First, Do No Harm: Google’s Medic Algorithm and Your Online Sales
In August 2018, Google introduced its now famous (or infamous) Medic algorithm. Once the initial panic had died down, it became clear that the aim of the update was to make sure, as far as possible, that website (or blog) visitors were given information that would keep them safe.
Niches that could potentially do the most damage — health, finance and more or less anything that could be related to a user’s well-being — were particularly at risk.
How do we know?
Google’s own instructions to their assessors in 2018 (1) were clear:
Some types of pages could potentially impact the future happiness, health, financial stability, or safety of users. We call such pages ‘Your Money or Your Life’ pages, or YMYL.
They list the following types of niches as examples:
- Shopping or financial transaction pages
- Financial information pages
- Medical information pages
- News articles or official information for having an informed citizenry.
But do they really mean small business owners? Are bloggers really on Google’s radar?
The answer to that is simple: they do, and they are.
It’s All Caesar’s Fault
Why did Medic come about?
The term “fake news” may only have become part of common language recently, but historically documented examples of fake news go back a long way — as long ago as 44 B.C.
That was the year Julius Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, led an unrelenting and totally false campaign to “out” Caesar’s natural son, Mark Antony, as a debauched womanizer and drunk.
Did that particular piece of fake news have an impact? Well, it enabled Octavian to seize the Emperor’s seat from under Mark Antony’s nose, to rebrand himself as Augustus, and to rewrite Roman history to preserve and promote himself (2).
Google would not have approved.
Fast-forward two millennia and “fake news” has become so much a part of our culture that it’s often hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. And it’s not just fake news.
Fake reviews have also embedded themselves into our culture. You know the kind of thing…
- The ebook you bought with twenty “excellent” reviews that turns out to have been written by someone who thought punctuation was an inconvenience with which they didn’t need to bother.
- The 5-star hotel with glowing reviews you booked for a special occasion, only to find staff who felt cockroaches in the bathroom were part of the accommodation’s charm.
- The hairdresser with a stream of positive feedback on Yelp who left you with a haircut that would not look out of place in a Star Trek movie…
Does Google care about them?
None of those examples are likely to have a long-term impact on your “future happiness, health, financial stability, or safety” (with the possible exception of the haircut).
But what about reviews that potentially affect health…
- A weight loss product that’s advertised as “so powerful, it even works while you sleep!” (3)
- A cereal falsely claiming to have “clinically shown to improve kids’ attentiveness by nearly 20%.” (4)
- A liquid claiming “vitamins + water = all you need” — but failing to mention the eight teaspoons of sugar in each bottle. (5)
- Acai berries “endorsed” by celebrities — who never endorsed them. (6)
Fake reviews. Fake claims. Fake “customers.”
Does Google care about them? These claims (and many others like them) are likely to have an impact on someone’s “future… health.” So, it’s not hard to see — the answer is (presumably) yes.
The Federal Trade Commission agreed — they also thought claims like this could do harm.
What about the “financial stability” clause?
That, too, is fairly easily identified…
- “Get started selling on Amazon and make $5,000 — $10,000 in the next 30 days… even if you’ve never sold anything online before” (7)
- “Bitcoin is making people rich — and you can become the next millionaire!” (8)
- “Earn $750 a day… Retire in less than 30 days!” (This one used the former Prime Minister of New Zealand as its front-man!) (9)
We all know that Get Rich Quick (GRQ) can’t be real. If it was, everyone would be rich. And why would anyone sell a GRQ idea that really works, anyway?
But not everyone is media savvy. Not everyone knows that something that sounds too good to be true almost certainly is. Lots of people are taken in by these and similar health and “make money online” scams, every day — many of them very vulnerable to every passing promise of hope.
The teen desperate for a pill to deal with obesity. The young adult wondering whether shark cartilage really does get rid of the pain of early onset arthritis.
The recently retired person contemplating an email offering a job at a $100,000 salary. The stay-at-home mom desperate to augment the family income, trying to build an online business with a company that takes her money and offers a pretty website but who, instead, needed coaching or tools to guide her along the way.
