Google Forecloses On Content Farms With “Panda” Algorithm Update

In January, Google promised that it would take action against content farms that were gaining top listings with “shallow” or “low-quality” content. Now the company is delivering, announcing a change to its ranking algorithm designed take out such material.

New Change Impacts 12% Of US Results

The new algorithm — Google’s “recipe” for how to rank web pages — starting going live yesterday, the company told me in an interview today.

Google changes its algorithm on a regular basis, but most changes are so subtle that few notice. This is different. Google says the change impacts 12% (11.8% is the unrounded figure) of its search results in the US , a far higher impact on results than most of its algorithm changes. The change only impacts results in the US. It may be rolled out worldwide in the future.

While Google has come under intense pressure in the past month to act against content farms, the company told me that this change has been in the works since last January.

Officially, Not Aimed At Content Farms

Officially, Google isn’t saying the algorithm change is targeting content farms. The company specifically declined to confirm that, when I asked. However, Matt Cutts — who heads Google’s spam fighting team — told me, “I think people will get the idea of the types of sites we’re talking about.”

Well, there are two types of sites “people” have been talking about in a way that Google has noticed: “scraper” sites and “content farms.” It mentioned both of them 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.

I’ve bolded the key sections, which I’ll explore more next.

The “Scraper Update”

About a week after Google’s post, Cutts confirmed that an algorithm change targeting “scraper” sites had gone live:

This was a pretty targeted launch: slightly over 2% of queries change in some way, but less than half a percent of search results change enough that someone might really notice. The net effect is that searchers are more likely to see the sites that wrote the original content rather than a site that scraped or copied the original site’s content.

“Scraper” sites are those widely defined as not having original content but instead pulling content in from other sources. Some do this through legitimate means, such as using RSS files with permission. Others may aggregate small amounts of content under fair use guidelines. Some simply “scrape” or copy content from other sites using automated means — hence the “scraper” nickname.

In short, Google said it was going after sites that had low-levels of original content in January and delivered a week later.

By the way, sometimes Google names big algorithm changes, such as in the case of the Vince update. Often, they get named by WebmasterWorld, where a community of marketers watches such changes closely, as happened with last year’s Mayday Update.

In the case of the scraper update, no one gave it any type of name that stuck. So, I’m naming it myself the “Scraper Update,” to help distinguish it against the “Farmer Update” that Google announced today.

But “Farmer Update” Really Does Target Content Farms

“Farmer Update?” Again, that’s a name I’m giving this change, so there’s a shorthand way to talk about it. Google declined to give it a public name, nor do I see one given in a WebmasterWorld thread that started noticing the algorithm change as it rolled out yesterday, before Google’s official announcement.

Postscript: Internally, Google told me this was called the “Panda” update, but they didn’t want that on-the-record when I wrote this original story. About a week later, they revealed the internal name in a Wired interview. “Farmer” is used through the rest of this story, though the headline has been changed to “Panda” to help reduce future confusion.

How can I say the Farmer Update targets content farms when Google specifically declined to confirm that? I’m reading between the lines. Google previously had said it was going after them.

Since Google originally named content farms as something it would target, you’ve had some of the companies that get labeled with that term push back that they are no such thing. Most notable has been Demand Media CEO Richard Rosenblatt, who previously told AllThingsD about Google’s planned algorithm changes to target content farms:

It’s not directed at us in any way.
I understand how that could confuse some people, because of that stupid “content farm” label, which we got tagged with. I don’t know who ever invented it, and who tagged us with it, but that’s not us…We keep getting tagged with “content farm”. It’s just insulting to our writers. We don’t want our writers to feel like they’re part of a “content farm.”

I guess it all comes down to what your definition of a “content farm” is. From Google’s earlier blog post, content farms are places with “shallow or low quality content.”

In that regard, Rosenblatt is right that Demand Media properties like eHow are not necessarily content farms, because they do have some deep and high quality content. However, they clearly also have some shallow and low quality content.

That content is what the algorithm change is going after. Google wouldn’t confirm it was targeting content farms, but Cutts did say again it was going after shallow and low quality content. And since content farms do produce plenty of that — along with good quality content — they’re being targeted here. If they have lots of good content, and that good content is responsible for the majority of their traffic and revenues, they’ll be fine. In not, they should be worried.

