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Shrinking Demand: Help Google Fight Against Content Farms, eHow

Google is at war with content farms, websites with "shallow or low-quality content" that clutter Google search results and make it difficult for users to find what they're looking for. As Google continues to add billions and billions of pages to its index, it's become much easier for these content farms to crawl their way up the result rankings using excessive SEO, automated content aggregation, and other cheap tricks.

The search giant has caught flack in recent months for failing to rid these spammers—eHow, anyone?—and today, Google turned to its community for help. Rather than fully depend on its algorithm to detect content farms, Google released a Chrome extension Monday that enables users to block unhelpful sites from their results. The extension will send "blocked site information" to Google, which will then "study the resulting feedback and explore using it as a potential ranking signal for our search results," wrote principal engineer Matt Cutts in a blog post.

Content farm producers like Demand Media, which owns eHow, have made a business of churning out endless amounts of low-quality content on the cheap (AOL's Seed is the slightly less icky, more journalistic version). Both companies have an army of underpaid freelancers trying to get the best bang for their buck by racing through assignments. And the system appears to be working: Demand recently went public at a $1.5 billion valuation, even though its filing included warnings that this very type of content filtering by search engines could cause the company to have to rethink its approach.   

In a recent interview with top Google engineer Ben Gomes, Fast Company learned that Google has been aggressively working toward dispelling content farms. "This game has been played for a long while—it started with people trying to game page rank, with links and anchors, and people trying to game the title, and then game meta keywords, and so on," Gomes said. "That game continues, and we've just gotten very good at it."

It's not the first time Google has appealed to its user community for help improving the quality of its search results. Years back, for example, the company launched Google Image Labeler, a game that pits users against one another to determine the best keywords for pictures. The more users guess each other's labels, the more points they earn. Other search engines such as Blekko have also crowdsourced search quality by letting users mark results as spam. 

To this same end, the more users who download the Personal Blocklist tool, the more data Google will have and the more content farms (and headaches) will be eliminated from Google's results.

"There's always a frontier, and we're engaged in improving things that we're now seeing as the new challenge—to get rid of the irrelevant crap from our results," Gomes said.

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  • Adolfo Segura

    Arbitrary blocking by users isn't a solution. It would be very easy for a rival company to then "down vote" competitors and useful searches. Google should add a drop down menu so you can select different degrees of blocking: spam - not enough information - irrelevant to my search - etc etc and add a captcha to boot! If enough people select a certain category then that must be the actual classification (spam would be hit hardest by this first). I can think of 10 other ways to possibly exploit this though, may not end well. In the end people who have HONESTLY worked hard for their page rank could always pay into adsense to get their rankings back, right? Genius move for Google if that's the real plan all along.

  • JR

    "what will prevent CompetitorA (and all their employees) from using this add-in to reduce the search rankings of CompetitorB?"

    That's a pretty good question. Using different IPs from their home computers, and with virtual workers all over the map, it would seem easy to devise a concerted effort to do just what Ned Ryerson suggested. I applaud Google's thought here, but at the same time it should be done with the utmost care. To be truthful, I have used content from places like eHow. Though, it's true, a lot of it is generally devoid of value. Maybe we need the next generation of search, where the system questions us in order to dig deeper.


  • Abrahim Nadimi

    @Ned Would you mind explaining why Fast Company is being biased?

    Also, I'm fairly certain that Google engineers are smart enough to figure out ways to prevent "CompetitorA (and all their employees) from using this add-in to reduce the search rankings of CompetitorB". If they don't they don't deserve their jobs and Google doesn't deserve to be in business.

  • Ned Ryerson

    Your clear and overt bias in this "article" (term used loosley) reduces you and Fast Company to being your own content farm. Congratulations. If spewing the same stuff over and over again is journalism well you are right on the mark.

    I look forward to using the Blocked Content add-in to block you and anything to do with Fast Company. Along these lines - what will prevent CompetitorA (and all their employees) from using this add-in to reduce the search rankings of CompetitorB?

  • jmessenger919

    Biased against content farmers? I mean, what other feelings can you harbor for them?

    I'm not seeing what you're talking about
    Really wasn't too nice of you there, buddy.

    @JR Great idea there!
    Where the search engine searches you.