Many Canadian businesses that have some sort of online presence could be hurt by Google’s recent decision to alter its search algorithms to lower the online ranking of so-called “content farms” or sites with materials lifted from other sources
E-commerce and search engine experts said the impact of the move to penalize sites offering copycat content has the potential to sink the online rankings of e-commerce sites, coupon sites, and even business sites that re-post press releases, blogs or product descriptions.
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The term content farm is generally used to describe sites that typically have “low quality” content that were primarily loaded onto the site to attract search engines and boost the site’s rankings, according to Dev Basu, a Toronto-based search engine optimization specialist and president of Powered by Search. He said owners of these sites tend to flood the site with articles bought from freelance writers or content copied or “scraped” from other sites. The site owners earn money through ads posted on the site.
In the SEO field, sites such as Demand Media, Associated Content, Mahalo, and even the Huffington Post are generally considered content farms, said Basu.
“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,” Google engineers wrote on the company’s official blog.
“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,” the engineers explained.
Google did not mention content farms in the algorithm change announcement, though the company said last month it is has shifted its attention to content farms, “which are sites with shallow or low-quality content.” The new site ranking system is considered to be a direct response to these sites, which were not individually named by the search giant.
An age-old battle
Google has come under increasing pressure on the subject of questionable rankings within their “organic” results area, according to Hadley Reynolds, director of search and digital marketplace technologies for analyst firm IDC, based in Framingham,Mass.
The organic results area, Reynolds explained, is the main area of the screen which is made up primarily of links to sites that have not paid to advertise with Google for the searcher’s particular query term.
“A recent feature article in the Sunday New York Times Business section highlighted J.C. Penney’s ‘black hat’ SEO practices in gaming Google’s rankings to achieve top organic rankings across a surprising number of product areas,” Reynolds said. The practice went on for months before Google made specific changes to block Penney from dominating query listings inappropriately.
According to Reynolds content farms are designed to offer enough content on a popular topic so that the algorithms behind crawlers from search engines like Google will consider them an authoritative site and rank them highly in their organic results lists, at least in the top 5-10 sites. “They trust that searchers, not knowing they are about to visit a content farm, will click through to see what the sites offer. When searchers arrive, they find minimal subject-related content but a lot of advertising-related material,” he said.
If enough people click on the ads, the content farms stand to make significant money. Demand Media, a US content farm that recently executed a surprisingly successful IPO on the NASDAQ exchange, was valued at $1.5B, more than the New York Times. Content farms are advertising sites that offer a tiny kernel of subject matter surrounded by as much advertising as they can sell.
While there is nothing directly illegal or “black hat” about the content farm strategy, it is definitely a game played by using a form of spam to trick search engines into ranking the sites more highly than they should be, or would be if humans were doing the relevance ranking, said Reynolds.
Google’s move to change their algorithm to discourage the content farm practices will be nothing but good news for consumers, he said.
Basu of Powered by Search, said Google’s move is part of a battle the search engine giant has been fighting ever since it set up shop. “Sergey Brin and Larry Page created Google because they were disappointed by the quality of search results on Yahoo. They have been tweaking Google’s algorithms ever since to improve the quality of search results.”
On the hand, Basu said, many organizations have also been figuring out ways to “game” Google’s ranking algorithms in order to gain better search rankings.
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Google changes its search algorithm on a regular basis (around 500 changes per year), though most changes are minor and unnoticeable to most users. But these changes will impact just less than 12 per cent of search results.
Google is not the only game in town
At least one Toronto-based e-commerce specialist said that Google’s eminence in the search world may be waning.
According to Tim Richardson, professor of e-commerce and international business at the Seneca College and University of Toronto, social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are rising as players on the Web search market.
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“More and more people and organizations are being discovered in the Internet not just through their Google rankings but also because of the Facebook pages, tweets, YouTube videos and other social media content,” said Richardson.
Currently, Richardson said, organizations are still very concerned about how to gain high ranking scores on Google searches. “However, many businesses are also beginning to shift their focus on social media presence as well.”
Richardson welcomes Google’s move because he sees it aimed against sites that try to “fake” rankings and “ruin online search results for many people”. However, like Basu, he sees some legitimate businesses as sustaining collateral damages.
TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington speculates that some of the companies to be affected by Google’s change are “sites like Demand Media, Associated Content and Mahalo”. Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times also mentioned specific sites like eHow and Answerbag.
Demand Media, one of the suspected culprits of content farming, replied to Google’s algorithm changes in a blog post after the changes took effect in the U.S. search rankings. Larry Fitzgibbon, Demand Media’s EVP of Media and Operations, writes that results are mixed so far: “As might be expected, a content library as diverse as ours saw some content go up and some go down in Google search results.”
Basu of Powered by Search said that there aren’t as many content farms in Canada as there are in the United States. However, he believes that the “war on content farms” will burn some Canadian businesses as well.
“Google’s blog indicates some pressure for sites to produce original content and a move against duplicate content as well as low quality content. This could mean content that was taken from another online source or simply re-posted content as well as content hat has little value to viewers,” he said.
Sadly, Basu said, there are just a lot of sites that resort to scraping because of budget or time or expertise constraints.
Basu said potential victims are:
E-commerce sites – These sites typically feature manufacturer provided product descriptions and data sheets. It’s not really their fault they’re just using the materials given to them by their suppliers.
Coupon sites – The online coupon market has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry and many of the sites feature coupons for the same products or services. Hence they generally have the same content. The content can be recognized by Google as “low quality” because they rarely have original differentiating qualities.
Tips to improve online ranking
To improve your businesses online search ranking, Basu said, you need to create more original content or tweak content to reflect better quality.
For instance, e-commerce sites using re-posted product descriptions can accompany the material with high resolution images of the product. The company can also designate an employee or hire a writer or editor to alter the text so that it addresses the needs of the business’s clients.
Another strategy is to add some user generated content to the site. For example, a store can feature customer reviews or comments about a product being sold by the store.
The same strategy can be applied to coupon sites. For example, rather than just feature a coupon, site managers can add brief descriptions of the product or service being marketed. Images and customer reviews can also be incorporated to the posts.
For SMB sites, a company blog is a good differentiating tool, said Basu. This will provide both original and useful content. “Staff members can questions that customers frequently ask them as topics,” he said.
For example, businesses can have article about new product promos or pricing, an explanation of warranty rules or some how-to advice.
“The idea is to show Google that the content is different from the original source and that it contains information that is of value to your customers,” said Basu.
With note from Daniel Ionescu – PC World (US)
Nestor Arellano is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and join the IT Business Facebook Page.