For the past couple of years, we’ve been hard at work assembling a site that’s faster and sturdier (the underlying code is all new), with a much clearer interface and better-organized, more useful information. And a much improved search function!
In the weeks leading up to the launch, I wanted to give you some context by answering this question: What led up to Examine 2.0, and what can you expect from it?
This is the first of three episodes (IV, V, and VI) revealing hitherto untold secrets about the birth and growth, successes and setbacks, and troubles and tribulations of the band of rebels known as Examine.
Would you trust supplement and nutrition information from a website that also sold supplements?
In 2011, the only websites with widely accessible supplement information were also selling supplements with names like Savage Muscle Builder 3000 and PreWorkout VeinPopper Deluxe.
We don’t want to mention actual products, but these names aren’t far off.
Research nerds used forums, and some accessed PubMed directly, but papers were (and still are) locked behind paywalls. Government websites were rarely used due to subpar design. Wikipedia articles on supplements were sparse and seldom updated.
My friend Sol Orwell, co-founder of Examine, had developed bad eating habits in the early part of his entrepreneurial career. He was eventually able to access and use scientific studies to get back down to a healthy weight without fad diets or supplements. His efforts were even covered in People Magazine!
As someone who had been sucked into supplement hype at the start of his weight-loss journey, Sol wanted to help others separate the wheat from the chaff. He had the foresight to nab a perfect domain name — Examine.com — and the morals to use that name for a noble purpose.
The easy route would have been to get funded through venture capital, build fast, accrue revenue by selling supplements or ad space, and then sell out to a big company. Luckily, Sol didn’t take that route.
Just a sec, though. Every Han Solo needs his Chewbakamal, right?
Before meeting Sol, I worked at an academic hospital, in an evidence-synthesis center. On the side, I also ran a small website that covered the evidence behind pain reduction strategies — I have a painful genetic connective-tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), and if others were hurting like I was, I wanted to help, even if indirectly.
Sol stumbled across my website because he has EDS too. Eventually, we built the Examine team out with like-minded people: curious science nerds who were, most importantly, kind-hearted and driven to help others.
Our plan was to combat the misinformation rampant on the web, by incrementally growing our research database while we paid the bills through the sale of PDF products. As is still the case, Sol handled the tech and business sides, and I the research side. He’s bold and I’m shy, but we’re both persistent, a trait that’s needed for an independent research-focused website in a galaxy of misinformation.
In the first few years, the Dark Side kept trying to seduce us. It wasn’t easy to make money without selling ad space, supplements, or diet plans.
The website was getting rickety, due to all the custom code that went into it. Complex web development to fix it was too expensive, and we had essentially zero marketing budget to bolster our revenue.
Wouldn’t it be better to give in and link to third-party supplement stores, instead of only selling unbiased PDF products that barely kept us afloat? It wouldn’t be like recommending specific supplements, or even like promoting specific brands, so maybe it would be OK? Right?
But if you need to ask yourself this kind of question, the answer is usually no. As a wise being once said, a long, long time ago, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will.”
And so we held firm. And with time, things started to look up. As people like you came to realize they couldn’t trust supplement information provided by websites that profited from supplement sales, they turned to us.
Little by little, our revenue grew, along with the size of our team and the quality of the evidence we offered. By not selling out, we had managed to create a virtuous circle. In 2017, the future looked bright.
And then, in 2018, Examine’s ambitions were thwarted...
Last we saw them, our ragtag group of heroes were filled with moxie.
It was 2017, and the Force was with Examine. The plucky, independent website was recognized throughout the galaxy for its part in fighting the Misinformation Wars, and it was rocketing to the top of Google’s search results.
And then, in 2018 and 2019, Google made tweaks to its search algorithm that caused Examine to very nearly crash and burn.
In theory, all a website needs in order to get greater exposure is better content. Better content ⇒ more visitors ⇒ higher placement in search results ⇒ more visitors ⇒ etc. If you keep publishing good content, you keep feeding this virtuous circle.
In practice, a website’s fate is determined by secretive search algorithms. Tweaks to the algorithms are never explained and can have dire consequences for independent websites, even those that produce content of the highest quality.
And when it comes to search engines, Google is the Emperor, with a 92% market share. In essence, this means that if Google decides to pretend you don’t exist, you soon … don’t.
In 2016, a “general” tweak to Google’s search algorithm caused our first drop in our search ranking (and thus visibility), but we clawed our way back up. In 2018, however, Google started making tweaks specifically to clamp down on health websites peddling misinformation. It should have been great news: bonebrothcuresall.com would get downranked, and Examine would soar!
Instead, this happened:
We managed to recover from the 2018 tweak, but the 2019 tweak made us nearly invisible on Google. Most of the new visitors we got at that point found us via word of mouth and from Reddit, forums, and blogs.
It was never explained to us why we were hit that way, but we suspect that Google’s algorithm saw that we had pages such as “Do you need to detox?” and concluded we were propagating health myths, while in fact we were debunking them.
Google’s tweaks didn’t affect academic and government websites, or websites owned by large corporations. But small, independent companies like us were hit hard, and many didn’t survive.
It would be easy to blame Google for all our woes, but in truth, some were of our own making. We started as a website focused on bodybuilding supplements, and when we outgrew our initial project, we did it … haphazardly.
