Your Money or Your Life: sensitive content for people’s lives

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Your Money or Your Life: for some years now this expression, often presented with the acronym YMYL, is at the center of Google’s attention and, as a result, worries all those who work in the field of SEO. In short, it defines and categorizes a specific typology of sites and, more precisely, of content, those that deal with sensitive issues that can affect the future of readers, where there is no space (or, at least, there should be) for unreliable and poorly useful information.

What YMYL means

Finance, health, safety, but also happiness, legal information, nutrition and so on: the types of YMYL content are multiple, because this definition includes all the arguments that can have an impact of any entity on the life and happiness of people.

With the July 2022 Quality Rater Guidelines update, however, Google has revolutionized the concept of YMYL by untying it from specific topics and thus making it more general. In fact, the document with guidelines that “help ensure that Search returns relevant results from the most reliable sources available,” which are updated periodically to always provide an accurate and precise reference, deals with YMYL in a very pointed way, clarifying what it means and which sites it affects (and reducing or eliminating reference to YMYL pages altogether).

“Pages on the World Wide Web cover a wide range of topics,” the guidelines now state, but some of these “present a high risk of harm because content on such topics could have a significant impact on people‘s health, financial stability or security or on the welfare or well-being of society as a whole.” And these are precisely the YMYL or “Your Money or Your Life” topics according to Google-which, therefore, no longer talks about “YMYL pages” but better explains in detail why a topic should be considered YMYL and, therefore, why related information can potentially harm people (or even society).

Your Money Your Life, Google’s new definition

More specifically, Google explains that YMYL topics fall within a spectrum, meaning that there is not just a black or white topic, but precisely a variety of shades within which a page dealing with the topic fits.

To assess whether the topic is clearly YMYL, certainly not YMYL, or “somewhere in between,” one must consider whether it may significantly impact or harm one or more of the following:

  • The person who is directly viewing or using the content.
  • Other people influenced by the person viewing the content.
  • Groups of people or companies influenced by the actions of the people who viewed the content.

Compared to the past, the reference to “welfare and well-being” of society stands out, which is a key addition to the Quality Rater Guidelines 2022 and seem to hint at something much broader: this “umbrella” can only include, for example, conspiracy theories, which were also mentioned in previous editions of the guidelines, but also a wide and broad category of things that are impacting society today, such as misinformation about vaccines, false cures for diseases, or political or electoral issues that have seen the ramping up of misinformation campaigns in some countries.

How to identify a YMYL topic

With the guidelines, then, Google urges its quality raters to consider “sensitive” any topic that could potentially cause harm to anyone if the specific content is not accurate or reliable, going so far as to say that even slight inaccuracies or content seen from less reliable sources should be considered through the lens of YMYL and evaluated accordingly because of those inaccuracies.

Health-related topics are the focus of this expanded and more detailed YMYL topics section-likely in part because of the events of recent years and the proliferation of sites, even news sites, that promote misinformation about vaccines or treatments for various diseases – and so we can assume that the adoption of these changes may also be related to the many complaints from the scientific community about the ease of access to so much misinformation on the Web, and thus Google’s attempt to ensure that only (or at least mostly) the highest quality search results for these types of searches emerge from its SERPs.

In this sense, the paper also explicitly refers to topics about society that might have a negative impact on groups of people, issues such as public interest or trust in public institutions and so on, and this seems to target topical issues of recent years with respect to the political climate in various countries around the world. In a sense, then, Google tries to guide evaluators to observe and analyze pages that promote political misinformation or cause people to distrust, for example, aid organizations.

Going back to what is literally written, then, we can note the addition of two new umbrella topics – “the topic itself is harmful or dangerous” and” the topic could cause harm if the content is not accurate or trustworthy” – which serve to better and more precisely clarify which topics and types of content can be considered YMYL, making specific references to self-harm, criminal acts, and violent extremism.

And so, YMYL topics are such if they can have a direct and significant impact on people’s health, financial stability or safety, or the welfare or well-being of society, for the following reasons:

  • The topic itself is harmful or dangerous – for example, there is clear and present harm directly associated with topics related to self-harm, criminal acts, or violent extremism.
  • The topic could cause harm if the content is not accurate and reliable. For example, slight inaccuracies or content from less reliable sources could have a significant impact on someone’s health, financial stability, or safety, or impact society, for topics such as: symptoms of a heart attack, how to invest money, what to do in the event of an earthquake, who can vote, or qualifications needed to obtain a driver’s license.

