How often do you ever hear the phrase worst practices? Probably never.
Everything is a best practice approach, right up until things change.
Consider AdSense websites.
Hey Look, a Case Study!
When you look at some of the biggest losers in the Google content farm update, many of them happened to be premium AdSense publishers which were even used by Google as case studies! For instance, Hub Pages or EzineArticles.
We are confident that over time the proven quality of our writers' content will be attractive to users. We have faith in Google's ability to tune results post major updates and are optimistic that the cream will rise back to the top in the coming weeks, which has been our experience with past updates - Paul Edmondson
The problem is that for many businesses there will be no bounce back. Some are simply over. The web has evolved & the algorithm has moved beyond them.
Where is the Much Needed Disclaimer?
What makes this worse is that when Google gives a site their premium AdSense feed & sets something up as a case study others will see that as an explicit endorsement.
THIS IS HOW YOU SHOULD DO IT.
Even after Google torches the companies that follow Google suggested best practices those case studies live on, offering what now amounts to maps to Google hell.
Adding Insult to Injury
What makes such filters/penalties even more infuriating is that in some cases when your site is slapped with a negative karma penalty, others who steal your content & wrap it in AdSense will outrank you, since their site does not yet have a negative karma penalty against it. :)
Individually the splog sites may not live long, but collectively they can keep outranking you to ensure you are invisible for your own words, even if you poured years of your life into creating something beautiful & important.
As we noted yesterday, Cult of Mac was collateral damage in Google’s war on crappy content farms. For some inexplicable reason, we got downgraded when Google tweaked its algorithms last Thursday.
But today we’re back in. We’re on Google News (a very important source of daily traffic) as well as Google’s general search results. However, we still get outranked by some of the scraper sites that steal our content, so not everything’s perfect.
That whooshing sound you just heard was MFA sploggers making a mad dash to steal content from the list of currently penalized sites.
Cult of Mac is lucky they had enough pull with the press to get reconsidered. Most webmasters who got hit did not & anyone who has contracts based on set traffic levels or tight margins which just turned negative are in a pretty crappy situation. Yet another example of the importance of not fueling growth with debt & the importance of profit margins and a cash-on-hand safety net.
Who Are the Opportunistic Maximizers?
The problem with such an approach of maximizing everything you do to suck peak revenue out of the pageview is that things can change on a whim. I have seen some of Google's 1 on 1 AdSense optimization advice they sent to a friend of mine. I told my friend that the optimization advise was at best short-term opportunism that would end up crushing them in the long run if they actually implemented it.
Google doesn't care if following their advice torches your site if it makes them a bit more money, because ultimately there is another person standing in line waiting to follow.
My friend is lucky that they realized my advice was more trustworthy than the advice they were getting direct from Google. If they listened to Google back then their business might be destroyed today.
Google likes to position SEOs as exploiters out for the quick buck, but what honest analysis shows is that it is Google which is pushing the boundaries in terms of:
One of the worst hit sites in the AdSense farm update was WiseGeek. Sure WiseGeek must have had something like a 20% ad clickthrough rate. But with traffic falling 75%, maybe they would have been better off building a cleaner experience with a 5% CTR.
What was the most profitable best practices based approach suddenly falls short. And the results are not always predictable. When Google decided to attack content farms who honestly knew that:
somehow eHow.com would survive
yet somehow Google's "algorithmic" approach would punt 10,000's of smaller websites that have far higher content quality
In advance of the solution I was fairly certain eHow would survive, but what I underestimated was the Google engineers. Or rather the ignorance of same. I simply couldn't imagine such a content farm algorithm going live that missed eHow and decimated the lives of so many independent webmasters.
I guess we can simply view this as an extension of Google's you can have any web you want so long as it is corporate TM policy. I think Brett Tabke said it best in a recent AdSense thread:
When the rules and the enforcements are made up by monopolies in a make believe world - there is no cheating.
The only "cheatings" is when it gets outside the lines of the law. - Brett Tabke
AskTheBuilder is yet another Google AdSense case study. In spite of being a niche player well regarded in his community, Sistrix data shows the site off 87% after the most recent Google update!
Who Caused the Content Farm Problem?
Everyone likes to vilify the content farms and scrapers (and they deserve it) but the real villain behind all of this is CPC/CPM based advertising.
Can you imagine a world where your attention was sold off based on how long you stayed on a page rather then how often you switched pages? If google wants to fix their search results, they should focus on fixing adsense. The technology to more accurately measure a viewer's exposure to an ad are there, it just needs a trustworthy player to bring it to market. Someone trusted by both users and advertisers.
Google made click/impression-based advertising appealing to both groups and it made them what they are now. It's time to get away from it. - po
roll in an algorithm that aggressively penalizes tons of borderline edge cases
see who complains to the media & has connections with the media
fix the rankings of those who you like & those with sway, while ignoring the rest
Can You Trust Google?
All of this leads to the obvious question: can you trust Google?
The short answer is yes.
The long answer is you can *always* expect Google to do what is in the best interest of Google. As they plow into field after field (payments, local, mobile, ecommerce, mortgage, credit cards, travel, weddings, fashion, etc.) & use their search dominance to manipulate other markets one would have to be blind to view Google as anything other than a competitor.
Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But some day they will come. And it is never fun when it happens to you. :(
Until that day may come, if you always follow their best practices, just remember ... ;)
Put it this way. Any algorithm that takes out Demand Media content is going to take out a lot of SEO content, too. SEO copy-writing? What is that? That's what Demand Media do. As I outlined in the first paragraph, a lot of SEO content in not that different, and any algorithm that targets Demand Media's content isn't going to see any difference. Keyword traffic stream identical to title tag? Yep. A couple of hundred words? Yep. SEO format? Yep. Repeats keywords and keyword phrases a few times? Yep. Contributes to the betterment of mankind? Nope. SEO's need to be careful what they wish for....
There were a lot sites following the SEO model of "writing for the keyword term" taken out, not just sites pejoratively labelled as "Content Farms". Ironicly, the pinup example I used, Demand Media, got off lightly.
Some people have suggested there has been much collateral damage. Google have taken out legitimate pages, too.
What happened is that the pages that were taken out shared enough similarity to pages on Content Farms and the algorithm simply did what it was designed to do, although Google have admitted - kinda - that the change still needs work. The ultimate judgement of whether this is a good or a bad thing comes down to what Google's users think. Does Google deliver higher quality results, or doesn't it?
I'm pissed because we've worked our asses off over the last two years to make this a successful site. Cult of Mac is an independently owned small business. We're a startup. We have a small but talented team, and I'm the only full timer. We're busting our chops to produce high-quality, original content on a shoestring budget.We were just starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. After two years of uncertainty, the site finally looks like it will be able to stand on its two feet. But this is a major setback. Anyone got Larry's cell number?
Scroll down, as there's also some very interesting comments in reply to that post.
This is nothing new, of course, It's been going on since search began. The search engines shrug, and send businesses that depend on them flying, whilst elevating others.
What can be done?
Spread The Risk
"Be less reliant on Google!", people say.
It's an easy thing to say, right, but what do you do when Google is the only search game in town? We know any business strategy that relies on an entity over which we have no control is high risk, but what choice is there? Wait for Bing to get their act together? Hope Blekko becomes the next big thing?
None of us can wait.
Sometimes, no matter how closely we stick to Google's Guidelines, Google are going to change the game. Whether it is fair or not is beside the point, it's going to happen.
So, we need to adopt web marketing strategies that help lessen this risk.
The best way to lessen this risk, of course, is to not rely on Google at all. Design your site strategy in such a way as that it wouldn't grind to a halt if you blocked all spiders with a robots.txt. Treat any traffic from Google as a bonus. Such a strategy might involve PPC, brand building, offline advertising, social media, email marketing and the wealth of other channels open to you.
Try the above as an academic exercise. If you had to operate without natural traffic, does your business still stand up? Are you filling a niche with high demand, a demand you can see in other channels? Is there sufficient margin to advertise, or does your entire model rely on free search traffic? Are there viral elements which could be better exploited? Are there social elements which could be better exploited?
Academic exercises aside, we can also look to mitigate risk. Think about not putting all your eggs in one basket. Instead of running one site, run multiple sites using different SEO strategies on each. Aaron talks about running auxiliary sites in the forum.
Try to get pages (articles, advertising) on other sites in your niche. If your site is taken out, at least you still have a presence in your niche, albeit on someone else's site. A kindly webmaster may even agree to repoint links to any new site you devise.
Do you have other ideas that help mitigate the risk? Add them to the comments.
It's An Advantage Being An SEO
Finally, be pleased you're an SEO.
SEO just got that much harder, and the harder it gets, the more your services are required, and the higher the barrier to entry for new publishers. Every day search is getting more complex. At the end of the day, it's an algorithm change. It can be reverse engineered, and new strategies will be adopted to maximize the opportunity it presents.
Until such a time as Google tells us exactly what they want to see, and rewards such content, SEO's will just keep doing what they do. And thank goodness Google isn't entirely transparent. If they were the value of your SEO knowledge as a competitive advantage would plunge. For many of us, wages would quickly follow.
Sure a short-term hit is painful, but the best SEOs will recover.
As they do, other content producers will be left scratching their heads.
Media is all about profit margins. eHow was originally founded in 1998 & had $36 million in venture capital behind it. But the original cost structure was flawed due to high content costs. The site failed so badly that it was sold in 2004 for $100,000. The original site owners had GoogleBot blocked. Simply by unblocking GoogleBot and doing basic SEO to existing content the site had a revenue run rate of $4 million Dollars within 2 years, which allowed the site to be flipped for a 400-fold profit.
People are arguing if Demand Media is overvalued at its current valuation, and at one point the NYT was debating buying Demand Media by rolling About.com into Demand & own 49% of the combined company. But the salient point to me is that we are talking about something that was bought for only $100,000 7 years ago. Sure the opportunities today may be smaller scale and different, but if you see value where others do not then recycling something that has been discarded can be quite valuable.
The key, he said, was to keep costs low. If possible, don't pay for the intellectual content. Look for material, he urged, on which the copyright has expired. Any book published in the U.S. before 1923 was available.