What we should have done:
Sit down and plan how Examine would expand into other areas of health.
What we did:
Just start adding pages.
That’s why some sections of Examine were such a mess — why, for instance, the keto diet is classified as a “supplement”; why we have half a dozen separate pages on testosterone; and why the Study Summaries are well organized on their own … but are completely separate from the rest of the website.
The content itself is solid, mind you. Everything we published was researched and triple-checked. But we clearly weren’t as rigorous when it came to presenting, organizing, and connecting everything we published. And so, ironically, the more content we added, the harder it became for our visitors to find the information they needed.
Examine was turning from a treasure trove to a treasure hunt.
New tweaks to Google’s search engine algorithm gave us back some of the lost traffic, but we’re still far from our peak.
Still, unlike many websites good and not, we did survive. Because we stuck to our strength (thorough, unbiased research), our readers stuck with us, and little by little we managed to build up some room to breathe again.
Until, in 2019, we were able to start planning our Return...
In 2018 and 2019, Google made tweaks to its search algorithm that decimated Examine’s traffic (for all the thrilling details, see Episode V). Yet over the three years since, our team has tripled in size, and we’re now getting ready for the launch of Examine 2.0.
How did we not only survive, but thrive? Did we fly to a swamp planet and train under a wisecracking old master? Or did we join the Dark Side and start peddling supplements?
Our plight didn’t go unnoticed, and we received a flood of suggestions. Some were sound, but many others didn’t fit Examine’s ethos. Here are three examples of the latter:
“Put third-party ads on your site.”
No can do. Not just because ads are annoying, but because we’d lose our independence. When your income depends on other companies being happy with you, it influences what you write, whether you’re aware of it or not.
“We’d like to offer you venture capital funding.”
Venture capital isn’t inherently bad, but we decided to decline these offers. Accepting them could have led us to start prioritizing profit over quality. Imagine, not a leap into the Dark Side, but one small step after the other: our funders might first push for flashier headlines, then for more cursory analysis, then before we know it … we’d be Examine no longer.
“Pssst! I can sell you a list!”
Still now, once a month at least, people try to sell us thousands of email addresses — huge lists of healthcare providers we could contact (i.e., spam) about our products! Oh. Joy. Hard pass.
Quicker, easier, more seductive … such is the Dark Side. Instead, we went the slow and steady route. Since we couldn’t reduce the quality of our analyses, we had to reduce their quantity, even though it meant further reducing our site traffic.
And we cut costs where we could. We gave up on several projects. And we streamlined our product offering — which proved to be the first step of our recovery.
Do you think your general approach to life is just plain wrong?
Probably not, or you’d change your approach. But who among us hasn’t ever given more weight to confirmation than to criticism?
“Question everything” is our team’s motto. We couldn’t change Google’s algorithms, but we could question and change ourselves.
We started by documenting our biggest mistakes. We got serious about customer research, spending many, many hours in email and video discussions with our fans and detractors. Then we spent over two years dissecting and rethinking nearly every part of the site and the company.
We’re all very analytical; just as we spent many hours discussing with you, we spent many discussing among ourselves, debating big decisions and deliberating small details. It was exhausting … but worth it.
In 2020, we streamlined our product offerings into a membership. People liked it. I mean, really liked it. Our website traffic increased (a bit), as did our revenue — which we immediately spent on pizza and cookies.
And on researchers 🙂. To write and properly review our Study Summaries, we needed more people. And not just anyone, either: we needed real experts in various fields. That meant reading hundreds of applications and interviewing dozens of qualified applicants, and then training the chosen ones.
This kept us extremely busy for over a year, but not in vain: the new blood brought fresh ideas and a needed boost of exuberance, and as they learned the ropes and turned into full-fledged members of the team, we started to have more time than before they joined. Time at last to eat our cookies and to …
Streamlining our product offerings was just the first step. We’d learned a lot from you — from the surveys you filled out, the emails you sent telling us what you liked and did not like, and the video chats we had.
You basically told us what our next step needed to be!
For reasons we confessed in Episode IV and Episode V, our website is a mess, inside and out. Inside, a patchwork of new and old code made the site slow, clunky, and easy to break. Outside, the site is a flurry of pages that are, at best, loosely organized.
This is going to change.
Examine 2.0 is a complete rebuild. It loads faster, looks better, and is easier to navigate — from a computer, tablet, or phone. We’ve revamped the user experience by reorganizing the website around what matters most — your health conditions and goals. A new grading system will make it even easier for you to pinpoint the supplements or other health interventions most likely to benefit you, based on the evidence.
Will it be enough to boost our search engine ranking? Who knows! Google’s algorithms are still a secret and still being tweaked, with results we can’t predict.
But it’ll be worth it for you—that we can predict.
Thank you for staying with me throughout this long post. Thank you for staying with us through our trials and tribulations. We base our work on an ethic of public service instead of maximizing profit at any cost, and without you reading and using our information, and supporting our work, there is no Examine.
May the Force be with you.
Get on the Early bird list for Examine 2.0!
Want bigger savings and a chance to win a lifetime membership when Examine 2.0 launches?
Get me on the Earlybird list!