Web & communication software

There's No Clear Winner in Google's Search 'War'

Google has supposedly declared war against "content farms," yet has never come out and said that. In fact, all Google says in a Thursday blog post is that it has launched "a pretty big algorithmic improvement" to how it ranks search results. Google writes that its goal is to improve rankings so that supposed "high-quality" sites will rank higher than "low-quality" content.

"This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites--sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other Websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites--sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis, and so on."

Improvements to search results would be good news when turning to Google for information on almost any subject, whether fax machines or cloud computing. However, Google searches, as millions of users experience on daily basis, often involve sifting through pages of useless, SEO-doctored links of little or no value. But is Google really trying to do better?

Unfortunately, I'm not sure how Google will go about reducing rankings for sites that are low in quality, and especially, how its algorithms can determine what's useful for one user versus others. For starters, Google's blog post says the improvement will affect only 12 percent of all queries, which hardly portends a profound change when it won't alter 88 percent of all searches.

As for the lower dredges of humanity who cut and paste content from other sites and purport that it belongs to them, hopefully Google will be able to at least take some sort of action. Reducing their rankings would be a good start, but how will Google go about doing that?

Then there is the major issue about how companies use SEO technology to boost their rankings, which has generated much controversy recently when the New York Times revealed the creative ways JCPenney was going about improving its search results. Maybe Google's announcement about its "big algorithmic improvement" was in response.

And what about so-called content farms that pay non-expert freelancers literally pennies per post or nothing at all as they pollute Google searches with worthless content in hopes of making a quick buck? I tested Google's new search technology myself and didn't see any improvement for this major issue, nor for any of the other Google-search drawbacks mentioned above.

I'm in Europe, which does not yet have Google's new search technology. I asked a friend in the United States to google "How to Swim Better." But while the rankings were slightly different in order than before Google's shift, there was little, if any, visible change. In fact, besides links to a review of a book about a competitive swimmer on Brown Alumni Magazine's Website, and to content on About.com and Yahoo Answers (the worth of which is debatable), both of our searches generated about the same advertising and content-farm drivel.

Like so many others, I've been trying to determine exactly how Google determines its search rankings by asking the company directly about it for years, yet I've never received a credible response. So what exactly is Google comparing the supposed improvements against? Hopefully, one day we will find out. In the meantime, it seems that those firms with the means to pay for the most devious SEO tweaks will continue to benefit from Google the most.

Bruce covers tech trends in the United States and Europe and tweets at @brucegain.

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