Ending farm subsidies
This is interesting: in a blog post entitled ‘Finding more high-quality sites in search', Google announced ‘a pretty big algorithmic improvement to our ranking', which will affect 11.8 percent of all searches, initially only in the US.
Obviously any improvement in the Google algorithm is good for everyone who uses it, so long as it delivers as advertised, but this emphasis on quality of content is especially encouraging for those of us who depend professionally on people finding our content online.
The changes Google has implemented have one specific aim: ‘to reduce rankings for low-quality sites'. Now this doesn't mean Google is adopting a Big Brother-like overarching editorial role, where it makes qualitative judgements on each and every piece of content published on the Internet - at least I hope not. It should mean that flagrantly low quality content, such as that which merely copies stuff already published, or which is a blatant attempt to ‘game' Google's algorithm, get a lower ranking.
If this change functions as advertised, it should contribute further to most important quality of the Internet: meritocracy. On the whole, the Internet companies that have succeeded have earned it. Amazon does provide a genuinely good shopping experience, Facebook is both simpler and more powerful than MySpace, and HEXUS has only survived and prospered in a highly competitive environment by consistently giving its audience desirable content.
But many websites rely heavily on SEO (search engine optimisation) to generate traffic. There's nothing wrong with being aware of the kind of content, headlines and other web furniture that increases your Google ranking, but if content is produced primarily with that in mind, there's a danger that quality could suffer.
This can result in end-users clicking on content that has gamed the system most effectively, but doesn't necessarily deliver what they're expecting. It seems to be this sort of thing that Google is targeting.
Of course it has always been an integral aspect of journalism - long before the Internet - to write eye-catching headlines. It's a matter of editorial policy how much to hype a story in a headline and I don't read tabloid newspapers primarily because I don't like feeling misled by the headline. But plenty of other people apparently like that sort of thing and that's their choice at the newsstand.
But the Sun is positioned right next to the FT, or whatever, in most newsstands, so we're able to make an immediate, semi-informed decision about which paper to buy based on a comparison of all their front pages. The Internet - especially Google searches - isn't like that; it's more like being faced with a pile of newspapers with Metro on top. Yes you can sift through the pile if you can be bothered, but often you'll just grab what's on top - especially if it's free.
The reason I think this is anti-meritocratic is simple: companies with the most to spend on SEO, or just simply with greater budgets and economies of scale are likely to get to the top of Google searches, thus getting more traffic, and thus reinforcing their Google ranking. The extrapolation of this is that smaller sites never get a look in on most Google searches, regardless of the quality of their content.
There is a lot of hand-wringing going on in the world of journalism over what has been dubbed ‘content farms'. As a broad term this refers to the practice of writing content specifically to appear near the top of popular searches, and not necessarily spending the time and money required to make that content valuable. Much of the commentary around this announcement has focused on content farms, such as this and this.
But the definition of the term, as those stories explore, is difficult. A major recent catalyst for this discussion was the leak of AOL's editorial strategy, dubbed ‘The AOL Way'. In a PowerPoint presentation, which you can access here, AOL appears to put an emphasis on SEO, volume and profitability over quality of content. Meanwhile a former writer for Engadget, which is owned by AOL, has blogged that ‘Web journalism is a joke'.
I want to state for the record now that I think Engadget is an excellent website, one of the sites I read most often. It consistently breaks real tech news, has a high standard of writing, and is nowhere near being a content farm. I could fill my working day entirely repackaging Engadget content if I chose, and some do.
But when a couple of Engadget editors resigned recently, they stated The AOL Way as a contributing factor to them deciding to move on. Editor-in-chief Joshua Topolsky quickly tweeted that Engadget is not subject to The AOL Way, and in my opinion it would be foolish of AOL to interfere with the Engadget model. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
But that hasn't prevented the barbs from flying. TechCrunch was recently acquired by AOL and its former owner - Mike Arrington - wasted little time in publicly opposing AOL's corporate culture. But most of his ire seems to have been reserved for Engadget, and what he perceives as unethical practices. Also, just today, Apple watcher John Gruber accused Engadget of publishing things it's only half-sure about.
But I digress, this isn't about Engadget, or even AOL, but the way in which online content is found. In most markets Google remains the main way people find content online, so its ranking algorithm is arguably the single most important thing for online content providers. That's why SEO is such big business.
It will be fascinating to see what impact this change has on the prominence of certain types of content, and on the SEO business in general. Yes, I'll admit there is self-interest involved as I vie with much larger publishers to get my content read, but a more meritocratic Internet is better for everyone, surely.
UPDATE - 12:00, 25 Feb 2011: Now I'm off to write a speculative story about how Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber will probably buy an iPad 2.