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Changes in SEO User Behavior – Ryan Purtill // Healthline

Episode Overview: The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed user search behavior, placing an increased focus on search for healthcare, health treatments and advice to living with coronavirus. Join host Ben as he speaks with Healthline Media’s VP of SEO Ryan Purtill about how user search behavior has changed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and where it’s trending toward in the future.

Summary

  • Before coronavirus, search volumes peaked on Monday and Tuesday, increasingly sloping downward from Monday to Sunday. After the onset of coronavirus, search volume significantly increased on average from Monday through Sunday, steadily increasing throughout the week.
  • Understandably, COVID related queries are prevalent throughout the pandemic. In contrast evergreen content-related queries consistently saw high traffic, whereas seasonal content saw significant drops in traffic.
  • The average COVID-19 query began with “What is the condition?” At the onset of the pandemic, and as the world settled into the new normal queries turned into “What is it like living with the condition?”
  • As the world adjusts to the “New normal,” coexisting with the virus in society, search volumes are returning to pre-COVID levels. Mondays and Tuesdays experience the most amount of search queries and Fridays and weekends see the lowest amount of search queries conducted.

GUESTS & RESOURCES

Ben:                  Welcome to the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host, Benjamin Shapiro, and today we’re going to discuss how search behaviors are changing in the wake of the coronavirus. Joining us is Ryan Purtill, who is the vice president of SEO at Healthline Media, which is now the largest and fastest growing consumer health publisher in the world. Healthline includes domains such as healthline.com, Medical News Today, greatest.com, and they reach over 300 million people a month. And today, Ryan and I are going to talk about what he has seen related to the changes in user behavior in the wake of the coronavirus. Okay. Here is my conversation with Ryan Purtill, VP of SEO at Healthline Media.

Ben:                 All right, Ryan, welcome to the Voices of Search podcast.

Ryan:              Thanks so much for having me back, Ben, I’m feeling famous here.

Ben:                 Hey, always great to have you. One of my favorite guests on the show. I’m really excited to talk to you because you have some unique perspectives. I was looking through your LinkedIn profile. You just did a webinar talking about today’s topic changes in user behavior in the wake of the coronavirus. Just for anybody that hasn’t heard of you, or hasn’t heard you on the podcast, remind us all of what you do. Give us a little context and tell me what you’re seeing now that we’re living in a post-corona world.

Ryan:             Yeah, sure. So I’m the VP of SEO at Healthline Media. So we have three pretty big properties, healthline.com, Medical News Today, and Greatest. Altogether, will be about 450 million visits this month. So at scale, I get to see how health is moving and changing all the time and we’re able to set up some pretty consistent models to understand what might be changing. Well, in the past year, obviously, as this pandemic has hit, you see pretty drastic changes pretty quick. So it’s been a great lens to be able to have. I mean, Healthline’s at the scale where you can really get a pulse of the nation, and partly the world. So it’s been really great to look at all this information, trying to understand what’s happening, from a nerd perspective of looking at data.

Ben:              So Ryan, you’ve got some unique perspective. You get to look at a lot of data. Obviously, health is first and foremost on people’s minds these days. Walk me through some of the high level changes that you’ve seen.

Ryan:             Sure. I think the first one that comes to mind is, we’ve heard this joke of what day is this or every day is Wednesday and it’s the-

Ben:               Shmonderday.

Ryan:            Yeah.

Ben:               I’ve been going with shmonderday.

Ryan:            Shmonderday. And as much as we like to goof around about that, it was really interesting to see, from a data perspective, that it’s coming out as true. So health had a very, at least our sites, had a very predictable trajectory throughout the week, even hourly, on how many people are visiting a site, what parts of the site are they visiting. We saw in March a total disruption of that. So where normal you saw Monday and Tuesday as the highest day of the week and then it kind of slopes down to Saturday and starts coming back up as people get ready for work week, it turned into just a straight diagonal line. Every day there was more and more search than the day before it, as the world really became obsessed with this pandemic and trying to understand their own personal risks and things like that. So that was one of the first ones.

Ben:              So that’s really interesting to me for a couple different reasons. First and foremost, Monday and Tuesday are the days that people are thinking that they’re sick, which means that people are going out more than they should Sunday night, and it’s taking them one or two days to shake off their hangover, is how I’m hearing this. Pretty predictable.

Ryan:           Well, I actually looked over hangover content because we actually have enough content on our site where you can see predictably when it’s New Year’s day or when it’s the day after Cinco de Mayo or St. Patrick’s day, we see spikes in hangover content. And I kind of started thinking, well, with everyone quarantined for a long time, is our hangover content aggressively up? And it’s not.

Ben:             Because people are constantly drinking. They don’t stop.

Ryan:          That’s what my friend said. My friend said, there’s two reasons. One, no one’s got to show up to work so they can be in a lot of trouble. Not everyone, but a lot of people are-

Ben:             Can you filter by parenthood?

