I was at the Boston SEO Meetup last night talking about why white hat SEO is the way to go. (Slides are here, if you are interested.) The attendees were a mix of newbies (trying to find people to help them with SEO) and a number of us grizzled veterans. (I am not sure what it means to be grizzled, but it just sounded right.) But I was surprised that many (both veteran and newbie) wanted to talk about the same thing: content farming. Some wanted to know what content farming is, some wanted to know what Google's algorithm change is affecting, and others wanted assurance that their site would not be next. One innocent-looking person approached me last night and described her site, asking me if she had a content farm. People were worried. Should they be?

I think it is natural for everyone to be a little worried about Google algorithm changes. Obviously, if you are doing something black hat (or even gray hat), you have a reason to worry. But even people playing it straight can get hurt. Google can't change the algorithm so that it affects only the bad guys. There is always collateral damage, where some good sites are affected unintentionally. The content farm update seems to have spurred more than the usual crying about unfairness, so perhaps this one struck innocents more than most.

But even if this one missed you, the next one might get you. You see, the ranking algorithm of any search engine is always in flux. Every change is actually an experiment. It's one thing for Google to target content farms, but no algorithm is that straightforward that the programmer just dials down the content farm sites. The construction of the algorithm raises all sorts of existential questions about exactly what is a content farm? What characteristics do they have? How many are we expecting to find and affect? Tuning the algorithm is never finished because these questions are never completely resolved.

Image representing Meetup as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

We know that Google is trying to eliminate the spammy content that is spliced together from multiple sites laced with keyword and loaded with advertising or some other way to buy something. Like e-mail spam, these sites hardly ever sell anything, but if they get enough clicks, some loony will buy at some point, and because the cost is near zero, they just need a lot of impressions to make some money. And just like e-mail spam, Google is sensitive to how annoying those spammy results have become, so it is fighting back. Google is under immense market pressure from Bing and under immense PR pressure from Facebook, whose alliance must be scaring folks at the Googleplex.

So Google is not going to give up this fight. It will use every means necessary to fight the spam. It will be constantly changing the algorithm. So what are you to do in the face of this?

As i emphasized in my talk last night, if you are focusing on what is good for searchers, for Google, and for you, stay the course. It's possible that some of you will be affected by algorithm changes when you should not be. Live with it. Keep plugging. Hope that the next change assists you. You need to treat your Google traffic the same way you treat the income from your business. If you are always living on about 70% of what you are making, then boom times are fun, and lean times can still be OK. You need to be willing weather the ups and downs of Google's vagaries.

So, keep creating memorable, compelling content. Keep exposing that content through e-mail, social media, paid search, and any other channel that makes sense. If people are flocking to your content, and they are sharing it with others, and they are returning to your site, and they are subscribing for updates, and they are registering to be alerted for more, and...you get the idea. If you have that kind of content, the search engines will eventually pay attention to it.

If on the other hand, you are working to trick the search engines, to optimize your site but not help your customers, to create the illusion of quality content rather than the real thing, then get out your worry beads. You'll have to be very clever and very nimble to keep your house of cards standing.

March 8, 2011

Mike is an expert in search marketing, search technology, social media, publishing, text analytics, and web metrics, who regularly makes speaking appearances.

Mike's previous appearances include Text Analytics World, Rutgers Business School, SEMRush webinar, ClickZ Live.

Mike also founded and writes for Biznology, is the co-author of Outside-In Marketing (with James Mathewson) and the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (now in its 3rd edition, and sole author of Do It Wrong Quickly, named by the Miami Herald as one of the 11 best business books of 2007.


Good job on the slides Mike. I think if you're going to have a "content farm" site you should have a rigor screening and moderation process. This way you don't allow content or pages with obvious black hat techniques like overstuffed keywords and anchor text.

Google actually opened up a forum for website owners who feel like they were unfairly affected by the update (http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=76830633df82fd8e&hl=en&start=160). It seems like some websites that produce original content got whacked because their content was being reproduced on a lot of other sites, and like you said, Google can't tell who the original author is. It's not a perfect update, but they never are. I'm confident that quality sites will bounce back.

Advertising with Google won't have any effect on your site's presence in our search results. Google never accepts money to include or rank sites in our search results, and it costs nothing to appear in our organic search results.

Who believes this? Hands Up!

Thanks for the nice post. I'm curious, I'm going to start a curator style blog site where I will be commenting on other content, videos and such, for my small audience of friends. Will sites like this be affected?

You can never tell, Scott, but I wouldn't think so. If you are copying other people's content, then I'd be careful to restrict that to short block quotes, interspersed with your commentary (or just links to their stuff, where you don't copy anything). If you do that, you should be OK.

It's not a perfect update, but they never are. I'm confident that quality sites will bounce back.

Good quality content is the way to go now. There is so much trash in Google's search results that they had to crack down. Duplicate content, spinning articles, etc. should be punished. Google's update isn't perfect by any means, but they are heading in the right direction.

Thanks for your information on this Google modification. I have been trying to figure out what everyone is talking about, some calling it the Farmer change. But I guess all in all, it really is just an algorithm change and if we keep Google's objectives in mind (quality content) we shouldn't have too much of a problem.

Great slide set here Mike Moran. I have your book Do It Wrong Quickly, I couldn't say enough about it. I saw the great reviews on Amazon and grabbed it to find quickly it was one of the most influential books on me and my seo services.

Thanks for the kind words, Jonathan. Let me know if I can ever be of any help to you.

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