Did Google Just Declare War on Demand Media?

52 Comments

Over the past few months, there has been a growing chorus of criticism — much of it anecdotal, but coming from a number of respected technology observers — about Google’s (s goog) increasingly useless search results. Now the web giant has responded to these criticisms in a blog post, saying it doesn’t believe its search is getting any worse (if anything, it claims results have improved), but noting that it is going to be coming down hard on so-called “content farms” that try to game its algorithm with low-quality pages filled with keywords. And that could mean some pain for Demand Media, which is planning a closely-watched initial public offering that could launch as soon as next week.

The Google blog post came from Matt Cutts, who heads up the company’s search-spam team. Cutts said that in contrast to some of the criticisms, “according to the evaluation metrics that we’ve refined over more than a decade, Google’s search quality is better than it has ever been in terms of relevance, freshness and comprehensiveness.” He also said that English-language spam in the web company’s results is less than half what it was five years ago, although he admitted there had been a “slight uptick of spam in recent months.” But while pure spam has gotten better (the Google staffer provided this example of what the term means to Google) Cutts admitted that there was more work to be done in the area of low-quality pages from “content farms.”

As we discussed recently, the criticisms about Google’s results — from tech analysts such as financial blogger Paul Kedrosky, entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa, programmer Jeff Atwood and Instapaper developer Marco Arment — almost all focus their hate on content from mass-production outfits such as eHow, which is a subsidiary of Demand Media. Kedrosky wrote about companies whose business model he described as: “find some popular keywords that lead to traffic and transactions, wrap some anodyne and regularly-changing content around the keywords so Google doesn’t kick you out of search results, and watch the dollars roll in.” This is almost a perfect description of what Demand Media and other similar companies do.

In a securities filing related to its IPO, Demand — which is run by former MySpace chairman Richard Rosenblatt — says that “while traditional media companies create content based on anticipated consumer interest, we create content that responds to actual consumer demand.” What this means in practice is that Demand produces text, images and video that are designed to attract keyword ads. The company looks at what keywords are being searched for most, and pays contractors to produce content that fits that description. So if Demand sees that keywords related to winter tires are fetching a high price on auction markets like Google’s, it will pay someone to write an article about how to put snow tires on your car.

Some of these articles are filled with useful information, but others are closer to what Marco Arment described when he railed against content “generated by penny-hungry affiliate marketers and sleazy web ‘content’ startups to target long-tail Google queries en masse, scraping content from others or paying low-wage workers to churn out formulaic, minimally nutritious pages to answer them.” Demand isn’t the only “content farm,” of course. Associated Content, which was bought by Yahoo for $100 million last year, also produces tens of thousands of articles a month on similar kinds of topics, and there are several smaller sites such as Suite101.com that take a similar approach.

Demand Media is by far the largest player, however, and that means it could bear the brunt of Google’s wrath. Demand mentioned this in the “risk factors” section of its S-1 filing, referring to “the possibility that our relationship with Google — from which a significant portion of our revenue is generated — may be terminated or renewed on less favorable terms,” and “the “current dependence of our Content & Media service offering on the success of eHow.” The filing noted that Google could easily “change its existing… methodologies and metrics for valuing the quality of Internet traffic and delivering cost-per-click advertisements” in a way that would negatively affect Demand’s business.

In his Google blog post, Matt Cutts made a point of refuting the allegation made by some critics that the search giant takes a less-than-rigorous approach to pages from content farms like Demand because they carry Google advertising, and therefore the company shares in some of that revenue. This is not the case, Cutts said:

One misconception that we’ve seen in the last few weeks is the idea that Google doesn’t take as strong action on spammy content in our index if those sites are serving Google ads. To be crystal clear:

  • Google absolutely takes action on sites that violate our quality guidelines regardless of whether they have ads powered by Google
  • Displaying Google ads does not help a site’s rankings in Google, and
  • Buying Google ads does not increase a site’s rankings in Google’s search results.

That seems to make it clear that Demand Media can’t expect any favors just because it carries a lot of Google ads (which Demand says accounted for 28 percent of its revenue in the nine months through September 2010). At the very least, Google’s saber-rattling on the content-farm issue could make investors a little more nervous about Demand’s stock offering — and put more pressure on the company to boost the quality of some of its content so that it doesn’t get caught in Google’s spam filters.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Atli Haroarson

52 Comments

Paul Martin

I made this comment on another post on Gigaom but it is just as valid to this article also…

Do Google have a duty of service to remove Demand Media content farm results from its index – not only for the poor quality for the content but also as a duty of care?

