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Tom Seery, CEO and founder of RealSelf. (RealSelf Photo)

Less than a year after raising a $40 million investment round, Seattle-based cosmetic treatment review platform RealSelf is cutting staff in response to slowing site traffic and revenue, GeekWire has learned.

The company on Tuesday laid off 14 percent of its workers, or 36 employees, as part of a company-wide reorganization. There are now 225 employees that remain.

Founded in 2006, RealSelf raised its first substantial round of outside capital this past April to fuel growth of its Yelp-like marketplace business that helps people learn more about cosmetic procedures. That led the company to grow headcount by 40 percent last year.

“Like many companies, you grow ahead of your growth and that growth just hasn’t been showing up at the rate we thought it would,” RealSelf CEO Tom Seery told GeekWire.

RealSelf said its organic traffic has been affected by a Google search algorithm change made last year. Seery described the recent updates as “unfavorable” and said the company is working with Google to address the issue. He declined to provide details about the specific changes and how they are affecting RealSelf search results.

“We understand the underlying factors quite well,” Seery said. “We are having a conversation with Google specifically because we are in the healthcare category and there are underlying issues that are unique to the subject matter.”

Google made a core search algorithm update this past summer that negatively impacted medical, health, fitness, and healthy lifestyle companies, according to a report from Search Engine Roundtable. Other analysis showed similar results.

Google changes its search algorithm around 500-to-600 times per year, according to Moz.

Here’s a statement from Google, sent in response to a GeekWire inquiry about RealSelf.

“We regularly update our systems to ensure that we’re providing high quality, relevant results for the billions of searches we see every day. As content on the web is constantly changing, and as we work to ensure that Search is working as intended to deliver relevant results, the ranking of individual pages and sites may change. Some sites may perform better, while others may not perform as well. This does not mean that a site that isn’t performing as well has done something wrong, but rather our systems are recognizing more relevant content currently available on the web.” – a Google spokesperson

Changes made by tech giants that act as gatekeepers of information and data can have a big impact on smaller companies. For example, a small privacy tweak to Gmail in October affected app developers and email extension makers. Blok24, a Seattle startup, had to shut down last year partly due to a change Facebook made to its Event API.

Asked if RealSelf became too reliant on Google for traffic, Seery said his company is not a business that “chases the algorithm.” But he added that “every publisher is somewhat at the whim of the algorithms on Google, Facebook, Instagram, so forth.”

(RealSelf Photo)

RealSelf plans to change its marketing strategy under new chief brand and communications officer Jani Strand, a former executive at Redfin, American Eagle, and Amazon. The company will focus more on its own content, earned media, redesigned email programs, and a test-and-learn approach to advertising. It will also continue to hire in 2019, but at a reduced growth rate compared to 2018. There are six open positions on its jobs page.

RealSelf has more than two million reviews and 20,000 registered doctors on its platform, which helps users learn about procedures like botox, Invisalign, or breast implants. In 2017, 94 million people from 100 countries used RealSelf; it averages 10 million unique visitors per month.

RealSelf makes money by charging doctors for targeted exposure, much like a subscription ad product used by other Seattle-area companies including Zillow and Avvo. The company is ranked No. 19 on the GeekWire 200, our list of the top Pacific Northwest startups.

Seery, a former Expedia executive, said the market for minimally invasive, non-surgical treatments continues to grow — as does demand for information about them.

“We remain the category leader,” he said. “Nothing about this suggests that we have given up our position to someone else. We just aren’t growing as fast as we did and we want to sharpen our focus on a narrow set of key objectives for the company.”

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