What if Google categorizes Patch.com as a 'content farm?'

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.

About Pekka Pekkala

Pekka Pekkala is a freelance writer and Visiting Scholar at USC Annenberg, writing a book “How to Keep Journalism Profitable” on a grant from Helsingin Sanomat Foundation.


  1. says:

    Interesting article but I would like to clarify a point: you are a bit firing at SEO consultants, and I feel this is correct as far as you talk about the ones having the kind of behavior you describe (stuffing blogs and comments with keywords and links).

    I’m a SEO consultant myself, I never use this kind of short term practices, no proper / ethical SEO consultant will ever do that.
    Not all SEO consultants are just money angry chaps, some do love their job and do it properly.

  2. Can you help me understand what you’re saying here? I don’t see what it is about Patch.com specifically that would make it susceptible to Google’s SEO downgrade as a “content farm.” It’s as if the question in the headline isn’t ever really answered.

  3. says:

    Does price comparison count as original content?

    IMO it does if it gives the user a good experience, but I wonder if G feel the same way.

  4. Dear, about SEO’s:

    I know good SEO consultants and done it myself. But there’s a lot of bad SEO advice as well.

    Dear David Brazeal,

    What I’m trying to say that there is a computer algorithm at Google that decides, independently from us mortals, what is good and bad content. It is built against sites that try to create long tail content, hyperlocal niche being a perfect example. Patch.com does exactly this. What stops the algorithm from deciding that Patch.com is trying to game Google and should be thus banned.

    I know it’s a long shot, but future is made of weird stuff that we couldn’t expect to happen.

  5. says:

    Some sites will benefit, some will get screwed.

    I used to do a weekly hip hop albums report that, I think, got designated as duplicate content and that’s why it disappeared from Google’s index.

    But I’m not sure cause they won’t tell me.

    I did each report with a bunch of album covers plus a list of everything I could find of note coming out in the following week. Nobody else was doing this and everything related was of much lower quality.

    I did however, post the list of titles on another blog which had a higher Google PR and had been online longer. Even though I linked back to the report site, that’s what I think led to it being marked duplicate content, if it was, even though I didn’t run the pics on the other site.

    After disappearing from Google, the site gradually lost traffic and soon the time I put in was not worth the effort in financial return. Not that I needed a lot but I did need something near minimum wage for my efforts. Or even $5 an hour, a low fee for the best in the business.

    Once I closed down the site, a lot of people started complaining and encouraging me to keep it going but goodwill is not enough in the middle of a recession.

    So Google, for whatever reason, killed the best hip hop album report in the game and I can’t do anything about it.

    I’m not the first and I sure won’t be the last but it really hurt to kill that project.

    My name’s Clyde but OJR knows me as cause homie don’t play these silly registration games.

  6. As Pekka Pekkala, it seems clear that some advice is given to prevent people from spamming, but are not effective. Thank you for this article helped me a lot.

  7. Dear,

    I think your case is the perfect example of collateral damage Google can cause. Sorry to hear how it went.


  8. Demand CEO: Google slam on content farms

  9. says:

    If Google listens to its customers, it will find a way to move content spammers off or far down in search results. Just desserts for those who bought into the obscene Demand Media IPO.

  10. Google is devaluing the content farm but, at the same time, enjoying the ads revenue share from them.