top of page
SubscribePopUp

The rise of situational content: Lessons from Google’s March 2024 core update

An image of author Mordy Oberstein, accompanied by various search-related iconography

Google’s core updates can be anxious, frustrating times. But, they’re also filled with hidden gems about how search has changed. 


Analyzing the fallout of a core update helps us better understand: 


  • What Google can do algorithmically 

  • What Google is looking for from our content


While I love analyzing Google algorithm updates in aggregate (and have written dozens of articles on this), diving deep at the page level can offer a more qualitative look at what drives visibility changes on the SERP. 


Below are two cases that make me think Google has turned another corner in how it deciphers quality and “helpfulness.” Yes, they are just two cases, but they really stood out to me in my analysis of over 300 SERPs (and diving deep into more than a dozen “ranking cases”). 


Both cases present a very similar and substantial theme. They show how Google is looking to move past sterile content and instead present the user with content that accounts for the context of the query—as in, the user’s particular situation. 

Let’s see how these varied content approaches played out as Google’s March 2024 core update reshaped the search results.


Table of contents:




01. Bankrate moves past topic-centric content for ranking wins


Let’s start with Bankrate. I noticed the site improved for the keyword [payday loan fees] and it took me down an entire rabbit hole.


Prior to the March 2024 Google core update, this page ranked at position 7 but jumped up the SERP to position 3 by the time the update finished rolling out.


A chart showing the ranking trend for Bankrate’s page on payday loans.

Looking at this page (and then the wider performance of similar content) led me to revisit situational content.


An infographic that says: Situational writing and conversational content communicates with the reader by assuming their response, directly addresses a pain point, and relies on and demonstrates E-E-A-T.

Why brands and SEOs should adopt situational writing

To be honest, when I looked at Bankrate’s page relative to similar ranking pages (such as the one from LendingTree) I didn’t see much differentiation. 


Bankrate’s page about payday loans (top) and LendingTree’s payday loans page (bottom).
Bankrate’s page about payday loans (top) and LendingTree’s payday loans page (bottom).

I couldn’t quite understand why Google didn’t reward Bankrate’s page with a top-three position prior to the update, but suddenly did post-update. 


That’s why I went to the Wayback Machine (Internet Archives) to see if the page had been updated since the previous Google core update back in November 2023—sure enough, it had and the improvements were significant. 


 Two noticeable changes were:


1. A new key takeaways section to summarize the main points of the page

The key takeaways section on bankrate’s payday loans page. There are three takeaways: Payday loans are small loans with high fees that typically have to be paid off in 14 days. People typically choose payday loans because they're easy to qualify for and funds are available quickly. Many states restrict or ban payday loans because they can lead to severe financial problems if they aren't paid off on time.

2. An expert insight section (which, in this case, was written by the author of the content)


The expert insight section on bankrate’s payday loan page. It reads: Expert insight “The danger of payday loans is less about the APR and much more about the extremely short repayment period. If you need money immediately, you probably aren’t concerned with the annualized cost. In your mind, the loan will be repaid with your next paycheck, so APR is not even on your radar. The problem is if your last paycheck wasn’t enough to cover your expenses in between pay periods, where will the money come from to pay the extra payday loan fee you’ll owe? Also, unlike a credit card or personal loan, there’s no monthly payment option with a payday loan. You must pay the entire loan balance and the payday loan fee in full by your next paycheck. If you don’t, the rollover cycle begins, creating a devastating financial debt cycle for people already living paycheck to paycheck.”

While these changes are “nice,” I don’t think they qualify as “extensive,” and I don’t think they fundamentally make the page substantially more valuable. 


So what then? What changes did Bankrate make to the page that significantly increased quality (and rankings)?


For starters, Bankrate reorganized a good bit of the content. For example, the old version of the page had separate headers for “What is a payday loan?” and for “How payday loans work,” whereas the updated version combines them into “What are payday loans and how do they work?”


In and of itself, that isn’t a big deal. The difference in approach that perhaps led to this change, however, is a big deal.


Here’s how the old version broke down the section on how payday loans work:


The “how payday loans work” section of the bankrate prior to the update. There are subheadings for credit checks, repayment, and fees and other costs.

