The pollution of Google: an impending tragedy?

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.

Related posts:
Coming soon: A journalistic ‘state of nature’
Is hyperlocal all hype?
Why the Internet Manifesto is annoying
Why membership is an old media solution to a new media problem

16 responses to “The pollution of Google: an impending tragedy?

  1. Couldn’t agree more! I hate, eHow and Suite101 – it’s clutter that keeps me from the sources I truly respect in my own research. Wikipedia was a push and while it’s useful as a starting point for collecting information on subjects I know little about, it’s still not a top, respectable source I rely on. For the first entire page of Google-finds to be crap from each of these websites is just a waste of my time and a lot of extra sifting for me to do.

    If iGoogle would only allow to permanently block such sites from appearing in my search results, I would be happy.

  2. First up I think there is something quite ironic about so many people writing the same thing about the trouble with content farms! That aside it’s a fair criticism of Google – here’s a few extra thoughts.

    Content farms aren’t a “new phenomenon” back in the Wild West days of SEO when all you needed what a domain and some links with decent link text there were people out there offering writing services at prices that would make journos spit milk – instead now these companies just publish the information themselves – it’s different, not new.

    Often there isn’t an easily indexable answer to your question, or maybe no one had specifically addressed the issue of what time the Copa Del Rei starts? Why would they? On the flip side, when it is high volume you get spam like the Huff Post example – but at least you’re getting the answer you wanted…

    Single answer questions like what time does ‘X’ start certainly don’t need entire web pages dedicated to them, but until Google provides the answer for you it’s unsurprising that webmaster’s are going to include extra nonsense to justify the ads and help them rank higher than competitors.

    In general I agree with you and the other ‘content farm’ spammers though and I think the solution will be product of two events:

    1. Search and particularly natural language search gets better.
    2. Market forces continue to drive down ad revenues that model isn’t viable anymore…. Wait a second..

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  4. Yup, good points.

    I take your point that this isn’t new… the problem is that SEO has reached a level of sophistication that means that it’s much easier to dress mutton as lamb than it used to be.

    And, yes I agree that it is ‘unsurprising’ that webmaster’s are going to include extra nonsense to justify the ads and help them rank higher than competitors – but extend this to the Nth degree and you’ve got a truly crap internet.

    And re the market forces driving down the ad revenues, making the whole thing an unviable model…quite. AOL, however, clearly don’t agree.

    • SEO is much harder now than it once was and search results are much better now than they once were.

      The change is that more content is being produced and more people are searching for longer tail queries.

      As for AOL. It’s buying a reason to exist, not a business if you ask me. All their money comes from people still paying for dial up! Moreover as a general rule of thumb one shouldn’t copy AOL’s business strategy.

  5. Very interesting post. The current levels of SEO manipulation will subside, I believe. Google is well aware of the problem and obviously wants to keep it’s users happy. I think Stephanie’s idea of blocking certain webmasters through one’s iGoogle page is a good idea, though I could understand Google wanting to stay away from that.

    As for HuffPo, what other print media company can you point to that went from nothing to $315M in 5 years? And they did it on the back of SEO. That’s how they built their brand. Now it’s built though, and if you didn’t know them before the acquisiton, you certainly know them now. AOL bought them because they needed a mass appeal media source, ideally one which focused on women and local communities – HuffPo does just that. I think it’s about time we stop ragging on AOL’s strategy and respect their comeback. They are in much much better shape now than they were even two years ago.

  6. I read this article the other day…apparently Demand Media has a market cap of $2bn – more than the NY Times. Sobering thought. Friedman, Brooks & Kristof v. SEO monkeys. I know which I prefer…

    • Daniel Bower (above) has previously argued that the existence of the search farms fundamentally devalues the value of content… therefore making the value of established, traditional media outlets inherently overestimated.

      For example, I might get paid £500 for 1,500 words for the Guardian about traveling in Poland, while someone at Demand will get paid £5 for 1,500 words on the same subject.

      While the quality of my writing, the way it is presented, and the brand equity of the Guardian, is certainly (I hope) a multiplying factor on the value of the content, there is no way that my article is 100x more valuable.

      Therefore, Dan argues, the value of traditional news organisations – which are made up of hundreds of overvalued articles – are grossly over-exaggerated. The only way to compete, perhaps, is to pay less for more content.

      This post at PBS includes a very depressing quote from Jason Fry, a former WSJ columnist:

      “”If you want to know how our profession ends, look at Demand Media,”

  7. Very good response to this post from Hugh McCallion, who thinks we need to change the way we search, not change our search engines.

  8. There was a good piece in this morning’s FT about the HuffPo/AOL deal. John Gapper characterised the market for content as having bulges at both ends: cheap, mass-produced tat at the lower end and niche sites offering access to scarce information at the higher end. He argued that the NYT/ Washington Post could occupy the middle ground in the print era, but that that’s no longer sustainable with t’interweb.

    Interesting that Arianna took cash rather than AOL shares. She knows she got a good price…

  9. Here’s a link to my two pennie’th:
    Also: enjoy Benj coming from a journalists’ POV: shock of these content farms etc. Coming from a search point of view, SEO isn’t going anywhere for the next 5 years, search companies won’t let it. SEO experts have shown themselves to survive the last 7+ years and they will continue to adapt.

  10. This is SO true, and is only a bit better.
    But i do hate it when you google search a topic, and the first links are ehow and wiki. As we all know, wikipedia is “very trustworthy.” Google needs to figure out a new way to reorganize its information, rather than SEO and placing ads online. Because so far it is just becoming very cluttered!

  11. This is SO true, and is only a bit better.
    But i do hate it when you google search a topic, and the first links are ehow and wiki. As we all know, wikipedia is “very trustworthy.” Google needs to figure out a new way to reorganize its information, rather than SEO and placing ads online. Because so far it is just becoming very cluttered!

  12. Completely agree! is slightly better.
    It is so bothersome when you google search a topic, and the first links are ehow and wiki. We all know how “trustworthy” wikipedia is. Google needs to figure out a new way to reorganize its information, rather than SEO and placing ads online. Because so far it is just becoming very cluttered!

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  14. I’ve been absent for a while, but now I remember why I used to love this website. Thank you, I¡¦ll try and check back more often. How frequently you update your web site?

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