Has Google finally adjusted its algorithm to deprioritize quack content? Dr. Mercola thinks so.

Over the last few days, I’ve sensed a disturbance in the quackosphere. That disturbance involves Google and a great deal of concern about that be-all and end-all of quack websites, Google rankings. I’ve said many times before that, when it comes to people like Mike Adams, Joe Mercola, Kelly Brogan, and various other purveyors of the “holistic lifestyle,” alternative medicine, and hostility towards conventional medicine, it might not start out as grift (although in Mike Adams’ case, it did), but inevitably it becomes all about the grift. And how do these sellers of the quack lifestyle make their money? They sell things: supplements, books, videos, and the like, as well as advertising by other quacks. Their key tool for making their money is, of course, their websites, many of which have for a long time ranked very high on Google searches. Over time, they learned, often skillfully, to use social media, especially YouTube and Facebook, to promote their brand and wares. YouTube and Facebook were particularly valuable because they allowed quacks to host their videos free of bandwith charges. Not only that, but they provided means of monetization of those videos, while Facebook allowed the formation of public pages that could become quite popular and provided further means for quacks to promote their brand.

Of course, we are now in the midst of the largest measles outbreak in a generation, an outbreak largely fueled by vaccine hesitancy, in turn fueled by antivaccine propaganda. This outbreak also capped off a period of time around the 2016 election, when society started really feeling the effects of fake news spread virally through social media and noticing the toxic effect of trolls and an online culture of harassment. Antivaccine conspiracy theories were only part of the misinformation and fake news that were having an effect. In any event, social media platforms have been under enormous pressure to clean up their acts and take action to develop tools to halt online harassment and to blunt the spread of fake news and, with the current measles outbreak, especially fake news of the antivaccine variety. Indeed, I’ve mentioned some of these measures, such as when Facebook banned Mike Adams from its platforms a week and a half ago and when Amazon, Facebook, and other social media platforms were trying to crack down on antivaccine misinformation by demonetizing their content by not letting them run ads during their videos and deprioritizing it in their internal search engines, as YouTube promised to do for antivaccine misinformation and removing antivaccine movies from Amazon Prime.

Of course, quacks did not like this because these measures were a knife to the heart of their income stream. For instance, when Google briefly delisted Mike Adams in 2017 for what were probably SEO shenanigans that were against Google policy, he lost his ever-lovin’ mind (as he usually does when something doesn’t go his way) spinning conspiracy theories. So it was with interest that I saw this Facebook post by “holistic” psychiatry quack and antivaxer Kelly Brogan:

Brogan, you might recall, gained some notoriety when she was featured at one of Goop’s wellness summits, particularly because of her promotion of antivaccine nonsense. My first reaction to her graph was: WTF? Look at all that traffic! And look at that traffic plunge. I noticed a commenter named Joanna Sochan chiming in:

This happened to my website as well, from 50K+ views per month to barely registering in search results. I’m a Naturopath in Australia and a great fan of yours:)

Her website looks like a typical naturopathic quack website, with the same fake diagnoses like adrenal fatigue and parasitosis. Brogan also noted:

Aha! So Joe Mercola is complaining too because his website’s traffic has plummeted 99%:

Google traffic to Mercola.com has plummeted by about 99% over the past few weeks. The reason? Google’s June 2019 broad core update, which took effect June 3,1 removed most Mercola.com pages from its search results. As reported by Telaposts.com:2
“The June 2019 Google Broad Core Algorithm Update impacted the rankings of websites in Google’s Search Engine Results Pages. Several aspects of the algorithm were changed which caused some sites to gain visibility and others to lose visibility. Generally speaking, sites negatively impacted will see a drop in rankings for many or all of important keywords or key phrases which they used to rank well for … The June 2019 Google Broad Core Algorithm Update impacted sites across the web, however, I am personally seeing the most impact on News and Health sites.”

