At the end of an unprecedented 12 months, we’ve seen ‘infodemic’ and ‘covidiot’ make it into Oxford’s Word of the Year 2020 report. So how can pharma companies create digital healthcare content that satisfies both the demand and the specific quality criteria Google has developed to keep users safe? We’ve distilled learnings from analysis of 11 international vaccine websites, dozens of competitor healthcare pages and over six thousand relevant keywords.

The medic update

In the past Google has come under fire for prioritising false information, and was driven by accusations of misdiagnosis to make an important change to its core ranking algorithm in 2018. This so-called ‘medic update’ applied strict scrutiny to any page that could impact a person’s happiness, health, financial stability or safety, which Google coined ‘your money or your life’ (YMYL) pages.

The search engine also revised its Search Quality Evaluator (SQE) Guidelines – outlining the criteria used by manual reviewers when assessing webpage quality.

Expertise, Authority & Trust (E-A-T)

Both of these updates put a greater focus on a site’s expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness (E-A-T). As a result, many websites with low-quality medical content or lacking relevant expertise suffered.

Therefore the first step to creating safe, valuable and visible vaccine content is building a team with appropriate medical knowledge.

Demonstrate author expertise

Start by interrogating your own expertise. If there are gaps, source and manage expert contributors and identify trusted information sources for reference. Your audience and Google will be asking ‘where does this information come from?’, so you should too.

The absence of author bios citing relevant qualifications was one of the main undermining factors of the pages we audited; particularly when pitted against public-service health pages in E-A-T scoring.

Where employing expert contributors – whether to create, edit or vet your content – make it clear who they are and why they’re qualified. Introduce the professionals behind the vaccine trials – especially those who’ve featured in press coverage and could become a reassuring, familiar face.

Anecdotal experience also counts

Anecdotal personal experience also helps to meet user needs. Our pharma network audit work often highlights the importance of forums and social media in conversations around disease online, as people seek peer connection and advice. Google recognises such 'everyday expertise' in its E-A-T scoring.

First-person accounts of COVID-19 vaccination – for example from trial volunteers – or those who have suffered the destructive effects of the disease, could provide critical real-world evidence to build trust.

Signpost affiliation and current source material

Strengthen authority by signposting affiliation with regulatory bodies and linking to trusted sources. Date stamp all content and sources to show your content is current. Leave no question unanswered by adding a thorough ‘about’ page and easy-to-find contact information. But E-A-T isn’t the only factor Google considers when evaluating healthcare content.


Negative reviews or press coverage are a big turn off for users and a huge no-no for Google. Google’s guidance on reputation says to ‘look for articles, reviews, forum posts, discussions, etc. written by people about the website.’ Assessing factors likely to influence external perceptions of your website can help you cover the right content themes.

Take a lead from media coverage…

Mainstream media angles on COVIID-19 vaccines will give you a clear indication of interest and your audiences’ frame of reference, to help pre-empt and answer likely questions. Explain what defines an efficacious COVID-19 vaccine and how scores are calculated; mirroring questions being asked by journalists.

Particularly negative press

In the case of negative coverage, onsite content can also help quell concerns. In our audits we identified articles accusing pharma brands of profiteering from raising awareness of meningitis B, based on a small number of outbreaks. While these criticisms were rebutted in media statements, such specifics weren’t covered onsite. One of our recommendations was to repeat this transparent messaging to foster brand trust.

Face the skeletons in your closet

Pay attention and react not just to conversations around your brand and COVID-19, through regular sentiment reviews, but also your broader reputation. Google states if there is any negative sentiment around a creator of YMYL content, the reputation score must be marked as low. It’s wise to know what content may surface from searches for pharma companies associated with COVID-19 vaccines – particularly around other disease vaccines associated with your brand or creators.

Quality of the main content

The lowest average scores across the entire competitor set of vaccine sites we audited were for the quality of main content, which for YMYL pages is concerned with the accuracy, comprehensiveness and clarity against a page’s purpose.

Don’t just lift the leaflet

Many of the issues stemmed from a mismatch in the breadth and depth of content delivered against demand. Of simply lifting content from an introductory offline leaflet and dropping it online without thought for different target audiences, intent and platform preferences. With YMYL content, it’s critical to cover topics comprehensively.

Know who you’re talking to

To create high quality purposeful content, start by building personas for the audiences you’re trying to reach. For meningitis, answering the questions and concerns of parents about their young children and teenagers was key. With COVID-19, you’ll likely be writing for carers of older people and those in specific caring professions.

Explore search behaviour and competition

Once you’ve bucketed stages of your target audiences’ search journeys, conduct keyword research. Examine the content already ranking for these terms as a mirror to audience intent and your quality benchmark. Fresh content from news sites and local government-regulated websites are likely to take the top search results spots for COVID-19 topics, just as they did for meningitis. Cite these visible, trusted sources in your own content.

Target terms near the point of decision

Your best chance of adding value and securing top-ranking positions will probably be through content that answers questions nearer the point of decision. For example, explaining how the vaccine works, who it’s for, how it’s administered and possible side effects. Due to the interest in COVID-19 it’s worth going into more detail here than you might see on existing vaccine websites. Such specifics will help counter false information.

Obsess over clarity

When you structure your content, check every element of the page and ask whether it helps or hinders clarity. Ensure there are no ambiguous titles, that language is accessible and not burdened with medical terminology.

Know what content success looks like

Finally carefully consider what you want people to think, feel and do once they’ve read it. For the vaccine sites we audited, the ultimate goal was to encourage visitors to contact a healthcare professional (HCP), so assisting users to reach relevant ‘action’ pages was critical. Best practice examples here included content giving users relevant questions to ask their HCP and checklist summaries on whom specific vaccinations were recommended.

This will help you shape your website user journeys, as well as the goals that will allow you to measure success and improve performance. Fundamentally, it will turn any visibility you gain by providing quality content into real value for both your audience and brand.

Jo-ann Fortune and Sam Colebrook work for the global digital marketing agency iCrossing UK