Feb 25 2011

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

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. 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 effected (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 content is going to be affected on a page-by-page (or article-by-article) basis, as opposed to an entire domain being affected – 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 they’re 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 .

Feb 17 2011

How Google Uses Twitter, SafeSearch – Matt Cutts Changes Advice

Matt Cutts posted a new Webmaster Help video in which he answers his own question rather than a user-submitted one (like usual). Specifically, he asks if there’s any advice that he’d like to change from what he’s said in the past.  "I did a video back in May of 2010, that said we don’t use, for example, Twitter at all in our rankings other than as a normal web page, and the links are treated completely like normal web pages," he says. He then references a recent Danny Sullivan article which breaks down how both Google and Bing use Twitter . He notes that Google worked with him to ensure its accuracy. "It says that in some cases we do look at, for example, how reputable a particular person on Twitter might be, and we can use that in our rankings in some ways." And another thing that Cutts wanted to update… "SafeSearch, when I wrote the very first version, years and years and years ago – whenever you’re not able to crawl something – so for example, if it’s blocked by robots.txt, since people have deliberately said, ‘I would like a safe version – a family-safe version of Google, we would say, ‘oh, if we haven’t been able to crawl it, then we don’t know whether it’s porn or not, so we’re not going to be able to return it to users," says Cutts. "So, the Library of Congress or WhiteHouse.gov or Metallica at one point…Nissan, had blocked various pages from being crawled in the search engines, and so to be safe, we said, ‘you know what? We don’t know whether that’s family-safe or not, so we won’t return it’,"  he adds. "Luckily, the SafeSearch team has gotten much more sophisticated, and better, and more robust since I wrote the original version, so now that’s something that we might change. If something is forbidden from being crawled, but for whatever reason we think that it might be safe, now we’ll start to return it in our search results." It’s always good to set the record straight.

Feb 1 2011

Google, Bing, and Blekko Talk Content Farms and Search Quality

Matt Cutts from Google, Harry Shum from Bing, and Rich Skrenta from Blekko spoke on a panel today at the Farsight Summit. Much of the conversation was around the Bing/Google results copying ordeal , but part of the conversation was about search quality in general, and the impact content farms are having on it.  Blekko announced this morning that it has banned eHow and other content farms from its results. See the full list here . Watch our recent interview with Skrenta about webspam here .  Cutts was quick to extend some praise to Blekko, saying they "made a great domain," and that he appreciates that they’ve done some interesting things lately, mentioning the spam clock, for example. He quickly followed that up by saying, "The fact is that we do use algorithms and that’s our first instinct, but when we see manual spam, we are willing to remove it manually." He added that within Google, they could say certain domain names are webspam, but they’re trying to do things algorithmically. "We have a lot more projects that we’re working on," he added, appearing to suggest that Google’s not done with its content farm cleanup process – at least that’s how I interpreted it (something I suggested in a recent article ).  Cutts said that when Google finds spam with its manual team, it also ejects it from Adsense, and that people tend to put the blame on AdSense, but even if that disappeared, we’d still have spam.  When asked what incentive Google would have to remove content from AdSense-driven pages that drive billions of dollars for the company, he just said that Google has always taken the philosophy that they care more about the long-time loyalty of users.  Then Demand Media was specifically brought up (as it has been by inquiring minds in other instances), but there was still plenty of vagueness. Cutts’ response was to mention a comment on Hacker News about how Demand Media had five articles on how to tie your shoes, then simply turn it around to "we don’t care if a site is running Google ads…we take action…we want to find an algorithmic solution."  Meanwhile, plenty of this type of content is still saturating Google SERPs. There are way more than five articles from eHow on fixing scratches in your car’s paint, as illustrated in another article : Note: He did not say anything to the effect of "we don’t consider eHow a content farm." Clearly Blekko is less shy about what it considers a content farm (again, see the list linked to above). Skrenta says "there’s more spam than good sites," and that it’s "easier to make a list of the sites that you actually want to go to. He notes that the top fifty medical sites have actual doctors and medical librarians creating and curating content (as opposed to what you might find from a site like eHow).  The Bing position appears to be to let Google lead the way in how to deal with search quality, which is kind of a fun position given the whole results-copying ordeal. Shum said Matt and Google need to "take this thing very seriously" because they and the industry are looking to the leader to make the web more fair and cleaner. He did say that they were also looking at Blekko and what others are saying about the topic as well.