On Feb. 24, Google (News - Alert) announced changes to its search algorithm intended to weed out “shallow and low-quality content” – in other words, content farms, aggregators, and other random web detritus that clutters up your search results. The announcement met with the expected chorus of boos and hallelujahs. Now, about three months later, is it early enough to see how successful the changes have been?
Immediately after Google’s announcement, my thinking was that the algorithm changes are good news for legitimate content providers. This is Google’s attempt at leveling the playing field so that users can get access to better, more relevant content, instead of being bombarded by useless pages designed to dupe them into clicking on ads. While it’s true that some good sites could get caught in the net among the bad, the goal is to weed out the worst offenders that have been trying to fix the field for a long time.
Google’s search algorithm is a complex, nuanced set of rules. Like any rule set intended to keep out the bad guys, it will also catch some of the good guys. (Think of your spam filter as another example of this principle.) In fact, the entire search algorithm is a rule set that attempts to balance all of the competitive interests with the goal of getting users to the most appropriate and relevant content as quickly as possible.
In the past weeks, there have been a number of reports on how the algorithm change has affected larger sites:
- The Online Publishers Association claims that the change has shifted $1 billion in annual revenue from sites whose ranking has dropped to sites whose ranking has risen.
- Traffic to sites belonging to the Online Publishers Association – whose members include About.com, Associated Press (News - Alert), and The Huffington Post – grew between 5 percent and 50 percent.
- The biggest reported winner is wikiHow, with a traffic increase of at least 79 percent.
- Mahalo (News - Alert).com announced an immediate 87 percent hit to its search traffic. Within days, the company laid off 10 percent of its staff.
- According to the software firm Sistrix, sites like Wisegeek.com, Ezinearticles.com, and Yahoo’s Associated Content each lost at least 75 percent of their Google-generated traffic.
- On the other hand, sites like eHow.com, LinkedIn (News - Alert), the Library of Congress, Encyclopedia Britannica, and MarthaStewart.com reportedly grew their traffic, though the amounts are unknown.
Do these numbers indicate success or failure? The answer is highly subjective, depending on your feelings about each of the sites mentioned above. All we can definitively say is that the changes to Google search have been significant enough to have a marked impact. (And these, of course, are just some of the major players. It’s impossible to assess the cumulative effect felt by millions of smaller publishers.)
Some people are saying Google’s algorithm goes too far. Others are saying it doesn’t go far enough.
The algorithm may not be perfect yet, but Google is a company that prides itself on iterations and agility. The only way for Google to make these iterations is based on feedback. If you feel that your site has been unfairly hit by Google’s algorithm changes, the best way to appeal for special dispensation is through the “Requesting reconsideration of your site” page at Google Webmaster Central.
In the meantime, remember: Content is still king. Now more than ever, publishers need to focus on refining the quality of their sites to ensure that content is sufficiently fresh and useful. In the end, Google’s focus on quality content is a win-win for site owners who want targeted visitors and for consumers who want real value from their online searches. I look forward to seeing how this continues to shake out.
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Edited by Jennifer Russell