It’s entirely topic-first, which is typical. If I had to speculate, some SEO tool told the Bankrate’s team that if they want to rank for the keyword [how payday loans work], they need to have both a separate H2 and must include content on credit checks, repayment, and fees (as shown above). 


This looks and feels very much like “SEO-first content.” It’s both sterile and predictable. 


Compare that to the updated section: 


The updated section on bankrate’s page. The H2 now reads “What are payday loans and how do they work?” There are no subheaders, instead the section reads: “Payday loans are small loans — usually $500 or less — that are approved based on how much and how often you’re paid. They’re called “payday” loans because the entire loan balance is usually repaid from your paycheck on your next payday, or within 10 to 14 days of taking it out. Payday loans are a type of no-credit check loan that typically only require proof of your paycheck for approval. That makes them a common choice for borrowers with bad credit. Funds are usually deposited into the same bank account you receive your paycheck, typically within one business day. The same account is used to withdraw funds to pay back your loan balance plus fees on your next pay day. Payday lenders don’t charge a traditional interest rate on their loans and you don’t make a monthly payment. You must pay the entire amount borrowed plus whatever payday loan fee they charge when you receive your next paycheck. This may be a shock for consumers used to making minimum payments on credit cards, or spreading payments out over several years like you can with a car or personal loan. Payday loans can typically be obtained at a local bank or credit union or by applying online. They’re regulated at both the federal and state level. However, many states have laws that limit the fees or interest rates payday lenders can charge, and others have banned payday loans entirely.”

This updated content is far more user-first (and far less topic-first). For example, the paragraph that immediately follows the main summary of what a payday loan is (highlighted in yellow) explains to site visitors what they can expect to happen if they take out such a loan.


The old version had none of this:


The “what is a payday loan?” section of bankrate’s page prior to their update. The section reads: “Payday loans are unsecured personal loans that you usually must repay by your next payday (or within two weeks) and generally total $500 or less. Because these loans are often a last-ditch option for borrowers with poor credit, payday loans tend to carry significantly higher interest rates than traditional personal loans and can come with a plethora of hidden fees. Because of this, payday loans are often criticized for being predatory, particularly for borrowers with bad credit. The best way to identify a payday loan is any time you borrow money and you pay back the entire amount at once, normally your payday,” says Jeff Zhou, co-founder and CEO at Fig Tech, which offers payday alternative loans. Additionally, most payday lenders don’t run a credit check; if the lender isn’t interested in your credit history, this could be a sign that you’re dealing with a payday lender.”

And that’s the real story with this page. 


The updated page adopts what I’ve been calling “situational writing.” It takes the context and situation of the user into account.


Fundamentally, it means predicting what the user will experience at some level. So while both pages cover the risks of payday loans, only the new version has a section about when payday loans are a logical option: 


The “Are payday loans ever worth it?” section of Bankrate’s updated page. It reads: “Yes, if you have no other way to meet a critical need like paying rent, buying food or paying an electric bill before your power is turned off. Studies consistently show that payday loans are helpful for consumers in crisis situations who can’t qualify for credit cards or bad credit personal loans and don’t have family or friends they can borrow from. The key to avoiding relying on them is to have a plan to repay them in full. That might mean volunteering for extra hours at work, putting in some overtime or taking a temporary or gig job to make extra money.”

Why? Because discussing if they are worthwhile (unless some SEO tool told you to do so) only becomes relevant when you start thinking about the end user’s situation and when that situation may call for taking out a payday loan. 

This also means realizing that you need to emphasize the human considerations inherent to your particular topic as well as the implicit intent that drives users to your content. In the example above, the creators of the page predicted that (unless there was reinforcement around how to pay the loan back) readers might possibly end up in a tight spot. 


That’s why the section ends with a warning about repaying the loan in full and offering some surface-level ideas of how to do that (considering the financial constants already implied in the loan type). 


The estimated traffic for https://www.bankrate.com/loans/personal-loans/payday-loans/ from Semrush. In February 2024, estimated traffic for the page was under 500, in April 2024, it was about 1,500.

