The Farmer/Panda Update: New Information From Google and The Latest from SMX West

By Vanessa Fox over at SMX Sydney’s partner site – Searchengineland.com

Today at SMX West, the subject of the day was content farms. One session included the founder of (sometimes-called content farm) Associated Content, Luke Beatty, and focused on the good that can be learned from content farms, as well as what sites who have been hit by Google’s Farmer aka Panda update can do to regain their rankings.

This discussion coincides with an updated posting from Google in the webmaster discussion forum thread they opened for site owners on the subject. What can we learn?

To summarize:

  • Substantial low quality on a site can cause the rankings for the entire site to decline (even for the high quality pages)
  • Evaluate your web site for poor quality pages (not useful, poorly written, non-unique, or thin) and remove them
  • Overall user experience is likely important: design and usability, ad-to-content ratio, brand perception
  • Look at both content and page templates (do the templates overwhelm the pages with ads? Provide a poor user interface?)
  • After ensuring all content on the site is high quality, focus on engagement and awareness (through social media and other channels)
  • Diversify into other channels and even within search, look beyond web search at Google News and “one box” style results such as blogs, images, and videos
  • We can potentially learn from content farms, particularly in how they pinpoint what audiences are interested in and what problems they are trying to solve as well as how they harness crowdsourcing.

Official From Google: Low Quality Content On a Part of a Site Can Impact a Site’s Ranking As A Whole

First, Google’s words:

Our recent update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites, so the key thing for webmasters to do is make sure their sites are the highest quality possible. We looked at a variety of signals to detect low quality sites. Bear in mind that people searching on Google typically don’t want to see shallow or poorly written content, content that’s copied from other websites, or information that are just not that useful. In addition, it’s important for webmasters to know that low quality content on part of a site can impact a site’s ranking as a whole. For this reason, if you believe you’ve been impacted by this change you should evaluate all the content on your site and do your best to improve the overall quality of the pages on your domain. Removing low quality pages or moving them to a different domain could help your rankings for the higher quality content.

Let’s break that down:

  • This algorithm specifically targets sites (not necessarily content farms) that are low quality in a number of ways, such as:
    • Shallow content (not enough content to be useful)
    • Poorly written content
    • Content copied from other sites
    • Content that’s not useful
  • Low quality content on part of the site can impact the rankings of the entire site
  • Remove the low quality pages of the site to increase rankings of the high quality pages

A key phase is “information that [is] just not useful”. It’s not enough that content is unique and verbose. Another key is that even high quality pages can lose rankings if poor quality pages tarnish the overall site.

Advice From SMX West

Matthew Brown of AudienceWise (previously with the NY Times) had a concrete action plan for sites that had lost rankings. He noted that Google never said they were specifically targeting content farms and that all variety of sites were impacted, including ecommerce sites, shopping comparison sites, and sites with thin content.

Brand Perception

He speculated that user experience and brand likely contribute to a site’s overall perception of quality. It makes sense, as someone who has a positive experience with a brand is likely to click on that brand if it shows up in the search results, whereas someone who has had a poor experience with a brand may skip it in the search results and click the next listing.

For well-known brands, the searcher need not have had any experience with a brand before, but may click on the listing based on the overall authority and credibility of the brand. (This could potentially be why sites such as the Huffington Post don’t seem to have been affected, despite having “content farm-like” content.)

Quality Content Ratios

Brown said that the rankings changes seem page-based, based on what he’d seen, but that he’d also seen instances that seemed to be site-wide if enough poor content existed on the site. He talked about a quality vs. quantity ratio on sites. Even the ratio of low quality content is high enough, it could bring the entire site down. This aligns very closely to Google’s latest statement.

He speculated that even small sites could be impacted (even though they don’t fit the content farm definition) based on the ratio of good quality pages. Other things to look at include number of links to pages throughout the site vs. to the home page and the ratio of content to ads on a page.