He said he was in the process of turning vanloads of old books into websites. With a few hours of labor, for example, you could take a turn-of-the-century Creole cookbook and transform it into the definitive site for vintage Creole recipes. Google's AdSense program would then load the thing up with ads for shrimp and cooking pots and spices and direct people looking for shrimp recipes to your website.
How did ArticlesBase grow to that size? It and Ezinearticles were a couple of the "selected few" which lasted through the last major burn down of article directories about 3 or 4 years ago. But it seems their model has peaked after this last Google update.
Search is Political
Content farms are proving to be a political issue in search. They are beginning to replace "the evil SEO" in the eye of the press as "what creates spam." Rich Skrenta created a spam clock which stated that a million spam pages are created every hour. He then followed up by banning 20 content farms from the Blekko search results & burning spam man. ;)
Microsoft also got in on the bashing, with Harry Shum highlighting that Google was funding web pollution. When Blekko's model is based on claiming Google polluted the web with crap, Microsoft says the same thing, and there is a rash of end user complaints, there are few independent experts the media can call upon to talk about Google - unless they decide to talk to SEOs, who tend to be quite happy to highlight Google's embarrassing hypocrisy. Freelance writers may claim that marketing is what screwed up the web, but ultimately Google has nobody credible and well known to defend them at this point. The only people who can defend Google's approach are those who have a taste in the revenue stream. Hence why Google had to act against content farms.
Google stepping up their public relations smear campaigns against Bing and others is leaving Google looking either hypocritical or ignorant in many instances, like when a Google engineer lambasted an ad network without realizing Google was serving the scam ad.
At first glance StackExchange's growth looks exciting, but it has basically gone nowhere outside of the programming niche. In my opinion they are going to need to find subject matter experts to lead some of their niche sites & either pay those experts or give them equity in the sites if they want to lead in other markets. Worse yet, few people are as well educated about online schemes as programmers, so the other sites will not only lack leadership, but will also be much harder to police. Just look at the junk on Yahoo! Answers! There are Wordpress themes and open source CMS tools for QnA sites, but I would pick a tight niche early if I was going to build one as the broader sites seem to be full of spam and the niche sites struggle to cross the chasm. As of writing this, fewer than 50 Mahalo answers pages currently indexed in Google have over 100 views. It flat out failed, even with financial bribes and a PR spin man behind it.
At the organizational level, Google is essentially chaos. In search quality in particular, once you've demonstrated that you can do useful stuff on your own, you're pretty much free to work on whatever you think is important. I don't think there's even a mechanism for shifting priorities like that.
We've been working on this issue for a long time, and made some progress. These efforts started long before the recent spat of news articles. I've personally been working on it for over a year. The central issue is that it's very difficult to make changes that sacrifice "on-topic-ness" for "good-ness" that don't make the results in general worse. You can expect some big changes here very shortly though.
A good example of the importance of padding out results with junk on-topic content to aid perceived relevancy can be seen by looking at the last screenshot of a search result here. Blekko banned the farms, but without them there is not much relevant content that is precisely on-topic. (In other words, content farms may be junk, but it is hard to have the same level of perceived relevancy without them).
Google created a Chrome plugin to solicit end user feedback on content mills, but that will likely only reach tech savvy folks & the feedback is private. Google can claim to use any justification for removing sites they do not like though, just like they do with select link buying engagements. Look the other way where it is beneficial, and remove those which you personally dislike.
In a recent WSJ article Amit Singhal was quoted as saying new signals have been added to Google's relevancy algorithms:
Singhal did say that the company added numerous “signals,” or factors it would incorporate into its algorithm for ranking sites. Among those signals are “how users interact with” a site. Google has said previously that, among other things, it often measures whether users click the “back” button quickly after visiting a search result, which might indicate a lack of satisfaction with the site.
In addition, Google got feedback from the hundreds of people outside the company that it hires to regularly evaluate changes. These “human raters” are asked to look at results for certain search queries and questions such as, “Would you give your credit card number to this site?” and “Would you take medical advice for your children from those sites,” Singhal said.
Evolving the Model
One interesting way to evolve the content farm model is through the use of tight editorial focus, a core handful of strong editors, and wiki software. WikiHow was launched by a former eHow owner, and when you consider how limited their relative resources are, their traffic level and perceived editorial quality are quite high. Jack Herrick has struck how-to gold twice!
Notice any content farms missing from the above list? Maybe the biggest one? Here is a list of some of eHow's closest competing sites (based on keywords, from SEM Rush). The ones in red got pummeled, the ones in yellow dropped as well & were fellow Demand Media sites, and the ones in green gained traffic.
Jason "will do anything for ink" Calacanis recently gave an about face speech claiming people need to step away from the content farm business model, and in doing so admitted that roughly everything he said about Mahalo over the past couple years was a complete lie. Surprise, surprise. The interesting bit is that the start up community - which used to fawn over his huckster PR driven ploys - no longer buys them. Jason claimed to have "pivoted" his business model again, but once again we see more garbage content. His credibility has been spent. And so have his rankings! Sistrix shows that not only is he ranking for fewer keywords, but that the graph has skewed downward to worse average positions.
