Yes, RealSelf is embracing Google’s recent algorithm updates

Yes, RealSelf is embracing Google’s recent algorithm updates

1024 576 Ward Vuillemot

It’s about leveraging Google’s search algorithm, not “gaming” it. Ward Vuillemot, Chief Technology Officer at RealSelf, on how his team is remaking the site experience on

Ward Vuillemot is Chief Technology Officer at RealSelf. His team is currently rearchitecting in the wake of Google’s recent algorithm updates.

It’s no secret that Google’s search algorithm changes have been especially tough on RealSelf since late 2018.

No need for pretense: our traffic tanked, and the update affected scores of other websites in the healthcare category.

Dubbed the “medic” update by analysts, it was intended to reward sites Google deemed as having more authority with higher rankings in search results.

In Google’s estimation, user-generated content is antithetical to that authority principle. RealSelf contains a lot of user-generated content.

That wasn’t the only hit. The very nature of the information we provide to consumers requires us to show images Google deems “adult”—something your practice has likely faced itself. That type of content was also downranked when the latest updates swept in.

In sum, we received demerits for the very types of content that are essential for educating consumers and connecting them with trusted doctors. In light of this, it’s probably easy to see why restructuring to align with Google’s algorithm changes is one of our very top priorities.

I’ll be honest: Google’s algorithm updates are no picnic. But I do believe that the fundamental principles their search algorithm are built on provide a roadmap to restructuring RealSelf in a way that improves our consumers’ overall experience—and ultimately accrues to doctors like you.

Google tweaks its algorithm in order to connect consumers’ search queries with authoritative content that most precisely meets their search intent. Combined with our own insights into what both consumers and providers want and need from RealSelf, Google’s algorithm updates support, not detract from, a thoughtful reimagining of the experience.

The result: consumers get to the right information—and the right doctors and providers—more easily.

Here’s a quick breakdown.

Better guidance: Google’s algorithm is a set of cheat codes for nailing consumer intent

Both RealSelf consumers and Google essentially want to see the same things from us: expertise, authority, and trust

In a nutshell, Google’s goal is to increase the quality of its search results. It confers higher search rankings to sites it deems safe, credible, and easy to navigate.

Their massive reach gives them an unparalleled view into what makes for a positive user experience, and their algorithm changes largely reflect those insights.

That’s why, for RealSelf, creating a site experience that Google’s algorithm likes is not about “gaming” any system, implementing tips and tricks on the margins without making wholesale changes to the site experience. It’s about us leveraging what Google knows about what’s best for its own users to the benefit of the RealSelf consumer community—and providers like you who are here to connect with them.

In short: a better consumer experience should be an output of adhering to Google’s best practices.

Better context: Telling Google’s algorithm, and consumers, exactly what things mean

The contextual aspect of search engine optimization is no different from practicing the simple lesson about accountability that many of us were taught as children: we say what we will do, then we do what we say.

It turns out that consumers value this principle, too.

For Google, providing context means telling them exactly what the site elements on mean. This helps Google’s algorithm to understand the content and structure of our website without having to guess.

Here’s the problem: long-established sites like RealSelf often contain layers of code that reflect previous engineering decisions. Over a number of years, this can turn into a confusing tangle that’s tough for Google to interpret. Untangling our site code, streamlining it, and adding more context makes it much easier for Google to:

  • Fully index the hundreds of thousands of pages on
  • Understand the specific content on all of those pages that best aligns with consumers’ search intent.
  • Surface the right pages to consumers who tap or type relevant search queries.

Better navigation: Putting the right aesthetic information at our community’s fingertips

Consumers who land on with a fairly clear understanding of what procedure they want will immediately have a wealth of information at their fingertips. That’s because procedures are currently the most prominent entry point for consumers to start reading information on RealSelf.

But what about those who are curious about having a procedure, but don’t have a clue about the landscape of options? Within the legacy RealSelf site experience, they’ll have a harder time knowing where to start, or comprehending the full breadth of choices available to them.

It’s a huge missed opportunity to bring consumers into the fold who are at what marketers call the “top of the funnel”. Our goal is to usher them from that initial awareness—”I think I might have something done”—through a credible education about viable procedure options, and ultimately to a booking with a board-certified RealSelf Verified doctor in their area.

The legacy experience assumes visitors already have their bearings. For those who don’t, the site experience can be downright alienating, essentially ejecting consumers when we should be nurturing them to the point of booking a procedure.

We’re solving this with navigation that makes it much easier to discover procedure options without any prior knowledge. Our new taxonomy lets consumers intuitively navigate from body part to concern to procedure, making it much easier and more intuitive for consumers who need help discovering their options to do just that.

Great for consumers, great for Google. Because this same reimagined taxonomy gives Google a better idea of what information on is related, helping them deliver better search results, and scaling visits from high-quality consumers over time.

More authority: Creating space for professionals and patients to weigh in

Google has made it clear that they value authoritative content. On RealSelf, perhaps no content is more authoritative from our users’ point of view than the reviews generated by real patients who have had procedures, and before-and-after photos published by the aesthetic surgeons who have administered them.

It’s the content our community has valued the most for well over a decade.

We’re not getting rid of user-generated content, but we are using context and navigation to optimize its positioning within And we’ve added medically-reviewed and author-attributed “cornerstone” content about procedures to the mix, rounding out the types of information we offer to consumers—and delivering on a key, Google-defined measure of authority.

The benefits are twofold:

  • This adds yet another layer of context about treatments for consumers.
  • It positions us to attract more quality users from Google. With thousands of pages about Botox, for example, it was historically difficult for Google to know which of them to rank for specific user searches about the procedure.

To do this, we’re going to create clear and separate pathways for reading medically reviewed content versus user-generated content, sending consumers down one or the other pathway at the very beginning of their journey on RealSelf. This way, both our community and Google will know exactly where to go to find each type of content.

We’ll link related content between the authoritative and user-generated sections so that our users can easily navigate from one to the other.

We also know that individual consumers want us to tell them which of the hundreds of thousands of pieces of user-generated content on RealSelf—like patient reviews and provider answers—are most relevant to them based on their location, decision stage, concern, treatment interest, and more. We’re going to add our own brand of authority to user-generated content by increasing its relevance to each community member, serving up the handful of such content that most applies to specific consumers at specific stages.

Ultimately, we are restructuring to help consumers make confident decisions when choosing aesthetic procedures and providers. Along the way, we’re heeding Google’s algorithm because we believe that Google and ultimately want the same thing: to satisfy the needs of our shared customers, who are searching to make informed, confident decisions for and about themselves.