Ryan:           Yeah, I don’t have that capability, but we will dive in a little deeper and see how that goes.

Ben:              So it’s interesting to me that Monday and Tuesday, like I said, are the days where people are consuming the most health media, and you’ve seen that sort of, I don’t know if it’s flat line, but essentially things are sort of normalizing from a day parting perspective. And then you also mentioned that you’re seeing sort of a diagonal line, which infers that people are just searching for health-related content more on a consistent basis. So search volumes look like they’re up. Why do you think that is?

Ryan:            Absolutely. I mean, well, I think there’s a couple of different reasons. I think as you’re quarantining from home, you’re certainly going to be in front of devices more, searching more. And then secondly, your news, and then the worldview, has really been so obsessed and so concerned, rightfully so, about COVID-19 that it’s going to drive a lot more searches from people in general. And one interesting thing that we kind of saw, and we were calling it internally the COVID mindset, was, even in places where there was kind of evergreen, very reliable search traffic, conditions like cholesterol, or how to lose weight, things that might have a little seasonality but not much, actually lost a lot of traffic. People were less interested in the things that they traditionally had searched, and all of that, plus more, was focused into COVID related queries. So it really dominated the mindsets of the entire [inaudible] really.

Ben:              That’s interesting. So you’re essentially seeing a shift in how people are consuming evergreen content. And they’re essentially not necessarily just saying, hey, cholesterol and COVID-19, but just replacing that query with a COVID-19 query.

Ryan:           Yeah. And some more. So I wouldn’t say a full replacement. So you see 20 percent drops and shifts in places where you would not normally see that. Now, I will say, that has changed over time. It’s almost like a triage model. In March, everyone’s in triage. What is this condition? How do I protect myself against it? How serious is it? And then over time, those queries have really started to change. And now it’s, can I get COVID twice? What’s the best face mask? It became what is the condition, to living with the condition? And when that started opening up, you started seeing a return to these other evergreen areas that we are normally seeing. So weight loss and cholesterol was dropped in March. You started seeing it all come back as people start remembering, oh yeah. I still care about that. Or if you’re managing a chronic condition, oh, I still need to be able to manage my Type 2 diabetes in the wake of this world. So it was almost moved from a triage model to a sustainability model. And that’s actually when you started seeing the days coming back.

Ben:              Okay. So when you think about the mindset, you mentioned there’s the COVID mindset, put yourself in the shoes of the average consumer. Obviously, people are concerned about their health. For sort of the broad SEO community, how should they interpret some of these changes? How do you think that this impacts their performance and strategies?

Ryan:           Yeah, it’s a great question. And I think the first thing to note is, you can always see changes in the search stream. So if you were ever on a strategy that was just, this is the only way to think about my users and then build it out, you should start playing with that in general. This is a good opportunity to be able to see massive changes and move things along. But in general, your strategy should never be so static that it’s, “Hey, we just set it and forget it,” in the SEO world. I would say, some things to be thinking about is, whether you’re in health or non-health, the living arrangements of the world has changed. People are now spending a lot more time with people that maybe they didn’t spend time with.

Ben:               Like their kids.

Ryan:            Yup. Or much more isolated than they were before. And that is going to change the way users consume information, what they search on, what they buy. So having an acute look into the search stream and trying to understand that, but also having an acute look into what our users care about right now, I think makes a lot of sense to start investing in. And you can think about from channel area too. So that’s something we did a lot of work with, which was, what are the types of things that make sense for news query right now versus a more evergreen query versus what we would call a discover query where it’s like, okay, what people will read in social and see it and go, “Oh yeah, I want to know about that,” but might not search for it? So kind of pulling out your content by platform and how you’re going to reach people in this new world, I think is a smart way to be looking at it.

Ben:             There’s a broader question here that I have for you. You’re seeing changes in the mindset of search users. Have you seen similar changes, I know this isn’t necessarily your area of expertise, but across some of your other properties, are people consuming social media differently than they did pre-coronavirus? Do you have a sense of whether the change is just happening in how people search and use primarily Google, or is it really just all online content consumption?

Ryan:            I think it’s across the board. Now, I don’t work in the trenches of social to really know, but I do know well enough that some of our articles that were really built on the query part of it, of evergreen queries, exploded on social all around COVID. So there is a high demand still for COVID content. Now, personally, I feel like, oh, there might be some fatigue there at this point.

Ben:               Oh my God, I’m so over it.

Ryan:            Yeah. I’m on the same boat. So finding those queries that other users are missing, that you can kind of hit. So there was a great social article that Greatest did on, “Hey, I quarantined with my boyfriend and it was kind of a new relationship. And now I’m in this new place of now I’m living with my boyfriend, which I wouldn’t have been living with if this was a normal circumstance.” And I think it’s because, yeah, does anyone want to read the COVID symptoms thing anymore? No. But people want to know about their new reality; it’s changing each day. So, again, having insight into your user, having insight into the search stream, is what’s going to benefit you here.

