Google Gearing Up for Relevancy Changes

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 few tricky 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, courtesy Microsoft)
  • a desire to create more automated solutions as the web scales up
  • spending significant resources fighting site hacking (the "bigger fish to fry" theory)

Matt Cutts recently made a blog post on the official Google blog, which highlighted that indeed #3 was a big issue:

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.

Demand Media (DMD) is set to go public next week, and Richard Rosenblatt has a long history of timing market tops (see iMall or MySpace).

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.

If you recall the Mayday update, Richard Rosenblatt said that increased their web traffic. And Google's October 22nd algorithm change last year saw many smaller websites careen into oblivion, only to re-appear on November 9th. That update did not particularly harm sites like eHow.

However, in a Hacker News thread about Matt's recent blog post he did state that they have taken action against Mahalo: "Google has taken action on Mahalo before and has removed plenty of pages from Mahalo that violated our guidelines in the past. Just because we tend not to discuss specific companies doesn't mean that we've given them any sort of free pass."

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. :)

Published: January 22, 2011 by Aaron Wall in google


January 22, 2011 - 7:23pm

Seeing way too many sites consisting of 5 or so pages of content with no real point beyond ranking and earning Google Ad Sense revenue...and too many of these are ranking for competitive terms. The thing is, these sites have be profitable for Google, since they're raking in Ad Words revenue, so I have to wonder how seriously these kinds of content dumps will be hit by the changes. One can only hope.

The one kind of site I would love to see taken down are the hundreds of meaningless, useless "directories" where anyone and everyone can list their site for that all powerful inbound link. Does anyone ever visit those sites for any reason except to buy/place a link?! I'm hoping Google will add those into the content farm definition and send them into oblivion, while adjusting ranking algorithms to finally look a lot closer at link relevancy and less at numbers.

Sites that should/could benefit? Quality e-com and content sites, site that do what they say (like eHow, which does serve a purpose, and which is remarkably trusted by a lot of people as an information source. And hey, I've even gotten a tip or two off of it! :-)

January 23, 2011 - 5:56am

I'd be concerned about individual realtor sites, for example. These tend to be small because they don't need much in the way of descriptive content (who they are, where the realtor is located, and that's it). The main content is brought in through feeds when people conduct searches. That might conceivably qualify under Matt's statement: "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." A realty site for an individual realtor would by definition have low levels of original content - it doesn't need it - and it would copy others' content, namely, the mls feeds, usually served through a wrapper.

January 23, 2011 - 7:24am

An individual Realtor does not need to "have low levels of original content." If they do then it is generally something that occurred out of a combination of laziness, ignorance, cheapness, and/or greed.

Sure distributing the MLS feed is part of the gig, but why can't they offer in depth tour guides of the city, create custom editorial to highlight differences in lifestyle in different areas, do video walkthroughs of key properties, etc.? Why must they only slap out an MLS feed?

The whole idea that the individual Realtor site doesn't need to be remarkable in any way is largely the mindset behind those willing to buy traffic from Google at whatever the going market AdWords rate is. But for those who want to keep getting the free traffic perhaps a little more will eventually be expected.

January 23, 2011 - 8:41am

Yep, I certainly agree. I spend much of my time educating clients on the importance of a content-rich site, but they so often don't get it, or they don't want it, and then they're suprised when the site doesn't do well in the organic listings, or their bounce rate is through the roof.

Then of course, there's the problem of supplying the content itself. Now that it's so easy to build a site complete with CMS etc., the problem has become content. People - in their own business - aren't as good at it as they thought.

January 24, 2011 - 4:11pm

Those web directories are a strange case.

I definitely find people online who think directory submissions are "da bomb", but my experience is that (i) nobody visits those directories, (ii) directories don't send measurable referrer traffic, and (iii) directories tend to make little difference in search traffic.

Perhaps I picked a bad sample, but I launched a site with maybe 200 directory links, partially because I was so busy making the site I didn't have time to do a real promotional campaign. After three months of directory submits, I was getting like 50 visitors a day. I submitted to some social voting sites and occasionally I'd get 5-10k visitors in a day, but nothing enduring came out of this.

Then I ran backlink reports on some competitors and starting looking for blogs and what I call "psuedodirectories", which are pages that have a lot of links on them, but don't formally call themselves directories. Well, within 48 hours I get in a few blogs, bursts of about 200-1k in referrer traffic, and my search traffic spikes sharply up.

Since then I've been looking at a hockey stick graph, and I'm getting more than 3k visits a day, two months after starting the new campaign, and I expect to be getting a lot more than that.

