Google Algo Update: Content Farms, Link Baiting and Dubious Cures, Oh My!


scarecrow_smallADOTAS – Over the past three weeks, there has been a spate of discussion in the search engine market about the reduced quality of Google’s natural search results. The discussion has centered around three key issues.

• The development of sophisticated “content farms” – which, according to The New York Times in an article over the weekend, are defined as sites that “churn out sometimes mindless articles based on what people are searching for…” These then work their way to the top of common searches, frustrating users with irrelevant content.
• The buying of links to boost page relevancy in violation of Google’s Terms and Conditions.
• The development of dubious services from SEO firms to take advantage of advertiser fears over this situation and sell some short-term “snake oil.”

In dealing with the first two issues – Google announced on Friday that it has made changes to its natural search results algorithm, which it reports will impact “approximately 12% of search queries.” The change
impacts only the U.S. at this time. The changes will be rolled out internationally, but no time frame has been given.

Google’s goal? To improve the relevancy of search results. A report from Hitwise, a division of Experian, said that users report 82% of their searches in the U.S. on Bing are successful, while users report only a 66% success rate on Google.

This is a damning statistic that Google takes very seriously – and these changes reflect their response. For enterprise class advertisers not engaging in these techniques, this is a boon and an opportunity. These changes slant the playing field in natural search towards quality advertisers and away from “tricksters” trying to make a quick buck.

Looking across Covario’s customer base of Global 2000 advertisers, we have seen no change to 80% of the customer implementation average ranking between Feb. 15 and Feb. 28. For 20%, we have seen increases in average ranking of 2%-4%.

So how does an advertiser take advantage? That is the goal of this article – to explain what these changes mean for large advertisers, in addition to understanding how to leverage this update into large-scale SEO strategies.

Buying the Farm: A Description of the Issues Being Addressed By Google

The recent algorithm changes on Google are designed to address two key issues – link buying and content farms. Google believes these techniques for executing SEO are artificial ways to obtain higher natural search rankings, without offering users valid content.

Link buying has been around for years. Google has made it clear that engaging in these techniques is frowned upon, and that those who engage in this practice are subject to penalties if caught. Link buying means leveraging services that allow for links from well regarded sites to be connected to an advertiser’s site for a fee, regardless of their relevance.

The most famous recent example is J.C. Penney, which has received a lot of attention in the past two weeks in both the search engine marketing trade press, as well as the national media. J.C. Penney was found to be ranking very well over the lucrative holiday season on a whole swath of keywords both related to their business (“dresses”) and ones less associated with their business (“area rugs?”). An investigation found the stellar performance to be the result of aggressive use of link buying programs by the firm and its agency (SearchDex). Since then, J.C. Penney has discontinued the practice and their results have foundered accordingly.

The other big topic is Content Farms, a v2.0 of the old “link farms” that people used to find often on search results, which would display a big list of links of dubious quality. Content farms are similar in that they leverage the system to track trends in search queries, then either auto-develop or contract with writers to build content that is often irrelevant or “low quality” for the top search queries that are identified during the trend tracking process.

Google listed a couple of sites it says are often associated with content farms – Yahoo’s Associated Content, AOL’s Seed, and Demand Media’s eHow and Answerbag. Advertisers either using these sites directly – or having their agencies build content on these sites – should expect to see degradations in ranking and traffic.

Most large advertisers do NOT use these types of services. The usage of link buying has been dying off for the past few years. The major vendor in this space recently sold off its link buying business in an acknowledgement of the increased vigilance on the part of Google to police this type of bad behavior.

The last point we want to cover is that we have seen a number of SEO technology vendors and agencies come out with “quick fix” solutions that are portrayed as addressing these recent issues brought up by Google. We do not believe this is something that requires anything more than a conversation with the SEO team or the agency. Link buying does not happen accidentially, so there is no need to purchase services or technologies to identify whether this is taking place.

Ask the SEO team or the agency. And usage of content farms is similar – these tactics are willful – and if they are being engaged in, this is a known and conscious decision. So we do not believe that advertisers should invest in this snake oil. Work with the internal and agency teams to drive best practices leveraging the techniques outlined in the next section.

Do The Right Thing: On What Should Advertisers Focus?

So for advertisers, what now? What does the algorithm change mean and how can advertisers take advantage?

First, realize, most advertisers will NOT be impacted by this, other than positively. As stated above, we have seen that none of Covario’s customers have been impacted adversely by the algorithm change, and a few have seen minor increases (largely as content farms that were ranking above advertisers got degraded and relevant content moved up).

Second there are some things that advertisers should do to ensure that they do not have risk associated with
leveraging the unsanctioned SEO practices either directly or through their agencies. There should be a sit down with the SEO team to go through these tactics.

  • Is there link buying taking place or not? If so, what are the plans to eliminate this practice as soon as possible?
  • Are there any content farms being used to drive ranking and if so, how to eliminate from the SEO strategy?

Third, go back to basics. Google (and Bing, and every search engine) all have the same goal – to provide quality content. They want the statistic discussed previously – percentage of successful search queries – to be as high as possible. So make relevant and useful content. This is easier said than done. Though this is an abbreviated list, here are our recommendations on what we see works.

  • Optimizing Press Releases – they get widely distributed and picked up by reputable sites.
  • Integrate links across the value chain. The brand advertisers tend to have highly regarded sites. Build out key connectivity to the product suppliers and downstream partners within the advertiser ecosystem.
  • Ensure user-generated comments (ratings and reviews) are integrated into landing pages – the engines are using this to reindex content, which improved the “freshness” factor on sites and drives improved ranking.
  • Create content that includes infographics, videos, games, web based tools, unique contests, breaking news top 10 lists, how-tos, alternative viewpoints, short-cuts, etc.
  • There is a lot of information on how to do this on the Covario blog.

The Google algorithm change is a welcome opportunity for advertisers practicing class, and successful, SEO tactics that drive results. Driving useful content, building it out and ensuring it can be found, and then syndicating it as effectively as possible through social media and link building (not buying) practices develops sustainable SEO assets that deliver over time, and keep the advertisers from unwarranted risk.

This article was originally sent to Covario clients as a Point of View piece. It has been republished with permission.


  1. Funny that Google should be so against “link buying” when they are the primary seller of direct links through AdWords and AdSense. Totally hypocritical.

    But, how are they going to actually weed the chaff from the wheat in the content area? They’re the ones buying the monetization space on the farms.

    Who can be blamed for wanting to assist them in converting page views into monetized clicks?

  2. This is all nothing new. Smart advertisers are creating quality content AND a) building a list of subscribers and b) opt-ins, c) driving traffic through other touch points, such as guest blogging, joint ventures, social media, youtube, etc., d) creating GOOD freaking content that people will actually care about.

    Creating content for search engines requires keyword density, keywords in H1, H2, H3, tags, keywords in bold lettering, anchor text, etc. over and over again – but what’s the point if your content turns away the HUMAN reading it?

    Point is – Google is largely a victim of it’s own devices, smart marketers are relying on sooo much more than SEO.

  3. It’s apples and oranges Hunter, I’m with Google on this. Link Buying is a method of using money to modify natural organic results. Adwords is a sponsored and paid for ad.


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