In February of 2011, Google rolled out the first of their Panda updates in an effort to “reduce rankings for low-quality sites.” The update to Google’s algorithms was intended to target sites that featured too little content or too many ads, as well as those that were “optimized” to the point of being unreadable.
Unfortunately, while Panda was successful in some areas, it had the unintended side effect of boosting the rankings of a number of scrapers and copyright infringers, so much so that many of these questionable sites were ranking higher than the site from which they had “borrowed” their content. After numerous complaints, Google began making tweaks to their algorithm to give more credibility to the authors of original content. The folks behind the Panda update even publicly asked users for help in determining data points so they could do a better job of detecting the scrapers.
So has the Panda update been successful? At the behest of NewScientist magazine, University of Glasgow computer scientist Richard McCreadie conducted a study in which he examined 50 queries known to target content farm targets (e.g. “how to train for a marathon”). He hired people to review the results of these queries in March, and again in August. According to the NewScientist article:
“The results are striking. In the case of the marathon query, sites that contained lists of generic tips, such as ‘invest in a good pair of running shoes,’ were present in the top 10 in March but had disappeared by August, while high-quality sources, such as Runner’s World magazine, now appear near the top. Similar trends were found throughout the 50 queries.”
Naturally, each Panda update has been followed by protests of smaller website owners who feel they’ve been unfairly penalized. However, most industry vets contend that these sites, whether they realize it or not, were losing their credibility due to duplication or shallowness of content, as well as over-aggressive ad placement.
So it appears that Google (and Microsoft Bing) are currently winning the battle against content farms. However, the NewScientist article cautions readers that the war is far from over:
“Sites can rank highly by producing authoritative material, but this is expensive, so there will always be those looking for a cheap short cut. Content farms may be out for now, but with billions of dollars hanging in the balance, it’s just a matter of time before the next battle commences.”