More About Who’s Impacted

As I wrote earlier, Google says it has been working on these changes since last January. I can personally confirm that several of Google’s search engineers were worrying about what to do about content farms back then, because I was asked about this issue and thoughts on how to tackle it, when I spoke to the company’s search quality team in January 2010. And no, I’m not suggesting I had any great advice to offer — only that people at Google were concerned about it over a year ago.

Since then, external pressure has accelerated. For instance, start-up search engine Blekko blocked sites that were most reported by its users to be spam, which included many sites that fall under the content farm heading. It gained a lot of attention for the move, even if the change didn’t necessarily improve Blekko’s results.

In my view, that helped prompt Google to finally push out a way for Google users to easily block sites they dislike from showing in Google’s results, via Chrome browser extension to report spam.

Cutts, in my interview with him today, made a point to say that none of the data from that tool was used to make changes that are part of the Farmer Update. However, he went on to say that of the top 50 sites that were most reported as spam by users of the tool, 84% of them were impacted by the new ranking changes. He would not confirm or deny if Demand’s eHow site was part of that list.

“These are sites that people want to go down, and they match our intuition,” Cutts said.

In other words, Google crafted a ranking algorithm to tackle the “content farm problem” independently of the new tool, it says — and it feels like tool is confirming that it’s getting the changes right.

The Content Farm Problem

By the way, my own definition of a content farm that I’ve been working on is like this:

  • Looks to see what are popular searches in a particular category (news, help topics)
  • Generates content specifically tailored to those searches
  • Usually spends very little time and or money, even perhaps as little as possible, to generate that content

The problem I think content farms are currently facing is with that last part — not putting in the effort to generate outstanding content.

For example, last night I did a talk at the University Of Utah about search trends and touched on content farm issues. A page from eHow ranked in Google’s top results for a search on “how to get pregnant fast,” a popular search topic. The advice:

The class laughed at the “Enjoyable Sex Is Key” advice as the first tip for getting pregnant fast. Actually, the advice that you shouldn’t get stressed makes sense. But this page is hardly great content on the topic. Instead, it seems to fit the “shallow” category that Google’s algorithm change is targeting. And the page, there last night when I was talking to the class, is now gone.

Perhaps the new “curation layer” that Demand talked about in it earnings call this week will help in cases like these. Demand also defended again in that call that it has quality content.

Will the changes really improve Google’s results? As I mentioned, Blekko now automatically blocks many content farms, a move that I’ve seen hailed by some. What I haven’t seen is any in-depth look at whether what remains is that much better. When I do spot checks, it’s easy to find plenty of other low quality or completely irrelevant content showing up.

Cutts tells me Google feels the change it is making does improve results according to its own internal testing methods. We’ll see if it plays out that way in the real world.

For more about content farms and the quality debate, see these articles below:

Opening image used under Creative Commons license from Mahalie at Flickr.

Postscript: Demand Media has now posted this short statement about the changes on its blog. We have our story on Demand Media’s response at Demand: Google Changes Have Produced “No Material Impact” Yet.

Postscript 2: Third party sources are now trying to assess who was hit most by the update. See our compilation post, Number Crunchers: Who Lost In Google’s “Farmer” Algorithm Change?

Postscript 3: Don’t forget that at Search Engine Land’s SMX West search marketing conference in San Jose March 8-10, we’ll have a number of sessions where this update as well as Google’s previous updates will be discussed, including:

This post has more about all these sessions: Google’s “Farmer Update” At Search Engine Land’s SMX West Conference.

Postscript 4: See also Google: We’ve Made No “Significant” Changes To The Farmer Update.

Postscript 5: See Your Site’s Traffic Has Plummeted Since Google’s Farmer/Panda Update. Now What?

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Content Farms | Demand Media | Features: Analysis | Google: SEO | Google: Web Search | Panda Update Must-Reads | Panda Update News | Top News

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://theledjungle.com The Cheese

    Wait just one second here who are all of you people to decide if an article is good or not? So what now we are censoring the internet. Here is an idea if you don’t like the website that you land on LEAVE! You have that option. Do any of you actually own or operate a website? Do you know what it takes to drive traffic? I am not saying that everything on the internet is great content, but that is for each individual to decide for themselves not Google or you guys. It just makes me so mad when I read all of these comments about how unfair you guys think everything is. It’s called free enterprise or capitalism, what this country was founded on.

