For Content Farmers, Forecast Shows a Bad Season
Are search engines getting better at helping us find the information we want? It sure seems that way to me, and that has big implications for content marketers.
Until quite recently, the Web was at risk of being overrun with poor content. Finding useful information required wading through several pages of search results and dozens of meager articles. One of the most prolific producers of such content was Demand Media, Inc., publisher of the eHow site. Labeled by critics as a “content farm,” Demand uses an algorithm to detect popular keyword searches and assigns armies of starving freelancers to “answer” those queries with millions of quick-and-dirty articles and videos.
“To appreciate the impact Demand is poised to have on the Web, imagine a classroom where one kid raises his hand after every question and screams out the answer,” Wired magazine wrote about Demand Media in 2009. “He may not be smart or even right, but he makes it difficult to hear anybody else.”
I’m happy to report that this kid has been slapped upside the head. Since Demand went public to great fanfare in late January, 2011, its stock has plunged 69 percent (as of Nov. 14). The primary culprit appears to be Google, which in February rolled out a major update to its search algorithm.
Codenamed “Panda,” the update is designed to lay waste to content farms. After Panda’s rollout, search referrals to Demand’s sites plummeted, as did traffic to eHow, Forbes reports. (Demand’s executives downplay the significance of the algorithm change. At the same time, they say they’re working to improve their content quality. I wish them luck: Even eHow is reading a bit better these days.)
Panda’s impact has been analyzed to death by SEO experts. Some site owners claim that their sites have been “Pandalized”—downgraded for reasons other than quality. But the fact is, nobody gets rich betting against the brains of Google. And if Google aims to steer traffic toward quality sites, then you need to pay attention to Google’s definition of quality.
As usual, Google won’t release the details of the signals used by its algorithms for fear that folks will “game the research results.” Instead, they advise publishers to “focus on delivering the best possible user experience on your websites.” In other words, if Google has its way, quality will increasingly be a measure of the dialogue between the creator and audience, not of the SEO skill of the techie that lies between them (whether black- or white-hatted).
Just check out some of the criteria for high-quality sites that Google released in May. “These are the kinds of questions we ask ourselves as we write algorithms that attempt to assess site quality,” Google says. Here’s a sampling:
• Would you trust the information presented in this article?
• Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
• Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
• Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
How an algorithm can measure an intangible criterion like trust—or even a tangible criterion like a factual error—is frankly beyond me. But if anyone can do it, Google can. The bottom line: It’s up to you, dear marketer—not your SEO techie—to drive traffic to your brand’s site with quality content.
Richard Sine writes about business, personal finance and health for magazines and content marketers. He writes regularly for Men’s Health magazine and for brands such as Fidelity Investments, UPS and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.