Google’s algorithmic changes announced last week (which the search giant claims will effect 11.8 percent of queries) take aim at what it says are "low-quality sites-sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other web sites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites-sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on."
It’s a move applauded throughout much of the publishing industry. "Last year our members invested over half a billion dollars in creating original content," says Pam Horan, president of the Online Publishers Association. "To see Google recognize and value the creation of high-quality content is something we’re excited about."
But what does this mean for the rank-and-file publisher? Probably not much to start, but many small and independent publishers could see a small boost, provided they’re generating original content while following the basics of SEO 101. "If they’re doing things properly to begin with-good content that’s not just little snippets and you aren’t just lifting content from other folks and you’ve got the right SEO tactics in place-I don’t think it will impact publishers negatively. In many cases, it will impact positively," says Eric Shanfelt, founder of eMedia Strategist Inc., who says several of his small and medium-sized publishing clients have seen slight upticks in Google referrals in recent days.
"Publishers who are trying to be aggregators will face a harder time but I don’t see this fundamentally changing business models," Shanfelt continues. "Google is going after people on the real shady side of things-those who are flat out lifting content. There is a b-to-b publisher with a site for telecommunications providers that was aggregating all kinds of content-you could find content on their sites for hemorrhoids and feminine hygiene because they were just trying to aggregate all they could to make their site look good to Google. Those are the kinds of publishers who are in trouble-this release might not catch it but Google will continue refining to catch that kind of stuff."
"We’ve not seen any change to our traffic," says Dave Newcorn, vice president of digital and custom media at Summit Publishing. "I don’t have any concerns about this, I think it’s a good thing. The algorithm favors real content, which is what any good publisher worth its salt produces. We’re not involved in any content farm strategy. Even when we include curated content, we typically put our own spin on it."
Other publishers see more qualitative results from other search engines. "I think the algorithm change *could* have an impact on sites that have huge audiences – the jury is out on that," says Jeff Miller, director of custom media at WATT Publishing. "But, our view on it is simple: no big deal. The change does not alter our SEO initiative/the way we tag our content. While we pay attention to Google because they DO send the most search engine traffic to us (by a wide margin), other search engines (Bing, Yahoo, Ask, Baidu) provide more page views per visit, more average time spent on site and lower bounce rates."
Is the Game Still Rigged?
Some observers say the system is still set up to reward eyeballs and ad impressions. "You’d think finally the content guys won one but that’s probably not the case," wrote Brian Morrissey in Digiday. "The bigger problem is the online ad system remains rigged against those churning out quality, original content — at least the kind that costs a significant amount of money to produce. The simple fact is the way online advertising works now, strategies that generate large amounts of page views at minimal cost are much better than those that focus on quality, original and expensive content. Just look at how The Examiner, Business Insider and The Huffington Post all produced SEOd-to-the-rafters articles on ‘what time does the Superbowl start?’ It’s no wonder ‘The AOL Way’ reads like an accountant’s guide to content creation. As long as the Web is driven by generating clicks and page views, quantity will always win out over quality."
The algorithm change is aimed at so-called "content farms" and a chart from SISTRIX looks at the "25 biggest losers" since the change, which include sites such as ezinearticles.com and associatedcontent.com (a Yahoo-owned site). While critics label Demand Media a content farm, supporters point to the fact that Demand’s largest site eHow.com (which is heavily dependent on Google AdSense revenue) was not on the SISTRIX list (however, two other Demand sites-Trails.com and Answerbag.com-are on the list). At presstime, Demand Media’s stock traded at $23.15, up 2.9 percent (the company announced a content partnership today with food personality and longtime Reader’s Digest partner Rachel Ray for eHow’s Food Channel).
A Reminder of Just How Powerful Google Is
While the algorithm should ultimately benefit publishers, it’s also a reminder of just how beholden to Google most media brands are online.
One digital media executive at a major publisher expressed concern even as the company’s brands saw a major traffic uptick over the past week. "We’re constantly trying to improve traffic, then we instantly see a huge jump when Google makes a change," the executive told FOLIO:. "This is great, but what happens when they make another change down the road?"