Google Drops the Bomb on Content Farms… and the Fallout Continues

Google has updated their search algorithm so that 'content farms' and sites with duplicated content get less hits. Internet users trying to find better info are happy, but there are many sites that feel they were unfairly targeted.

Let’s face it: these days, when someone says they’re going to search something online, they might as well go ahead say they’re going to “Google it.” The stats clearly show that Google has no real competitors in computer based searching, and when it comes to mobile search, the two words are truly synonymous at an astonishing 97% going to Google. As a result, when the search engine giant targets you as an undesirable search result, its’ a big deal. Just ask JC Penney.

A little under a month ago, Google did just that; their target in this case being ‘content farms.’ The term has become the widely accepted one to describe, as Wikipedia puts it:

…a company that employs large numbers of often freelance writers to generate large amounts of textual content which is specifically designed to satisfy algorithms for maximal retrieval by automated search engines. Their main goal is to generate advertising revenue through attracting reader page views.

Also on Google’s you-know-what list were what Danny Sullivan coined ‘Scraper’ sites in his excellent article on the subject. These are sites that shamelessly ‘scrape’ high search-traffic content from elsewhere and duplicate it on their own pages.

Helpful, no?
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As you might guess, the implementation of the update was met with much elation by sites unaffected and the everyday search engine user. Google proudly announced the update affected nearly 12% of their search queries; a number even more telling when you take into account the fact that the update, to begin with, only impacted the U.S. They also pointed out that 84% of the most blocked domains identified by their Personal Blocklist extension for the Google Chrome browser were independently addressed by the algorithm update.

So all’s well that ends well, right? We, the searchers get higher quality results. Websites with better content deservedly go up in the rankings, and only content-farms and ‘scraper sites’ go down. Giant companies with content farms in their holdings made a bazillion dollars of ad-revenue, but will now need to find another venture.

If you believe that, there are also a few bridges I would like to offer you for immediate and inexpensive purchase.

The most obvious outcry has come from the content providers who claim to have been unjustly targeted by the update. And while a few of those arguing their case might as well well change their URL to ‘contentfarm#3.com’, a large number seem to be victims of an imperfect algorithm.

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A Wired magazine article highlights the case of Cult of Mac, an Apple oriented blog that no one in their right mind would consider a content farm or other type of low quality or ‘spammy’ content provider. Yet the blog was determined to have fallen 96% in SEO firm Sistrixbefore and after comparison. It’s worth noting that Sistrix’ proprietary ‘Visibility Index’ uses a farily complex valuing system as opposed to just counting keywords or clicks.

After Google was peppered by questions for the Wired story, Cult of Mac’s status has since been reinstated – but others haven’t been so lucky. The article is followed by a mass of comments that come mostly from webmasters of and contributors to sites claiming the following describe their site:

  • All original content
  • Content is recognized as high quality
  • Other sites have plagiarized their content

So what’s a webmaster to do? Drop Google a line and hope – the search giant has started a thread in their support forum, but made it clear that the data received will go to their engineers to study and incorporate as they see fit in future updates. Translation: maybe your site will be reinstated to full ‘Google Juice’, and maybe not.

Knowing that there’s strength in numbers, impromptu support groups for those affected have even popped up in forums around the net. While this may sound somewhat laughable at first blush, remember that many of the affected individuals are running sites that may be a large source of income.

To think, however, that this is evidence of Google being evil, would be silly. No algorithm is perfect. Google has said so in so many words. Interestingly though, their release announcing the algorithm update made no mention of content farms – rather, simply an attempt to weed out lower quality content. A wise choice, since a huge can of worms would have been opened if Google was explicitly claiming to be categorizing sites as content farms. An entry on Google’s blog a month prior, however, minces no words about the type of sites that were in their sights.

But some are claiming that Google purposely targeted certain other sites with ulterior motives. Some have suggested that certain domains were targeted because they are competitors to Google’s services such as Google Maps and Google Shopping.

Others draw attention to the cases of Demand Media and Associated Content. The widespread view is that both of these umbrella companies are mostly made up of sites that provide what would be considered ‘content-farm’ type material. Yet Demand Media saw far less of its content affected with one of its holdings, the well known ehow.com, actually seeing improvement in its Google standing after the update. Associated Content, conversely, saw two-thirds of its content fall in Google search rankings. Why the tongue wagging and finger pointing? Last year, Associated Content was purchased by Yahoo.

So which is it? Is Google, in a never ending quest to provide users with the best service possible, simply tuning their engine closer to perfection? Or are they, with their near monopoly status, flexing their muscles and weeding out those they find undesirable, with the occasional competitor getting the old heave-ho? While it’s impossible to say for sure at this point, a safe guess seems to be almost entirely column ‘A’, with just a wee bit of column ‘B’.