Four Sites Impacted By Google’s “Farmer Update” Speak Out

It has been a little over two weeks since “hell broke loose” with Google’s Farmer/Panda algorithm update. Some sites that had been relying heavily on organic traffic saw that traffic plummet, while others gained. The changes impacted roughly 12 percent of US search results according to Google.

The Online Publishers Association estimated that the changes would impact approximately $1 billion in revenue.

There’s been considerable discussion, debate and suggestions for what to do since Panda appeared (see related entries below). The purpose of Panda (Google’s internal name) was to attack two categories of sites that Google saw polluting search results with spam or “low quality” content.

Immediately before Panda was unleashed, Google explained its objective in a January 21 blog post:

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. We’ll continue to explore ways to reduce spam, including new ways for users to give more explicit feedback about spammy and low-quality sites.
As “pure webspam” has decreased over time, attention has shifted instead to “content farms,” which are sites with shallow or low-quality content.

The chart immediately below, which most have seen by now, was released by Sistrix in the 24 hours that followed the arrival of Panda. Other sites beyond those on the chart also reportedly saw steep declines.

Panda was intended to take out spam and content with little perceived value. That idea was upsetting or even offensive to a number of the affected publishers, some of whom reacted with indignation.

To get reaction directly from some of the affected sites, I asked four publishers that were supposedly hit among the hardest by Panda to comment. Those four are local community directory AmericanTowns.com, product reviews site Buzzillions, small business networking site MerchantCircle and product search engine TheFind.

Several of them disputed the degree of impact suggested by the Sistrix chart but all of them either saw their traffic “fluctuate” or experienced a negative impact. Below are their verbatim, unedited statements.

Buzzillions

Buzzillions, which powers product reviews on retail sites and aggregates them from its partners, said many things “off the record” but provided the following official statement:

We’ve seen a reduction in traffic and, while we respect Google’s right to make changes, we do not believe that the new experience is better for the users.  Buzzillions  allows consumers to access over 13M product reviews and hundreds of on-topic buying guides which are the #1 tools used in the purchase process. Our assessment of review-based search queries suggests that the sites now ranking higher than Buzzillions do not have the quantity or quality content that we do, and therefore consumers using google will have a longer and less productive shopping process.

TheFind

A top shopping engine, TheFind offered me their reaction in email:

While we have seen a drop in SEO traffic from Google, it is orders of magnitude less than what you might think after reading some of the blog posts, and it hasn’t impacted our core area of differentiation which is in the sheer breadth and depth of content, products, and stores found on TheFind. In addition, it is worth noting that nearly 20% of the shopping searches we now handle are coming directly to TheFind from mobile devices.

And as mobile continues to accelerate, we continue to grow year-over-year in unpaid visits including SEO, direct visits and partners, and we attribute our ongoing growth to an unrelenting focus on the consumer experience on our site, where we make every decision with the shopper first and foremost in mind (for instance, we don’t monetize most of our traffic because we want to ensure that people see all of the options available for the products they want to buy).

Moving forward, we are performing more analysis and may be making some minor adjustments in the coming weeks, though we don’t foresee this as a significant event for TheFind.  In the long-term, our strategy is to greatly expand our presence in mobile and tablet apps as we believe they have the opportunity revolutionize the way that people shop and cement TheFind as a preferred destination.

MerchantCircle

MerchantCircle is a “social network for small businesses.” It offers free business profiles and other free tools to small businesses, as well as a range of marketing services. The company also told me that its traffic had not suffered as much as reported and provided this statement:

Our mission is to provide a free online marketing platform where local business owners create unique, valuable content that most often doesn’t exist anywhere else online.  Unfortunately, Google’s “farmer” update has had an important impact on consumers reaching our 1.6 million U.S. local businesses owners.  Because our members rely on their MerchantCircle profile to connect with new customers, many of our members are understandably concerned over the impact the “farmer” update has had on their businesses.

Beyond the changes we’ve already made, here are the near-term actions we’re making in response to the “farmer” update:

  • Re-doubling or efforts to fight spam and other low-quality content across our network (which is always a challenge in local
  • Evaluating our site to determine where we can make improvements to site layout and topology with a goal of improving search experience

And here are the activities on which we will continue to focus to help local businesses:

  • Educating our members about the importance of creating valuable local content about their businesses and their communities (see examples here of our merchant education webinar series here: http://www.youtube.com/user/MerchantCircle#p/c/16A06082C6D6A04A
  • Serving as an objective voice for local business owners who are often under represented in local discussions (see: http://blog.merchantcircle.com/2011/02/q1-2011-merchant-circle-mci-survey.html)
  • Building valuable new products to enable quality conversations between consumers and merchants (where else can merchants book online appointments, create online deals, send newsletters, meet other business owners all for free?)

We understand that improving search quality is an incredibly complicated challenge for Google and we are doing our best to adhere to the website guidelines that Google has established.   However, MerchantCircle is clearly not a “content farm” – we are an online marketing platform where small local business owners create unique, valuable local content. We are not perfect, but our small team is working hard to improve the local search experience. Stay tuned for an announcement on this front as we partner with leaders in search quality to improve our network and local search quality in general.

