Google’s “Farmer” Algorithm Update (Panda)

By , March 5, 2011

There’s been a flurry of SEO-related commentary over the past week, discussing Google’s most recent algorithm adjustments, which changed the results for about 12% of all search queries.  Internally, Google calls this the “Panda” update, but most observers call it the “Farmer update” for its impact on “content farms.”

Google always strives to deliver relevant and useful links in its search results.  All search engines must deal with lots of unethical people who seek an unfair advantage. One specific strategy that has exploded in recent years is called “content farming,” which means creating web pages that include text content which superficially appears relevant and useful for specific search terms — but which isn’t useful to anyone.

We’ve all had the experience of searching for a specific phrase on Google, and clicking on a link that appears to provide the exact information we wanted — only to end up at a web page that doesn’t provide any information, but instead urges us to click on paid links and advertisements.  Many “content farmers” simply merge the relevant keywords together with snippets of text copied from other web sites which rank well for that search phrase.

Several years ago, Google’s algorithms added penalties for “duplicate content,” so that “copied” web sites would be downgraded or excluded from search results. Many “content farmers” responded by using a variety of automated “translation” strategies so that the text wasn’t identical to the source which was being copied (most simply, by substituting synonyms for randomly-selected words in an article, or by automatically translating words, phrases, or entire articles into another language and then translating them back).  When Google tweaked its algorithms to counter this strategy, spammers began hiring writers in third-world countries to write “original articles” that would appear relevant to Google’s algorithms (these articles are often incomprehensible to humans, and never useful to anyone).

It appears that for the Panda (Farmer) update, Google created a list of factors or elements which were commonly found on unsatisfactory pages in search results (and not on useful pages), but which weren’t already recognized by its algorithms.  These are measurable, quantitative factors that correspond to users’ perceptions of quality.  Google also manually downgraded some specific “content farmers” whose web sites provided little or no value for consumers.  After the upgrade, Google also made adjustments to restore the rankings of a few publishers who had been wrongly downgraded by the new algorithms).

The new algorithm doesn’t seem to have affected my sites; traffic from Google to my newest site has continued to grow by about 30% per week.  (Any increased traffic after the upgrade wouldn’t mean that Google “likes” my web pages more than last week.  In amusement-park terms, nobody gets to skip ahead in the line, but instead some naughty people were removed from the line and ejected from the park, though we expect that they’ll soon sneak back in.)

Ironically, one “side effect” from Google’s update (for me) has been an increase in “blog comment spam” (spammers post fake comments with links to unrelated web sites).  My blog sites probably rank better, this week, for the search phrases that spammers use to identify “blogs which accept comments.”  (These spam comments are not visible to my site’s visitors.)

Google’s official blog post about the “Farmer”/”Panda” updates:

Other discussion threads and articles about the Google “Panda” algorithm update:

Some lists of impacted sites : Sistrix and SearchEngineLand and Quora

Added March 6: Two more articles about the Farmer Update:

  • SearchMetrics: “[B]ounce rates, visit duration, and social reach [are obviously factors]…. [P]ages that are genuinely visually attractive to a user … will be spared by the Farmer Update. Meaning that ranking is going to come down to how a user values a page, as opposed to just what content is on it.”
  • ReveNews: Noting the impact on User-Generated Content (UGC) sites: “In the more extreme cases, [the downgraded sites] actually incentivized users to generate this content. And in doing so, they’ve essentially eroded the value that content is supposed have because it’s user-generated.”

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