Search Notes: Google targets "content farms"

Examining Google's algorithm change and how it affects searchers and site owners.

This space is meant to be a weekly roundup of the latest news in the world of search, but last week all the news was about one thing: how Google’s latest algorithm changes target “content farms.” Below, a recap of what this change means to you as a searcher or a content owner.

Google announces substantial algorithm change

GoogleOn February 24th, Google announced that they were making a substantial change in their ranking algorithms that would impact 12% of queries. Google makes algorithm changes every day, but few are at this scale.

According to Google’s blog post:

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. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites — sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.

The post noted that feedback from the personal blocklist Chrome extension was not used. However, Google did compare extension data to sites that lost ranking after the algorithm change: 84% of the sites users are blocking with the Chrome extension have been impacted

Google said that:

We’ve been tackling these issues for more than a year, and working on this specific change for the past few months. And we’re working on many more updates that we believe will substantially improve the quality of the pages in our results.

Change targeted at “content farms”?

Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land talked to Google about the changes and concluded that they were likely aimed at so-called “content farms” — sites with armies of writers generating (sometimes low-quality) articles based on popular searches.

About a month ago, fledgling search startup Blekko chose another path in reducing the number of content-farm style pages in their search results: they simply banned the top 20 sites their users had marked as spam.

Why didn’t Google go that route? Likely because Google doesn’t want to become an editorial censor of search results. Subjectively deciding a site is low-quality, rather than using large-scale signals to determine quality, becomes a slippery slope. And beyond that, what if some pages on a site are low quality but others are useful? A site that allows thousands of writers to pen articles is undoubtedly going to include an extremely wide range of quality.

Who was impacted?

After the algorithm change came a host of compilations of affected sites and statements from companies assuring the world that they were unscathed. New stats continue to come out, including the latest data showing that Associated Content had a 90% drop in search performance.

Better results?

Shortly after Google’s announcement, the Atlantic decided the change was for the better.

Google Fellow Amit Singhal said Google conducts extensive testing before rolling out changes.

If you [test] over a large range of queries, you get a very good picture of whether the new results are better than the old … The outcome was widely positive.

Not everyone agreed, particularly those sites that dropped out of the search rankings.

What’s a site owner to do?

Wired ran an article implying that Google realized it had made some mistakes and was taking appeals from innocent sites that were unfairly affected.

Google clarified that was not the case. Google is always testing and tweaking its algorithms and has substantial internal resources to judge overall search quality. That, after all, is core to its success.

If your site has been impacted by this change, keep in mind that this change was not a manual action and doesn’t target specific sites. Google can’t therefore manually restore a site’s rankings. This change is based entirely on algorithmic signals. Take a look at your analytics data:

  • What’s the bounce rate of the site from search? Do searchers click through from search results and stay on the site or do they bounce back and click on a different result?
  • If the bounce rate is high, is it high for all queries or just for certain topics?
  • Do the pages searchers land on provide high value and clearly answer the searchers’ questions?
  • What pages on the site have external links? Do large sections of the site not have external links at all? What can you do to make the content more interesting and valuable or raise awareness that it exists?
  • Is the content on the site unique or is it aggregated or syndicated from other locations? If it’s not unique, what value do the pages add beyond the original source?

The positive outlook is that as you make changes to your site to gain back rankings, the site will become more valuable to your audiences and they will be come more engaged.

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