New Data and Takeaways From the Content Farm Update

Posted on Mar 2, 2011

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

I don’t typically devote much time or attention to individual algorithm updates. The fundamentals of SEO usually aren’t changed by these types of shuffles, and taking a reactionary approach by “chasing the algorithm” definitely hurts more than it helps. So why pay attention to this particular case? Because understanding how users and engines react to this kind of content is important for a host of other reasons. Whether you like it or not, the action by Google (or inaction, depending on why you ask) tells us a lot about the future of search and the future economy of the web.

The 800lb content farm in the room – eHow

When asked for an example of a content farm, eHow seems to be the most often cited example – so naturally, you would expect that eHow would have taken a noticeable hit from the recent algorithm change. But that is definitely not the case.

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.)

Needless to say I was scratching my head when I saw that eHow had seen modest improvements over the course of the update on my set of queries. To be exact, more queries improved than fell, most stayed the same, and the average position went from 5.17 to 5.00. Not a huge improvement, but steady rankings nonetheless.

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.

Here’s another good example – do two eHow pages really deserve to rank above the State Department’s excellent resource on passport renewal?

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.
The startup search engine Blekko has taken an aggressive approach by manually banning indvidual domains that it labels as content farms. While it’s a tempting tactic, I don’t know if it’s scalable or will be effective in the long run. It changes the game by taking incentive away from building large-scale content farms like eHow, but it doesn’t do much to address the underlying problem of low quality content written only to rank and show ads against.

Why should you care?

The more prominence that content farms are allowed to gain, the higher the bar is to compete. The plumber with 20 years of experience and a new site writing detailed tips and resources probably deserves to rank above a farmed article written by someone who has never picked up a wrench, but that isn’t what will likely happen by default. This entire situation is probably the best piece of evidence that writing excellent content is never enough.
Dissatisfaction on the part of users is also an important thing to watch. Is the dissatisfaction genuine amongst every day people, or is it a meme that’s pretty much limited to tech circles? If this discussion doesn’t go away, it could spell trouble for Google and create an opening for new players with new approaches.


  1. AnnaNo Gravatar
    May 7, 2011

    “The startup search engine Blekko has taken an aggressive approach by manually banning indvidual domains that it labels as content farms.”

    Google has done the same, in a way… just in a backdoor sort-of-way: they let the users do the exclusion with the Chrome browser’s Personal Blocklist extension.

    Users can of course block any website they don’t like. However, it is likely that any well ranked shallow content which has duped its way to the top ranks of the search results immediately gets the ‘block’ click when the content disappoints the visitor who looks for real information.

    The click does not only kick the visited piece of content out of the search results, but the entire domain it belongs to.

    Therefore, Blocklist users most likely rid their search results permanently of all the content farms, because they all tend to have either inferior content or a mix between occasionally useful content and inferior content. It is so easy… and then no more junk. I agree the content farm articles can be useful, but are rarely indispensable.

    All the Chrome Personal Blocklists report back to Google. Google has indicated that they may take the statistics (websites blocked from search results by users) into consideration in future algorithm updates.

    I don’t see a bright future ahead for any content farm which does not have strict quality control procedures (which I doubt any of them have).

Leave a Reply