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Quit Freaking Out About Metadata: What REALLY Matters in Pharma SEO

Nathan Stewart

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A lot of people still think of search engine optimization (SEO) as behind-the-scenes magic website developers do. Here, I want to talk about how outdated that idea is, why it’s changed, whether you can still do anything to improve your search rankings, and what you really need to be worrying about.

Why is it outdated to think about SEO as “an IT thing”?

Google, as you probably know, owns about two-third of the world’s search traffic. So when they change the algorithm they use to process queries and return answers, the Internet as a whole changes in response. That’s pretty powerful. And particularly over the last few years, that algorithm has changed in a big way.

You may have heard of Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird — nicknames for big Google algorithm changes, which were released in 2011, 2012 and 2013. These updates are creating a trend line, signaling the direction in which Google is taking search. The advancements are aimed toward making search function more like a human — understanding the context in which words are used and the vernacular used to ask them to grasp the true intent of the search.

What this means for a person using Google: You don’t have to think like a machine anymore, using pluses and minuses, Boolean strings, and quotation marks. You can type in “when is the playoff game?” and Google can figure out — based on the day, your location, and your history — which news to deliver.

What this means for a person who wants their content to show up in a search: Traditional SEO tools no longer make much difference — optimizing for keyword density, for instance, or filling in metadata (e.g., links, tags, descriptions, titles, etc.). What matters most is the published content on the page.

When algorithms were less advanced, you could use tricks of the trade to manipulate (so-called “black hat SEO”) or befriend (“white hat SEO”) the algorithms to your advantage. That work behind the published content doesn’t have as much of an effect anymore. It’s an arms race. As a search engine improves, algorithms deprioritize the information its developers realize can be manipulated.

Does this mean that SEO professionals are becoming dinosaurs?

Far from it. There is a powerful need for people who can build websites, who can code, and who understand how search algorithms work. It’s just that their skill sets must evolve. The traditional divide between developer and writer must disappear. Your website’s performance depends on its content. It’s not a challenge you can win by tricking Google with metadata. Today, search ranking is about two very simple things: relevancy and trustworthiness.

The benefit to this change is obvious. If you publish informative, helpful, worthwhile content, your ranking will benefit, and those who try to cheat the system will be discovered and their search rankings will suffer. It sounds just and wonderful, and indeed, it will be increasingly so. But it introduces two new challenges.

Challenge #1: Functional turf wars. Who’s the SME in charge of the website? Is it the web/SEO team? Or is it the content marketing team? We’ve all become accustomed to certain divisions of labor, but in order to get the best results, we’re going to have to change our thinking. The boundaries we had are no longer meaningful. This can mean tough conversations within organizations and between agencies.

Challenge #2: The regulatory implications of vernacular. Search engines reward websites that write in words users understand. But anyone who develops content (or has even just read a PI) for a pharmaceutical brand knows that’s not always the way we’re allowed to write.  

Both with project responsibilities and with the content we’re writing, there’s a balance to strike between precision and clarity. Trying to be precise sounds like an excellent goal, but precision doesn’t always add clarity. Consider our tax structure. The laws and rules are so minutely precise that we have to pay professionals to translate it for us.

What are the answers?

Here’s where I should give you a foolproof five-minute fix for getting developers and marketers to play nice and maybe another one to ensure your content gets a thumbs-up from everyone — Google, your audience, your legal/medical/regulatory team, the FDA.

Spoiler: I don’t have those quick fixes.

What I do have is a conviction that these are important issues, and talking about them is important for our brands and our industry. We need to work together on them — not in internal siloes of code versus content, and not even brand by brand. We must bring web and content experts together so our ever-evolving Internet can become more helpful than ever to the people who need it.

I’m in. Are you?

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