Will Google's New Search Algorithm Shut Down Content Farms?

The search giant launches a new way to rank web pages, aimed at reducing the search rankings of "low quality" content

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After months of criticism about muddled search results, Google has launched a "big algorithmic improvement" to reduce rankings for "low-quality sites." But does this mean that the search giant is taking particular aim at content farms like Demand Media, Associated Content and Philip Anschutz's Examiner.com? Those websites, which specialize in producing search engine optimized (SEO) content riddled with "How do I do X" articles, have been frequently criticized for poor content that is mindlessly scraped from other sites or, in a few isolated cases, made up.

In Google's official announcement, no specific mention is made about reducing rankings for these sites. But it's assumed that statements like this--"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"--are taken to mean that the company is directly responding to content farms. Google says that the algorithmic change will affect 11.8 percent of search queries and reward high-quality sites to encourage a "healthy web ecosystem."

How will Google's announcement actually affect users search results? In theory, it's supposed to return items from higher-quality websites (kinda like what the start-up engine Blekko already does). But the content-farming "flush with IPO cash" Demand Media has issued a statement saying that traffic hasn't been affected: "we haven’t seen a material net impact on our Content & Media business." But when Demand originally filed to go public, one of the risks they identified was the potential for "changes in the methodologies used by search engines to display results." On Friday morning, Demand's stock price sank about 4 percent in early trading. So what's going on?

Here's the differences that tech bloggers are noticing right away:

  • There's a Few Changes, But Irrelevant Content Is Ever-Present  At Search Engine Land, Danny Sullivan noted that a ridiculed eHow article on "How to Get Pregnant Fast," which offers the  advice "enjoyable sex is key" (a prime example of content farming), has virtually disappeared. Still, he spotted plenty of other irrelevant content. And even Blekko is subject to such problems: "Blekko now automatically blocks many content farms, a move that I’ve seen hailed by some. What I haven’t seen is any in-depth look at whether what remains is that much better. When I do spot checks, it’s easy to find plenty of other low quality or completely irrelevant content showing up."
  • It's Not Clear What Google Means by 'Low Quality'   Notice that Google's announcement doesn't specifically lay out a criteria for low-quality content. Does it mean simple Huff-Po styled aggregation? Poor writing style? Unhelpful content? At ZDNet, Larry Dignan poses the question and points out the obvious ("We don’t quite know yet and Google’s algorithm is a secret") and the not so obvious ("As I noted before, there’s a slippery slope here where Google acts as the Web’s judge and jury.")
  • About Demand Media's 'Low Quality' Classification  Business Insider founder Henry Blodget appears to believe that Google is targeting Demand Media, and writes an interesting sidenote about the "low quality" designation that many paid (and unpaid) writers label the company with. He reminds:
Journalists who get paid handsomely to write articles like the ones Demand Media produces by the bushel-ful are understandably horrified by the idea that their output might only be worth, say, the $10-$20 per article that Demand pays. And certainly Demand has produced plenty of crap (as any company would that published thousands of articles a day). But since the journalists are the ones who write the articles about Demand Media's content, it's not surprising that it is usually categorized as "low quality."

Final note: The Wire is using the updated Google, and even though we spend all day Googling it's hard to tell if there's "more relevant" content appearing near the top of searches. It's really all in how you classify "relevant" content. Take a ubiquitous news meme of the day, Charlie Sheen's bizarre radio interview, as an example. When you search for the latest Sheen rant on Google, are you looking for the full, unedited audio of the radio interview? A quick, pithy blog post about the incident? A news report from a venerable media outlet like the Los Angeles Times? Or do you simply not care where you read inexplicably crude Sheen quotes?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.