If you can make money at it, there are people out there who are happy to sell you the “how-to.”
But how come those sales pitches are so effective? Why don’t people see them for what they are?
Snake Oil and Misleading Copy
Copywriting is the act of writing text for the purpose of advertising or other forms of marketing. The product, called copy, is written content that aims to increase brand awareness and ultimately persuade a person or group to take a particular action. (Wikipedia)
If only it were that simple. But the art of persuasion is just that — an art. And not everyone uses that art to the true benefit of the reader. Consider…
- At the most negative end of the spectrum we see companies that lie or, at best, exaggerate in order to sell. This, sadly, happens widely among many smaller businesses. It’s especially common, as we saw above, in Get Rich Quick operators.
- Affiliate “reviews.” From the friends of the author who wrote the Amazon reviews of that book you bought, to large companies that pay their affiliates to write fake negative reviews of competitors — they’re all recommendations we’ve come to rely on before we buy.
- At the other end of the spectrum we have companies that don’t lie, but cleverly redefine what’s “best” for the consumer. Consider, for example, the following large companies that offer some of the most famous platforms for solopreneurs, followed by their “best” feature:
- WordPress (“best” = plugin flexibility)
- Web hosts such as GoDaddy, 1&1, Bluehost (“best” = reliability, tech specs)
- Sitebuilders like Wix (“best” = “stunning” design and easy)
- Higher-end platform like Squarespace (best = “all you need”)
They’re not misleading, in the sense that each of them may be right in their claim to be “best” differently from the rest. But all of them are describing features — not results. Of course, those features may lead to results — or they may not.
And results are what any copywriter worth the title would make the centerpiece of the message.
What’s happening here?
They define “best.” And they limit your judgment to their definitions. So in the end, it’s the marketers who “get rich” by manipulating our wish for it to be true.
How to protect yourself as a consumer from — let’s be kind — exaggerated copy? Look for, and insist on, documented proof of success. Without it, the copy is just words — sometimes damaging words.
How to protect your website or blog audience, while still making a living from selling products you truly believe in — and at the same time making Google’s Medic algorithm smile on your rankings?
It’s not rocket science.
Help them separate fact from fiction. And in doing so, make sure that the “future happiness, health, financial stability, or safety” of your readers is safe in your hands.
Keep Your Readers Safe
Does Medic really apply to blogs?
It’s easy to argue that a small online business is too small to be of much consequence. After all, how much damage can my website about raising backyard chickens do?
Well, it can impact happiness — have you ever seen a child’s face when a chick dies because you didn’t know how to hatch eggs properly?
Health, though? Yep. Did you know that dust from chicken bedding can cause respiratory problems including asthma? Or that rats, attracted by the smell of chicken feed, can carry the Salmonellosis bacteria?
Finance? Incubators cost hundreds of dollars. Recommending one I know is going to last no longer than a week because the affiliate commission is good would cause my readers a substantial financial loss.
Safety? You’d never question that if you’d been on the receiving end of a rooster who’s just discovered his hormones have kicked in…
Of course, there are degrees. My website about backyard chickens doesn’t have anything like the same potential to cause damage as a site about taking acai berries to cure everything from eczema to cancer.
But we all have some potential, large or small, to do damage.
And we have an equal capacity to “do no harm.”
First, Do No Harm
How can we, as small-business owners and bloggers, work to do no harm?
By remembering this first:
Your product review page is not about selling to a customer. It’s about talking to a friend. (10)
Selling a product is fine. But if the purpose of a page is just to push a product, the content becomes thin and repetitive. The reader becomes almost unimportant.
What is our reader looking for? A person they can trust who provides facts and evidence, preferably original, to back up and enhance the focus of an article. Any article, whether it’s a sales or informational page.
There’s the crunch. In any article, your reader should be your focus. In a sales page particularly, the product is a key for the reader, not the end result. It opens a door to a better life — in Medic’s terms, happier, healthier, more stable, safer.