Mercola continued his complaint:

Now, any time you enter a health-related search word into Google, such as “heart disease” or “Type 2 diabetes,” you will not find Mercola.com articles in the search results. The only way to locate any of my articles at this point is by searching for “Mercola.com heart disease,” or “Mercola.com Type 2 diabetes.” Even skipping the “.com” will minimize your search results, and oftentimes the only pages you’ll get are blogs, not my full peer-reviewed articles. Negative press by skeptics has also been upgraded, which means if you simply type in my name none of my articles will come but what you will find are a deluge of negative articles voicing critiques against me in your searches. Try entering my name in Yahoo or Bing and you will see completely different results.

Of course, it was a travesty, a major flaw in the Google algorithm, that allowed content from quack sites like Mercola.com to show up high in its search results. On the other hand, being the skeptic that I am, I wasn’t just going to take Joe Mercola’s word for it that this is what had happened. So I did some searches of his name on Google, Yahoo!, and Bing. On Google, Mercola’s website came up #1 on the search, with his Twitter feed second, a page on his website touting his qualifications third, and his Wikipedia entry fourth. Then the rest of the results on the first page were mostly, but not all, all links to material critical of his quackery, including two Science-Based Medicine posts, his Quackwatch and RationalWiki entries, and a news story about him from a few years ago delving into his business. The Yahoo! search results were similar, but with somewhat more results from his sites arranged in a different order and only one of the two SBM articles. Bing also had that SBM article on its first page of search results, but appeared to have a lot more material from websites owned by Mercola.

So, yes, Google made a significant tweak to its algorithm, that it rolled out in early June. Now, here’s where it gets interesting. This is Mercola’s take:

As explained by Telapost,3 a core update “is when Google makes several changes to their main (core) algorithm.” In the past, Google search results were based on crowdsource relevance. An article would ascend in rank based on the number of people who clicked on it. Traditionally, if you produced unique and high-quality content that matched what people were looking for, you were rewarded by ranking in the top of search results. You would find Mercola.com near the top of nearly any health search results. So, let’s say one of my articles on diabetes was seventh on the page for your search; if more people clicked on that link than, say, an article listed in third or fifth place, my article would move up in rank. In a nutshell, Google search results were, at least in part, based on popularity. That’s no longer the case. Instead, Google is now manually lowering the ranking of undesirable content, largely based on Wikipedia’s assessment of the author or site. Wikipedia’s founder and anonymous editors are well-known to have extreme bias against natural health content and authors. Google also contributes heavily to funding Wikipedia, and Wikipedia is near the top of nearly all searches — despite the anonymous aspect of contributors. Who better to trust than a bunch of unknown, unqualified contributors?

Of course, again, this was one of the aspects of Google’s search algorithm that was always troublesome, because “popular” does not necessarily mean high quality. The fact that Mercola.com articles routinely showed up high on Google search results was evidence of that. Of course, popularity wasn’t everything. Google hires quality raters to evaluate the quality of websites, and apparently it issued an update to its quality raters’ guidelines in May:

Google hires “quality raters”, people who visit websites and evaluate their quality. Their feedback doesn’t directly impact your site; it goes to engineers who update the Google algorithm in an effort to display great websites to their users. The guidelines give us great insight as to what Google considers a quality web page. Now here, Telapost compares 2018 reviewer guidelines to 2019 reviewer guidlines:

Google uses two acronyms to describe what it’s looking for in terms of quality webpages: measurements, E-A-T and YMYL. E-A-T means “Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness.” High-quality pages have a high level of E-A-T while low-quality pages don’t. Of course, how does Google measure E-A-T? There are a number of metrics, but one metric is important:

In order to be deemed high-quality, Google states that “websites need enough expertise to be authoritative and trustworthy on their topic.” It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that what comprises “Expert” content can vary depending upon a page’s type and purpose. For example, while high-level medical advice needs to be written by an accredited doctor in order to be considered “Expert” content, general information supplied on medical support forums can be considered “Expert” even if it’s been written by a layperson. Some topics inherently require less formal levels of expertise and, for these pages, Google is predominantly looking at how helpful, detailed, and useful the information provided is.