After the Crash, What is Next?
The biggest content farms like Ask & eHow will still do well in the short run. Over the long run I see Google bringing the results of content farms to the attention of book publishers & then working to slowly rotate out from farmed content to published book content. Most readers do not know that most book writers are lucky if they earn $10,000 writing a 300 or 400 page tome. Publishers tell book authors that with the additional exposure they can often sell lots more other things, but unless the content is highly targeted that might not back out well for the author. But that cheap content is far better structured and far more vetted than the mill stuff is.
Over the past week I have been seeing more ebooks in the search results, though I am not entirely sure if that is just because I am searching for more rare technical stuff that simply might not be online.
But what they didn't mention is that eHow's rankings are actually up! In fact, their new distribution chart looks just like their old one, only skewed a bit to the left with higher rankings. eHow's profile is 15% better than it was before the update & the only site which gained more traffic from this update than eHow did was Youtube.
If you listen to Richard's interviews, you would never know him to be the type to redirect expired domains:
We really want to let Google speak for themselves. Whatever Matt Cutts and Google want to (say) about quality we totally support that because again that’s their corporate interest. What we said and would have said is we applaud Google removing duplicate content ... removing shallow, low quality content because it clogs the search results. Both we and Google are 100 percent focused on making the consumer happy. It’s the right thing to do and it’s good for our business.
If you syndicate Google's spin you can get away with things that a normal person can't. Which is why eHow renounced the content farm label even faster than they created it.
Article directories & topical hub sites have been online since before eHow was created. But eHow's marketing campaign was so caustic & so toxic that it literally destroyed the game for most of their competitors.
And now that Google has "fought content farms" (while managing to somehow miss eHow with TheAlgorithm) most of Demand Media's competitors are dead & Richard Rosenblatt gets to ride off into the sunset with another hundred million Dollars, as eHow is the chosen one. :D
Many of the changes we make are so subtle that very few people notice them. But in the last day or so we launched a pretty big algorithmic improvement to our ranking—a change that noticeably impacts 11.8% of our queries—and we wanted to let people know what’s going on. 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.
Currently this update is US only, so if you are outside of the United States you may need to get a US VPN or add &gl=us to your search string's results on Google (likeso). Recent updates have had a variety of impacts and implications outside of content mills.
A couple days ago there was a blog post on TheDomains about "how stupid SEOs are" and "the amazing power of domaining" where they highlighted how awesome domaining was because a guy registered a domain name he saw in a comic and it sent a bunch of traffic.
What that article failed to mention was:
That traffic wasn’t from the power of the domain name…that was the power of free advertising & the distribution of the comic strip.
The same domain name likely received ~ 0 traffic until it was featured in the comic strip. If it had an organic traffic stream for years before being highlighted it most likely would have already been purchased.
As that comic strip falls into the archives & into obscurity the organic traffic it was driving will drop back to roughly where it started at: 0.
The flood of new found traffic was hardly a goldmine anyhow. It was entirely irrelevant to his main business, and thus entirely worthless. The only exception there would be unless the person was offering information about comics, installing malware, pushing reverse billing scams, etc.
Being Ignorant Doesn't Create Profit
The laughable (and ignorant) thing about the comments on that post were that some of the people who were commenting were equating SEOs to misdirection & scams that sell traffic off to the highest bidder. Sorry, but that is what PPC domain parking is all about...the ad networks optimize yield & the publishers agnostically push whatever generates the most yield: often scams!
Stating that all SEOs are dumb spammers is precisely the same as stating that all domainers are cybersquatters. Neither are true, and neither serves much purpose, other than aiding the spread of ignorance.
Why Domainers View SEOs Dimly
Many domainers who try to hire SEOs fail badly because they are too cheap & buy from lousy service providers. They feel that since they bought domain x (and sat on it while literally doing nothing for a decade) that they somehow deserve to be the top ranked result. To be fair, it is pretty easy to become lazy and not want to change things when you register domain names & then literally watch them spit money at you. ;)
Against that approach, the smart SEOs (the ones actually worth hiring) realize that it is more profitable to buy their own domain names and keep all the cashflow for your efforts rather than doing 95% of the job for 5% of the revenues. Yes a good domain name is helpful, but with the right attitude you can still do quite well even on a hyphenated nasty looking .info domain name. ;)
Why SEOs View Domainers Dimly
A combination of squandered opportunity & arrogance.
I frequently tell myself that in 3 years or 5 years that the web will be so competitive that it will no longer be as profitable as it is today. And every year I have pushed that mindset back another year while we grew. But who knows how long that will last? Sure as long as there are signals there will be ways to influence them, but if you are not one of the favored parties then at some point it will be challenging to compete.
The Real Challenge: the Search Duopoly vs Publishers
When Google got into the web browser game, one of the big "innovations" was the Omnibox. They integrated search right into the address bar to help drive incremental search volume.
As they were a new browser it was not a big risk or big concern to domainers (as most people who use direct navigation are either people revisiting a website they already visited or people new to the web who are likely to use the most common default web browser - Internet Explorer). Nonetheless, address bar as search box highlighted things to come & a way the web would change.