People trust the content Google delivers to them almost blindly and in the UK it seems the National Health Service (NHS) doctors even use results to help diagnose patients.

These results include Demand Media sites such as eHow.com and when these articles are factually incorrect, it is by proxy, potentially putting peoples health at risk!

See http://www.epiphanysolutions.co.uk/blog/nhs-show-support-for-demand-media-ehow-against-google-attack/ for the full article. Scray stuff…

Bean counter

The DMD IPO lauched today. But not all the info is available to the public.

The terms between Google and Demand Media are sheltered behind a public redaction by the SEC until May 2012. Demand’s Exhibit 10.24 from their August 6, 2010 S-1 filing is full of x’s. Wouldn’t everyone love to know what their ad revenue deal with Google is in detail? Not fair that the SEC agreed to keep the info out of the public eye.

http://sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1365038/000104746910007151/a2199583zex-10_24.htm

Hueb

Yahoo should take a hike and spam its own Search engine, but we all know the reason why these sites want to rank higher on Google, 99.9% of the population uses Google everyday. There are thousands of sites out there, not just ehow, Associated content, there’s Triond, helium, suit101,etc, Google should banned them all from the search engines. I know that not all the writers on those sites copy their articles but the sad thing is that very few of them writer their own articles.

Bill Swan

So in other words the thousands of articles that are written by health professionals, pet owners, DIYer’s and people who HAVE knowledge and are of actual use should just be pushed aside and lost? Yes there are lots of crap articles out there but condemning entire sites is similar to telling me everyone who lives in Detroit or Seattle is a web scammer and spammer.

Larry

As an Infopreneuer who uses Google Adwords, I can’t stand these content farms – as well as websites ONLY filled with links to Google Adwords. It’s bullship.

It destroys our ads results and relevancy, and is a total conflic-of-interest business practice.

Plus, when I’m personally searching for something, the search results are these just these eHow nonsense sites filled with high-ranking dribble.

I left Yahoo adwords because of “click farms” sites, who paid folks to just click on adwords ads to make adsense profits.

Destroyed the ‘net with cloying, clogging keyword filler websites.

At least the old kw stuffing, you knew right away. These content farms sites, you have to read more blather, to realize it’s blather.

Thanks Matt Cutts, at least for acknowledging how much Demand Media and their ilk SUCK.

Robert Latchford

Nobody has mentioned Blekko.com or other search companies.
The sooner there is real competition to the search behemoth the better for everyone!

Matt

About time, search is such a hassle but maybe the ecosystem is so polluted, best to just find a new lake without the baggage. Until then, hopefully it’ll get a little better.

Anand

Targeting webspam – the duplicators, keyword stuffers,etc. makes good sense. Although I do see what Demand Media has been doing, I do wonder if it is a good idea to ban these websites. Just because they hire cheap writers to churn millions of articles does not automatically make them spam. Yes, I agree their article on ‘how to make pizza’ may be of lower quality than one I can find on a Pizza cook’s website.

But when it is about really long-tail keywords – one for which there is little to no content online, it is websites like eHow that give you at least a faint bit of information. And isn’t traffic/keywords like these that Demand Media targets as well? Wouldn’t you prefer a not-so-well researched article better than no article at all?

Kyle

Agreed. Many advanced users, forget about novice users who may only need basic information.

Blake

Nothing wrong with supplying search demand. The problem is supplying it with crap. If Demand focused on quality control — paying for better original writing — they would have no problem staying relevant in Google’s index.

E.

Matt Cutts can make this claim but it is completely false. My own site was kicked off Google Adsense due to the “potential” for click fraud. This was a totally bogus claim because I had been working tirelessly for more than three years to build up my site and was making only pennies from Google Adsense. (And risking losing google for pennies made absolutely no sense at all.) But after Google took this action my site dropped precipitously in deliver and from PageRank 5 to PageRank 4. Cutts is lying and I can’t wait until the feds (or a class action suit) out Google for the ‘evil’ company it is.

Outtanames999

Indeed, I find one must parse Matt Cutts’ words carefully to parse the meaning from what is being said. For example, he said it did not help if you are an advertiser. But he did not say it does not hurt if you aren’t.

tye

Are you kidding about not being much worse since early days? There was not much content or gamers in the beginning. Nearly every search past first 3 is gamed- BS and wasting time to search on Google.

