Google ‘Quality’ Update Demotes UK Tech Sites – And Microsoft’s Ciao

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A number of prominent UK technology news sites have seen their Google (NSDQ: GOOG) rankings drop substantially after the search engine rolled out its “Panda” update, intended to demote sites which scrape content from others, to the UK and other English-language Google users.

The update also demotes one of the complainants to the European Commission, Microsoft-owned Ciao, which will almost vanish from many searches as a result of the downgrading.

But some sites – including Google’s own YouTube and the video site Vimeo, as well as other technology sites including Techcrunch and Mashable, and newspaper sites for the Mirror and The Independent – get a boost.

Google made the change in the US at the end of February, and a number of original content sites were hit then, including the British Medical Journal. Now it has rolled it out more broadly.

The effects of the downgrading were calculated by elevatelocal.co.uk, which compared where the sites appeared in searches for particular keywords before and after the update. Search engine optimisation specialists constantly check which sites appear where on which keyword searches (such as “cheap flights” or “london hotels”), and can see the effects of large-scale changes to Google’s algorithm almost immediately.

For sites which rely on large amounts of Google traffic, vanishing from the first two pages of its search results – the point at which 99% of searchers give up – can mean the difference between financial life and death.

Search Engine Watch says that “all Google results are a zero-sum game”, pointing to other sites which have benefited.

Pocket Lint, Electric Pig, Tech Radar, TechEye, The Register’s hardware site RegHardware, PC Advisor, IT Pro Portal and the venerable Computer Weekly sites have all been hit by the reordering, which means that they fall down in Google’s rankings on any given set of keywords – and so their traffic from search results falls dramatically.

The update also risks arousing the ire of Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) – and the European Commission – because it demotes Ciao, the shopping comparison site owned by Microsoft which was one of the complainants to the EC that Google was using its monopoly unfairly, and which has sparked an EC investigation. Ciao’s ranking has been cut by nearly 94%, meaning it will rarely figure in the first 10 results of a search.

Many voucher and discount sites have also been hit by the wide-ranging changes. So have some so-called “content farms” such as Ehow and Mahalo.

But there are winners too: sites where people spend a long time reading pages seem to have been rewarded, such as Ebay UK, Techcrunch, the National Lottery, Associated Newspapers’ This is Money finance website, the Mirror Group Newspapers’ mirror.co.uk, the tech news website Mashable.

Soundcloud, the audio-sharing site that has become popular with amateur and professional musicians, also benefits from a hike in ranking.

Google has also promoted its video-sharing site YouTube – but co-promoted the independent Vimeo video site, by almost the same amount.

For Pocket Lint, the hardest hit of the UK technology news sites, a search for its review of the HTC Sensation phone yields no results on the first two pages of Google (which is where 99% of searchers stop looking). On Microsoft’s Bing, by contrast, it is the third result.

Stuart Miles, the founder of the eight-year-old site, said he was “puzzled” by Google’s action, although he hoped the effects would not be too drastic: “about 60% of our traffic comes from Google – it would be a lot worse if it were 90%.” But, he said, there was no clear reason why his site was targeted: “we put out all original content. I could understand it if we copied and pasted everyone else and were a massive aggregator of crap. But we don’t and we aren’t. As a small publisher, we’re always trying our best to bring good stories to the table.”

Commenters at Search Engine Watch suggested that Pocket Lint may have been penalised for using redirection on affiliate links – which Google views negatively.

Among the most visible sites that have been hardest hit are About.com and myvouchercodes.co.uk, says Holistic Search.

This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.

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