Monday, January 24, 2011

Will social signals save Google from content farms?

Image representing Demand Media as depicted in...Image via CrunchBaseGoogle’s blog post on the status of its search quality has not gone unnoticed. Two good articles to read are Tim Bradshaw’s at the FT and Patricio Robles at Econsultancy.

Both articles point out the impending Demand Media IPO and wonder what this means for the firm. You see, in Matt’s Google post he put the spot light on “content farms”. That’s exactly what many people consider Demand Media to be.

Some of the people who dislike the Demand Media approach prefer blog posts, articles and other website content to be expertly handcrafted by a well paid journalist. Or, if not that, they want the content to come from an enterprising and genuine blogger. The idea that a faceless corporate entity generates content to vacuum up search traffic is one that upsets them.

There are also concerns about the quality of the content. Quality, though, is hard to measure. It’s subjective.

Google already has patent applications discussing quality signals in this area. One patent suggests that blogs publishing at exactly the same minute every day could be giving off a negative quality signal. The same patent application points out that blogs publishing exactly the same size of posts could also be considered as having characteristics that would warrant negative quality signals.

Two easy examples - albeit given up for public examination in the patent doc. Being able to determine hand written and valued content from hand written and farmed content will be significantly harder.

One theory is that Google will turn to social signals to help sort the farmed content from the organically grown content plucked from the vines of care and consideration.

For example, a niche blogger might blog several times a week and associate the blog with a similarly named Twitter account. The Twitter account might generate a handful of retweets throughout the week. The blog might also pick a up a comment or two. That gives Google a ratio. A big blog like Mashable or TechCrunch posts many more times during the week (dozens each day), has a Twitter account (at least one) with thousands of followers and will generate thousands of retweets and comments. That gives Google another ratio.

A site using content farms, without the same social quality signals as a newspaper or recognised blog, might be more inclined to produce a volume of content similar to the big blog but might only have the interaction, recognition or importance of the small blog. That’s the ratio Google could look to help raise suspicious the content is coming from a cheap source, ie, a content farm.

I’m not sure this is terrible news. It’ll certainly encourage all shapes and sizes of publishers to write for the human (not the spider) and really work on their audience interaction. It is, however, just one theory and one possible approach Google could take. In all reality a blended approach is more likely.

It may be a challenge that Google will score twice on if it wins. Once you've worked out a way to recognise "farmed contenet" then it's an easy step to treating links and other signals from that content differently.

I do wonder how you can determine the difference between farmed content and bought content. I’ve not seen anyone suggest that content from someone like the Press Association counts as “farmed” and yet the Press Association certainly has a content creation arm. It’s a group that advertises at some digital marketing events.

I’m not dismissing this challenge as Google’s challenge either. Google’s challenges effect us all in digital marketing. This latest push will affect everyone from big brands we’re currently building a fabulous web site for all the way through to a long tail affiliate we’re helping produce content for. The emphasis really will be on digital marketers to understand what sort of content Google likes and how to integrate that into a marketing plan at a cost effective level.

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