The search visibility improvement here was for the entire folder that the payday loans page belongs to. Bankrate has an entire corpus of content dedicated to loan information and that section of the site saw huge ranking gains with the update (shown above).


I had a look at about a dozen or so pages within the folder and all of them had been rewritten since the last core update in November. 


To that point, the domain overall did not see the same increase:


A chart showing that bankrate’s overall estimated traffic between December 2023 and May 2024 is nearly flat, with ranking keywords and traffic changing less than 1%.

Further investigation is needed, but this could signal the value of the content overhaul we’ve examined above.


02. Yale Medicine’s situational content pushes past keyword-specific pages on the SERP


In the opening of this blog post, I referenced “sterile content.”


Sterile content: Content that doesn’t live within the confines of the user’s experience. It simply presents a topic. 

Sterile content is topic-centric—not person-centric. It presents topics as topics, instead of presenting them through the lens of fulfilling a need. 


I think we might be seeing Google beginning to understand this. Momentous. 


Let’s have a look at the ranking trends for the keyword [labrum hip surgery] and two URLs with opposite rank trajectories. As you can see below, a URL from yalemedicine.org went from position 9 (before the update) to position 6 after its conclusion:


A chart showing the ranking positions for two pages: https://www.yalemedicine.org/conditions/hip-labral-tears and https://www.mymosh.com/orthopedics/hip-labral-tear-surgery-what-to-expect/. The Yalemedicine page rose from ranking 9 to 6 between February 2024 and April 2024, while the Mymosh page decreased from a top ranking of 9 in February to out of the top 20 by the end of April.

At the same time, a URL from mymosh.com (an orthopedic hospital in Wisconsin) went from flirting with a top-ten ranking to being removed from the top 20 results altogether by the time the March 2024 core update completed. 


So, what happened here? 


What I think occurred with these two pages is very similar to the example I shared earlier with Bankrate’s content: the Yale Medicine site (which I do not believe is a subsidiary of the ivy league school) took a far more situational approach than most of the other sites on the SERP. 


Look at how the page addressed how labral tears are diagnosed:


A page section that reads: “How are hip labral tears diagnosed? To diagnose a hip labral tear your doctor will review your medical history, conduct a physical exam, and order one or more imaging tests. As a first step toward making a diagnosis, your doctor will ask about your symptoms including when they began and which activities aggravate them. During the physical exam, your doctor will closely examine your affected hip. He or she will feel your hip for signs of tenderness and pain, as well as flex and rotate your hip to evaluate its range of motion and stability. The doctor will ask whether pain occurs in certain positions. You may be asked to stand and walk so your doctor can observe how you move. Additional imaging tests will be necessary to confirm a diagnosis. These tests may include X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, and magnetic resonance arthrography (MRA). Sometimes, an injection may be needed to confirm the diagnosis either as part of the MRA of as a separate procedure.”

Like the Bankrate page, this page does not take a purely sterile topical approach. It offers information in the context of what the reader will likely experience. 


The page doesn’t just tell you how tears are diagnosed, but what happens to the user as they undergo the diagnosis

In addition to the page being topically comprehensive, it speaks to the site visitor on a deeper level and, in doing so, transcends the topic itself. 


The table of contents for the yale medicine page in question. The sections include: overview, what is the labrum? What is a hip labral tear? What causes a hip labral tear? What are the symptoms of a hip labral tear? How are hip labral tears treated? What is the outlook for people with hip labral tears? What is unique about Yale Medicine’s approach to hip labral tears?

At multiple steps along the way, the page tries to consider its audience’s situation. Another quick example is how it discusses treatment. It essentially considers a scenario where the treatment is not 100% linear, and where multiple repairs might occur during one surgery: 


Text from the yale medicine page. It reads, “In addition to treating the torn labrum, the surgeon may also need to address the underlying cause of the tear. For instance, If the torn labrum was caused by FAI, the surgeon may treat both the torn labrum and FAI during a single procedure. After surgery, patients will need to follow a rehabilitative physical therapy program to rebuild strength, stability, and flexibility of the hip joint.”

It’s very simple and subtle, but this example is a case where the content tries to understand (by predicting) the reader’s life situation. 


