Google’s YMYL Algorithm Update And What It Means For You21 min read

by Oct 3, 2019SEO


In 2018, Google implemented a series of large-scale updates to their search algorithm. These “general ranking updates” had a profound impact on where some sites appeared in the search results. Sites or pages that dealt heavily with medical, financial, or current events were suddenly ranking much lower than they had been before the update. Google has a special classification for sites that “could potentially impact a person’s future happiness, health, financial stability, or safety.” They are referred to as “Your Money or Your Life” (YMYL) pages, and these pages appear to have been the focus of last year’s “content relevance” updates.

So what does this mean for you? How do you know if you’ve got a YMYL page and what kind of special SEO rules apply? In order to fully understand the implications of YMYL, we need to first step back and revisit Google’s mission and the ambiguous nature of SEO.

Google’s Mission, SEO, And You

Google is the internet’s most popular search engine. Over 75% of all searches are conducted on Google and it processes an average of 3.5 billion search queries per day. Every time a user types a query into Google’s search bar, a powerful algorithm sorts through Google’s massive index for the most relevant results. Making your site search engine friendly (Search Engine Optimization) is one of the core aspects of digital marketing. After all, if your site isn’t in the search results, your audience won’t find your company, products, or services.

Understanding Google’s mission is critical to understanding the algorithm and SEO strategy in general. In their own words, Google’s mission is to “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” This mission guides everything about Google’s search engine—from the bots (the “spiders”) responsible for indexing millions of sites to the actual people Google employs to test algorithm changes.

One of the tricky things about SEO is that nobody (except Google) really knows how the algorithm works. SEO best practices are based on trial, error, and the most educated guesses from industry professionals. Changes like the YMYL updates tend to throw everyone for a loop. It’s hard to know how to play the game if the rules keep changing. Thankfully, Google’s mission gives us a guide on how to weather algorithm updates.

The YMYL Update

After the 2018 YMYL update, some sites experienced a significant drop in the search results. So much so, that this update was nicknamed the “Medic” because of its impact on health and nutrition sites.

According to Google, there are different levels of YMYL. Some general topics include:

  • Civics: government, law, information on citizenry, voting, government agencies, social services, and legal issues.
  • Finance: investments, taxes, retirement, loans, banking, and insurance.
  • News and Current Events (although topics like sports, entertainment, and everyday lifestyle topics are not considered YMYL).
  • Shopping: any site that allows the online purchase of goods or services.
  • Other: fitness, nutrition, medical information, housing, college, finding a job, etc.

Let’s return to the bigger picture.

Google’s John Mueller confirmed that this was a general ranking update and that Google was not specifically targeting a particular type of site. However, this was the third update in 2018 that focused specifically on content relevance. Remember Google’s mission? Relevance is at the heart of making the world’s information accessible and useful. With the 2018 updates focused on content relevance, we can assume that Google was taking a closer look at YMYL pages and assessing how reliable and relevant they actually were.

The QRG and E-A-T Standard: More Acronyms For Your Arsenal

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So, how does Google define what counts as relevant content? Don’t worry, there’s an acronym for that, too.

The Quality Raters’ Guide (QRG)

Before Google rolls out an algorithm update, they test the changes with a small group of real users first. These “Quality Raters” compare the new search results with the ones curated by the current version of the algorithm. The users rate the results, and this helps Google decide if the adjustments actually accomplished what they wanted.

The standard for rating content is described in Google’s Quality Raters’ Guide. Google’s VP of Search, Ben Gomes stated that this document represents what the algorithm should do, and that engineers at Google strive to make that happen. This doesn’t always happen, but that’s always the goal.

Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T)

There are three specific factors that Google uses to define overall page quality: expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. They are defined in section 3.2 of the QRG. High-quality pages are those that “exist for almost any beneficial purpose, from giving information to making people laugh to expressing oneself artistically to purchasing products or services online.” These pages have the following characteristics:

  • Informative main content that includes a descriptive or helpful title. Main content also includes page features and overall functionality.
  • Information about the company or organization. This includes auxiliary pages like “about us”, “contact us”, and customer service pages.
  • A positive website reputation. A page with no reputation can still merit the “high” rating, but a page with “convincing” negative reputation cannot be defined as high quality.
  • The right level of expertise to be authoritative and trustworthy on the topic. The standard of expertise varies per page, but is higher for YMYL pages and sites.

In a nutshell, any page with poor levels of E-A-T has the potential to negatively impact users. For example, a how-to home repair guide that incorrectly instructs users on rewiring a power outlet could be downright dangerous. Google works hard to ensure that every single search yields relevant and useful results.

The Key To Every Great Website

So, what’s really at the core of these algorithm updates and standards like YMYL and E-A-T?

Content. More specifically, quality content.

The YMYL updates, E-A-T, and the Quality Raters’ Guide are all pieces of Google’s mission to organize the world’s information and make it useful and accessible. In fact, Google has told us repeatedly that the way to improve your ranking on the results page is to have content that’s helpful, informative, and easy to interact with.

In response to concerns about the August 2018 algorithm update, Danny Sullivan, Google’s public search liaison Tweeted:

YMYL Recovery

For some organizations, the drop in traffic after August 1, 2018 was a signal to reevaluate their content. Those that took the warning seriously were rewarded with an increase in traffic. Here’s how some business owners improved their rankings after reading the QRG:

  • Adding content to the homepage that explained who they were, what users would gain by visiting their site, and why the authors of the site were experts.
  • Adding supplementary information to the “about” page.
  • Clearly stating information on terms, conditions, payments, exchanges, and returns.
  • Improving product pages to make descriptions unique and meaningful.
  • Adding appropriate references and keeping content up-to-date. This was especially beneficial for medical and scientific sites since Google requires these to have a higher degree of expertise.

September 2019 Algorithm Update

Google performed another core algorithm update at the beginning of September. Early data suggests that this update was not as big as some of the previous ones. In a post on Google’s Webmaster Central Blog in August, Danny Sullivan advised people not to panic if they noticed a drop or gain in search rankings:

“We confirm broad core updates because they typically produce some widely notable effects. Some sites may note drops or gains during them. We know those with sites that experience drops will be looking for a fix, and we want to ensure they don’t try to fix the wrong things. Moreover, there might not be anything to fix at all.”

That’s good advice. It’s also wise to monitor and analyze your website traffic. If you notice a decrease in traffic after an algorithm update, it may be time to reevaluate your content.

Connect With Your Audience

The goal of any website or page should be to connect with your users in a meaningful way. Whether that’s writing a DIY crafting blog or running a business, as long as you’re creating content around your user, you’re less likely to be drastically impacted by a new algorithm update. At DVS, we specialize in creating meaningful websites that connect you to your audience. From SEO strategy, to original content publishing, to intuitive design, we can help you navigate the latest changes and ensure your site weathers any of Google’s future algorithm updates. Give us a call or stop by. We’d love to talk!


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