Searching for Relevancy

Just last week, after more than a year of planning and adjusting, Google introduced a sweeping change to its search algorithm aiming to strike back against so-called "content farms" that have been increasingly spamming search results over the last few years. According to Google fellow Amit Singhal (who seems to be in the news a lot lately), this problem has been on their radar for awhile and the new change will have an impact on an estimated 11.8% of search queries.

It was a necessary step to maintaining search relevancy and is particularly important since people are now increasingly turning to the web, and search engines in particular, to research products and services that they are intending to purchase. According to Pew, 58% of Americans now research online for future purchases, up from 49% in 2004. Medical queries and health related searches are increasing steadily as well, as The Pew Internet Project recently found that in the United States:

  • 66% of internet users look online for information about a specific disease or medical problem

  • 56% of internet users look online for information about a certain medical treatment or procedure

  • 44% of internet users look online for information about doctors or other health professionals

  • 36% of internet users look online for information about hospitals or other medical facilities

  • 33% of internet users look online for information related to health insurance

  • 29% of internet users look online for information about food safety or recalls

  • 24% of internet users look online for information about drug safety or recalls

  • 22% of internet users look online for information about environmental health hazards

Much of the press regarding Google's announcement has centered around Demand Media's suite of websites such as eHow, et al, that are seemingly ubiquitous nowadays when Googling any question-based search phrase. According to Demand Media's CEO Richard Rosenblatt, the quality of their eHow articles are screened and have to meet some set standard. But when utilizing a network of over 13,000 free-lance writers to pen these pages, this could be disputable. One of my friends, who works as a writer and copy-editor in the journalistic field, worked freelance for Demand Media while between jobs last year. The main lesson from his experience? Getting paid per article did not translate to creating the best quality, most trustworthy work.

New content on a site is an important facet of maintaining a high search ranking, and that's perfectly exemplified by the over 300 Demand Media sites and their ilk that put out massive amounts of new content on a daily basis and regularly maintain a Page One presence. Because of this, almost half of their revenue was directly tied to their high Google ranking and the ads that they sold based upon that. Probably the bigger culprits, at least in Google's eyes, are spammy content farms that repeatedly copy the same material over and over again on different sites and link them together, thus creating "new" content and a higher PageRank at the same time. As Singhal and Google spam buster Matt Cutts said on a blog post announcing the change, "Google depends on the high-quality content created by wonderful websites around the world, and we do have a responsibility to encourage a healthy web ecosystem. Therefore, it is important for high-quality sites to be rewarded, and that's exactly what this change does."

While it's too early to tell exactly how the new changes at Google will affect any particular business (Demand Media has seen some rankings go up, while others have gone down); it was a necessary step for maintaining relevancy and repairing a reputation that has taken some hits over the last few years and caused upstarts like Bing top actually surpass Google in some user satisfaction polls. Hopefully, as responsible websites keep maintaining new and user-relevant content on their pages, i.e. don't have visitors "boomerang" immediately back to the search results page, they should start winning their ranking battle against the spam sites.

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