In late February of 2011, search engine Google issued a “farmer update” reflecting a change in how it would assign page rankings based on the quality of the content sites displayed. Prior to this, many sites known as “content farms” had displayed poorly written or heavily plagiarized content in an attempt to boost their page rankings. The newly designed Google algorithm promptly slashed the rating of several prominent content farms and article distribution sites whose content was at best uninformed, and at worst pure gibberish. Many commercial sites also noticed a dramatic reduction in their page rankings because they were using reprinted or heavily plagiarized material. Google s Farmer Update was not purely based on content, however; it also appeared to factor in user behavior statistics, including total time spent on a page, number of pages accessed, and repeat visits. In short, the Google Farmer Update is an attempt to restore authenticity and relevance to Internet search results by evaluating sites in a more complex and hopefully meaningful way.
• Long Term Impact on Organic Rankings
The dethroning of such sites such as ezine from their prominent position atop the search rankings had an immediate impact on how those sites, and article distribution sites in general, solicited content. Although many of the article distribution sites allowed contributors to add content at will, some sites paid their contributors. eHow is part of a larger entity known as DemandMedia, for example, which pays contributors to write articles for them. After Google’s Farmer Update went into effect, DemandMedia revised its editorial guidelines, specifying a more in-depth level of research and stricter guidelines for article formats. DemandMedia also launched several different sites with specific focuses, such as a business-oriented site, a food oriented site, and paired with pre-existing original content providers like Salon.com in order to maintain its page ranking. While eHow’s content was deemed to be largely original, DemandMedia decided to take no chances.
Commercial sites that had lifted verbatim the description of a particular product or service from a manufacturer, for example, also had to start hiring professional writers to create unique content. “Scraper” sites, which are accumulations of previously written content, were abruptly removed from the top search results.
The long term impact of these changes on organic rankings appears to be a shift toward sites that engage people and generate certain user behavior statistics. Although the content must display a basic knowledge of the topic, the quality of the writing itself has become increasingly important. Average visitors to websites have a higher standard for website copy. Copy that is poorly constructed, dull, or simply not engaging repels visitors and encourages them to seek out other websites. Because Google s Farmer Update pairs the relevance of the content with user behavior, the mood and tone of the copy and the presentation of websites will increasingly impact the success or failure of organic rankings. Those sites that combine witty copy and excellent design will thrive. Those sites that are “sales-y,” and clearly motivated to garner page views without providing anything of substance will experience eroding organic rankings.
Being able to truly evaluate the relevance or authority of a particular site takes time and knowledge, especially on topics that are either obscure or complex. While it’s impossible to design an algorithm that can verify with 100% certainty that the information contained on a particular page is accurate, the algorithm can make fairly accurate decisions based on user behavior and links to other authoritative sites.
• Quality Sites Not Impacted by Google s Farmer Update
Many large sites, including eBay, Facebook, and YouTube were not impacted by the change. These sites display “quality” content, or at least quality as defined by the new Google algorithm. The content is original, is viewed by numerous people for long periods of time, and is relevant to a particular sub-section or market. In other words, “quality” itself has acquired a slightly different definition than it may have had a century ago. While craftsmanship and attention to detail still are important, much of the content on YouTube is arguably quite “amateur.” However, it is not recycled or plagiarized, and this distinguishes it from other content on the web.
• Future Farmer Updates & The Push to Avoid “Gaming”
While Google’s decision to issue the new ranking algorithm completely changed how many sites conceptualized of content and quality, the search engine has not stopped refining how it categorizes pages. Google appears to be pursuing a policy that actively resists “gaming” by sites and content developers.
The early days of the Internet offered entrepreneurs and other clever content aggregators a relatively easy pathway to recognition and high rankings. Google s Farmer Update signals that search engines are increasingly concentrating on rewarding quality over quantity. Any “gaming” efforts on the part of developers will undoubtedly backfire, even if they result in a temporary increase in overall page rankings. Low quality, shallow content is out; high quality, in-depth content is here to stay.