Please, don’t be the pundit and use ‘Google’ metrix, copy and paste PR BS. You know as well as the rest of us we are now trying other means as Google is a waste of time- please don’t insult us with some stat PR BS

Like your posts but this feels like a paid for keyword for Google

Byron

I don’t know how sites like eFreedom get ranked above Stackoverflow while using Stackoverflow’s very own content, but something seems to be broken over at the big G these days. Seriously, why would eFreedom’s version of a Stackoverflow article appear 3-6 places above SO’s own version? And in some cases the SO version isn’t even on the front page. A lot of the time, Google is getting it right, but I’ve run into a ton of cases of late, where the bad guys are winning.

Mathew Ingram

I agree, Byron — and I think Google knows it too. I think they are trying hard to get rid of that kind of thing, but there is just so much of it.

Jimbo

There are new schemes that pay homeworkers nominal amounts to paste links in forums and elsewhere so they can boost Google results. It’s infuriating.

buyerbeware

I’ll believe it when it happens.

For the past 24 hours, Google News has prominently displayed so called news from a price comparison website. No other website has picked up its story. The ‘news’ was about how to save. Of course what Google describes as ‘news’ is actually a call to action to spend money on the price comparison website.

In the real world, people are saving money as they always have done, by not spending money. By posting price compriason website content as news, Google is disgracefully hood winking the public into reading PR as editorial.

Google does not understand the difference between editorial and marketing communication, in my view.

Outtanames999

Well that’s a tad disingenuous or at least naive, because no other medium understands it either. Look at the feature sections of any daily newspaper, e.g. Food, Real Estate, Fashion, Travel. The line is blurred everywhere, in all media – print, broadcast, web.

Andrew

I see Demand receiving all the heat but there are other very prominent and low quality content farms that are running disguised as something else like Mahalo, but nobody seems to be saying anything about it.

Dusty Dean

It’s interesting to ponder Demand Media’s response to Google’s ongoing and imminent algorithmic solutions to Web spam.

We’ve all see examples of disappointing Demand Media content, especially on websites like eHow.

However, not all of it is awful, and some of it serves particular niches very well. Google knows this, understands it, and I’m certain their algorithmic solutions (with advanced LDA) will weight accordingly.

The interesting aspect arises when Demand Media’s internal KPIs detect index removal or significant down rankings of certain content.

Demand’s vast indexed library of content affords them the luxury of quickly detecting patterns in the degraded or de-indexed content.

Will they flag those articles for rewrites? Remove them altogether? Redevelop their internal writing guides and practices to circumvent algorithmic changes?

It will be fascinating to see how this story plays out over the next year.

Andrew Loen

Mahalo is right up there as well. Possibly the #1 farm.

Jason says Mooooo

Ian Warner

If I were Google, I would pull the cord on all content farms. This would cause them all to spam the hell out of the competition to try to make up for lost revenue – making Google’s search competitors product even worse and Google’s product even better.

It’s a no brainer.

Spinchange

Another problem is detecting the original, or canonical source of indexed content. Increasingly, a lot of sites scrap others’ and then rank better than the original source — even though Google is indexing the same material from both sites.

ronald

Thanks for digging up the link to Google’s spam def. But that doesn’t look like spam to me, that looks like text nonsense.
Hence the disconnect between Google and their users. Our definition of spam and theirs seems not be aligned. Maybe we have evolved faster than Google on what we expect. Or what we call Context, Information, News, while Google is still fighting yesterdays battle(text nonsense).

Mathew Ingram

That’s a fair point, Ronald — I think the definition of spam for many people has evolved to mean “useless crap,” rather than the more technical definition that Google still uses.

Javaun Moradi

It had to happen sooner or later. Google and Demand had a sort of Faustian bargain because Demand was filling a short-term need of helping to monetize YouTube. Ultimately though bad content will undermine Google’s main breadwinner and therefore it’s very existence.

Demand was always one algorithm change away from oblivion. Their entire business model relied on the Google looking the other way as it violated — in spirit if not in letter — Google’s TOS and the ethos on which it built its business. Not much of a business model when you think about it.

r00fus

I sure as hell hope so.

That comment was surely a shot across the bow, and I’m sure Google and Demand will be in close talks if DemandMedia knows what’s good for it.

Demand Media’s existence relies on Google’s good graces.

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