It’s hard to avoid all of the news and discussion swirling in the SEO community about content farms and the recent algorithm update. What started off as a few niche tech bloggers raising concerns about the rise of low quality “farmed” content built into a mainstream discussion over the past few weeks, with many major media sources chiming in. All of the discussion came to a head last week with news from Google that a significant algorithm change to address low quality content had been rolled out, the effects of which we are still just starting to understand. This thread on Quora is a good primer on how the change has impacted different sites.
Don’t react to the algorithm, but don’t ignore this change
The 800lb content farm in the room – eHow
In anticipation of an update, I began collecting ranking data for a small set of 36 queries around the end of January to get some insight into when and how Google would address farmed content. My dataset is too small to draw any definitive conclusions from, but it does offer some interesting insights into the change (insights that are mirrored by a much larger analysis done by German SEO firm Sistrix) -
- Substantial drops for several sites like ezinearticles and Hubpages;
- Clear evidence that eHow was not affected.
A breakout of the data I collected on eHow is below. (Average positions are calculated from the best of two trials before and after the change was rolled out, which is easier to compare.)
Why did eHow escape?
If eHow is the often-cited example of a content farm, then why weren’t they adversely impacted by this change? Some bring up the possibility that Google gives certain sites a pass because they run a lot of AdSense ads that make Google a lot of money. I’m skeptical of this argument – It’s a convenient explanation, and it isn’t in line with Google’s best interests over the long-term. So what are some other possible explanations?
The user signals Google gets from eHow might actually be positive. The common argument put forth by eHow’s owners at Demand Media is that eHow “fills in the gaps” on the web by covering content that nobody else has written. In many cases, this is true – even a mediocre article from eHow is often the best resource for the type of hyper-specific informational queries that nobody else has a motivation to write and update. In this sense, some of eHow’s content is useful and worthy of being ranked.
There is no good way to algorithmically detect this type of content. On the flip side, there are a lot of cases where eHow is just one of many relevant resources, and it often isn’t the best. That’s just the nature of their business model – an article on baking an apple pie that was researched and written over the course of an hour simply can’t stand up to an article on a niche site written by someone who has devoted their life to baking apple pies.
In these cases, sites like eHow are able to muscle their way to the top with their hyper-relevant content and the domain authority that comes with having millions of pieces of content that sometimes are the best resource. This is a confounding problem for search engines, because judging the true quality of content isn’t easy.