When Google announced their Chrome OS they decided to do away with the CAPS LOCK BUTTON AND REPLACE IT WITH A SEARCH BUTTON. OOPS SORRY ABOUT THAT. Again, it is not a big deal today, but if that ever became standard the future would grow more challenging.
The big problem with Google doing such innovations is that whatever they do, they also give Microsoft permission to do. Google can't complain about what Microsoft is doing if Microsoft is only following Google's lead.
Just like the Omnibox, Internet Explorer 9 integrates search into the address bar.
As soon as IE9 rolls out, domainers can count on losing traffic month after month. This trend is non reversible in well established markets like the United States & Europe, and in 3rd world markets the ad markets pay crumbs.
If that happens, it won't impact domainers much, but if Microsoft copies it, then look out below on domain prices. You wouldn't be able to get to a domain name without first being intercepted by a search engine toll booth. In that environment, a PPC park page produces ~ $0. And even established sites that are generic might not be a great strategy for creating *sustainable* profits if/when the organic results are below the fold. People who invest in brand have some protection against pricing pressures & irrelevant search results, but those who are generic don't typically have much brand to protect their placement nor profits.
Google despised how Microsoft bundled services & believes all other competitors should win market by market based on the merit of the product. Google does not believe this line of thinking should be applied to TheGoogle though, as you need to be a seriously dominant market player to stay in the lead position while opting out of appearing in the search results of the default search engine.
Even on the regular web staying competitive is growing increasingly challenging due to these moves to lock up and redirect normal user behaviors to shift it through an increasingly ad dominated search channel.
Other Google Guy: Sorry, just shouting out "Thanks!" to Marissa. She left me a cup cake this morning. You were saying?
GoogleGuy: Our algo, it keeps returning low-quality farmer garbage
Other Google Guy: Ah, right. We're gone all "Alta Vista" a bit lately, huh. People are noticing....
Google Guy: Hey! No one mentions the AV word around here, OK!
Other Google Guy: Sorry dude. So, what shall we do?
Google Guy: We could invent a cool new algorithm, like Sergey and Larry did all those years ago
Other Google Guy: Hahahaha....you ain't Sergey or Larry, dude. Anyway, they're more concerned with self-drive cars these days, aren't they? Search is so 2001.....
Google Guy: Look, we've got to do something. The technorati are getting uppity. They're writing blog posts. Tweets. Everything. And let's not forget the JC Penny debacle. The shareholders could get angry about this. Well, they would if they understood it.....
Other Google Guy: Do they?
Google Guy: Probably not.
Other Google Guy: So, what's the problem? My data is showing most of our users couldn't give a toss about the farmer stuff. Some of them like learning about how to pour a glass of milk. It's just the valleywags getting grumpy, and no one listens to them.
Google Guy: Right, but this has the potential to filter out. It might get on FOX! Too many people might get the wrong end of the stick, and suddenly we're not cool anymore.
Other Google Guy: But we're not cool n.......
Google Guy: Shut it. We're still cool, OK.
Other Google Guy: Anything you say, boss
Google Guy: Hmmm.......what we could do is go "social media". So hot right now. We could crowdsource it! We'd look very cool with the hipsters.
Other Google Guy: Mmmmmm.....sauce.....
Google Guy: We'll give 'em a Chrome extension. Yes! Make them do all the work. At very least, it's going to shut them up. They won't have to look at anything they don't want to look at. It will make them feel superior, and we can collect some data about what sites techno dudes don't like
Other Google Guy: Brilliant! Superb! One problem - won't content farmers use this against each other in order to take each other out?
Google Guy : Nah, it's just a "ranking signal". We have hundreds of 'em we apply to every search, don't you know ;)
Other Google Guy: Hahahah..."ranking signal". Nice one, Google Guy. You can add it to the other two hundred! Or was it three hundred? Shareholders love that stuff.
Google Guy: Laughs. Oh...kay.....almost finished this extension. It'll push it out there.....
Ten seconds pass.....
Google Guy: Hey! The first data is in already!
Other Google Guy: People use Chrome? Opps...I mean "People use Chrome!" Which sites are they blocking?
Google claims that they do not want to police low quality content by trying to judge intent, that doing so would not be scalable enough to solve the problem, & that they need to do it algorithmically. At the same time, Google is willing to manually torch some sites and basically destroy the associated businesses. Talk to enough SEOs and you will find stories of carnage - complete decimation.
Economics Drive Everything
Content farms are driven by economics. Make them unprofitable (rather than funding them) and the problem solves itself - just like Google AdWords does with quality scores. Sure you can show up on AdWords where you don't belong and/or with a crappy scam offer, but you are priced out of the market so losses are guaranteed. Hello $100 clicks!
How many content farms would Google need to manually torch to deter investment in the category? 5? Maybe 10? 20 tops? Does that really require a new algorithmic approach on a web with 10's of millions of websites?
When Google nuked a ton of article banks a few years back the damage was fairly complete and lasted a long time. When Google nuked a ton of web directories a few years back the damage was fairly complete and lasted a long time. These were done in sweeps where on day you would see 50 sites lose their toolbar PageRank & see a swan dive in traffic. Yet content farms are a sacred cow that need an innovated "algorithmic" approach.
