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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.