We welcome input from SEL readers as to how we can make MerchantCircle a more valuable participant in the local ecosystem.  (Please send feedback to: selfeedback@merchantcircle.com and we’ll take all ideas into consideration.)

AmericanTowns.com

Hyper-local has become an often used and abused buzzword. However, AmericanTowns’ network of local city and community sites has been “living the dream” for the past decade. Here’s a statement from Chairman and co-founder Ted Buerger:

In the interest of transparency, we are providing you the following traffic data: our traffic level declined 30% last week, bringing us to the equivalent of 2.4mm monthly uniques per Google Analytics, or comparable to 11 months ago.

We believe this traffic impact is temporary. Google search data shows that users want local information, and users confirm that they want this content readily accessible, from reliable sources.   AmericanTowns provides rich community information for 15,000 different towns across America.  Content includes over 500,000 directly submitted local events and announcements per year from 50,000 authorized contributors who live in those towns, which is supplemented by local information from over 200,000 pre-curated public sources. The most popular content changes every day, and is shared across nearby towns, when relevant (e.g. a band playing, vs. a PTA meeting).

We are confident that, over time, Google’s algorithm will give us credit for meeting this need.

We do agree with Google’s stated goals, even if it appears to have penalized good things AmericanTowns is doing for its readers and the communities it serves.  We have seen drops in traffic before when Google changes its algorithm, and as the algorithm is further refined, our search traffic has improved again. In any case, we are confident that our traffic will continue to grow, both virally and through search, because we provide a valuable service to communities across the country.

As you would expect, we intend to continue to provide a space rich with local information where local community organizations can share their important efforts and announcements with the community at large, for free.  That has been the mission of AmericanTowns since it was first conceived 10 years ago, and we will remain true to and build upon that founding concept.

As you can see from the above statements there are a range of reactions and degrees of acceptance. However, almost without exception, the four believe that in the medium and long term they won’t be adversely impacted and that Google will recognize their value and/or consumers will return directly to their sites.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: General | Google: SEO | Google: Web Search

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • heidi123

    When will SERIOUS businesses realize that putting all your eggs in one basket is the single most vulnerable mistake you can make in business?!? If you depend on one traffic source then be prepared for the repercussions since you will not be in control of your traffic…GOOGLE is NOT the Internet…build your brand using Google but not WITH Google…they have shareholders to please and profits to report…they DO NOT care about your businesses…find a way of using Google to build your brand by allocating only 25% or less to a single traffic source…in the long run make your visitors type YOUR domain name in the URL bar and not search for you through Google, Bing or Yahoo!

  • http://www.sefati.net Alireza Sefati

    its clear that google did that in order to boost their PPC business which has been out of favor more many

  • D Thomas

    I wrote a bit about Big Panda here: http://www.searchinfluence.com/2011/03/google-farmer-update/

    Basically, I saw all four sites listed here in the study I did…. I can not only understand, but also agree that they are of low quality to the user. Furthermore, heidi123 brings up a serious point: If you are only seeking to generate one-off clients from Google results, why bother optimizing for it? Build a brand, like TheFind seeks to do, and attract business the same ways businesses have done for centuries. That your storefront isn’t glass and brick should not change business fundamentals.

  • http://www.writersear.com/ mdmcginn

    Interesting about MerchantCircle. Google claims they did this to help to help local businesses, while MerchantCircle claims they exist to help local businesses. The problem is that such sites (Google Places being the worst, ironically) typically include directory information from other sources, supposedly to fill in for businesses that haven’t created custom listings. But the result is that, though many small businesses get included this way, most listings end up being worthless, nothing more than an outdated online White Pages book. That’s what we remember and that’s what Googlebot sees. Maybe MerchantCircle should bite the bullet and remove every listing that doesn’t include unique content. You don’t see boring, empty listings on Yelp. If there are no reviews, there’s no listing.

  • http://www.tcampbell.net T Campbell

    Widgetitis.com had this to say:

    “We believe that the adverse effect on our traffic is permanent. Frankly, we’re surprised that Google gave our crappy content a free ride for so long. We are a blight upon the Internet, and periodic updates in a search algorithm are like the sword of a stern but just God, consigning us to the traffic hell we richly deserve.”

  • Lishye Oktaviani

    I wonder, could anybody tell me????
    there seems to be a lot of duplicated content on these websites below (more than 100 sites). You cant imagine how many sites have the same content. but the sites seems to still rank well for their target keywords, in fact very well…, is the panda update selective for certain industries only ? or is there a better more appropriate definition of the Panda update ?

    http://www.google.co.id/search?hl=en&q=With+over+50+meters+of+private+beach+frontage+Villa+Ombak+Laut+faces+west+and+has+the+ultimate+sunset+panorama.+Further+views+to+the+Suthover+a+Balinese+temple+set+on+a+large+rocky+outcrop+in+the+ocean+to+the+Java+coastline+and+the+cloudy+peaks+of+Gunung+Agung+to+the+north&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=

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