One Bad Page? TORCHED
If they feel an outright ban would be too much, then they could even dial the sites down over time if they desired to deter them without immediately killing them. Some bloggers who didn't know any better got torched based on a single blog post:
The Forrester report discusses a recent “sponsored conversation” from Kmart, but I doubt whether mentions that even in that small test, Google found multiple bloggers that violated our quality guidelines and we took corresponding action. Those blogs are not trusted in Google’s algorithms any more.
When you look at garbage content there are hundreds of words on the page screaming "I AM EXPLOITATIVE TRASH." Yet when you look at links they are often embedded inline and there is little context to tell if the link is paid or not, and determine if the link was an organic reference or something that is paid for.
Why is it that Google is comfortable implying intent with links, but must look the other way when it comes to content?
Media is a game of numbers, and so content companies have various layers of quality they mix in to make it harder for Google to find signal from noise. Yahoo! has fairly solid content in their sports category, but then fluff it out with top 10 lists and such from Associated Content. Now Yahoo! is hoping they can offset lower quality with a higher level of personalization:
The Yahoo platform aims to draw from a user’s declared preferences, search items, social media and other sources to find and highlight the most relevant content, according to the people familiar with the matter. It will be available on Yahoo’s Web site, but is optimized to work as an app on tablets and smartphones, and especially on Google Android and Apple devices, they said.
AOL made a big splash when they bought TechCrunch for $25 million. When AOL's editorial strategy was recently leaked it highlighted how they promoted cross linking their channels to drive SEO strategy. And, since acquisition, TechCrunch has only scaled up on the volume of content they produce. In the last 2 days I have seen 2 advertorials on TechCrunch where the conflicting relationship was only mentioned *after* you read the post. One was a Google employee suggesting Wikipedia needs ads, and the other was some social commerce platform guy promoting the social commerce revolution occurring on Facebook.
Being at the heart of technology is a great source of link equity to funnel around their websites. TechCrunch.com already has over 25% as many unique linking domains as AOL.com does. One of the few areas that is more connected on the social graph than technology is politics. AOL just bought Huffington Post for $315 million. The fusion of political bias, political connections, celebrity contributors, and pushing a guy who promoted (an ultimately empty) promise of hope and change quickly gave the Huffington Post even more link equity than TechCrunch has.
Ultimately this is where Google's head in the sand approach to content farms backfired. When content farms were isolated websites full of trash Google could have nuked them without much risk. But now that their is a blended approach and content farms are part of public companies backed by politically powerful individuals, Google can't do anything about them. Their hands are tied.
Trends in Journalism
Much like the middle class has been gutted in the United States, Ireland (and pretty much everywhere that is not Iceland) by economic policies that gut the average person to promote banking criminals, we are seeing the same thing happen online to the value of any type of online journalism. As we continue to ask people to do more for less we suffer through a lower quality user experience with more half-content that leaves out the essential bits.
The silver lining there is that if you are the employer your margins may grow, but if you are an employee & are just scraping by on $10 an hour then it increases the importance of doing something on the side to lower your perceived risk & increase your influence. A few years back Marshall Kirkpatrick started out on AOL's content farms. The tips he shared to stand out would be a competitive advantage in almost any vertical outside of technology & politics:
one day Michael Arrington called and hired me at TechCrunch. "You keep beating us to stories," he told me. I was able to do that because I was getting RSS feeds from key vendors in our market delivered by IM and SMS. That's standard practice among tech bloggers now, but at the time no one else was doing it, so I was able to cover lots of news first.
Three big tips from the "becoming a well known writer front" for new writers are...
if short form junk content is the standard then it is easier to stand out by creating long form well edited content
it is easier to be a big fish in a small pond than to try to get well known in a saturated area, so it is sometimes better to start working for niche publishers that have a strong spot in a smallish niche
if you want to target the bigger communities the most important thing to them (and the thing they are most likely to talk about) are themselves
Spam reports are prioritized by looking at how much visibility a potentially spammy site has in our search results, in order to help us focus on high-impact sites in a timely manner. For instance, we’re likely to prioritize the investigation of a site that regularly ranks on the first or second page over that of a site that only gets a few search impressions per month.
Given the widely echoed complaints on content farms, it seems Google has a different approach on content farms, especially considering that the top farms are seen by millions of searchers every month.
If end users can determine when links are paid (with limited context) then why not trust their input on judging the quality of the content as well? The Google Toolbar has a PageRank meter for assessing link authority. Why not add a meter for publisher reputation & content quality? I can hear people saying "people will use it to harm competitors" but I have also seen websites torched in Google because a competitor went on a link buying spree on behalf of their fellow webmaster. At least if someone gives you a bad rating for great content then the content still has a chance to defend its own quality.
With link stuff there is a final opinion and that is it. Not only are particular techniques of varying levels of risk, but THE prescribed analysis of intent depends on who is doing it!
A few months back I was running Advanced Web Ranking and noticed that Google and Bing were really starting to come in line on some keywords.
Of course there are still differences between Bing and Google.
