This summer Google started rolling out its new way of thinking. It hit some online businesses hard while others will not have noticed a thing … for now.
The industry Google was taking to task was pharmaceuticals and medication in general. Where Google had once in the past seen links from quality sites to yours as a reason why you should rank highly in the search results it now wants to see extra authority.
It wants to know that websites which talk about ailments and cures or sell medicines are run by, or overseen by, someone qualified. This could be a member of a certain organisation or a verifiable qualified doctor.
Time to get rid of the woo?
On the surface this seems sensible. The internet certainly has been a channel by which the modern day equivalent of snake oil salesmen who once roamed the wild west of America peddling nothing special and promising everything could once again rise up and make contact with large markets.
Such woo doesn’t even have to be a medication. Up for sale are lifestyle courses, how to books, webinars and much more.
So what respectable search engine would want to be ranking hocus pocus on its first page of results when someone was searching for information on an ailment and its treatment? Not Google.
So what’s the problem?
It comes in two parts. First the idea that everything not part of mainstream medication is woo and second, is this a sign of things to come in other fields.
I’ll start with the first point as alternative/complementary/natural medicine is a side interest of mine.
Firstly such a field exists because some parts of it do actually work and I mean this in the most basic way. A colleague of mine recently went to the doctor because he had sore gums. The doctor recommend he eat four oranges a day because what he actually had was scurvy caused by a lack of vitamin C.
Another doctor may have prescribed a synthetic medication but few would dispute the best way to get vitamin C is to eat foods that contain it rather than tablets that have it along with who knows what else.
Now we can go the next step out. I have seen extraordinary results in arthritis and hayfever sufferers when they drink good quality aloe vera juice (and believe me there is a lot of bad quality aloe vera juice out there).
But it is not an official medication for those two ailments so any website that is talking about what aloe vera can do for them has probably taken a big hit in the last few weeks.
The flawed system
Well why not, you might think, just get the clinical trials done on something like Aloe Vera, get it into the mainstream field of medication and on we go.
A self-made hurdles exists. You can’t patent a natural product so there is no motivation for anyone to invest the funds needed in medical trials. This only works when you have isolated the ‘active ingredient’ and can then put it in a tablet or such like … and that ‘active ingredient’ has been pretty illusive. And among natural remedies Aloe Vera is not alone in this regard.
Oranges never went through clinical trials which proved they were effective in scurvy treatment, it was just discovered by accident in the early days of long sea voyages. But oranges are still not an official treatment for scurvy because you can’t patent oranges.
The idea of patents was to protect the massive investments pharmaceuticals make in research but the unplanned side effect is that it actually pushes the entire treatment of ailments towards synthetic medication even when totally natural (and sometimes more effective) remedies might actually exist.
The idea of medical trials and proven results was well intentioned. To get rid of the snake oil salesmen. But if the system is fundamentally flawed people are going to start noticing and what some started noticing was that ‘proven’ medications could cause side effects or other negative consequences or in some cases they were just incredibly ineffective.
The digital doorway for Snake Oil
At the same time a constant stream of stories about natural remedies were causing a growing number of people to question the whole system … did the qualified doctor actually know best? It also provided concrete ammunition for those who wanted to stir the ‘evil big pharmas’ pot.
As the market for alternatives grew it was only a matter of time before the peddlers of snake oil caught on. If people were buying remedies that had not gone through clinical trials then they could come up with their own self-invented products for ailments. It was the wild west all over again, but this time online.
Xango was an excellent example of this but because it really didn’t work and/or its inventors could not persuade enough people to believe that it did the company and its products collapsed … but it took more than a decade to unravel thanks to the fever its creators put behind the ‘miracle cure’.
While in the past snake oil salesmen moved on to the next town peddlers or woo usually just move onto the next product and the internet is ideal for this. People are, after all, always looking for a cure and traditional medication does not always provide.
Have you reviewed your doctor?
Against this messy backdrop the internet has also bought us another headache – doctors running scared of reviews.
It is thought that the opioid crises sweeping the United States is at least in part because doctors are prescribing medications which are far too strong for the ailment they are treating. Why? Because we live in a ‘right now’ society and doctors that give ‘right now’ cures get better reviews … and that’s good for business.
So where does this all leave us?
Well we have a system that is meant to protect is from snake oil but is fundamentally flawed. Your doctor really doesn’t always know best.
At the same time we have a world wide web awash with snake oil and woo, much of which is truly health endangering.
Somewhere in between there is a huge wealth of genuinely useful information on natural remedies that really do help certain ailments.
In trying to wash the woo out of the search results Google has sided with the well intentioned but obviously faulty system that makes up our ‘official’ way to medicate.
It has used a sledgehammer to crack a walnut and added petrol to the fire of ‘evil big pharmas who control too much’ conspiracies .
If your rankings did not suffer, why should you care?
Theoretically if Google has made its search results worse then surely people are going to go elsewhere. That should be the law of the jungle but Google is such a heavy weight in search that many people assume what they see ranking are the best websites … so why look elsewhere?
It will take a lot of similar bad moves and a viable competitor before Google really starts to lose out.
But now lets come to you. Google made its name by working out that the best websites were those that had links to them from other high quality websites.
Getting those links has been the blood, sweat and tears of many a SEO professional for more than the last decade. Good links meant a website could be trusted.
The big question now is how far Google changes the way it measures trust in fields beyond medication. As a plumber will you only rank if you belong to a specific trade organisation. As a restaurant owner will you only be seen in organic search if you have a certain number of positive reviews on a selected reviews website?
My concern is that if Google has got trust for medical related websites wrong it may also make errors when trying to ‘clean up’ other areas in its search results.
The internet was supposed to help us open our minds. Google has started to shut it down without really considering if such a move is for better or for worse.
I hope Google will come to review this summers changes and realise there is not one ‘official’ side to every industry before it makes this approach the norm. Time will tell.