I want to contextualize the rankings on this SERP a bit to show you how powerful I think this approach is. The top of the SERP is dominated by the super-authorities of the health space: 


The google search results for “labrum hip surgery.” the top results are from john hopkins medicine, nyu langone, and the cleveland clinic.

I don’t expect a “regular” site to compete here. If we look a bit further down, where the Yale Medicine page does rank, the results are pretty much filled with your typical, sterile sort of content: 


The google search results for labrum hip surgery, showing sites like sports-health.com, has.edu, and advancedortho.net ranking above the yale medicine page.
For the record, I cut out a Video Box SERP feature from this screenshot.

How does this bode well for my argument that the Yale Medicine page is strong? Shouldn’t it rank above some of these more “old school” pages? 


Yes, except to me, the Yale Medicine page is strong despite only covering surgery on a limited basis. It ranks among pages where all they talk about is hip surgery. 


In fact, you can see the power of user-centric, situational content when you look at the performance of the mymosh.com page that lost rankings. For starters, the content here isn’t bad: 


A screenshot of mymosh’s page on hip labral tear surgery.

The problem (to me) is that it doesn’t have much going for it (aside from bulleted lists). For example, the UX here is not great. There’s a lack of proper spacing and so forth that just makes the content hard to consume. 


At the same time, while some of the information is good, other tidbits of content are too thin (too many bulleted lists without much context, if any): 


The “What are the symptoms of a hip labral tear” section of the mymosh page, showing three bulleted lists describing symptoms but without context.

This page is a pretty good example of what I consider “typical web content”—it’s a bit on the thin side in some areas, lacks a user-first focus, perhaps tries too hard to rank for keywords, and as a result, has absolutely zero flow to it. 


Pro tip: A good way to see whether your content is user- or topic-centric is to ask yourself if it flows. Does one subject or section flow easily into the next? If so, you might be on the right track. 


You really see this shine through when you look at the overall ranking changes for both sites. 


With the March 2024 core update, the Yale Medicine site not only saw an overall ranking boost, it now also ranks well for some serious and competitive keywords:


Rankings data from Semrush, showing that yale medicine ranks in the top 10 for keywords like labrum hip tear, labral tear hip treatment, and so on.

Google likes the site and (as I mentioned above) ranks it for keywords even when the page’s content isn’t entirely dedicated to the keyword per se. In fact it ranks for 19.7K featured snippets! 


Semrush data showing that the yalemedicine.org domain shows for 19.7K featured snippets.

While the mymosh.com sites does have some interesting keywords, they are not only far fewer but mostly uncompetitive: 


Semrush data showing the ranking keywords for mymosh.com. It ranks in the top 10 for longer keywords, like hip labral tear surgery recovery.

When you start looking at what else ranks for some of the keywords I reviewed, it’s not a testament to the site that they rank well as much it is a knock at the web overall. (For the record, the mymosh.com site only pulls in 30 featured snippets). 


The bottom line is having strong, situation-centric content can open up the possibility of ranking on SERPs when the competitors are ranking with keyword-specific pages. That’s a lot more bang for your buck.

The move past sterile content—we’re getting there


No, I am not 100% convinced the move past sterile content is pervasive across the web. 


What I think we’re seeing here is not the conclusion of the process, but the very start of it. Google is doing the equivalent of dipping its toe in the “moving past sterile content” waters. 


But isn’t that why we look to analyze Google algorithm updates? To see what Google is beginning to do—to see what Google is starting to become capable of? 


For all the criticism around the Google SERP these days, seeing a move to limit sterile SEO content is almost momentous. It’s also a reminder that getting the SERP right is a process that ebbs and flows for Google. 


 

mordy oberstein

Mordy is the Head of SEO Branding at Wix. Concurrently he also serves as a communications advisor for Semrush. Dedicated to SEO education, Mordy is one of the organizers of SEOchat and a popular industry author and speaker. Twitter | Linkedin

Comments


Get the Searchlight newsletter to your inbox

* By submitting this form, you agree to the Wix Terms of Use

and acknowledge that Wix will treat your data in accordance

with Wix's Privacy Policy

Thank you for subscribing

bottom of page