QRG that hammer down this point.
They also give some examples of authors who have good E-A-T. First, there is an example of the author Lisa Belkin who has written an article on strollers. If you do a Google search for this author’s name, you will see that she has been quoted in regards to parenting issues, on many authoritative sites.
In another example, the QRG recognize that Paula Deen is known online as someone with authority when it comes to cooking.
Are your authors recognized as authorities in their space?
Getting back to our case study, our client did two things to improve their author E-A-T. They improved their display of E-A-T on-site and off-site as well.
For on-site improvements, this site gave each of their authors an author byline that clearly demonstrated their credentials. They also gave each author their own author page that did not just list the posts they had written, but rather, extolled their schooling, awards won, and other related experience.
For off-site author E-A-T improvements, this site made really good use of HARO. HARO is a free service that will send you emails every day to connect journalists with sources. This site had their authors reply to related HARO requests so that they were quoted in some authoritative spaces.
You could argue that the increased link equity from these authoritative sources is the main reason for the improvements shown below. However, the site did not gain traffic at the time of gaining these links. Rather, it happened immediately after the March 12 Core algorithm update. We think it is possible that these links started mattering only after Google’s algorithms had determined that the site and its authors truly had appropriate E-A-T.
Better use of scientific references
As mentioned earlier, it can potentially be a sign of trust if you are continually referencing scientific research in your articles. This site made good use of scientific references throughout all of their content.
The business owner is thrilled to see that things are improving. Again, it’s early, but we hope this trend continues!
Case #4: Large informational site
This site was never negatively affected by a core algorithm update. It has been around for many years and is considered to be the authority in their space. However, they consulted with us on making E-A-T related improvements to see if they could see even better growth. We were thrilled last week, following the release of the March Core update to receive an email from them entitled, “Wooo Hooo! Our rankings are up almost everywhere!”
Improved author E-A-T on-site
The author of the majority of content on this site is one of the most authoritative in their space…possibly the most authoritative. However, he used to write much of his content anonymously. We think that he is a humble man, and he did not want to boast about his achievements. However, we convinced him to fill his About Page with information on the degrees he has earned, his scientific writings and awards won.
He also set up an author page on Google Scholar to showcase all of his scientific publications. He linked to this page from his site.
The client shared with us some charts from SEMRush showing increased visibility for his important keywords since the March 12 Core update:
This client had some good insight into the recent changes that Google has been making in regards to E-A-T (shared with permission):
“I think that it is ironic that Google spent most of their first 20 years fussing about links. All of that time people who didn’t know a damn thing about diabetes, toilets, legal issues, depression, knitting and millions of other topics have made billions of dollars producing prattle by taking the content of professional people and spinning, rewriting, mashing-up and slapping it onto their websites. People looking for information consumed that prattle, often thinking that it was excellent stuff.”
Let that sink in.
Many of you who are reading this article have seen drops for websites that may not ever recover. If you have been hiring content writers to teach the world about topics that require expertise, and if those writers are lacking in expertise, there is a good chance that this content will never rank properly again.
Do not lose heart though!
Your next plan of action, if you have been hit by any of the August 1, September 27 or March 12 update, is to do the following:
- Read the entire QRG. Yup…they are 164 pages long. But filled with good information on how Google wants to evaluate content.
- Do all that you can to display your expertise, authoritativeness and trust on your site. We like to see these things bragged about on your home page and also your About page.
- Find ways to get people in authoritative places talking about you. That’s hard. But, if you can truly get good press and legitimate mentions, this speaks to your E-A-T.
- Stop chasing old SEO tricks and tactics that used to work. Perhaps a PBN may trick Google temporarily into thinking you have authoritative links, but likely not for long. If the only way you can get links is to create your content and link to yourself, Google likely does not want these links to count as votes for your site.
- Don’t ignore technical issues. A technical site audit is a mandatory starting place for any site seeing traffic drops.
- Look at your link profile. We do believe that link quality can speak to overall site quality. If you have a lot of links that were made to try to trick Google into treating you as more authoritative than you are, then thorough disavow work may help. Be careful though. We have found that many people who use the disavow tool end up disavowing links that are not the problem links.
- Seriously look at how much value your site is providing as compared to competitors. Even better, is to have unbiased third parties evaluate your site and answer the question, “Which of these sites is truly the best answer for my query?” If your site is generally as good as all of the others on a topic, it’s going to be hard to outrank those sites unless you truly are recognized as the authority in your area.
We anticipate that there will be plenty more changes to Google’s attempts to algorithmically assess quality. If your traffic dropped on March 12, provided you offer good, unique value, recovery really should be possible. And if you’ve seen improvements, keep on doing all that you can to be the most valuable site of its kind!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.