Did Google’s Algorithm Update Go Far Enough on Content Farms?

    February 26, 2011
    Chris Crum

As you probably know by now, Google has implemented a new algorithm change that the company says impacts 11.8% of their queries. While Google would not come out and say directly that the update is aimed at content farms, this is widely understood to be the case. 

Are you satisfied with Google’s Update? Tell us what you think

What Google did say, is: "This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on."

Google has referred to content farms in the past, as "sites with shallow or low-quality content," and also recently said, "attention has shifted to content farms". 

There was some confusion the last time Google made a major update (last month). People originally thought that was about content farms, but that turned out not to be the case. Everything seems to indicate that this one is really targeting them.

Now, the first words that come to mind when you hear "content farm" are likely "Demand Media". It makes sense. Do a Google search for "content farm" and almost every result on the first page will mention the company.
Content Farm Usually turns up where Demand Media does

Demand insists that it is not a content farm, but was quick to release a statement following Google’s update. In that statement, EVP of Media and Operations Larry Fitzgibbon said, "As might be expected, a content library as diverse as ours saw some content go up and some go down in Google search results. This is consistent with what Google discussed on their blog post. It’s impossible to speculate how these or any changes made by Google impact any online business in the long term – but at this point in time, we haven’t seen a material net impact on our Content & Media business."

I’m thinking it’s probably too early to tell. Google just started implementing this update on Wednesday. Let’s see what their traffic’s looking like a month from now. Two months from now. A year from now. 

A lot of Demand’s eHow content is still ranking high. The "level 4 brain cancer" result we recently looked at, for example, is still ranking. Danny Sullivan points to an example that dropped though. Sullivan, who spoke with Matt Cutts about the subject, says he wouldn’t confirm or deny that eHow was part of the list of sites that were impacted (Google says 84% of the top several dozen domains reported to be blocked by the recently launched Chrome extension are also impacted by the algorithm change – Google is not using data from the extension to influence the algorithm at this point). "These are sites that people want to go down, and they match our intuition," Cutts is quoted as saying.

To me, it sounds like it is targeted toward content on a page-by-page (or article-by-article) basis, as opposed to an entire domain – hence some eHow content going up and some going down. In fact, Cutts indicated in the past that it needs to be done algorithmically rather than through human intervention, like other search engines (Blekko and DuckDuckGo) have done. To me, that would seem to suggest their not just going to knock down eHow as a whole, but maybe some of the lesser quality stuff (though there’s clearly still work to be done here). 

Based on the fact that so much content of questionable quality still remains ranked highly, following Google’s announcement, Kara Swisher at AllThingsD goes so far as to suggest Google’s update is more PR than anything. "Perhaps I’m being cynical, but the noisy search algorithm changes, while welcome to those using Google, also have a pretty clear goal to burnish the Silicon Valley company’s image," she says.

Of course there is still that element of revenue to think about too. 

Demand Media says its other means of traffic are growing – social media, for example. While it’s unlikely that their social traffic is anything near their search traffic at this point, this should still greatly benefit the company in search too. Let’s not forget that Google is also rolling out its social search update, which will inject content shared by users’ friends directly into the search results mix. Other search engines, including Bing, are also doing different things to make results incorporate more social data, then there are other tools out there like Greplin and Wajam (with more to come, no doubt).

Demand Media actually already has a significant advantage in social search, being the biggest supplier of videos to YouTube (which is also often touted as the 2nd largest search engine). Demand also gets the advantage of turning up in Google’s universal search results from videos. The company has also mentioned having an increased focus on video.  

If Demand Media is forced to rely more on social than organic search, that should force quality, because people are far less likely to share crap (unless they’re making fun of it). Demand has also been talking up a "curation layer" for its content that is working on, which would allow readers to indicate whether content is good or bad. They would then work on fixing the stuff deemed bad – so they say, at least. 

Google says, "Our goal is simple: to give people the most relevant answers to their queries as quickly as possible. This requires constant tuning of our algorithms, as new content—both good and bad—comes online all the time." That’s probably why they want to deliver their own results more, but people have a problem with that too. They’re even under government scrutiny in that department. 

Interestingly enough, Google’s main rival, Bing, has been involved in cultivating that, despite showing its own content frequently itself. Perhaps Bing realizes that it will, to some extent, impede Google from providing the kind of quality search results it wants in some scenarios. 

Still, no matter how many algorithm updates Google implements, search results will never be as good as they otherwise could be, as long as their omitting Facebook data. Bing is trying to get a leg up on Google by integrating Facebook, but Facebook itself could be where the power really lies. Google should be concerned about Facebook changing its mind about not wanting to be in search, for reasons discussed here

Many publishers have been praising Google’s actions on content farms. Pam Horan, president of the Online Publishers Association tells WebProNews, "The OPA commends Google for their recent algorithm change that will reduce the rankings for high-volume, low-quality content sites to recognize the value of high-quality, originally-produced content by professional media brands. This is encouraging for web publishers who pay highly trained professionals to write quality stories and for consumers who look to Google to give them access to the quality content they are searching for across the digital landscape."

"We believe this change will enable more high-quality content to populate the top searches, and addresses recent efforts by content farms and others that have been working to ‘game’ Google’s algorithm for better positioning," she adds. 

If nothing else, perhaps the PR motivations Swisher spoke of are paying off. 

We’ll simply have to reserve any judgments on Google’s search quality as affected by this update, until we’ve had more time to naturally encounter more quality or a lack thereof.

Have you noticed a change in Google’s quality since the update? Let us know.


Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.