The Effect of Google's Late 2018 Algorithm Changes on Multi-Discipline Sites

By Daniel Miessler

Starting around October 1st I saw something catastrophic happen to my incoming traffic from Google.

Compared to the beginning of the year I have gone from around 10,000 pageviews a day to around 5,000—a 50% loss in traffic.

Once I noticed (which took a while), I started reading a ton of articles on all the various potential causes. Finally, after finding a few good ones and talking to my friends in the SEO business, I think I now have a good idea of what happened.

Keep in mind this is still theory, so I could find out at any moment that I was wrong.

Google released a number of major algorithm updates in the latter part of 2018. And at least one of them focused on what they’re calling Your Money or Your Life, which they abbreviate to YMYL.

Basically, they’re specifically trying to find—and punish—sites that make false claims about things that matter. And one of the ways they’re doing that is by trying to judge a site’s authority on particular topics.

Be sure to review Google’s SEO Guidelines.

There’s another tangent to this, which is a concept called “staying in your lane”. So if you’re a lawyer specialized in European Privacy, and you start going off about the Higgs Boson and how everyone’s wrong about string theory, well, Google might conclude that you’re talking out of your ass. The implication is that your overall trust ranking will fall as a result.

And that brings us to me and this website.

I’m a security guy. IoT Security. Application Security. I’m learning more and more about AI and ML, and have smart (but cautious) things to say about those topics.

But I also write extensively about things that have nothing whatsoever to do with security or technology.

  • Philosophy
  • Futurism
  • Politics
  • Creativity
  • Happiness
  • Etc…

To make things even worse, I also do a show called Unsupervised Learning, which is a podcast and newsletter about “Security, Technology, and Humans”.

An excerpt from a recent newsletter

It’s all over the place. I go from Chinese espionage plots to potential cures for cancer, to the future of work, to fiction book reviews.

I don’t think Google has any idea what to do with the site.

The obvious fact here is that both of these campaigns: “Your Money or Your Life” and “Stay in Your Lane” are coming from the urgent need to combat fake news. They’re looking for multiple ways to get there.

If I were building solutions to do this I’d be doing something like this:

  • Find out what an author is talking about
    • Parse their content and do topic analysis
  • Rate their authority on each of their topics
    • Look at inbound links
    • Evaluate samples of their factual claims in topic
    • Look for credentials on LinkedIn and About pages
    • Make sure they’re standing behind their claims
  • Lower the rankings of sites who score badly

I get it. It makes sense. And I admire them for doing it, because it’s a matter of literal national and global security.

The problem is that sites like mine seem to be getting destroyed in the process. And it’s clear why that’s the case.

If a site is talking about many disparate topics—especially in an open and tentative way—it’s extremely difficult to tell the difference between a solid but curious intellectual and a complete idiot. So they bring the SERP hammer in both cases.

For Google their ideal (trustworthy) site is one that talks about one thing and one thing alone, and does so with good sourcing, with clear authors who have their backgrounds right there in the open, and that never branches into topics they’re not experts in.

Again, I get that. But that’s no way to be an intellectual. Not for me anyway. I find the world fascinating, and I’m going to talk about it. For a number of reasons I am going to be more careful with claims in some cases, more careful to add sources when the argument is helped by data, etc.—but I can only flex so far.

This site is fundamentally a personal project. It’s where I learn, and then organize and share what I learn. And I learn by consuming and thinking (out loud, on “paper”).

So I’m not sure how screwed I am. It could be that I have permanently lost half my traffic—or maybe that’ll continue to fall.

But what I hope is that Google will eventually figure out that people like me exist, and that sites like mine exist, and they’ll adjust their Fake News algorithms to take them into account.

One friend of mine—Thomas Zickell—believes that the answer is hub pages, where you make your categories super clear to Google through top-level navigation. This way (the theory goes) Google can clearly see that you have multiple lanes, and will hopefully judge you independently for each of them.

So ideally you could then rank extremely high for areas where you’re a careful expert, and where you have unique and creative thought, and then less high (or not at all) where you’re just riffing on ideas outside your expertise.

I’m betting that’s what Google is working on solving, and that these first swipes of the sword in 2018 were basically emergency efforts to get the hosue in order.

If you know anyone at Google who might know about this, please let me know.

If I had to guess, I’d say that 2019 will see a number of adjustments to those initial efforts that are designed to bring multi-discipline sites back into focus without opening the gates to the garbage that used to rank well for the wrong reasons.

Meanwhile, I’ll be working on other SEO hygiene trying to get some of my traffic back while they figure it out.

Notes

  1. The other thing I’ll be trying in the meantime is making my overall content categories more clear in the top navigation.