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Google's Content-Farm Algorithm Yields Bitter Harvest

Google's Content-Farm Algorithm Yields Bitter Harvest

Google recently deployed a new algorithm meant to lower the rankings of so-called content farms -- sites that churn out low-quality content built only to catch Google rankings and drive advertising. In many cases, the algorithm has done its job and Google searches are now cleaner. But some legitimate websites say they've been caught in the crossfire and unfairly demoted.

By Richard Adhikari
03/04/11 5:00 AM PT

Late last month, Google deployed a new algorithm intended to improve the quality of its search results, and as some critics feared, the results have in several cases hurt legitimate websites.

The algorithm was meant to clamp down on website owners gaming the system to raise their standings in search results.

Perhaps two of the most prominent accused system-gamers in recent months were J.C. Penney and Overstock.com. Both allegedly got multiple sites to link back to them to improve their site rankings, though both companies have denied this was a deliberate act backed by top management.

Prominent as they are, J.C. Penney and Overstock were basically one-off players whose nuisance was abated when they were called out by Google. A far worse problem is that of content farmers -- sites that basically churn out junk or copy content in a targeted manner to game Google's website ranking system.

These content farms have plagued Google for years, leading to several attempts by the Internet search giant to weed them out.

The latest Google algorithm, nicknamed "Farmer Update," is the latest such attempt.

The Farming of Content

What constitutes a content farm is open to debate.

A general consensus is that the label applies to websites that lift content almost entirely from other sites. However, that's also true of sites that churn out patterns of words that satisfy Google's algorithms, using search engine optimization (SEO) techniques.

One example of using SEO techniques is to create content based on topics currently hot on the Web. For example, a story about actress Elizabeth Taylor that may be trending now would spur content farms to create content about the actress, mentioning her name as frequently as possible.

Overdoing or misusing SEO techniques is called "black hat SEO" in the business. However, the difference between legitimate and black hat SEO can sometimes be a matter of opinion.

It's sometimes difficult to mechanically distinguish between unwanted garbage and legitimate sites using any of these techniques -- churning out content or using SEO. That possibly led to the "Farmer Update" algorithm sweeping up a few legitimate sites in its hunt for content farmers.

Fluctuations in the Harvest

"Content farms are obviously the prime offenders, but there are concepts and approaches thin-content sites use that spill over to all kinds of sites," Adam Audette, CEO of AudetteMedia, pointed out.

Product pages with text supplied by manufacturers that are repeated across "dozens, hundreds even" of e-commerce sites, duplicate content that's created from mass syndication of news, and comparison shopping networks are examples of thin-content sites, Audette told TechNewsWorld.

Legitimate victims reportedly include Cult of Mac, a popular Apple-focused blog; onedayonejob.com; and Complete Review. These sites apparently saw a sharp drop in Google search rankings just after the algorithm went into effect, though Cult of Mac's standing was later reportedly restored.

One site, Mahalo, was hit so hard by the new algorithm that founder Jason Calacanis reportedly laid off 10 percent of its staff.

Calacanis did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Reaping What You Sow

Still, it's almost a given that some legitimate sites will get clobbered by Google's algorithm.

"We've seen collateral damage happen with just about every large Google update," AudetteMedia's Audette said. "It's part of the Google landscape."

Overall, however, the new algorithm seems to have managed to weed out some of the bad players. Searchmetrics' analysis of 39 content farm-style domains showed they suffered an average fall of 57 percent in performance.

"Suite101.com, blippr.com and answerbag.com are definite examples of content farm-style domains," Horst Joepen, Searchmetrics' CEO, told TechNewsWorld. All were affected by the change in Google's algorithm.

However, sites such as Wikihow.com, Answers.yahoo.com, Instructables.com, Howstuffworks.com and eHow.com gained in terms of absolute visibility.

Absolute visibility refers to the absolute change in the index value, Joepen said. This is calculated to indicate an estimated number of visitors to a site daily. "Wikihow, for example, recorded an approximately additional 200,000 visitors per day from their organic search results," he added.

News portals such as MSN.com, Mashable.com, ZDnet.com and Wired.com also saw their search result rankings improve after Farmer Update was introduced.

"From where we sit on the SEO side, there isn't much collateral damage in this release," AudetteMedia's Audette said. "In several cases, our clients are faring better after the release of the algorithm."

A Knight in Rusty Armor

Perhaps the "Farmer Update" algorithm isn't designed to take out all content farms plaguing Google.

"Google's calculation may be to keep the two or three largest farms in the mix while cutting off the smaller ones," Mark Ballard, a senior analyst at the Rimm-Kaufman Group, told TechNewsWorld.

"This way, they preserve a good chunk of the content farm traffic and its revenue, while making their results appear less cluttered," Ballard added.

That may not sit well with owners of legitimate websites, who suffer from the impact of content farmers on their search rankings.

How to Survive Being Collateral Damage

Owners of legit sites that have been hammered by Farmer Update should assess their historical practices, strengths and weaknesses and see if there's anything in their profiles that could be deemed against Google's webmaster guidelines, AudetteMedia's Audette suggested. Then, they should file a re-inclusion request with Google.

"Low-quality pages on one part of a site can impact the overall ranking of that site," Google spokesperson Jake Hubert pointed out.

Publishers who feel they were wrongly impacted can post in Google's webmaster forums, Hubert added.

Legit website owners should also look to diversify.

"Google represents the lion's share of revenue potential," Audette stated. "However, I think marketers need to diversify and start looking beyond Google, to YouTube, Bing, and social media," he added.

Google will "consider feedback from publishers and the community" as it tweaks its algorithm further, its spokesperson, Hubert, said.


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