To determine whether a topic is YMYL, quality raters must assess the following types of harm that could occur:

  • Health or safety YMYL: topics that could harm mental, physical, and emotional health or any form of safety, such as physical safety or online safety.
  • Financial Security YMYL: topics that could harm a person’s ability to support themselves and their family.
  • Society YMYL: topics that could negatively impact groups of people, issues of public interest, trust in public institutions, and so on.
  • Other YMYL: topics that could harm people or have a negative impact on the welfare or well-being of society.

Google still specifies that it is possible to imagine a hypothetical harmful page for any non-harmful topic, such as the science behind rainbows or shopping for pencils: for one of these topics, someone could create a page with a harmful computer virus download. However, for a specific topic to be YMYL, the topic itself must potentially affect people’s health, financial stability, or safety, or the well-being or welfare of society.

To further simplify, Google tells quality raters to determine whether a topic is YMYL by trying to answer two questions:

  1. Would a careful person turn to experts or highly reliable sources to avoid harm? Would even small inaccuracies cause harm? If yes, the topic is probably YMYL.
  2. Is the specific topic one on which most people would be content to casually consult their friends? If yes, the topic is likely not YMYL.
Examples of Your Money Your Life topics according to Google

A table that expands what is considered YMYL, what can be considered YMYL, and what is not (clear YMYL, definitely not YMYL, not or unlikely YMYL) also appears in the quality assessment guidelines .

The list includes six different examples of topics – information, advice about a business, a personal opinion, news about current events, sharing on social media and online commerce, and product reviews – with examples for each of the three variables that help quality raters (and us SEOs) understand and distinguish the nuanced differences between YMYL and also on the YMYL spectrum.

Just to mention a few pointers, a possible YMYL topic is information about a car accident: the car accident itself may have been harmful to the people involved, there is also a small risk of future harm from news about the accident. Google’s example for a clear YMYL topic on current events is ongoing violence, such as in a city, neighborhood, or state, which can be critical in keeping the reader safe.

Specific social media examples cite a social media post about the Tide pod challenge, which was clearly harmful and should be considered YMYL, sharing a hot sauce challenge (hot sauce, potentially YMYL and dangerous) or simply sharing a music video (hardly YMYL).

The table also clarifies some issues about personal opinions and how they might be considered YMYL: the prime example is a personal opinion about one racial group being inferior, leading to content that is harmful to others because it negatively targets a specific group of people. In contrast, it is not YMYL (not potentially dangerous) to express a personal opinion about a rock band, because such content is unlikely to have harmful sensitive impact, even though there might be strong opinions about whether said rock band is good or not.

A final crucial point concerns the process of evaluating the quality of a page: in its considerations, the quality raters must be able to analyze the topic of the page and the extent to which it is YMYL, because the very topic of the page helps determine the standards for the overall QP evaluation. The underlying criterion, as is easy to guess from what we have written, is that pages on YMYL topics have higher standards than those on non-YMYL topics.

Google and YMYL pages: what was sensitive content before

Previously, and thus until July 2022, Google called YMYL pages (and, more blandly, the topics) that could potentially have an impact on a person’s future happiness, health, financial stability, or security because they deal with topics and information that can result in a concrete effect on the quality, health, and financial well-being of readers.

Even in that sense, the definition of YMYL did not apply only to the site in its entirety, but also to its specific sections or individual pages that actually deal with the issues that Google considers more sensitive because they relate to the major decisions or important aspects of people’s lives: issues ranging from the economy to health, from medical care to sport and nutrition, until the choice of university or school, job search and more.

There is also a list of Your Money or Your Life topics and explanatory examples of YMYL pages, also present in the Quality raters guidelines:

  • News and events: news sites, with press articles or public information about services and politics, laws, disaster response, social services, science, technology, international events and much more. Not all articles are necessarily considered YMYL, and for example sports news, news coverage or gossip are not YMYL topics (and in this regard we can verify the E-A-T meter of Lily Ray that we commented in the article on clichés about E-A-T).
  • Health and safety: these are the central pages for the YMYL concept. These are websites that publish articles with advice or information on medical issues, disorders, symptoms, specific diseases, nutrition, medicines, hospitals, emergencies and pandemics (such as COVID-19).
  • Civil interest for informed citizens: institutional or dedicated websites for citizens, with information on voting system, tasks of institutions, emergencies, taxes, social services, resolution of administrative issues, but legal information such as notarial services, divorce pages or creation of a will, child adoption rules etc., also fall into this category.
  • Finance: involves websites that publish financial or consulting information, with pages with advice on investments, shares, mutual funds, taxes and taxes, pension planning, loans to companies or individuals, banking or insurance, mortgages. In addition, the sites on which financial transactions take place are also YMYL, and therefore e-commerce, websites of credit institutions and banks, sites for the payment of invoices or for the transfer of money and, in general, all pages where the user can buy or transfer money to another subject.
  • Shopping: topics, information or services related to the search for or purchase of goods and services, in particular web pages that allow people to shop online.
  • People groups: information or statements about groups of persons, including, inter alia, those grouped on the basis of age, caste, disability, ethnicity, gender identity and expression, immigration status, nationality, race, religion, sex/gender, sexual orientation, veteran status, victims of a major violent event and their relatives, or any other characteristic that is associated with systematic discrimination or marginalization.
  • Other: there are many other topics related to big decisions or important aspects of people’s lives that can therefore be considered YMYL, such as fitness and nutrition, housing information, car safety information and so on.

