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Google to content farms: It's war

The search giant has flipped the switch on algorithm changes designed to combat an ongoing influx of low-quality content into search results. Will it work?

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
2 min read

Google has set in motion the changes that it announced recently to combat "content farms"--companies that produce large amounts of inexpensive, search-engine-optimized content that have been frequently decried for their low quality.

But will there be sweeping changes in the way we view and navigate the Web? It's hard to tell just yet.

"In the last day or so we launched a pretty big algorithmic improvement to our ranking--a change that noticeably impacts 11.8 percent of our queries--and we wanted to let people know what's going on," Google said in a blog post last night. "This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites--sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites 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."

Part of this strategy involves a Chrome browser extension called Personal Blocklist.

But Demand Media, the recent IPO at the forefront of the "content farm" controversy, said today that it's been unaffected by Google's algorithm change, so far. "It's impossible to speculate how these or any changes made by Google impact any online business in the long term--but at this point in time, we haven't seen a material net impact on our Content and Media business," Demand Media executive vice president Larry Fitzgibbons said last night in a blog post. Demand Media, nevertheless, leaves open the possibility that its content could be affected in the future.

Indeed, Google said the changes may not be visible immediately, especially as the modifications to its algorithm are currently affecting only U.S. users. "We're very excited about this new ranking improvement because we believe it's a big step in the right direction of helping people find ever higher quality in our results," the Google blog post explained. "We've been tackling these issues for more than a year, and working on this specific change for the past few months. And we're working on many more updates that we believe will substantially improve the quality of the pages in our results."

What's at stake for Google here is the fact that critics have said content farms are making search results less useful and less relevant. With pressure from the "social search" trend fueled by Facebook's success and from search rival Bing inching up in market share, this decision may be more pressing for Google than it appears at first glance.