Adam Barber

Has Google's Farmer Update changed online marketing forever?

Google's recent changes to its search algorithm have been getting a lot of attention on tech blogs and in the mainstream media. With the update coming in the near future, what will this mean for online marketing?

Last month, in what has become known as the "Farmer Update" (also the "Panda Update"), Google made some important changes to its search algorithm. So far, the changes have only affected US search results, but they will be rolled out to other markets (including here in Australia) in the near future.

Google regularly tweaks its algorithm - the mathematical formula that determines which pages are returned and in what order when someone runs a search - but most changes go unnoticed beyond the community of dedicated Google watchers. The Farmer Update, however, was picked up by the mainstream media and has generated some intense debate.

Google totally dominates search. The majority of web journeys start with tapping a query into its search engine. Some businesses live or die by where they rank for their target keywords.

So with the Farmer Update on its way, is this the end of the world as we know it?

What is the Farmer Update?

February's update earned the "Farmer" tag because Google made it clear in advance of setting the changes live that it was targeting sites that publish very high volumes of low quality content. These sites are often referred to as "content farms" - tens of thousands (sometimes even millions) of pages produced with the specific aim of winning popular Google searches.

One of the reasons that the Farmer Update has received so much mainstream media attention is because some of the sites that have lost out are well known online brands that many of us have seen in search results and may have even clicked on. Sites like Suite101.com, articlesbase.com, HubPages.com and associatedcontent.com all saw their rankings take a hit. This Search Engine Land article about the Farmer Update winners and losers has some more stats if you want to explore that aspect further.

What exactly has changed?

The Farmer Update wasn't the first and won't be the last change to Google's search algorithm. It is also far from Google's first attempt to identify high and low quality content and rank pages accordingly. Inbound links, which have been an increasingly important element of the algorithm in recent years, are effectively sites endorsing content on other sites. Google has tried to discourage paid links and link exchanges so that links remain a sign of quality and relevance.

The impact of the Farmer Update has though been more significant than most previous updates. Google estimates that 11.8 per cent of results were affected, which, given the billions of queries its search engine handles every day, is a pretty big deal.

There has been intense speculation about exactly how Google's mathematical formula is now measuring quality. We know that social media influences search results, so it could be giving more weight to how often content is being shared on Twitter and other popular platforms. Google could also be paying closer attention to metrics like dwell time and click-through rate, something explored further in this excellent Blogstorm article.

How should website owners respond?

Google's stated aim was to tackle spammy, low quality sites. This was broadly interpreted as an attack on content farms and if we look at the domains that have lost out there are plenty of very general, how-to-style websites in there, some of which have literally millions of pages in Google's index.

There have been some surprises though. Demand Media's eHow.com, for example, was expected to lose rankings when the Farmer Update went live, but it actually benefited from the change. Meanwhile, other sites, including some blogs, that had never been labelled content farms, saw their rankings fall.

Google is listening to sites that believe they've been unfairly impacted by the new-look algorithm, but it is largely backing the changes. It said recently that data from its manual site blocker (a plug-in for Google Chrome that allows you to block domains from your personalised results) suggests the algorithm is doing what users want.

If you run a general article submission site, responding is going to be pretty tough. Even sites that have invested in user-friendly layouts and make efforts to tackle plagiarism and duplication (HubPages for example) have lost rankings. It will certainly take more than removing a few ads and publishing an editorial policy.

Most websites won't need to do anything differently. If you're putting up pages stuffed with your target keywords that offer no value to users, it's likely that Google was on to you long before the Farmer Update. If, on the other hand, you are publishing relevant material that will be of interest to your target audience, you are giving Google what it wants.

You don't need to hire a Pulitzer Prize-winning journo to turn your company news page into the New York Times. You just need to use your keywords naturally and honestly and invest some time in some basic on-site SEO that will make your pages easy for Google to understand.

That said, we'll know more when Farmer comes here to Australia. Only when there's some local data and we can all see which sites have been hit and which sites have benefitted will we really be able to start assessing the impact and draw firmer conclusions about how your online marketing strategy might need to change. 

Useful links

Google Farmer before and after examples from David Naylor

How to benefit from Google Farmer from Search Engine Land

Interview with Google's Matt Cutts and Amit Singhal from Wired

 


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Adam Barber Castleford Media Pty Ltd Adam Barber
Company: Castleford Media Pty Ltd
Position: Director
British new media professional living and working in Sydney. Interested in developments in online content, search, social media and the digital world in general.

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