EAT and beneficial purpose of users to rank YMYL pages

Google imposes very high page quality assessment standards for YMYL pages, because “low quality YMYL pages could potentially have a negative impact on a person’s happiness, health, financial stability or safety” and therefore the search engine tries to prevent the possibility that they may appear in SERP in visibility positions.

On the contrary, the YMYL pages that deserve to have greater visibility are those that meet the criteria of E-A-T (which, as we know, are the characteristics of competence, authority and reliability of the site and who produces the content) and that have a beneficial purpose, or a useful purpose for the user.

Google asks its quality raters to recognize what is the purpose of a page, the reason or the reasons for which it was created: “Every page on the Internet is created for a purpose, or for several purposes”, the guidelines say, and “most of the pages are created to be useful to people, so they have a beneficial purpose”, which is precisely the beneficial purpose. Sometimes, however, pages are created just to make money, with little or no effort to help people, while others “are even created to harm users“, and should therefore not be rewarded by ranking.

Among the elements that help identify the beneficial purpose are, among others, the sharing of information on a topic, personal or social information, images, videos or other forms of media, the expression of an opinion or point of view, entertainment, the sale of products or services, the ability for users to post questions that other users can answer or share files or download software.

In summary, the quality raters must help the Google algorithm to understand the quality of a page, especially in the YMYL field, expressing a quality score (Page Quality) that clarifies what is the purpose of that web page, whether or not it complies with the user’s search query and whether it was created to help users. It follows that pages and sites created to harm and deceive users or subtract their money must get the lowest PQ level possible.

SEO YMYL, how to improve pages with sensitive content

As expected, there is no official Google checklist to make an SEO optimization compared to YMYL content, but the analytical reading of the official documents allows to highlight some aspects towards which to orient the work to improve the pages of our sites, a bit like it happens also for the advices to strengthen the E-A-T perceived by the search engine.

Basically, everything focuses on the beneficial purpose, and therefore on the advantages and benefits that a content can give to the user, and on the ways we have to make it clear – the reader himself and Google – that this page meets the original purpose and intent.

In concrete terms, we can reach the goal by writing effective content, reporting only information from verified and reliable sources; addressing the issues in a complete and objective way, possibly giving space to other positions on the subject; collaborating with capable and recognized authors, to whom to entrust the drafting of the YMYL content; taking care of the structure of the contents, which must be clear and correct, and taking action to update, expand or correct the older pages.

Even the significant 2022 revamp-which serves to ensure that evaluators are aware of exactly what qualifies as a YMYL Web site and, consequently, that they devote proper attention to those particular pages-the many clarifying examples and details of why a particular page is considered YMYL (or is not) demonstrates that Google considers appropriate identification of these topics and maximum accuracy in quality assessments to be extremely crucial, even in cases where pages and content fall into the gray area of the spectrum.

From the AAA paradigm to the E-A-T and then E-E-A-T

The attention that Google devotes to the delicacy of YMYL content also makes us understand the evolution of the Web in recent years: in fact, it has always been said that the Internet is the realm of the AAA paradigm, or “Anyone can say Anything about Any topic“.

This is still true today – by extremizing and simplifying, we can say that to position a content does not matter who writes but how one writes it and how it makes authoritative the content also with links or other strategies – but Google wants to overcome this mode, at least for the most sensitive matters.

We can indeed say that E-A-T is somewhat the opposite of AAA, because it is based on the concept that some topics, those that fall into the Your Money or Your Life category, should only be treated by those who are a professional in the field, inviting sites to entrust the creation of such content to people who have experience and expertise in the field, or who have studied and have built a verifiable reputation to express their opinion and provide effective assistance to users. The next step, introduced with the December 2022 update of the guidelines, is the inclusion of the content creator’s personal experience to the dimensions to be evaluated, in view of the new E-E-A-T paradigm.

The road to completing the transition is still long and there are various ways to fool search engines (which always remain machines), and that’s why Google refers to the quality raters and their human ability to evaluate content creators, pages and sites, as confirmed by the progressive updates of the guidelines.

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