You’ve probably already heard that Google’s on the warpath against “content farms” and changing its algorithm to bump them down a notch. Many people were surprised to see eHow come cheerfully out on top in recent algo updates, given that competing search engine Blekko had defined it as a content farm and banned it from their results. Ehow looked to most of us like the very definition of a content farm, and the immediate assumption was that Google and eHow had some kind of special relationship going.
Maybe, maybe not. After all, some claim:
A content farm is a site that scrapes content from other sites and slaps ads against it. Demand Media meanwhile has an army of freelancers who create original content that they put ads against. It’s a crucial difference.
This is a very conservative definition. Not all the sites hurt by Google’s latest update were actually scraping content from other sites.
What exactly is a content farm?
I’ve been trying to come up with a definition of “content farms” (and quality posts) by looking at the sites that got hurt and the sites that didn’t. I’m proud to say none of my sites came out the worse in this update, and several saw improved rankings. My conclusion: a content farm is a collection of articles that have no real value other than enriching themselves by getting your face in front of their ads. And let’s remember what we learned from the text link ads meltdown: Google doesn’t like it when people use their algo to benefit themselves. I think that’s key to understanding what the Panda Update was all about: the algo had been looking for lots of good, optimized content, so people started throwing up mounds of content the algo couldn’t distinguish from quality content, and now the algo’s being tweaked to make that distinction.
A content farm looks like this:
- It produces at least one article for every hot search term out there, and usually several or up to 30.
- These articles are substantially the same – not technically duplicate content, but what a human would recognize as “same shit, different day.” The algo’s getting smart.
- This pattern happens very consistently.
- The articles don’t say anything unique – you could find equally good information/whatever on several other sites.
- Thin pages. It’s also possible that “thin pages” are part of the content farm definition. More likely, they’re seen as one of many quality signals of the sort the algo’s been looking at for years. There are good reasons for pages to be thin on occasion – a blog might announce a contest, for example. If you have lots of thin pages like that, the algo might think you’re just posting dribbles of crap to get your ads in people’s faces. If you have some, but they’re balanced out by quality content, that’s probably not an issue.
- The content is overwhelmed by ads. I think Google’s trying to mathematically define that point where a human brain looks at a website and thinks, “Where’s the damn article? Is that an ad or a real link? This is a bunch of bullshit?” And in this latest update, I think they’ve been fairly successful. But it’s tricky: it’s not simply a number of ads or the placements of ads that matter.
The good news is: if the algo is “learning” to think more and more like a human, and have the same visceral reaction to a spammy site that most of us have, then your work’s cut out for you. Does your site look like spammy, useless junk? Or do you sometimes come across old articles you wrote and think, “Wow, this is actually helpful”?
So, what’s a quality site?
Everyone wants a checklist for what’s a quality site now – as if the definition of quality content has suddenly changed. I don’t think it has at all. Ehow answers a lot of visitors needs succinctly, with scannable posts and a layout that’s clean and never forces your eye away from the content. Personally, I think that’s why they didn’t get dinged. You can Google a question and find the answer on eHow very quickly. It serves the purpose it’s designed to serve – and optimized to serve.
Quality content is what it’s always been: articles that give readers what they want. There’s some debate over whether the new algo wants them to have a certain minimum word count, but I doubt it (if I’m looking up a recipe, I don’t want it padded with 895 words of blither to make it a 1000 word article). Google’s using social media to signal how well-received a post is, and probably other indicators as well. If your article gets rebroadcast, that’s what you’re looking for.
All the “definitions” of quality content you can find out there are based on speculation about what readers want. But you’re a reader. Observe your own surfing habits the next time you’re trying to get something from the web – plane tickets, info on how to clean window blinds, or a product you want to buy. Notice which websites actually do it for you, and then make a list of the things they got right. That’s how you learn to recognize quality.