Technologizer

Five Things You Need to Know About Google’s ‘Farmer’ Search Engine Upgrade

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On Friday, after several months of atypically harsh coverage of the quality of Google’s search results–see here and here–the planet’s dominant search engine rolled out some major changes. (It says it’s been working on them for months, since before the recent discontent surfaced.) A few quick notes about the update and related matters:

1. It’s not necessarily a content-farm killer.

The blogosphere is calling Google’s tweaks the “Farmer” update–a name I first saw used by Search Engine Land’s search guru, Danny Sullivan. That’s a reference to controversial “content farms” such as Demand Media (the parent of eHow), Yahoo’s Associated Content, and AOL’s Seed. Content farms crank out vast quantities of ad-supported content–much of it um, not so hot–that’s search engine-optimized to within an inch of its life, so it shows up as high as possible in Google results. But when I talked with Google Fellow Amit Singhal for a story I’m working on for this week’s dead-tree edition of TIME, he told me that the changes aren’t meant to penalize any particular site, or any specific type of content.

Number-crunching by Sistrix seems to confirm Singhal’s stance. eHow–perhaps the single best-known product of content farming–doesn’t seem to have been hurt by Google’s revisions. In fact, Sistrix says eHow is now doing better in Google’s results than before.

2. It’s still a big deal.

Singhal told me that the recent changes are among the most significant Google has ever implemented in one fell swoop: 11.8 percent of queries will get meaningfully different results than before. Like Sistrix, SEOClarity analyzed what’s changed. It reports that big-name sites such as Amazon, eBay, Wikipedia, and Walmart.com are winners, while sites such as TheFind.com, BizRate.com, ShopWiki.com, EzineArticles, HubPages, and Associated Content are losers.

It’s tough to tell from these lists just how well Google has done at improving the overall quality of results. For what its worth, HubPages doesn’t strike me as providing anything like bottom-of-the-barrel material. But then there are sites such as EzineArticles, which is rife with items like this gem (“Moving around in a taxi seems like an outlandish thing…”).

3. Google isn’t saying how it’s defining and identifying “high quality” and “low quality” content.

Much of the magic of the venerable Google algorithm is pretty objective–such as the way it takes a high volume of inbound links to a specific site as evidence that the Web has decided that the site is important. Rating a piece of content as “high quality” or “low quality,” on the other hand, is an inherently subjective process.  Google isn’t sharing details on its techniques: Singhal told me that doing so would help those who seek to game the system.

4. If you use Chrome, you can decide which sites are “low quality.”

Back on Valentine’s Day, Google released an add-in for its Chrome browser called Personal Blacklist. It lets you block entire domains from showing up in results with a click, permitting you to eradicate any ones which you simply don’t think are worth your time. It’s a separate project from the “Farmer” search update, but Google says that its search adjustments address 84 percent of the top few dozen sites most often blocked by Personal Blacklist users to date.

5. Other sites are fighting lousy search results, too.

For a category that feels like a duopoly–hello, Google and Bing!–search actually has its share of scrappy newcomers. So if you’re dissatisfied with the superpowers, try a mom-and-pop search engine such as Blekko, Duck Duck Go, or Topsy. All three aim to remove spammy sites from your results–Blekko and Duck Duck Go by blocking some domains, and Topsy by listing pages based not on linkage around the Web but by how often they’re mentioned by influential Twitter users. I don’t know of any engines that are truly free of spam, low-grade farmed content, and other detritus, but these three are worthwhile antidotes to Google ennui.

So what’s your take on the state of Google’s search results–either in general or after Friday’s overhaul?

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