In August 2018, Google rolled out the Medic update, also known as the E-A-T update. It was one of the most significant changes made to the core search engine algorithm since Panda and Penguin. The purpose of the update was to ensure that trustworthy web pages rank first and that the content in those pages comes from authoritative experts. Just a few months after, Google revealed the idea behind the Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness concept, when it updated its Search Rater Quality guidelines in accordance with the changes made to the core algorithm. As an extension of E-A-T, Google revealed researching companies’ customer experience and products as another quality ranking factor. Google has never been shy about telling marketers that it wants to send traffic to the most reputable websites. This could very well mean that a negative online reputation can hurt your SEO.
Why Google is focusing on Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness, and Your Money Your Life.
Search Quality Raters are real people who manually research websites and companies. Google’s Web Spam team uses the raters’ input to benchmark the Search Engine Algorithm. Before the Medic/ E-A-T update, the Search Rater Quality guidelines were focused on how to distinguish well-crafted content from “gibberish” – gibberish being the actual term used in the guidelines. Long before the Medic update, Google had been worried about ranking content that impacts people’s finances and health. It created the YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) category to refer to those websites. Most recently Google went as far as hiring raters with backgrounds in healthcare, finance, and accounting. This allows them to accurately assess the validity of the information dispersed in the websites they review.
Throughout the history of Search Algorithm updates, there is a common theme of Google’s Web Spam team dealing with whack-a-mole types of issues. At first, it was dealing with how to weed out content farms, then it was penalizing websites that manipulated rankings using link networks. Now it is about who should be giving advice, and maybe more importantly, who we should believe. It tells you that the algorithm has a hard time distinguishing between a real expert and someone who is impersonating one online. Bing has had the same issue in mind and has experimented with several solutions, including having both sides of an issue presented in a side-by-side comparison box. While it is an ethical question for Google, there is no doubt that this is fueled by the changes they made to search result page structure (SERP features) and especially the search-related question pack.
How Does Reputation Come Into Play in the Search Raters Guidelines?
While the webmaster guidelines can be cryptic, and listening to John Muller’s SEO advice (Google’s Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst) feels more like a training session with Master Yoda, the Search Raters guidelines are a goldmine of valuable information. In the most recent version, the topic of reputation literally occupies an entire section (Section 2.6). The Search Raters Guidelines detail the process Quality Raters have to follow for the following items:
- Researching the Reputation of the Website or Creator of the Main Content
- What are the Reputable Sources of Reputation Information
- Looking into Customer Reviews of Stores/Businesses
- What are the Reputable Sources of Reputation Information
- The Different Techniques to Search for Reputation Information
It also frames the scope of the research as “to both the website and the actual company, organization, or entity that the website is representing.” Google also encourages raters to be skeptical about claims companies make on their website and reminds its raters not to be biassed when it comes to “websites they personally use.”
The Raters guidelines also mention that “the content of the reviews matter, not just the number. Credible, convincing reports of fraud and financial wrongdoing is evidence of extremely negative reputation.” Conversely, Google clearly establishes that the existence of a large number of good reviews is a sign of a positive reputation.
With regards to stores, the guidelines point to the fact that “user ratings can help you understand a store’s reputation based on the reports of people who actually shop there. We consider a large number of positive user reviews as evidence of positive reputation.”
Finally, Raters are instructed to corroborate what they find with more than one source.
Taking Control of Your Online Reputation
For a lot of brands and individuals, taking control of their Online Reputation is a real issue. The constant flow of negative content and fake reviews popping up on the Internet doesn’t seem to be slowing down. If anything, it looks like things have gotten worse. Last year, Trustpilot alone removed 2.2 million fake reviews and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There is a large number of content published on the Internet that doesn’t meet the publisher’s guidelines and is still indexed on different search engines.
While GDPR (Global Data Protection regulations) has shed light on the right to be forgotten, very little has been done on the publishers or search engines side to proactively root out slanderous and fake content.
It looks like the burden remains on individuals and brands to regularly monitor what is being said about them on the Internet. This means having in place a process to scan and detect negative content to address it before it becomes a problem.
For people and organizations that are at high risk to be targeted online, such as business executives, celebrities, retailers, or doctors, having a reputation strategy that combines content removal and negative content suppression is an important factor to consider. Content removal eliminates published content from Search Engine Ranking pages, whereas suppression, via the creation of positive content, is a proactive way of building a buffer to protect your brand.
Positive reputation management campaigns use SEO techniques to outrank negative articles for important keywords such as [your brand name] reviews.
Search Engines and the Freedom of Speech on the Internet
The Medic (E-A-T) Update did not come without some irony. On one hand, it is clear that its intent is to weed out those who pose as experts on the Internet, while on the other hand, it is potentially giving more authority to negative and possibly fake content that resides on Search Engines.
The real issue at hand is that the Internet giants are prioritizing freedom of speech over your right to privacy. If Freedom of Speech trumps all, the least they can do is develop a better process of de-indexing negative content. Negative content can come from trusted, and authoritative sources, such as a government website, or a newspaper, and still be an unfair characterization of the issue at hand. Furthermore, there’s a long-lasting impact on the lives and reputations of individuals and businesses whose content has been indexed on search engines. “Should negative content follow you for the rest of your life?” is a question that is never asked, yet it deserves a well-thought-out answer.