Google’s New Search Results to Wither ‘Content Farm’ Crops

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Google is tweaking its search results as part of an ongoing effort “to give people the most relevant answers to their queries as quickly as possible,” according to a company blog post.

While the search giant refines its ranking algorithm on a fairly consistent basis, this latest revamp is a big one—”a change that noticeably impacts 11.8% of our queries,” says Google, and 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.”

While Google doesn’t explicitly come out and say that this new update takes dead-aim at sites known as “content farms,” that’s exactly what’s happening. Danny Sullivan over at Search Engine Land has a detailed write-up of all the ins and outs, but here are the basics behind Google’s plan.

Anatomy of a Content Farm

No website in its right mind would refer to itself as a content farm, but we’ve all come across them during our various web searches. These are the how-to articles with a few vague, etheric steps accompanied by ads before, during, after and on the sides of the text. Sometimes you’ll actually find the answer you’re looking for, but more often than not you’ll find yourself back on Google looking for more helpful information.

Google’s aim is to start stuffing these types of articles lower down in its search results. But how did they get so high up in the first place?

How to Get to the Top of Google

There are several tricks—some work better than others—but Google’s official stance is basically that sites with high-quality content that get linked to by several other websites that also have high-quality content should appear higher in search rankings. Highly-trafficked sites are generally believed to have high-quality content; otherwise, why would they be so highly trafficked?

But there’s also a first-mover advantage. Take a look at Google’s publicly-available Google Trends data and you’ll notice “gas prices” listed under the “Hot Topics” section today.

A content farm would start churning out articles with titles like “How to Beat High Gas Prices” and “Gas Prices Got You Down? Here’s How to Save.” The articles themselves would likely be simple lists with tips like “Shop around!” and “Use a cash-back rewards card!” or “Don’t drive as much!”

Since people are explicitly searching for “gas prices” today, these articles have a shot at appearing at the top of Google’s search results because they appear to be timely-written pieces. And the more people that click on the articles in Google’s search results, the more highly-trafficked the articles become. Even if they’re low-quality articles to begin with, the fact that so many people are clicking on them make them more appealing to Google.

So from a publisher’s perspective, there’s a big emphasis placed on getting articles churned out quickly and in high volume. Does it matter that 50 writers are writing gas prices articles for the same site? Nope, but once you’re done with your gas prices piece, dear writer, move on to the next trending item.

As such, writers for these sites are usually paid low rates per article so it’s in their best interests to write as many “good enough” articles as they can to pass by their respective copy editors and make it onto the site.

Demand Media Is/Is Not a Content Farm

Demand Media is a big company that owns a bunch of content sites, some of which get accused of content farm-like behavior—, being the most high-profile example.

In a statement issued shortly after Google’s announcement, Demand Media’s Larry Fitzgibbon said the following:

“As might be expected, a content library as diverse as ours saw some content go up and some go down in Google search results.This is consistent with what Google discussed on their blog post. It’s impossible to speculate how these or any changes made by Google impact any online business in the long term – but at this point in time, we haven’t seen a material net impact on our Content & Media business.”

This is echoed somewhat by Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan:

“I guess it all comes down to what your definition of a ‘content farm’ is. From Google’s earlier blog post, content farms are places with ‘shallow or low quality content.’

In that regard, …Demand Media properties like eHow are not necessarily content farms, because they do have some deep and high quality content. However, they clearly also have some shallow and low quality content.”

The Upside: High Quality Content Farms?

However you choose to label sites that churn out high volumes of content, it appears that the content that gets produced by these sites will now have to be of high-enough quality to climb to the top of Google’s search results.

Whether that means paying writers a bit more so they can spend longer on articles or letting fewer of the low-quality articles past the editors, the overall upside is beneficial for those of us searching for relevant content.

Google’s new search results changes have taken place in the U.S. already and will expand “elsewhere over time.”

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