Last year, a Google patent application was released for "Identifying inadequate search content". This is described as, "systems and methods for identifying inadequate search content are provided. Inadequate search content, for example, can be identified based on statistics associated with the search queries related to the content."
Bill Slawski, who frequently writes about Google patents, discussed this last summer, talking about how Google might suggest topics for users to write about. It sounds a little like Demand Media's model doesn't it?
Patrick Altoft gets credit for bringing this back into the conversation, in light of Google's Panda update, which came down hard on some sites often referred to as content farms (though not so much on Demand Media's eHow, interestingly enough). He suggests some ways that Google could go about implementing such a system, including: selling story ideas to publishers, working with partners to get them to write content, giving the data away in their keyword research tool, creating an aggregation system similar to how reviews are pulled into Google Places, or adding wiki style user contributions sections to search results.
Google has historically not been in the business of creating content, and I wouldn't expect them to go that route now. The wiki idea is interesting. Wikis seem to have done pretty well against the Panda update. wikiHow was one of the top winners according to some reports.
Google does have the wiki-like Knol, which is still in beta. What if Google started promoting it more aggressively, and integrated the system described in this patent to help push it beyond beta status?
Alternative search engine DuckDuckGo has a feature called the zero-click result, which is similar to some of the instant answer-type results Google gives. DDG recently added wikiHow to the list of sites whose content is displayed in this type of result. What if Google followed suit, but with its own wiki-style results based on topics it suggested itself? Who knows where Google's gaps are better than Google?
Here's an interesting quote from Google's Udi Manber, all the way back in 2007: "A knol on a particular topic is meant to be the first thing someone who searches for this topic for the first time will want to read. The goal is for knols to cover all topics, from scientific concepts, to medical information, from geographical and historical, to entertainment, from product information, to how-to-fix-it instructions. " (emphasis added)
Manber added, "Google will not serve as an editor in any way, and will not bless any content. All editorial responsibilities and control will rest with the authors. We hope that knols will include the opinions and points of view of the authors who will put their reputation on the line. Anyone will be free to write. For many topics, there will likely be competing knols on the same subject. Competition of ideas is a good thing."
Currently, anyone can try to edit a knol post, and the changes are sent as suggestions to the post's author. They can then either be accepted or rejected. It's a bit different than the traditional wiki, but there are some pretty obvious similarities.
In some people's eyes, there's a pretty fine line between wikis and content farms. We've spoken with wikiHow founder Jack Herrick (who also ran eHow before selling to Demand Media) about the quality differences between the two types of sites. His analysis is worth reading if you're interested in that.
If Google implemented such a system, it would no doubt be the target of a great deal of criticism, but that doesn't necessarily mean they wouldn't do it.
Who knows what Google's actual plans are with this patent? Either way, it's an interesting topic of discussion. Perhaps the real question is what SHOULD Google do with this? A gap in quality search results is a gap. It's hard to say that content from a content farm isn't better than no relevant content whatsoever. How would you like to see the gaps filled?