In the war brewing between Google and content farms, Demand Media seems to be winning, while Associated Content appears to be the first casualty.
Roughly a month ago, Google announced it was tweaking its algorithm specifically to weed out low quality sites, “or sites that are just not very useful,” according to a company blog post. Though it wasn’t explicit about which sites are considered not useful, Google’s message seemed clearly aimed at companies like Demand Media, Associated Content, Examiner.com and others that crank out thousands of search-friendly general interest articles.
As soon as Google’s switch occurred, Demand CEO Richard Rosenblatt said that his company’s sites hadn’t been hurt by the algorithm adjustment—though it’s unlikely that many in the industry believed him. Yet the early comScore numbers appear to bear out Rosenblatt’s boast.
During the weeks ending Feb. 20 and Feb 27—just before Google made the switch—Demand Media was reaching around 26 to 26.6 million weekly unique users, per comScore. Over the next two weeks Demand’s unique total grew, exceeding 27 million uniques each time.
Demand’s signature property, eHow, also saw its traffic climb, from around 22.6 million unique weekly users to 24.1 million during the week ending Mar 13. Still, Livestrong.com–Demand’s health-oriented site launched in conjunction with cycling legend Lance Armstrong–has taken a hit, slipping from roughly 3.1 million users during the week ending Feb. 20 to under 2.4 million users by Mar. 13.
Meanwhile, Demand’s rival Associated Content —which is owned by Yahoo—has been hurt considerably by Google’s algorithm changes. After peaking at around 4.4 million unique weekly users during the week ending Feb. 13, the site has plummeted to just over 2 million uniques in each of the first two weeks in March.
To be fair, since the acquisition, Yahoo has been more focused on using Associated Content’s articles to complement its own sites than for driving traffic to, and monetizing, Associatedcontent.com. In November Yahoo used Associated Content as a launching pad for a new initiative, the Yahoo Contributor Network, which tasks both Associated freelancers and citizen journalists with churning out articles and photos based on specific assignments, for which they can earn cash. Last week Yahoo tapped into its network for remembrances of the late actress Elizabeth Taylor.
“The Yahoo Contributor Network is committed to surfacing its highest quality content and contributors to the largest possible audience, and the focus of this strategy is on distribution across Yahoo’s leading media properties and products,” said the company in a statement. “While off-network distribution is constantly evolving, we believe the Yahoo Contributor Network remains the best platform for contributors to reach audiences at scale, including the hundreds of millions of people who visit Yahoo.” Regardless, the recent shortfall is noteworthy, and potentially concerning for Yahoo.
Examiner.com has also seen its traffic slide over the past four weeks, from over 4 million weekly users to 3.2 million—yet that figure is more consistent with the company’s weekly traffic that had been recorded in previous months.
Besides Associated, the company taking the biggest traffic haircut since Google’s switch appears to be the freelancer-fueled Ezinearticles.com, which lost about 1.5 million users in the past few weeks.
So how has Google’s algorithm affected sites outside the content farm industry? Based on conversations with several top publishers and networks, and select comScore data, it seems to have mostly helped boost, or at least solidify, traffic across the web. For example, iVillage has added about a million users over the four weeks leading up to Mar. 13, landing at 9.8 million, while People.com gained close to 700,000 users during that time.
WebMd has picked up nearly half a million unique users—perhaps as a direct result of Livestrong’s struggles. Service-oriented properties like Babycenter and the Home Haven Network of blogs–which on some level compete with eHow—have seen traffic hold steady, though Foodnetwork.com—which would seemingly stand to gain audience, saw it’s unique user figures slip by around 400,000 users.
“iVillage has seen a positive impact from the algorithm change,” said iVillage executive Jodi Kahn. “Our traffic continues to increase, and it looks like the change is doing what it is supposed to. We’re excited that this change recognizes quality publishers and delivers better search results to users.”
Yet not every publisher is happy. The relationship site YourTango.com, which produces original, arguably high quality content on relationships, saw an immediate drop in traffic following Google’s moves. “We saw it the day it occurred,” said CEO Andrea Miller. “We’re not even close to a content farm.” Per comScore, YourTango’s audience dropped from 473,000 unique users during the week ending Feb. 13 to just over a 100,000 by Mar. 6, before rebounding slightly.
Since YourTango syndicates content to The Huffington Post and MSN, Miller originally suspected that sites employing multiple traffic partnerships might be penalized by the algorithm shakeup. “Our intent of these partnerships was never for the content to be used for search purposes,” she said. “Plus there is nothing worse than the site who originated the content being outranked by a partner site who syndicated it.”
But few other content syndicators saw the same sort of trend. “If anything, we’ve seen an uptick,” said Mark Westlake, chief revenue officer at TechMediaNetwork, which includes properties like Livescience.com and Space.com, which distribute content to sites such as MSNBC.com, Yahoo, Foxnews.com and AOL. “We’ve heard that fear that if you syndicate a lot, you’ll be accused of duplicating content,” added Westlake, a former About.com executive. “But we do lots of content syndication and it helps us [with search].”
The fact that they seem to be alone in their struggle has led YourTango to scramble over the past few weeks to figure out what, exactly, was happening. The company has employed various technical switches—though most publishers are always somewhat in the dark as to how Google’s search rankings actually work. “Our Google traffic has started to return,” said Miller. “Certain articles where we slipped to the 2nd [Google search results] page, we’re back on the first page for example. We are in the process of completing a handful of changes, mostly around canonical tags and clarifying to Google when content is syndicated so we don’t get penalized for it.”
“It is definitely a moving target,” Miller added. “Google is so opaque.”