There are a lot of elements of Google's Panda update to discuss, and we've certainly discussed many of them over the last few months, but let's not lose sight of the reason the update was launched to begin with - to improve search quality.
Do you think Google’s search results are better now? Tell us what you think.
While quality is often in the eye of the beholder, there are certain kinds of queries where the information being retrieved is simply more important than others. We've talked about this before, as it's been a problem in some Google results.
One example we've looked at a few times is where an eHow article written by a freelance writer with no clear authority on cancer (and whose body of work includes a lot of plumbing-related articles) was ranking at the top of Googe's results for the query "level 4 brain cancer" above numerous other sources that would seem to be of greater authority on such a subject.
In fact, the article did get bumped down after the Panda update, but it does still rank number 2, followed by another result from eHow. Granted, this is just one example, and Demand Media has efforts in motion to improve its own content quality, but you get the point.
Queries related to things like health or law demand authoritative advice. Not SEO'd content.
We had a conversation with Mark Britton, founder and CEO of Avvo about this subject. Avvo is a site that offers Q&A forums where consumers can ask medical or legal questions and get responses from qualified doctors and lawyers. It provides apparently authoritative content in these two areas from certified professionals.
This seems like the kind of content that should be ranking well for a lot of these types of queries. Does it not? Britton thinks it's "very important" for commentary from experts in the medical and legal fields to surface high in search results for relevant topics.
"There is a lot of noise both online and offline regarding health and legal issues," he tells us. "This comes in the form of lay people, professional commentators and even celebrities who often offer advice that is well-intentioned but inherently inferior to that of a doctor or lawyer trained in the area. However, it is not always easy to get doctors and lawyers to speak. Some still look down on the Internet as a publishing or marketing vehicle. Others just downright fear it, as they have seen too many movies where someone says something on the Internet and they are subsequently hunted and killed by terrorist hackers."
"There is always room for improvement -- especially with our newer pages," he says of Avvo's own search rankings. "We just launched our doctor ratings directory and our free medical question and answer forum in November, and it will take some time for those pages to rank as well as our legally related pages."
Look at the results for a query like "Does type 2 diabetes shorten life expectancy?" Avvo's page on the subject ranks on the second page, while eHow ranks at the top of the first. The Avvo result has actually fallen since I began writing this article. It used to be right below the number one result from eHow and the number 2 from Yahoo Answers.
eHow's is an article (not very long by any means) by a guy whose bio says he "has been a freelance writer since 2007. He writes extensively in the fitness, mental health and travel sectors and his work has appeared in a range of print and online publications including Scazu Fitness and USAToday Travel Tips...[and] holds a Master of Arts in community psychology."
Keep in mind that USA Today has a deal with Demand Media for travel tips. So that presumably means his Demand Media content is simply published by USA Today. Does "Master of Arts in community psychology" indicate more authority to answer a life/death question about type 2 diabetes than say a licensed and practicing MD? That's who provided an answer on Avvo's page, which just got pushed further down in the search results.
If you change the query to something simpler like "type 2 diabetes life expectancy” eHow still ranks close to the top, and Avvo's result slips to....get ready for it....page 18! That's with various articles from places like eHow, EzineArticles and Suite101 (all victims of the Panda update) ranking ahead of it. Now, I'm not saying that Avvo's result is necessarily the one ultimate result for this query and should necessarily be the highest ranked, but come on. Interestingly enough, the result was on page 3 for this query when I started writing the article (yesterday) and it's slipped that much further into obscurity just since then. I wonder where it will be in another day.
Google has given publishers a list of questions to ask themselves about their content, as guidelines the company goes by as it writes its algorithms. The very top one is “Would you trust the information presented in this article?”
While neither of the articles provide any helpful links to sources of information, the Avvo article comes from a medical doctor. I think most people would find that slightly more trustworthy, even if the article isn’t as long or as well SEO’d. Here's the eHow article. Here's the Avvo one.
The second question on Google’s list is, “Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?”
While Google makes it clear that these questions aren’t actual ranking signals, they must be used to determine the signals at least, and you have to wonder just how much weight authority on a topic carries.
Britton maintains that ALL of the site's advice comes from qualified professionals, claiming that this is one of the site's "greatest differentiators."
"We CERTIFY every doctor and lawyer offering free advice on the site in two principle ways: First, we verify with the state licensing authorities that the answering doctors or lawyers are licensed and in good standing," he explains. "Second, we rate the professionals from 1 (“Extreme Caution”) to 10 (“Superb”), which was unheard of prior to Avvo’s entry into the professional ratings arena. We are big believers that not every doctor or lawyer is 'Super' or 'Best' which was the steady-state in professional ratings for decades."
"This was really just an extension of the Yellow Pages model, where the 'recommended' professional is the one paying the most money to advertise," he continues. "But consumers are getting wise and demanding greater transparency regarding the qualifications of their doctors and lawyers."
"We have three ratings that speak to the expertise of our contributors: The Avvo Rating, client/patient ratings and peer endorsements," says Britton. "For the Avvo Rating, we start with the state licensing authorities and collect all the information we can regarding a professional. We then load that information into our proprietary web crawler, which we call 'Hoover.' Hoover goes out and finds all the additional information it can regarding the professional. We match the licensing data with the Hoover data and then we score it. The scoring is based on those indicators of the professional’s reputation, experience and quality of work."
Britton says Avvo was not really affected by Google's Panda update. "We saw a small dip, but things came back fairly quickly."
"While I understand the intent of Google’s latest update, I’m not sure they entirely hit their mark," he says. "We noticed a number of pure lead-generation sites – i.e., sites that are selling leads to the highest bidder -- jump ahead of us in certain key terms, which is not good for consumers."
Avvo encourages people to ask questions on the site, claiming it its Q&A boasts a 97% response rate.
Avvo asked us to let readers know that in support of Skin Awareness Month, it is donating $5 to the Melanoma Research Foundation for every doctor review during the month of May.
Should authority and certification of expertise carry greater weight in Google’s search rankings? Comment here.