Google made two important algorithm changes last month; the first targeted duplicate content (so called ‘scraper’ sites) and the second, poor quality content sites typically referred to as content farms. The farmer change supposedly was leveled at sites such as eHow and HubPages, however there has been some unexpected side-swiping of websites which would not normally be considered as content farms.
Probably the most notable website to be hit was Cult of Mac, which is an Apple tech blog. Cult of Mac is linked to by a range of external sites as an expert resource on all things Apple and is frequently cited by sites such as Techmeme. After the farmer algorithm change came into effect, traffic experienced a massive drop despite 100% original content and provoking the ire of Cult editor, Leander Kahney, who claimed the site was a ‘civilian casualty’.
PRNewswire was also hit by the farmer change, though behind the initial numbers there is the reality that websites will be pulling down these releases to pass off as their own content. In this instance, the fact that someone else is scraping your content means you are getting hit, though whether this is as a result of the farmer change or the scraper algorithm change is unclear.
Blogging darling, Technorati was also hit with a sharp drop in traffic and loss in rankings. Whilst Technorati provides real value for bloggers, the fact it is aggregating content and information from the blogosphere is enough to downgrade it to spam site in Google’s eyes. Less well-known websites got hit too: Healthhype.com (lost 50% of its traffic with 100% original content at the high end of the quality spectrum); Theteacherscorner.net (13 years old, masses of original educational content and a 50% drop in traffic leading to 40% drop in ad revenue); and I4UNews.com (a tech blog which saw a 30% traffic drop).
Meanwhile, some of the established content farms which are the ostensible targets of the algorithm change have experienced mixed results. Hubpages reports no material changes, but thinks it is still too early to say anything. Demand Media has reported some drops in rankings for some of its sister sites, but eHow rankings have improved in certain instances. EzineArticles experienced a significant drop in traffic (-35% on one day alone) which some may feel is harsh, but then again isn’t EzineArticles simply a content farm for third-party companies to plug into anyway?
The only thing clear at the moment is that there is massive upheaval in traffic patterns for a large number of websites, many of which cannot be termed ‘content farms’. An issue with zeroing in on the reason for the rankings drop is the proximity of the two major algorithm changes. That and no-one is in a position to accurately say why rankings have changed in specific terms, at least not yet.
Since the Change – Quality Content
Since the change, Cult of Mac’s traffic and ranking has recovered, and I expect (note: I expect, but cannot be certain) that quality websites will also see their rankings recover too as Google tweaks the algorithm. Therein lies the crux of the issue – content quality.
Websites which have eschewed the “more is good” strategy, and focused on quality, appear to be less likely to suffer in the current rankings fallout. Google really seems to be dealing with the problem of content for search engines-v-human users issue, but then again isn’t this a good thing?
I’m not going to reiterate the content quality debate here – I subscribe to it wholeheartedly – because there is a more fundamental issue at play. Effectively, Google is the market in search engine land. Google makes the rules and we all have to follow them, or suffer massive traffic and revenue consequences. For a website such as Theteacherscorner.net, losing 40% of ad revenue will have a major impact on the viability of that business. The correct business decision is to already be sure to have diversified risk away from sole reliance on one income stream, but if Google is the dominant revenue stream, there is only so much diversification which can take place.
The 800 Pound Guerrilla
Whatever Google does impacts the entire commercial Internet structure. We have experienced the downside of this situation very recently with the Big Banks almost collapsing and causing a global meltdown of the world’s financial system. The argument there was that the big banks were considered “too big to fail”, which is how they managed to capture so much taxpayer money to bail them out. I’m not suggesting Google will ever go cap in hand to Congress for a bail out, but there is a serious systemic issue when one company wields so much power over the market.
You’re going to see something of what I mean when the Google algorithm changes are rolled out worldwide. Despite all of the upheaval caused in recent days, the changes only impact the United States at the moment.
The fundamental takeaway from the algorithm changes and their impact on traffic patterns and rankings is simple – we need more search engine competition for Google so that systemic shocks to eCommerce are minimized. Google cannot be allowed to become too big to fail.