For the past four weeks, the team at Nootropedia has watched an alarming trend unfolding before our very eyes: reputable health-information websites being steamrolled by Google in favor of questionable content. Terms and articles that websites were known for are almost completely extinguished from the first page of Google’s search results, and websites that provide scientific-backed and evidence-based health and wellness information are now practically inaccessible to those searching with Google.
Sites (like Nootropedia, Self-Hacked, Dr. Mercola, Kelly Brogan MD, Examine.com, and many others) have all but disappeared from Google’s search results when users search for information on the topics for which the sites were once considered an authority.
In the case of Nootropedia alone, we are experiencing a loss of 85% of our organic search traffic since the June 3, 2019 Google Core and July 12, 2019 updates. Other sites in our niche which we strive to model ourselves after and use for our references have seen even more dramatic losses–the website Examine.com has lost over 90% of its search traffic since the update. We have been baffled by the hit that these websites have taken. These are websites in the “Your Money Your Life” niche which are following Google’s E-A-T and Quality Search Rating Guidelines, and yet, have been thoroughly blacklisted by Google.
There had been no one publicly talking about it until Sol Orwell, founder of Examine.com, reached out to the SEO community on Reddit (/r/BigSEO) to try to shed light on what was happening to his site. Earlier this week, Joe Cohen, founder of Selfhacked.com, posted a thorough and well-written call to arms about the censorship that health websites have been experiencing, and how Google is monopolizing health information for its best interests. Cohen’s article titled “Google is Taking Censorship of Health Websites to the Next Level” provides a detailed analysis of the same running discussion we have had internally at Nootropedia, as we shook our heads at the same examples we found regarding the topics and sites Google has pushed so far to the top of its search pages.
Is it censorship?
A few quick searches on “health website censorship” in Google yields several other articles written in the past few weeks, which correlates with what Joe Cohen at Selfhacked.com theorizes. Dr. Kelly Brogan published an article on her website titled “Are We Being Censored?” in response to her website taking a severe hit after the June update, and you can find another result on LewRockwell.com titled “Google Just Scrubbed Natural Health Websites from Its Search Results; Whistleblower Explains How and Why” published on June 28, 2019. Another article titled “Google is Burying Alternative Health Sites to Protect People from “Dangerous” Medical Advice” was published just last week on August 6, 2019, and an editorial titled “Censorship of Health Information by Google, Facebook, Amazon, Government and More” published August 7, 2019, makes it impossible to bury our heads in the sand.
Google's party line is that it is trying to keep “harmful” information out of the hands of users. This is making alternative health information difficult to access. This health information is still accessible in search results from other search engines and is a trend only seen within Google. The websites that have been negatively affected and are not showing up in Google’s search results can still be found, occupying a rank in other search engines that is similar to where they were in Google before the updates.
Some see Google's move to control health websites as a mere extension of censoring anti-vax, flat earth, climate change hoax, and natural cancer remedy websites. Google believes the majority of the public would likely not have a problem with their censorship of such issues. However, Google has become more aggressive and has been implicated in the censorship of political information, as discussed by Robert Epstein during the recent Senate hearings on this matter.
As SelfHacked's post points out, it's not Google's job to censor information but rather to deliver the most relevant search results; at least this is how they developed their massive market share and what people are expecting when they search through Google. Many people believe that the results on the first page of Google are infallible, and over 90% of searchers never make it to page 2. Unfortunately, people blindly trust higher ranked Google results than lower ranked ones.
In fact, Google and other social media companies have legal immunity against lawsuits for what is discovered through their platform (See the Communications Decency Act. Section 230). The thought behind granting such immunity was that these companies were providing a forum for the free discussion of ideas. On the other hand, publishers, like the Wall Street Journal, are not immune. If the WSJ allows articles to appear on its platform that breaks the law, they are liable regardless if they were the original source of the article.
