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Legit Sites Could Get Caught in Google's Content Farm Crosshairs

By Richard Adhikari
Feb 25, 2011 12:16 PM PT

Google on Thursday began using a new algorithm to rid its top search results of what it described as low-quality websites.

Legit Sites Could Get Caught in Google's Content Farm Crosshairs

This will reduce the rankings for sites that are low value-add for users, ones that copy content from other websites, or sites that just aren't very useful.

Simultaneously, the algorithm will improve the rankings for high-quality sites, which Google defines as sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports and thoughtful analysis.

The use of the algorithm may be a reaction to companies that try game the Google ranking system, or perhaps a bid to clamp down on content farms.

However, there's a danger that legitimate sites may be affected.

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

Smiting Bad Sites

The new algorithm will impact 12 percent of queries on Google.

It addresses 84 percent of the top several dozen or so domains that users of the Google Chrome Web browser blocked the most using the Personal Blocklist Chrome extension, Google claimed.

This extension, released recently, lets users block or unblock search result patterns, then transmits those patterns Google along with the URLs of the Web pages on which those search results are displayed.

Given Google's status as the first tool many people use when trying to find something on the Web, many sites have been trying to game the Google URL ranking system since its creation. Perhaps two of the most prominent in recent months were J.C. Penney and Overstock.com. They allegedly got multiple sites to link back to them so as to increase their standings in the rankings. Both companies have, in essence, denied this was a deliberate act condoned by top management.

Among the most persistent gamers of the ranking system, however, are sites known as "content farms."

Farming Content

The definition of a content farm is open to debate. Some sites are easier to label than others. Sites on which the content is almost entirely lifted from other websites easily fit the definition, as do sites that churn out random patterns of words which satisfy algorithms but make no sense to human readers.

However, the "content farm" label is sometimes also applied to websites that carry original, readable content if that content's been generated by teams of relatively low-paid freelancers who write large amounts of text in what critics say is an effort to gain the algorithms' favor and raise the site's rankings rather than provide good information.

One company sometimes accused of content farming is Demand Media, which oversees properties like eHow.com, Cracked.com, Livestrong.com and Golflink.com. Its CEO, Richard Rosenblatt, has rejected the content farm label, but it appears Google's move has been a cause of concern for its investors. The company's stock lost over 5 percent in the hours following Google's announcement, though it's since recovered some of that ground. Demand Media's IPO happened less than a month ago.

"The whole phenomenon of Demand Media and associated content and feeds really is borne out of this world where everything comes off Google, and the idea is that you're going to respond to every conceivable scenario on Google, and you'll grab all these eyeballs because you're responsive and you'll sell to all these users," Greg Sterling, founding principal of Sterling Market Intelligence, told TechNewsWorld.

The company responded Thursday to Google's announcement with a blog post from Larry Fitzgibbons, executive vice president of media and operations, in which he asserts the company's sites create useful and original content.

Demand Media spokesperson Quinn Daly declined comment.

The Good, the Bad and the Just Plain Crappy

The debate over what kinds of content farming should be targeted can get even stickier.

After all, many news sites repurpose stories across multiple e-zines. Does that count as copying content? And what about news aggregators like Popurls or shopping site aggregators like Amazon and Newegg? They don't contain much original content.

"That is a nebulous term, and it's subjective, although they are getting feedback from users of their Chrome extension about some sites, so it's not purely a Star Chamber," Sterling said.

"The goal of this action was to target very specific companies that make a living gumming up the first page of search engine rankings and, most importantly, to score a big PR win," Joshua Bixby, cofounder and president of Strangeloop, told TechNewsWorld.

However, there is the danger that legitimate sites might be targeted by the new algorithm.

"Like all previous changes, this algorithm will probably catch the good guys as well," Bixby opined. "Some SEOs (search engine optimizers) have reported seeing 40 percent traffic drops to their sites already."

The problem arises because Google's definition is nebulous.

"There's an enormous amount of gray area here," Sterling pointed out. For example, the one of the sites blocked by spam-blocking site Blekko based on user feedback is Buzillions.com, he said.

"I talked to Buzillions' chief marketing officer, and he's not concerned about being blocked by Blekko because it's a small player, but he's not happy to have his site labeled spam," Sterling added.

Still, sites such as Reddit and Digg may not fall prey to the new Google algorithm.

"There's enough original content there that they probably wouldn't be subject to the algorithm," Sterling explained. "Google's stance is about the philosophy of content creation as much as about the mechanical. They always ask ... are you delivering value, and are your users going to benefit from it, or are you doing something quickly and in a perfunctory way to capture search traffic?"

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