Is Google Ready to Send 'Content Farms' Out to Pasture?

GoogleOver the course of January (and since last year) a slateofWeb luminaries have criticized search giant Google (GOOG) for declining search quality and the growing inclusion of content spam in search results. Paul Kedrosky detailed how hard it was to find good information about dishwashers because spammy sites had snowed Google, burying real reviews and consumer information so far down in search results that Kedrosky gave up and paid to read

And independent Web traffic monitors have shown Google losing market share to Microsoft's (MSFT) Bing search engine, something that observers gleefully attributed to the same problems with search quality that Kedrosky and TechCrunch columnist Vivek Wadhwa had decried.

So, it was hardly a surprise that on Jan. 21 Google finally responded with a blog post from Matt Cutts, the engineer in charge of search results quality at Google. While Cutts said Google's search results haven't gotten more spammy, he did acknowledge the outcry. Further, the post was Google's most direct warning that it would be tweaking search algorithms to punish cheap producers of Web content that either copied or scraped information from other publishers.

We Hear the People

Cutts specifically referred to "content farms." That's a derisive term for the dozens of Web sites that copy content whole-cloth from more reputable publishers and then attempt to game Google to get good search results and higher page views. Said Cutts:
"As "pure webspam" has decreased over time, attention has shifted instead to "content farms," which are sites with shallow or low-quality content. In 2010, we launched two major algorithmic changes focused on low-quality sites. Nonetheless, we hear the feedback from the web loud and clear: people are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content."
Critics of this trend have often included in the content farms category fast-growing as sites such as Demand Media, Yahoo's (YHOO) Associated Content and AOL's (AOL) Seed (DailyFinance is owned by AOL). Interestingly, this sort of cheap content creation has been a darling of big venture capitalists and considered to be a beacon of hope in the Web's monetization wilderness.

The post from Cutts leaves unclear whether his warning applies also to these entities, which do not directly copy content from other publishers but instead leverage an army of low-paid freelancers to produce short, often-cursory articles to fill specific niches in Google and other search-engine results.

A Tide Change at Last?

The big loser in all this? One will likely be Demand Media. It has filed for an IPO and is ramping up to go public. It has stated clearly in its prospectus that a huge percentage of its revenues come directly from Google search results. After the Cutts post, it's hard to imagine that Demand will escape Google's algorithm tweaks.

More broadly, we could be witnessing a tide change as cheap content, which has overwhelmed algorithms, has become so painful to searchers that the outcry elicits dramatic changes in what's considered acceptable or useful online.

Which could be very good news for purveyors of so-called higher-quality content, the type of well-researched information that has all too often been exiled to the dark recesses of search results. And with Larry Page coming in as CEO to shake things up at the Googleplex, this could be just one highly public crusade that will seem almost irresistible because, let's face it, no one likes content farms except for their investors, and no one would miss them if they went away.

Ultimately, this could meant the jig is up for the purveyors of cheap content that have for so long relied on search engines for traffic and revenues.

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