Of course, Mercola is a DO; so as a doctor he was considered an expert on medical topics by Google. There’s another aspect to Google rankings known aas YMYL, which stands for “Your Money or Your Life.” Basically, YMYL is a quality rating for websites that ask for your money or your life; i.e., usually financial transactions or medical advice:

YMYL stands for “Your Money or Your Life” pages and are comprised of pages that are important enough that, were they low-quality, they could have a potential negative impact on a person’s life, income, or happiness. As a general rule, the pages that Google requires to be written by experts are known as YMYL pages. Google thinks of the following categories as examples of YMYL pages:
  • Shopping or financial transaction pages
  • Pages that offer financial information, for example, investment or tax information
  • Pages that offer medical information about specific diseases or conditions or mental health
  • Pages that offer legal information about topics like child support, divorce, creating a will, becoming a citizen, etc.
  • Any page that has the potential to be dangerous or detrimental if it possessed low levels of E-A-T (car repair and maintenance, for example)
When it comes to these pages, Google has incredibly high page quality rating standards. This is Google’s effort to protect Google users from low-quality complex content that doesn’t possess the needed levels of E-A-T.

Basically, for pages that aren’t YMYL, Google doesn’t consider expertise as critical as it does for pages that are YMYL. Google’s own guidelines take this into account, although I truly cringed when I saw this section in the Google FAQ regarding its page quality rating FAQs. You’ll see why in a minute. But first, I note that Mercola quotes this rather deceptively, mixing up commentary by Jennifer Slegg on TheSEMPost with actual excerpts from the Google FAQs. Here’s how Mercola does it:

There has been a lot of talk about author expertise when it comes to the quality rater guidelines … This section has been changed substantially … [I]f the purpose of the page is harmful, then expertise doesn’t matter. It should be rated Lowest!”

And here’s how it actually read, first the part by Jennifer Slegg:

There has been a lot of talk about author expertise when it comes to the quality rater guidelines, particularly with how site owners and authors can showcase their expertise. This section has been changed substantially to address this a bit more from Google’s perspective. Previously, it was implied that all content creators should have expertise. But they have lessened this slightly, for topics that don’t fall into YMYL pages.

And here’s the section from Google’s FAQ:

Pretty much any topic has some form of expert, but E­A­T is especially important for YMYL pages. For most page purposes and topics, you can find experts even when the field itself is niche or non­-mainstream. For example, there are expert alternative medicine websites with leading practitioners of acupuncture, herbal therapies, etc. There are also pages about alternative medicine written by people with no expertise or experience. E­A­T should distinguish between these two scenarios. One final note: if the purpose of the page is harmful, then expertise doesn’t matter. It should be rated Lowest!

Notice how Mercola used ellipses to stitch together Slegg’s commentary with the last sentence of the above answer to a question on Google’s FAQ. Of course, the example that Google uses in its FAQ is indeed cringeworthy, because experts in alternative medicine are quacks, and allowing quackery to rank on YMYL sites goes against Google’s own policy because by definition quackery has low E-A-T and is by definition harmful. Of course, what probably torpedoed Mercola’s and Brogan’s sites according to Google is that last section about how harmful content should always be ranked Lowest. As Slegg notes, that part was not text that had been added or changed in the May update, but Mercola deceptively stitched together bits of text to make it seem as though it was part of that update. What might be different is that Google is now actually enforcing that guideline for antivaccine content, likely goaded by the light the current measles outbreak is shining on social media and search engines.

Joe Mercola, of course, views this as a huge conspiracy on Google’s part. He spends a fair amount of verbiage bragging about how his content used to show up near the top of Google search results, his expertise as a physician, how he even created a peer review panel of medical and scientific experts that review, edit and approve most of his articles before they’re published, and how his articles are “fully referenced, most containing dozens of references to studies published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.” He then laments that “none of this now matters, as the very fact that the information I present typically contradicts industry propaganda places me in the lowest possible rating category.” No, Dr. Mercola, your information glorifies quackery, such as the time when you promoted cancer quack Tullio Simoncini, who thinks that all cancer is a fungus and that baking soda is the cure. I kid you not. Mercola’s been promoting quackery for 22 years now. His content has always been low quality, quackery disguised as real medical advice.

