Image: keso on Flickr / Some rights reserved
My work involves a lot of research. Research involves a lot of Googling. And over the last year, I’ve noticed that Google seems to be getting a little sloppy. It’s been a nagging problem that I’ve tried to ignore and work around. But it’s getting worse. More and more, I find myself being offered eHow articles, and Suite101 posts – many of which have been commissioned by an algorithm, and SEOed to within an inch of their life to appear on the first page of Google results. As this thought-provoking piece at Slate notices, even the Huffington Post are in on the game, unable to resist the occasional search-baiting piece of rubbish such as this ridiculous When does the Superbowl start? post.
For the (blissfully) uninitiated, “content farming” is a relatively new phenomenon. Some are based on Google search algorithms – if people seem to be searching for “how to make a monkey sing Dolly Parton”, a notification is zinged to one of Demand Media’s (the company behind eHow) thousands of contributors. “Quick, write an article on how to make a monkey sing Dolly Parton!” The writer boshes it out, earns a couple of dollars, and Demand Media siphon off as much traffic as they can. Others just invite contributors to write whatever they want – as this post on working for Suite101 suggests – and rely on the long tail of the Internet, and rampant SEO, to make it worthwhile. Recently, I wanted to find out when the Copa del Rey final between Real Madrid and Barcelona was, and was offerred this crap from Suite101 via Google. Not only is it a mindless lump of boring bullshit, it also failed to answer my question.
So why did that piece exist? Well, first a writer decided they wanted to work for Suite101, and approached them. They passed Suite101’s utterly non-stringent quality control test (“fairly straightforward and only requires the submission of two articles to the editorial team to ensure that new applicants can actually write”). They decided they wanted to write some bilge about Barcelona and Real Madrid. Suite101 ensured it was swimming with search terms and tasty, inappropriate meta. Over the next year it will probably generate $100 of adsense revenue, of which the writer will be slung $20. End game: a barely polished turd, but a profitable one nonetheless.
This content model, which is undoubtably profitable, is making the Internet shit. As Jason Calacanis, no stranger to the content game himself, recently noted, “We have to look in the mirror and ask, ‘Is this what we want create for our users?’ We are polluting the internet.” Indeed they are.
So, we are currently in the middle of a race. On one side are the content farms, churning out tens of thousands of articles a day, the majority of which are crap. On the other side is Google, desperately trying to filter the Internet and deliver the best possible results to its users. As things stands, Google are losing, hamstrung by the very technology that has made it so great: the all-powerful algorithm. The content farms are gaming it. This Anil Dash post summarises a number of voices who are increasingly disillusioned with Google:
“Google has become a snake that too readily consumes its own keyword tail….It hearkens back to the dark days of 1999, before Google arrived, when search had become largely useless, with results completely overwhelmed by spam and info-clutter…. Google is like a monoculture, and thus parasites have a major impact once they have adapted to it – especially if Google has “lost the war”
Jeff Atwood sums up the nagging thoughts I was describing at the top of this post:
Throughout my investigation I had nagging doubts that we were seeing serious cracks in the algorithmic search foundations of the house that Google built. But I was afraid to write an article about it for fear I’d be claimed an incompetent kook. I wasn’t comfortable sharing that opinion widely, because we might be doing something obviously wrong. Which we tend to do frequently and often. Gravity can’t be wrong. We’re just clumsy … right?
I can’t help noticing that we’re not the only site to have serious problems with Google search results in the last few months. In fact, the drum beat of deteriorating Google search quality has been practically deafening of late.
It seems that the purveyors of shitty content are gaming Google’s algorithm at a quicker rate than Google is improving the algorithm itself. Which is really quite worrying. Let’s just hope that Google is the tortoise in this race, slowly improving and personalising its search – which it is – in order to eventually defeat the content farms’ hare on the line. Otherwise, we’ve got a bone fide tragedy on our hands.