  • http://www.seoscopy.com/BlogonBlog/ spidered

    Speaking for myself, I have several websites, and I know what it takes to drive traffic. I also know that a search engine such as Google was never intended to be stuffed full of duplicate information, changing only for the keyword targeted.

    Google’s intention was to enable people to find information online (on record) – long before all these spamming techniques were devised to bypass the concept of excellence and replace it with the expediency needed to trick search engine robots into offering top listings to pages with relatively little information.

    Google’s updates might not all work to achieve what people like me are seeking in Google, but at least they are making the effort and for that they must be applauded. With reference to ‘who are all of you’, we are simply Google users that want to find diversity in the information we are seeking, and not the same old stuff rehashed, and some of it barely legible.

    That’s all we are – people who are fed up ‘leaving’ web page after web page because they all say the same thing. Enterprise is fine, but not if it results in a total lack of quality and deteriorating information services just because you feel everybody should have the right to regurgitate trash!

  • http://www.wow-oh-wow.com Jason Garland

    Excellent work Google. Having almost finished school and just now stepping into the Internet Marketing ring, seeing some of these sites and some of the tools offered just makes me go yikes, do I really want to be a part of this. Yes, I do, and I’m going to do it my way. The do no evil way.

  • http://www.vinnylabarbera.com Vinny La Barbera

    Coming back to this article / topic a few weeks later for discussion purposes and still seeing a fairly noticeable uproar in the Internet Marketing world.

    The main cause for concern that I could get behind is how accurate Google’s “algorithm” is for detecting the actual quality of something as subjective as content.

    Don’t get me wrong, this algo update is headed in the right direction as I think we can all agree that we’re sick of seeing useless content sites at the top of the SERPs. However, what is most worrisome, and something we will probably never be exposed to, is how Google actually can determine or weigh something that is so subjective like content.

    It seems pretty apparent that Google is not even as confident in their own algo to detect quality when they develop and release tools and features to block and report sites through a browser extension or interface feature on Google.com.

    As a few people in this thread have already mentioned, Google should be focusing more on the manipulation and quality of links being used by websites. This is much more objective and can / should be a higher priority for Google.

    Complaints and worries aside, it is nice to see Google really start to crack down on anything that may devalue their search engine results. These moves / updates only make our jobs as SEOs more valuable and important.

    Thanks for another great post Danny!

  • daniel rauth

    Clearly a great article that helps to make sense of the many discussions and concerns out there with this latest updated. It’s been several weeks and yet it is still a major sticking point in conversations both online and it discussions with peers and clients. I can’t think of any update that Google as done to their algo that has brought this much discussion.

    My question / concern is can anyone truly define what is considered quality content? Couldn’t it be said that it is entirely subjective? What does Google consider good content?

  • http://www.SMMcast.com SocialMediaMarketing

    Was great meeting Matt Cutts at SXSW!

  • http://margotdarby.com margotdarby

    I was largely oblivious to the Content Farm problem. I would look up things like “Ankylosing Spondylitis” and “Plantar Fasciitis” and just figure everyone knows the same stuff, and that ain’t much. WebMD and other “serious” med sites are little better than no-name content farms. This makes me think the main problem is the overall low quality of information on the web.

    Thanks for the informative article. What a welcome change. I found it through Google.

  • smartnewsnetwork

    I got a song for you. Just to help keep this subject on light note….
    Oh McGoogle had a farm
    eieio
    With content here, content there, content everywhere, everywhere, content, content.
    Oh McGoogle had farm
    eieio
    With pandas here, pandas there, pandas everywhere, everywhere, pandas, pandas
    Oh McGoolge had farm
    eieio
    With copycats here, copycats there, copycats everywhere, everywhere, copycats, copycats
    eieio.

    Well, You get the picture. We all have to keep up with Google and all the farms to stay online.
    Take care yourselves first. Just be the best company on the web and nothing can stop you.

  • http://113tidbits.com tonyknuckles

    Nice work googlers!

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