Your job is not to write “copy.” It’s to know exactly what your site or blog visitors want. To understand the situation they find themselves in. To recognise why it’s a problem for them, or why it’s a need they want to fulfill.
The product, and your knowledge of it, is the solution that will take them to where they want to be. Their safe place. Their ideal situation.
For both our reader and Medic, just saying a product works with some engaging anecdotes and a picture of a unicorn is not enough.
I’ve covered the “how” of this in a series of articles previously. That advice has not changed substantially with the advent of Medic — indeed, Medic simply reinforced the message.
Let’s go over some of the main points that have become even more critical with our understanding of Medic…
a. Search Intent
Are you sure your article is covering what your site visitor is looking for when she enters that word or phrase into a search engine? Not just sure, but absolutely certain?
What is the specific problem or need your reader is looking for help about? How are you intending to address that?
Over-deliver on search intent.
b. How Can You Help?
Why should the reader believe you? Are you writing about a subject or a product about which you have first-hand experience? Say so. Add photos of you using it. Talk about the issues it has, as well as the benefits.
Remember: when they first come to your website, your audience knows nothing about you. For all they know, you could be one of those scammy people who ripped them off before.
So what is it about you that means they can trust you?
c. How Can Your Product (or Information) Help?
What stands out about your product? Why is it different from all the other products your reader has paid good money for but which have not helped?
Whether it’s a $1.99 e-book or a $2,000 incubator; a monthly $300 for an online course or an annual $299 platform to build a successful online business — the principle is the same: know your audience. Talk about results.
It can be summed up like this:
- Know what your readers want, the reason they’re coming to you in the first place. What are they hoping for when they put that query into a search engine?
- Take time to understand how their pain feels to them.
- Use that knowledge and understanding to explain why they should trust you.
- Use it, too, to explain the benefits of your product. For each feature that product has, how will it help? Which pain point will it address?
- Know what results they will see. And be truthful about it.
Because if you don’t tell your customers the truth, if you paint a picture for them that overshadows or contradicts the truth about your product or service, they will make poor decisions.
And that’s not good for them — or for you.
Don’t Just “Do No Harm” — Take Time to Do Some Good
I can hear you now…
Large companies have the money to employ the talent and time needed to offer what Google is looking for. Little guys like me don’t have that kind of luxury.
First — forget Google. Giving our readers what they need is enough. What Google wants is for us to keep them safe. Satisfying the one will inevitably satisfy the other.
But it’s true. Giving our readers the best they could wish for takes time and trouble. It reinforces the need for long, well researched articles full of reliable information they can trust.
It may mean — gasp — spending time with your audience. Hanging out in forums, replying to emails, sending out polls. Finding out what they need. What keeps them awake at night.
It may mean spending more time than you do now in gathering information you can be confident is trustworthy. Following leaders in your niche. Reading peer-reviewed studies. Finding reliable books that you can wholeheartedly recommend.
It may mean going to trade shows or craft shows or whichever path you need to follow in your niche, reviewing products that really stand out, making connections with small affiliates who have exactly the product you’re looking for — and no one else has yet discovered.
It may mean actually trying out that expensive incubator, contacting the manufacturer, talking to people who have used it.
It all takes time, it can take money, and it certainly takes original thought.
And too often, larger companies don’t provide that. Copywriters take the easy route, reeling off the features and benefits of a product and adding a photo of an “inspirational life” for good measure. And who wouldn’t like to be sipping cocktails on a beautiful beach every day?
Which is where we, as small-business owners, have the advantage. Being fair to your audience has a distinct benefit to them and to you.
Because it makes you stand out from the rest. If you can describe sizzling benefits that genuinely help your readers get where they want to be, then you’re not just delivering the minimum: “do no harm.”
You’re having a positive impact on “the future happiness, health, financial stability, or safety” of your audience. You’re taking time to do some good.
And for that, both they — and Google — will become raving fans.