WebMD vs. Healthline - when industries shift

Healthline passed WebMD in SEO performance. In this article, I dissect what drove this tectonic shift.

Writing tear-aparts can be very helpful to understand why a site is successful. But when writing about why one incumbent overtakes another one in an industry, it can reveal fundamental lessons. One of these tectonic shifts occurred in the online health vertical, dominated by WebMD and Healthline, about which I wrote in the context of Red Ventures' Growth playbook.

healthline.com vs. webmd.com in Sistrix
healthline.com vs. webmd.com in Sistrix

Mind you that external data can only reveal so much and says nothing about the in-house SEO team's or consulting agency's quality. Many factors decide how successful a company is at SEO.

Healthline overtook WebMD in January 2020, according to Sistrix. Notice how both sites increase in SEO Visibility in August 2018 when the Medic Update rolled out, and then drop again around March 2019. They move almost in sync. Then, at the end of January 2020, WebMD declines in SEO Visibility, and Healthline grows and passes by.

SEMrush shows that this shift already happened around October 2019 for total traffic, but I want to focus on organic traffic. Both companies make money primarily from ads and a bit from affiliates. That makes SEO an even more important channel: it's cost-effective and scalable.

The big question is what Healthline does better than WebMD to take the pole position? Why did Google reward them over WebMD?

Let's first zoom in on subdirectories. Healthline's growth comes from /health/ (red in the screenshot below), which carries content about diseases, symptoms, and treatments. The directory seems to have had issues with Google's 2019 March update but recovered when the June core update rolled out. The /nutrition directory, the second-largest, has been flat, and /symptoms has declined since late 2017.

Healthline subdirectory SEO performance in Sistrix
Healthline subdirectory SEO performance in Sistrix

Pages in /health have a clear user intent (learn more) and rank well for valuable shorthead and long-tail keywords. This is important: Healthline understands the concept of user intent by comparing titles (example below). They figured out that for symptoms, users expect a holistic view on the topic, almost like a "full guide to the symptom". WebMD, on the other side, focuses on how to prevent the symptom, which doesn't seem to go deep enough.

SERPs for "nose bleed"
SERPs for "nose bleed"

Another example is Healthline's double rankings for "Keto Diet". For such informational shorthead keywords, users often want an in-depth guide and examples. Healthline provides both and is rewarded with a double ranking at the top.

Healthline's double rankings for "keto diet"
Healthline's double rankings for "keto diet"

Healthline has content on a single page, WebMD splits content into several pages (a trick used to drive more page views and ad revenue). WebMD seems to use client-side rendering with a hash-fragment to ensure that both pages count to a single static URL. It also seems that, while this approach can work, clean server-side rendering with the content on a single page works a bit better.

WebMD's mobile user experience is confusing. The page ranking for Hibiscus (Healthline ranks #2, WebMD on #13), for example, opens with a closed accordion. As a user, I have to expand the accordion before I can read the content, and you have to ask yourself why this page displays an accordion in the first place.

Healthline's (left) vs. WebMD's (right) mobile page for the topic Hibiscus

Health sites, just as any other YMYL site, are susceptible to Core updates (remember the Medic Update). Google holds sites with life-impacting information to a much higher standard.

There are lots of rumors about how Google measures E-A-T. That's because E-A-T is more of a summary - a concept - of what Google is trying to achieve with many smaller algorithms.

E-A-T is a dumbed-down version of what the algorithms [are trying to] do. There’s, of course, not just one algorithm. There are probably millions of little algorithms that work together in unison. One algorithm might endorse what the scientific community thinks [Gary notes that he’s citing the search quality rater guidelines here].My notes from the Gary Illyes Q&A

When we look at an example comparing https://www.webmd.com/first-aid/nosebleeds-causes-and-treatments with https://www.healthline.com/health/nosebleed, two trust factors stick out to me: trustworthy citations (Healthline even cited competitor Mayoclinic) and authors. WebMD has neither. Whether Google actually measures that or not is unknown but from a user perspective, it's an inferior perspective.

At the end of the day, the reason Healthline overtook WebMD is manifold: a mix of better user intent understanding, user experience, and content quality. In the last years, SEO has become multidimensional and linear root causes for drops or increases are rare.

Healthline's growth is so strong that it didn't just pass WebMD - but also Mayoclinic. They passed two competitors within a year!

WebMD vs. Healthline vs. Mayoclinic in Sistrix
WebMD vs. Healthline vs. Mayoclinic in Sistrix

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