Originally, Google was not being treated as a publisher, but by choosing to censor, that's exactly what they're doing–acting like a publisher. It should also be mentioned that Google is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice for Antitrust for these very issues. Perhaps this inquiry highlights how Google has moved away from doing what is good for the user to doing what is good for Google. As is well-known at this point, “Don't Be Evil” is no longer part of Google's philosophy.
Why are health and alternative health websites being affected?
Dietary supplements are inherently treated with skepticism. As Joe Cohen of Selfhacked.com points out in his post “Google is Taking Censorship of Health Websites to the Next Level”, many articles on the websites dominating the search results for these health-related terms are not nearly as informative or valuable as Examine, SelfHacked, or some of the other websites that have been negatively affected (especially when considering the available research). Additionally, websites like Examine, SelfHacked, and Nootropedia substantiate the information provided with pinpoint citations to medical and scientific journals; whereas many of the mega brands simply provide general references.
Why doesn’t it add up?
Sites that have always had a presence are now buried in the last ten pages of Google. As we are constantly improving and updating our methods and content at Nootropedia, we first turned inwardly to determine what could be causing this phenomenon. The days turned into weeks, and we watched the numbers fall further and further. Disheartened though we are for ourselves, we are also baffled for the websites which are more technical and have larger teams that have also fallen so far from Google’s grace.
Nootropedia was created to be a more digestible alternative to technical websites, like Examine.com, which are fantastic resources but can sometimes overwhelm the average user. Although we put many hours of quality research into each article we write, we can't come close to producing the level of content that Examine or SelfHacked does with our tiny staff. Our goal is to have quality, objective information which the average person will both understand and appreciate.
Historically, Google has claimed that if you make great content, the audience will be directed to you. Now, regardless of the quality of the content, Google is unduly disregarding the websites in this niche and has shifted away from quality content (as seen by the traffic loss to Examine.com, whom we consider to be the premier source of quality content in the health niche).
As we have all been told before, any Search Engine Optimization expert (SEO) who reviews these health sites will say it has to do with Expertise, Authority, and Trust (E-A-T). However, it seems that the only websites Google chooses to promote since the June 3 and July 12 updates are the mega-brand websites (VeryWellHealth, WebMD, MayoClinic, Healthline). This phenomenon does not explain how SEOs can point to sites like SelfHacked & Examine and say that their extensive teams don't have the appropriate level of Expertise, Authority, or Trust to show up in Google’s searches–as it had before the updates. Likewise, as Sol Orwell (founder of Examine.com) points out in a recent Reddit post, according to most metrics that SEOs use, Examine.com has plenty of Authority (with numerous references from mainstream media outlets).
It is our belief that the websites which didn't see a decline in traffic are not being affected by Google's algorithm, and they have been “whitelisted.” It appears that the updates are very PANDA-like in nature and are being triggered at discrete times (June 3rd and July 12th) as opposed to being part of the on-going algorithm. Looking at data with respect to search engine visibility supports this proposition.
We hypothesize that the anomalous websites that are outranking other sources (see SelfHacked's post for examples of these) will be hit when Google triggers their censorship-filter again, as it takes time for Google to have enough data points to flag such websites algorithmically. Additional examples of websites ranking for health-related terms are Amazon product pages, which may contain egregiously incorrect information, but these pages appear to rank highly due to Amazon's Authority. The question we've asked ourselves is, “How can Google determine that such pages are appropriate from an Expertise, Authority, and Trust perspective when the page can come from literally any merchant?”
What can we do?
Like many of the websites which have taken the brunt of Google’s banishment, the team at Nootropedia is sure that we all share the same sentiment that we have created our websites and carefully chosen our content and its creators out of a genuine, honest desire to provide a reference for the public. To encourage people to think for themselves and make informed choices when it comes to their health and wellness and provide examples of alternatives which can make a difference.
With Google controlling the reins, the information and communities that we have built are at risk of being hushed into submission.
So, what's the answer? Unfortunately, there isn't one, but this very issue is why Google is involved in Senate hearings over this matter. Perhaps it's worth talking to your elected representatives, or perhaps it's time to start using another search engine service (like DuckDuckGo, or Bing).