It’s about leveraging Google’s algorithm, not “gaming” it. RealSelf Chief Technology Officer, Ward Vuillemot, on how his team his remaking the site experience on RealSelf.com.
It’s no secret that Google’s algorithm changes have become a complicated issue for us as of late.
In 2018, traffic to RealSelf.com took a pretty big hit in the wake of an algorithm update that affected many websites in the healthcare category. Dubbed the “medic” update by analysts, it was intended to reward websites Google, deemed as having more authority, with higher search result rankings. Sites like ours that contain a lot of user-generated content, however prized by our visitors, saw our rankings affected as a result.
Add to this the fact that the very nature of the information we provide requires us to show some images Google deems “adult” (something you’ve likely faced yourself), and it’s easy to see why figuring out how to restructure our site to align with Google’s algorithm changes is one of our top priorities.
You might think that a person in my position views Google’s updates with frustration. They’re no picnic, but I believe that the fundamentals and principles their search algorithm is built on provide a roadmap to restructuring RealSelf in a way that improves our consumers’ overall experience.
Over time, this makes it easier for Google to connect consumers’ search queries with the authoritative content we curate on RealSelf that directly meets the intent of those searches. And combined with our own insights into what both consumers and providers want and need from RealSelf, Google’s algorithm updates support, not detract from, us reimagining the RealSelf.com experience. The result: consumers get to the right information—and the right doctors and providers—more easily.
Better Guidance: Why Google’s Algorithm is Actually an Asset
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 their search results, and it rewards sites it deems safe, credible, and easy to navigate with higher search rankings. Their 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 creating an experience on RealSelf that Google’s algorithm likes is not about “gaming” any system, at least not when done well. It’s about us leveraging what they know about what’s best for Google users to the benefit of our own consumers—and the providers that want 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 Exactly What Things Mean
When done right, search engine optimization is no different from practicing what we were all taught as children about accountability: we do what we say, and say what we will do. It turns out that consumers value this, too.
For Google, providing context means telling them exactly what the elements on RealSelf.com mean. This helps them understand the content and structure of RealSelf without having to guess.
Established sites like RealSelf often contain layers of HTML reflecting past decisions, and over a number of years this can turn into a confusing tangle that’s tough for Google to interpret. Untangling and streamlining that HTML while adding context for Google makes it easier for them to: 1) index our site; 2) understand which content best aligns with consumers’ search intent; and, 3) offer our pages up to consumers who tap or type relevant search queries.
Better Navigation: Putting a Wealth of Information at Consumers’ Fingertips
Consumers who land on RealSelf.com 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 entrypoint for consumers to start looking at information on RealSelf.
However, those who are curious about having a procedure, but don’t understand the landscape of options, can have a harder time comprehending the full breadth of choices available to them when navigating within the legacy RealSelf site experience. 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 more user-friendly 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 RealSelf.com is related, helping them deliver better search results, and scaling visits from high-quality consumers over time.
More Authority: Distinguishing Between the Professional and the Patient
Google has made it clear that they value authoritative content. But of course, content generated by the people who have had procedures, and doctors and providers who have administered them, are what our users have highly valued about RealSelf for well over a decade.
So how do we resolve this so everyone gets what they need and want?
We’re not getting rid of user-generated content, but we are using context and navigation to optimize its positioning within RealSelf.com. And we’ve added medically reviewed and author-attributed content about procedures to the mix, rounding out the types of information we offer to consumers.
The benefits are twofold: first, this adds another layer of context about treatments for consumers; and, second, 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 route at the very beginning of their journey on RealSelf. This way, both our consumers 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 consumers 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 through greater relevance, serving up the handful of such content that most applies to specific consumers at specific stages.
Ultimately, we are restructuring RealSelf.com to help consumers figure out what they need to make confident decisions when choosing aesthetic procedures and providers. Along the way, we’re heeding Google’s algorithm because we believe that Google and RealSelf.com ultimately want the same thing: to satisfy the needs of our shared customers who are searching to make an informed, confident decision about and for themselves.