Factors of Sites That Weren’t Impacted

Brown noted that content farm-like sites that seemed not to lose rankings had common factors such as brand awareness and credibility (like my Huffington Post example), inclusion in Google News, lots of links to internal pages, and substantial social media sharing.

He felt design and user experience play a part as well, showing an example from ehow.com (some say content farm-like, yet not impacted by this Google change) with a clean user interface and few ads above the fold.

He recommended:

  • Getting rid of poor quality pages entirely (redirect them if it makes sense, otherwise 404 them)
  • Building out brand signals
  • Working on promotion and engagement

He said the answer wasn’t more writers, but improving the quality of the content that’s there and focusing on building attention through marketing and engagement.

Associated Content: Google Referrals Down to 2/3 of Content

Luke Beatty, who founded Associated Content (and now that Yahoo has acquired the company is a VP there) said that while 2/3 of their content has seen significant declines in Google referrals since the algorithm change, 1/3 of their content has seen increases. However, it sounded as though the content that has seen increases may reside on the Yahoo network , rather than on associatedcontent.com.

Previous reports have associatedcontent.com traffic from Google down over 90%. (Just over a year ago, CEO Patrick Keane said: “With 90% of our editorial viewed at least once a month, clearly our organic search strategy is working.”)

If indeed it is the case that articles housed on Yahoo properties, rather than associatedcontent.com, are fairing better in Google search results, it could be that associatedcontent.com as a whole has suffered as Google described: “low quality content on part of a site can impact a site’s ranking as a whole”. Of course, it could also be that the higher quality articles were the ones chosen for publishing on Yahoo properties.

Indexing Not a Data Point For This Algorithm Change

One thing to note: Beatty said that 93% of associatedcontent.com pages are still indexed in Google and seemed to use that stat to indicate that they weren’t completely out of Google’s favor. But looking at indexing numbers is probably not the best indicator of impact from this algorithm change as it seems to have impacted ranking, but not indexing.

How Traditional Media Can Learn From Content Farms

Tim Ruder of Perfect Market looked at content farms from a different angle. He said that the quality of most mainstream media is high, but the economics are challenging. Ruder pointed out that mainstream didn’t seem to be impacted by this change, although they produce many articles a day on their sites. But they focus on quality. According to Pam Horan, president of the The Online Publishers Association(OPA), which includes content publishers such as CNN.com, “Traffic to sites that belong to the Online Publishers Association grew between 5% and 50% the day after Google’s tweak.”

Right now, print media supports online efforts, but print revenue is declining, so things will have to change. Ruder is from a traditional media background and wonders what have content farms done right that traditional media can learn from? In particular, content farms do a good job of understanding what people are searching for and the language they use. Traditional media can take a lesson from this to better engage with readers.

Building Content For Searcher Needs

Matt McGee, who moderated the session, later asked if Google inherently was taking issue with the idea of looking at search volumes and building content to address those needs?

The panelists said, it’s the quality of the content that’s at issue. I wrote about this before the algorithm shift in my article about the 2011 Super Bowl start time.

Here’s the thing about search trends and seasonal searches. A lot of discussion lately has focused on “content farms” that write and publish content based on what people search for most. For the most part, these sites don’t provide a lot of value, as they’re not written by someone who’s an expert or passionate about a topic. They’re simply a bunch of words that match a popular topic. To be clear, that’s not what I’m advocating. Instead, I’m saying that organizations such as the NFL and Fox could use search data to find out what their audiences need and make sure they are meeting those needs. In this case, the NFL audience is turning to the search box to find out what time the game starts. If the NFL would provide this information and make sure it’s visible in search, people would be happy and they’d tune into the game on time. Everyone wins.

One panelist noted that their jobs as marketers were to provide marketing for their clients (not ensure the sites are high quality). This is an old debate. Is SEO about ranking or about conversion? In my opinion, SEO goes beyond just marketing. SEO is also about understanding what your audience is looking for and meeting those needs. If you approach SEO from that perspective, you build your site in line with what Google is trying to surface with this algorithm change.

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