Google has far more usage data built up over the years & a huge market share advantage over Bing in literally every global market. Microsoft's poor branding in search meant they had roughly 0 leverage in the marketplace until they launched the Bing brand. That longer experience in search is likely what gives Google the confidence to have a much deeper crawl.
That head start also means that Google has been working on understanding word meanings and adjusting their vocabulary far longer, which also gives them the confidence to be able to use word relationships more aggressively (when Bing came to market part of their ad campaign was built on teasing Google for this). The last big difference from an interface perspective would be that Google forces searchers down certain paths with their Google Instant search suggestions.
Who Copied Who?
But the similarities between the search engines are far greater than their differences.
At the core of Google's search relevancy algorithm is PageRank and link analysis. Bing places a lot of weight on those as well.
Google also factors in the domain name into their relevancy algorithms. So does Bing.
Google has long had universal search & Bing copied it.
Google has tried to innovate by localizing search results. Bing localizes results as well.
Bing moved the right rail ads closer to the organic search results. Google copied them.
Bing put a fourth ad above the organic search results. Google began listing vertical CPA ad units for mortgages and credit cards above the organic search results - a fourth ad unit.
Bing has a homepage background image. Google copied them by allowing you to upload a personalized homepage logo.
Bing offers left rail navigation to filter the search results. Google copied them by offering the same.
Bing innovated in travel search. Google is trying to buy the underlying data provider ITA Software.
Bing included Freebase content in their search results. Google bought Metawebs, which owns Freebase.
Bing offered infinite scroll and a unique image search experience that highlights the images. Google copied it.
Oh, The Outrage
Off the start Bing was playing catch up, but almost anything they have ever tried which has truly differentiated their experience ended up copied by Google. Recently Google conducted a black PR campaign to smear Bing for using usage data across multiple search engines to improve their relevancy. The money quote would be:
Those results from Google are then more likely to show up on Bing. Put another way, some Bing results increasingly look like an incomplete, stale version of Google results—a cheap imitation.
Perhaps why Google finds this so annoying is that it allows Microsoft to refine their "crawl" & relevancy process on tail keywords, which are the hardest ones to get right (because as engines get deeper into search they have fewer signals to work with and a lot more spam). It allows Microsoft to conduct tests which compare their own internal algorithms against Google's top listings on the fly & learn from them. It takes away some of Google's economies of scale advantages.
Is Google Eating Its Own Home Cooking (And Throwing UP?)
Here is what I don't get about Google's complaints though. Google had no problem borrowing a half-dozen innovations from Bing. But this is how Google describes Bing's "nefarious" activities:
“It’s cheating to me because we work incredibly hard and have done so for years but they just get there based on our hard work,” said Singhal. “I don’t know how else to call it but plain and simple cheating. Another analogy is that it’s like running a marathon and carrying someone else on your back, who jumps off just before the finish line.”
When a content site compiles reviews, creates editorial features to highlight the best reviews (and best reviewers), and works to create algorithms to filter out junk and spam then Google is fine with Google eating all that work for free. Google then jumps off their backs just before the finish line and throws the repurposed reviews in front of Google searchers.
This public blanket admission of Microsoft using clickstream data for relevancy purposes is helpful. But outside of the PR smear campaign from Google there wasn't much new to learn here, as this has been a bit of an open secret amongst those in the know in the search space for well over a year now.
But the idea of using existing traffic stream data as a signal increases the value of having a strong diversified traffic flow which leverages:
Recently we tested adding ads on one of our websites that had a fairly uninspired design on it. After adding the ads (which make the site feel a bit less credible) the new design was so much better fitting than the old one that the site now gets 26% more pageviews per visit. Anytime you can put something on your website which increases monetization, sends visitors away & yet still get more user engagement you are making a positive change!
If You Can't Beat Em, Filter
I was being a bit of a joker when I created this, but the point remains that as larger search engines force feed junk (content mills and vertical search results) down end user's throats that some of the best ways for upstart search engines to compete is to filter that stuff out. Both DuckDuckGo and Blekko have done just that.
Search can be used as a wedge in a variety of ways. Most are perhaps poorly understood by the media and market regulators.
Woot! Check Out Our Bundling Discounts
When Google Checkout rolled out, it was free. Not only was it free, but it came with a badge that appears near AdWords ads to make the ads stand out. That boosts ad clickthrough rates, which feeds into ad quality score & acts as a discount for advertisers who used Google Checkout. If you did not use Google's bundled services you were stuck paying above market rates to compete with those who accepted Google's bundling discounts.
Companies spend billions of Dollars every year building their trademarked brands. But if they don't pay Google for existing brand equity then Google sells access to that stream of branded traffic to competitors, even though internal Google studies have shown it causes confusion in the marketplace.
The Right to Copy
Copyright protects the value of content. To increase the cost of maintaining that value, DoubleClick and AdSense fund a lot of copy and paste publishing, even of the automated variety. Sure you can hide your content behind a paywall, but if Google is paying people to steal it and wrap it in ads how do you have legal recourse if those people live in a country which doesn't respect copyright?
