Last Friday Google made a major announcement: Focus on improving search results has shifted from “pure webspam” to “content farms.” The latter are sites with shallow or low-quality content, websites that try to cheat their way into first page of search results. Google sees these sites as junk.
In theory, this all sounds good. Especially when one of the goals is to affect sites that copy others’ content and sites with low levels of original content. None of these “low quality” sites are named, but I can see smoke coming up from Santa Monica: Demand Media is not happy about this. The company is in the middle of the rumored IPO and Google is possibly going to lower the ranking of content farm sites such as eHow.com. I would be angry, especially when most of your anticipated business value relies on writing stories based on popular search queries, i.e. farming content. Timing of the Google announcement is hardly an accident.
As tempting as it is to gloat over Demand Media’s misfortune, the Google announcement might have severe consequences to all publishing. The company doesn’t identify the sites it considers to be “low quality.” One of the things Google will attack are sites and pages with “repeated spammy words—the sort of phrases you tend to see in junky, automated, self-promoting blog comments.”
If you have hired a social media or search engine specialist, this is one of the key tricks you will be taught. Go out to the Internet, spread your links to comments and remember to include popular keywords in title, lead and body text. But Google is trying to build a search engine that understands natural language and true relationships between sites, an algorithm that is not fooled by clever cross-linking or keywords.
As a journalist, you have to support that. Otherwise the whole Web will look like the joke LAweekly published few days ago: “So this SEO copywriter walks into a bar, grill, pub, public house, Irish bar, bartender, drinks, beer, wine, liquor.”
The big question is how will Google judge who is doing spammy, search-engine inspired headlines and who is doing real customer research with Google Analytics.
Let’s take Patch.com – not because it’s evil but because it’s probably one of the sites that could be impacted by Google’s dislike of content farming and shallow content. I am not saying Patch.com is doing either, but computers might think differently. Patch.com sites create a lot of content about wide variety of topics on their own neighborhood – something that an algorithm could think as trying to match the long-tail queries in your area. And Google emphasizes that there is no human judgment involved, just computers calculating the odds of junk content vs. not junk.
Should you be worried if you are doing data-driven content innovation on your site? Meaning that you get story ideas from following up what people search within your site, what keywords drive them to your site from Google and what does Google Zeitgeist tell you about the most popular searches during this time of the year.
I would not be too worried. Just keep on churning out good original content and pay less attention to eager SEO consultants. I hope Google is just transforming the whole publishing industry by making copies obsolete and helping people to find the original pieces of content.
Pekka Pekkala researches sustainable business models at USC Annenberg, is a partner at Fugu Media and a technology columnist. He used to be the head of development at Helsingin Sanomat, the largest Finnish newspaper.