It's safe to say this is an unprecedented time in SEO. The beginning of 2011 has proven a difficult one for Google's PR team, with widespread attacks on its search relevance. The attacks came from all corners, from prominent publications like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and influential blogs like TechCrunch and Stack Overflow. "The spammers are winning! Relevance sucks! Google's quality sucks!" the papers proclaimed.
But is it true? In a rather defensive mode, Matt Cutts published Google 2000 vs Google 2011 in an attempt to prove that results haven't detiorated.
I have to agree, in most cases the results at Google are higher quality and more relevant than they were in the past. (Although, I personally dislike the move away from host crowding and agree with Danny Sullivan on that.) Sure, there are issues with Google, but relevance probably isn't the major issue. So what is? Commercialism of the web? Too much brand bias in Google? Too much SEO? Too much thin content?
Surely, thin content first made popular by sites like Mahalo are a problem. eHow and Demand Media's other content-churning sites aren't always the best sources (although they can actually provide good pages, depending on the query). There are many examples of thin content winning mostly because of the following:
- The domain it's published on has authority, trust, and a lot of links.
- The content and URL are well SEO'd to include exact matches of the query.
- The internal links across the domain are structured to use exact match anchors pointing to the content and related content pieces.
Thin content wins because it beats Google at its own game. It's well optimized. It's created, primarily, for a search engine - a robot. The worst examples are not for humans, they have no value; they're solely designed to pull in the 'bots.
So Google made a change, and after rolling out the "Farmer update" to thin out the thin content, eHow (at least) skirted danger. But many other sites did not fare well, as shown in the analysis done here and here. Has this made the web a better place? Has it made Google's quality higher, its relevance better?
I'm not so sure. Maybe the problem isn't the thin content that users detest seeing in search results. Maybe the problem is with SEO itself. The purpose of SEO is to achieve top rankings and visibility, maximum impressions and clicks in SERPs. That doesn't say anything about content that doesn't deserve to rank - ultimately that's a judgement call, anyway. How long is a piece of string? What content deserves to rank highly? Not all queries are created equally, and that question is not easy to answer (or even answerable) for the vast majority of searches - of which around 25% are unique every single day.
The problem with this latest Google update is that, while it's algorithmic, it is based on what users (and Google) "don't like." Google crowdsourced the judgement with their toolbar, and found the data largely favored doing away with certain sites (or certain types of sites). They can do what they want with their search engine, but it is troubling (for me at least) that something so huge and powerful as Google could single-handedly build, then destroy, a business on the web. Thin content sites were built for SEO and built for Google. Then, some of them were destroyed by Google. That does concern me.
Beyond this, SEO as an industry has a tremendous image problem. We need to hire a good PR firm. The perception is that SEO is dirty, scammy, designed to make websites money at the expense of users. But that's precisely the opposite of what SEO really is, good SEO at least: the practice of helping relevant content rank. Good content that deserves to rank is invisible all over the web, and without SEO will remain that way. SEO is one of the most efficient and cost-effective channels the web has ever seen. Organic search is the collateral by which Google has grown its unprecedented business model. It's time SEO grew into its rather large shoes.
And as the practices of JC Penney's show too well, it's time SEOs stepped up their game and did quality work, instead of cheating and gaming the system.
Update: Tech News World quoted me in their piece, Google's Content-Farm Algorithm Yields Bitter Harvest.