You can see how LOOSE Google's AdSense standards are when it comes to things like copyright and trademarks by searching for something like "bulk PageRank checker" and seeing how many sites that violate Google's TOS multiple ways are built on cybersquatted domain names that contain the word "PageRank" in them. There are also sites dedicated to turning Youtube videos into MP3's which are monetized via AdSense.
Philosophically Google believes in (and delivers regular sermons about) an open web where companies should compete on the merit of their products. And yet when Google enters a new vertical they *require* you to let them use your content against you. If you want to opt out of competing against yourself Google say that is fine, but the only way they will allow you to opt out is if you block them from indexing your content & kill your search traffic.
“Google has also advised that if we want to stop content from appearing on Google Places we would have to reduce/stop Google’s ability to scan the TripAdvisor site,” said Kaufer “Needless to say, this would have a significant impact on TripAdvisor’s ranking on natural search queries through Google and, as such, we are not blocking Google from scanning our site.”
From a public relations standpoint & a legal perspective I don't think it is a good idea for Google to deliver all-or-nothing ultimatums. Ultimately that could cause people in positions of power to view their acts as a collection which have to be justified on the whole, rather than on an individual basis.
Lucky for publishers, technology does allow them to skirt Google's suggestions. If I ran an industry-leading review site and wanted to opt out of Google's all-or-nothing scrape job scam, my approach would be to selectively post certain types of content. Some of it would be behind a registration wall, some of it would be publicly accessible in iframes, and maybe just a sliver of it is fully accessible to Google. That way Google indexes your site (and you still rank for the core industry keywords), but they can't scrape the parts you don't want them to. Of course that means losing out on some longtail search traffic (as the hidden content is invisible to search engines), but it is better than the alternatives of killing all search traffic or giving away the farm.
Over the past year or 2 there have been lots of changes with Google pushing vertical integration, but outside of localization and verticalization, core relevancy algorithms (especially in terms of spam fighting) haven't changed too much recently. There have been a fewtricky bits, but when you consider how much more powerful Google has grown, their approach to core search hasn't been as adversarial as it was a few years back (outside of pushing more self promotion).
There has been some speculation as to why Google has toned down their manual intervention, including:
anti-trust concerns as Google steps up vertically driven self-promotion (and an endless well of funding for anyone with complaints, courtesyMicrosoft)
a desire to create more automated solutions as the web scales up
spending significant resources fighting site hacking (the "bigger fish to fry" theory)
As we’ve increased both our size and freshness in recent months, we’ve naturally indexed a lot of good content and some spam as well. To respond to that challenge, we recently launched a redesigned document-level classifier that makes it harder for spammy on-page content to rank highly. The new classifier is better at detecting spam on individual web pages, e.g., repeated spammy words—the sort of phrases you tend to see in junky, automated, self-promoting blog comments. We’ve also radically improved our ability to detect hacked sites, which were a major source of spam in 2010. And we’re evaluating multiple changes that should help drive spam levels even lower, including one change that primarily affects sites that copy others’ content and sites with low levels of original content.
It sounds like Google was mainly focused on fighting hacked sites and auto-generated & copied content. And now that hacked *GOVERNMENT* websites are available for purchase for a few hundred Dollars (and perhaps millions in personal risk when a government comes after you) it seems like Google's pushing toward fighting off site hacking was a smart move! Further, there are a wide array of start ups built around leveraging the "domain authority" bias in Google's algorithm, which certainly means that looking more at page by page metrics was a needed strategy to evolve relevancy. And with page-by-page metrics it will allow Google to filter out the cruddy parts of good sites without killing off the whole site.
As Google has tackled many of the hard core auto-generated spam issues it allows them to ramp up their focus on more vanilla spam. Due to a rash of complaints (typically from web publishers & SEO folks) content mills are now a front and center issue:
As “pure webspam” has decreased over time, attention has shifted instead to “content farms,” which are sites with shallow or low-quality content. In 2010, we launched two major algorithmic changes focused on low-quality sites. Nonetheless, we hear the feedback from the web loud and clear: people are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content. We take pride in Google search and strive to make each and every search perfect. The fact is that we’re not perfect, and combined with users’ skyrocketing expectations of Google, these imperfections get magnified in perception.
But what sort of sites are the content mills that Google is going to ramp up action on?
The tricky part with vanilla spam is the subjective nature of it. End users (particularly those who are not web publishers & online advertisers) might not complain much about sites like eHow because they are aesthetically pleasing & well formatted for easy consumption. The content might be at a low level, but maybe Google is willing to let a few of the bigger players slide. And there is a lot of poorly formatted expert content which end users would view worse than eHow, simply because it is not formatted for online consumption.
My guess is that sites that took a swan dive in the October 23rd timeframe might expect to fall off the cliff once more. Where subject search relevancy gets hard is that issues rise and fall like ocean waves crashing ashore. Issues that get fixed eventually create opportunities for other problems to fester. And after an issue has been fixed long enough it becomes a non-issue to the point of being a promoted best practice, at least for a while.
Anyone who sees opportunity as permanently disappearing from search is looking at a half-empty glass rather than one which sees opportunities that died reborn again and again.
That said, I view Matt's blog post as a bit of a warning shot. What types of sites do you think he is coming after? What types of sites do you see benefiting from such changes? Discuss. :)