There’s also another reason why Mercola.com results were deprioritized. It came in the form of Tweets from Google:

Basically, as is explained on Search Engine Roundtable, Google is also instituting a change that will restrict search results to only two listings from the same domain for most searches. The intent behind the change is to show more diverse results from different domain names and that Google will generally treat sub-domains as part of the main domain. This change, too, could easily have affected various quack websites. Indeed, Telapost listed Mercola.com as one of the biggest losers after the early June algorithm update, along with DrAxe.com, which no longer ranks highly for searches for “keto diet.” (Interestingly, the Daily Mail was also a big loser.)

In much of the rest of his article, Mercola then tries to channel Mike Adams and go full conspiracy nut. If you need tinfoil, you’d best buy it now, because Mercola’s trying to corner the market on tinfoil hats:

Here’s just a taste:

My information was frequently at the top of many health searches, because many people like you found it to be the most valuable. But as Google’s power grew to enormous proportions, the goal of providing this service to you changed. The goal now is to become even more powerful by uniting with other powerful industries and government to force their beliefs on the masses and manipulate the future itself. Crowd sourcing has become crowd control. Google began by giving you everything you want so it can now take everything you have. Google has changed from looking at users as customers and giving them what they want, to making users custodians of their will — essentially making you a host of a virus to carry out their agenda. Google has become the ultimate puppet master, infecting people and manipulating them without even knowing it. Their true goal is to be in complete control of all of us, directing our behavior — and should we rebel, they also have partnered with the military to create drones utilizing artificial intelligence to ensure resistance will be defeated. This is eerily reminiscent of many science fiction books and productions, but we have proof of what Google is doing — and we cannot go along with it. Google refers to the goal of controlling humanity as “The Selfish Ledger,” described in the video below.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure if Mercola had hired Mike Adams to write this for him here…and here:

After all, if you want to find an answer on the web what do you do? You Google it, you don’t just “search.” Google worked for many years to earn your trust, but it was just setting a trap to twist that trust into powerful control. Unfortunately, even if such an idea were to gain traction (which it has not), it still wouldn’t solve the problem, as Google is not acting independently, but rather is merely fulfilling a role within a much larger complex that includes the U.S. government, its military and national security apparatus, as well as several of the wealthiest and most powerful industries on the planet. I’ll delve into these issues in part 2 tomorrow. All of these “partners” have a vested interest in censoring information addressed by yours truly on a daily basis; information relating to nondrug options for the prevention and treatment of disease and/or warnings about dangerous treatments, drugs and vaccines, for example, or the benefits of regenerative agriculture over conventional farming and fake meat, or the hazards of toxic chemicals found in everyday products and food.

And then Mercola wrote part 2 of his rant against Google. Naturally, he’s incensed that Google quality reviewers are instructed to use Wikipedia to evaluate expertise and trustworthiness of sources. Amusingly, he cites RationalWiki along with Wikipedia. Never mind that nothing in the Google guidelines instructs its reviewers to use RationalWiki, which has nothing to do with Wikipedia. The rest of the article is basically one long anti-Wikipedia rant. Of course, I’ve had issues with Wikipedia, but Mercola’s anti-Wikipedia rant is just beyond the pale. I’ve also had my issues with Google, but in this case I’m glad Google is finally trying to deprioritize antivaccine and quack information.

I’d like to end here, as I began, by reminding my readers that it’s all about the grift. Mercola is upset because he’s spent 22 years building an “alternative health” empire that’s raked in a whole lot of money based on his ability to sell his wares online, an ability that has depended on his ability to build and maintain a highly trafficked website. The same can be said about basically every famous quack out there. Since Google is by far the number one search engine, every website lives and dies by its Google ranking. Anything that threatens that is a threat to his grift. Remember that. It’ s why he’s so upset.