Ben:              Overlaid on top of the user behavior changes is some of the changes that Google’s made as well. They obviously did not shy away from making their core algorithm update in the midst of the coronavirus. It seems like Google is getting a better sense of how to connect what people’s queries are to the right piece of the right content. How do you think Google is thinking about changes in user behavior, and have you had any indication that they’re making short term adjustments because of the coronavirus, or do you think that they’re just making long term sweeping changes?

Ryan:            Yeah, it’s a good question. I mean, I think the first thing you can do is look back at an old SERP, and just take coronavirus symptoms, for example, take the … and watch how Google has changed. Not only who ranks, but the actual SERP features of that page.

Ben:               They’ve got a left nav.

Ryan:            They got a left nav, they got a map, they have live statistics. It’s packed. So it was a good new thing for me to think out. Oh, when worldwide events happen like this, Google, because of their mission, I would say probably, are going to take charge of how that information is disseminated. So depending on where you are in the context of health and your kind of topical authority in those areas, you should think about what’s going to be a good play for, just from a competition perspective. So I strongly believe there’ll be a second wave of this virus.

Ben:              Oh, after everybody going out on Memorial day, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s in the next couple of weeks.

Ryan:           Yeah. Splashing around in pools, probably not the best idea. But there’s going to be a whole new set of searches that are coming out, and Google’s going to continue to take more and more real estate for these researches or point them to the CDCs and the WHOs. So I do think Google, because of their mission, is going to take up more and more space in places like this. So you need to think about, “Okay, well, how does that affect your strategy? Where can you actually get information to people? Where can you create better information?” So that’s where we’ve been focused in terms of seeing that. I mean, at one point about 11% of all Healthline’s traffic was COVID related content. And you started seeing that drop towards late March, one because people were searching less on that specific thing, but really because corona was changing the SERPs dramatically. So at one point, we ranked number one for hydroxychloroquine, and then that became … a million other places came in and then Google had to step in and kind of change the SERPs. And you saw a lot of volatility in those particular areas.

Ben:             So in terms of the greater landscape of where we stand and how the coronavirus is changing user behaviors, do you think we’re at the beginning, do you think things are normalizing, are things starting to get back to normal?

Ryan:          Yeah. And I would say they’re coming back to a new normal. There’s fundamental changes to the way people live and the way people interact that will change the search stream from now on. But we are seeing the return of the predictable day-to-day traffic trajectory. So Mondays and Tuesdays are our best days, Friday, Saturdays, our worst. That is coming back. We’re seeing conditioned content, interest in the evergreen content, coming back. People remembering that they have underlying conditions that they were interested in and kind of bringing back.

Ryan:         But there’s new things that will be there forever now. So exercise from home content has skyrocketed. And I think that will continue to do really well. Mental health issues. We think about mental health, and it’s a big foundation for us at Healthline, a big part of our mission, you think about what’s the worst thing you can do to a person? What do they do to people in jail who are the worst of the worst? They put them in solitary confinement. The worst thing that we can do to people is isolate them completely. Well, this is happening at scale across the United States. More and more people are just left alone. There will be substance abuse issues that grow because of this. There will be depression, there will be anxiety. We’re already seeing traffic towards those types of content.

Ben:              Lots of pregnancies, lots of divorce.

Ryan:           Lots of pregnancies, lots of-

Ben:              Hopefully not the same couples.

Ryan:            Yep. We’re seeing all sorts of different searches for “How do I communicate, even with roommates.” “Oh, I got to work next to my roommate now. How do I get better at communicating boundaries and X, Y, and Z?” So I think, we say a return to normal, but there’s a return to a new normal, and those things are going to continue to escalate, but you’ll see return of some of the normal stuff of “How do I lose weight?” Or these more lifestyle-y search queries are going to come back.

Ben:              So Ryan, I’m going to put a pin in it here because I do want to continue the conversation and get your perspective on what’s going to happen as we start to get to this new normal. So let’s land the plane today. That wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Ryan Purtill, vice president of SEO at Healthline Media. We’d love to continue the conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contacting Ryan, you can find the link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can contact him on Twitter. His handle is RyanPurtill2. That’s R-Y-A-N-P-U-R-T-I-L-L, the number two. Or you could visit his company’s website, which is healthline.com. H-E-A-L-T-H-L-I-N-E.com.

Ben:             And just one more link in our show notes. I’d like to tell you about. If you didn’t have a chance to take notes while you were listening to this podcast, head over to voicesofsearch.com, where we have summaries of all of our episodes, contact information for our guests. You could send us your topic suggestions, your SEO questions, or you could apply to be a guest speaker on the Voices of Search podcast. Of course, you can always reach out on social media. Our handle is VoicesofSearch on Twitter, and my personal handle is BenJShap, B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P. And if you haven’t subscribed yet and you want a daily stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, we’re going to publish an episode every day during the work week. So hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and we’ll be back in your feed tomorrow morning. All right. That’s it for today. But until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.