I think anybody who pays to get in these directories (or at least most of them) has a hole in their head. That said, the 'signal' that comes from these directories is probably better than many of the link sources on the web, because most of them are human curated, and things that aren't relevant usually don't get in. (Compare that to blog & forum comments, where people are mostly trying to sneak past Askimet and look for unmaintained sites where nobody notices you've filled up thousands of pages with comments about "WoW Gold".) Still, I can't imagine that these ever get in the SERPs, because I just don't seem them sending traffic.

The think that irks me is all the 'me too' microblogs and nanoblogs you find out there. You know, there's something in the news, somebody hacks up a quick paragraph about it, and idiots will vote it up on Hacker News and Reddit. I don't even think these people are using automation because my A.I. has a higher I.Q. than they do.

Martin Prestovic
January 24, 2011 - 5:32pm

I have a feeling this is aimed at the blog networks that have cropped up in recent times. They are advertised frequently on Digital Point forums, pay x amount and get your article posted on 2000 blogs. There is a guy on Flippa who has repeatedly tried to sell his network although I can't find a link to it. Anyway, point being the blogs are all spammy in nature full of unrelated content but an easy way for people to obtain backlinks. I think that's who Google will be going for in this update.

As for the directories, they were pretty much killed off a couple of years ago when Google took away all of their PR and they have started a mini resurgence. So I expect they will be in the radar again.

January 25, 2011 - 1:06pm

Totally agree about some of that blog network stuff on Digital Point. Just 2 days ago I received the following email unsolicited & without any sort of name in it

I know your email from your company website when i am searching SEO company in Google search engine,
I am blogger that have (own) and maintenance 200+ blogs with PageRank (PR) 0-4, with specification:

- Many kind of Niche (Business/Travel/Home Improvement/Fashion/Technology/Health/Etc)
- Different IP Address
- US and UK hosting
- Keyword on domain name

I am offer Partnerships for Link Building/SEO Services to help your business in SEO.
I have 2 years experience for do this business, you can see my positive rating in my profile at DigitalPoint forum at here [edited]

Please check the attachments for my Blog List (complete with PageRank, IP Address, and Niche Information), and here is my prices offer (discount available for bulk order):

Blogroll/sitewide/homepage only:
$3 3 month
$5 6 month
$8 1 Year
$15 permanent (min 2 years)

$5 (you write)
$8 (i write)

Blogroll/sitewide/homepage only:
$5 3 month
$10 6 month
$15 1 Year
$30 permanent (min 2 years)

$10 (you write)
$15 (i write)

Blogroll/sitewide/homepage only:
$10 3 month
$15 6 month
$25 1 Year
$40 permanent (min 2 years)

$15 (you write)
$20 (i write)

Blogroll/sitewide/homepage only:
$15 3 month
$20 6 month
$35 1 Year
$50 permanent (min 2 years)

$20 (you write)
$25 (i write)

For blogpost, it will be 200-300 words, 1-3 links, 1 image or video, and unique.

I hope i can work together with you for a long term business, please help me to forward this email to right person in your team, if i wrong send it to this email address.

Nice to contact with you, wish you success always, thanks for your time, help and attentions.

What makes that email far worse is that it also comes with an Excel spreadsheet listing hundreds of blogs in their networks. How many SEOs do they send THAT to before it causes their stuff to get torched?

January 25, 2011 - 5:05pm

When I read this, the question I ask myself is, "where's the money?" While they may want quality search results, at the end of the day, they make money off advertising. I think their issue with blog farms has more to do with losing revenue from disillusioned adwords advertisers. The content network has been broken for years. Google has put bandaids on it, but they can't fix it in its current state. An overhaul to adsense would do away with a lot of the nonsense seeing as most of those sites are monetized by adsense exclusively. It doesn't seen that hard even. Require a minimum domain age, require a minimum amount of traffic or even require a yearly fee to participate. That would run off most of the junk. Maybe people would just look for other networks but if Google is serious about killing them off, why continue to feed the beast?

January 26, 2011 - 12:47am

I was on the warrior earlier and a "SEO" was confused why his website had just been wiped from the index. He had just bought a couple thousand links on a blog roll and then posted affiliate links on his site. He thought his site was banned because Google had done a "manual review" and found his affiliate links.

January 26, 2011 - 2:52pm

The WSO special advantage: militant high-pressure sales of stuff that doesn't work, where the results are always overstated & the risks are always understated.

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