Google Breaks Up With Content Farms


breakupADOTAS – They had some good times together — content farms got sweet spots in Google’s search results while the search giant reaped the rewards of AdSense partnerships. But frankly, Google’s family (billions of searchers) didn’t care for the content farms, and apparently even on the web, family trumps revenue.

In what Search Engine Land has labeled the “farmer” update, Google began rolling out a huge algorithm change yesterday that will affect 11.8% of its queries. On a basic level, the update will 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”) and boost those for high-quality sites (“sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on”).

Since Google won’t be so blunt, I’ll spell it out for you: Big G is breaking up with the content farms.

In a blog post announcing the algorithm upgrade, Google Fellow Amit Singhal and Principal Engineer Matt Cutts say the changes have been in the works for a year, but the last few months — when the uproar over content farms ruling search results peaked in volume — gave Google focus. Though it seemed like Google’s search and spam people were being kind of flippant regarding criticism about slacking search results, this is the second major move the company has made in two weeks to bolster its core functionality. Last week, Google further integrated its Social Search initiative throughout search results.

Singhal and Cutts also noted that Google did not apply user information collected from the recently launched Personal Blocklist Chrome extension, but did compare that data with what the algorithm update considered low-quality sites and Google was “pleased.” “If you take the top several dozen or so most-blocked domains from the Chrome extension, then this algorithmic change addresses 84% of them, which is strong independent confirmation of the user benefits,” they write.

Who best to give the response from the content farms than Demand Media, although the company considers that label insulting to everyone in the barn — I mean, in its value chain. Larry Fitzgibbon, executive vice president of media and operations, says Demand has not “seen a material net impact on our Content & Media business.

But did you expect Demand to say, “Tarnations! Our business is doomed!” Perhaps you pictured the top brass committing ritual suicide?

I did a few test searches (“tune a guitar”; “herb garden”) and eHow sites were nowhere to be found. A Google search with “ehow” included turned up tons of pages dedicated to those subjects, but none of them appeared in a straight search. Give it a shot — tell us what you see.

While thrashing Demand and its ilk, most tech journalists (including myself) are willing to admit that not all farmed content is bad. But all of it is cheap — it’s hard to believe anyone could write an insightful (let alone instructional) piece on any topic for the chump change the farms are offering.

Thus my interest in what will replace the content farms — Quora and social question sites that ping professionals in their various fields to share their knowledge. The answered garnered by these services fill in the content gaps that current content farms try to plug with cheaply produced content. Quora doesn’t pay people (being considered a resource on a certain subject is payment in itself — notoriety, especially the positive variety, is priceless) and, like Wikipedia, a community edits and argues various topics.

The result is socialized, informative content with a touch of discourse. (Hint to Google: social data from Quora and its competitors would be a nice addition to the algorithm.)

Breaking up is hard to do — hey, Google had to rewrite its algorithm and is probably going lose some AdSense dough — but users should be pleased with this development. Content farm investors, on the other hand, may not be celebrating — I don’t know if the farmer update will destroy their business models, but it does signal that the end is nigh.

I am quite curious, however, how an algorithm determines “thoughtful analysis”… Seems to me, that’s something we rely on actual people to determine –the term thoughtful is bit too subjective for an equation to manage.


  1. The irony here is that Google created the content farm model. In 2005 VP of Google sales Tim Armstrong recognized that the number of SEM keywords being bought well outnumbered the amount of content that was relevant…so he funded his college roommate to build a system that created content at scale and matched keywords to content: Associated Content.

    Demand Media just stole that idea, added domains, and applied money.


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