3 reasons "content farms" came to be and what you can learn
This month a story has been all over the internet about a new update to Google’s search ranking algorithm that will try to knock back the rankings on what people are calling “content farms.” And while no one has officially defined what a content farm is or can point directly to a specific example, they are generally understood to be sites like article directory sites or content gathering sites where the goal is to submit lots of articles on various topics that people may be searching on.
If this topic is relatively new to you, read this article by Danny Sullivan which does a great job explaining the entire content farm debate and showing lots of specific examples of what Google is trying to do. But the purpose of this article is to take a closer look at how we arrived here in the first plan and what this change means for businesses.
What’s wrong with farmers, anyway?
Before we get too far into this article, I have to wonder what the online world has against farmers? It seems like every time there is a crackdown on the internet, the questionable activities somehow turn into “farms”. First there were “link farms” which are sites that do nothing but provide hundreds or even thousands of outbound links to other sites – and now we have the “content farm” debate.
How did content farms get so popular ?
Whenever there is a backlash by search engines like Google against any online practice, I find it interesting to look at how it happened in the first place because that usually holds some keys to understanding what’s going on behind the scenes. And in this case, it’s my opinion that content farms have sprung up because of 3 major trends:
- All the attention on “long tail keywords”
- The unwritten rule about a “good page” being 400 words long.
- The race to become a “resource site”
Trend #1: Long tail keywords:
It’s no secret that users are evolving in the way they use search engines and this means typing in more and more specific phrases to find what they need. So what started as searches for things like “used cars” has evolved into “used 2003 Toyota Camrys for sale in New Orleans, LA”. Users understand that the more specific they are with their searches, the better chance they have of finding what they need.
Enter the marketers. Armed with data showing that the longer phrases produce more qualified traffic, the race begun to create as much content geared around these specific phrases in hopes of ranking well. And generally speaking the search engines rewarded this practice by showing pages like these highly in their results. The end result: more and more long tail content being created.
Trend #2: The 400 word page
This idea of “light fluffy content” which is being cracked down on by Google is actually something that search industry insiders have been promoting for years. The other “unwritten rule” floating around was that Google would not index more than about 400 words on a page so there was no point in writing content that was much more in-depth.
The other argument in favor of shorter pages was that internet users don’t really like to read as much as they prefer to scan. So the shorter pages with bullet lists and lots of headings would be more digestible to users which is ultimately what search engines want – to give you the content you want to read.
I am certain that whoever first noticed this trend must have had convincing screenshots to back up what they were saying because the entire web industry seemed to embrace these ideas wholeheartedly. No matter where you look for content – the goal was a 350 word page with a max of 600 words (just look at the article submission guidelines for most article sharing sites). This would seem to fly in the face of being considered “relevant content” because it was so shallow but the facts are these pages were consistently ranking in search results so why buck the trend?
Trend #3: The race to become a “resource site”
Another generally accepted principle in the internet marketing world has been that more content equals higher credibility and “resource” status with search engines. For instance, if you are a personal injury attorney and you have lots of law-related articles on your site than it must be a good site worthy of being shown highly in search results, right? Again this trends seems to have been rewarded in search results.
So marketers took this concept of long tail keyword interest and applied the “light and fluffy” 350 word page game plan to creating resource sites.
Fast forward to today. Like with “link farms” several years ago, these concepts have been manipulated to flood the internet with a lot of shallow content thus making it harder (in theory) to find the “good” content. Whether or not this latest change in Google’s search recipe accomplishes that is yet to be seen, but there are some important lessons to be learned.
What should we learn from this and what you can do going forward
The internet is fueled by content and that trend is not going to change anytime soon. What is changing though is the type of content that Google and other search engines is rewarding with high placement in search results. As such, our suggestions going forward are:
- Specialize – become an industry expert:
o Produce more in-depth content
o More focus on narrower topics
o Perhaps post with less frequency
- Make a better effort for more social sharing
Becoming an industry expert
The underlying trend here is that the online world is evolving into smaller, niche worlds where people are being recognized for their genuine expertise. After all, if you’re going to read an article on why Green Bay won the Super Bowl do you want to read my take or the guys from ESPN first?
So while there isn’t necessarily a need to have a lot of long pages just for the sake of being long, there is some truth to the notion that it’s hard to really cover a topic in 350 words or less. And with the examples being shown during the debate it’s getting easy to understand why Google is changing the rules again (check the Search Engine land post referenced above).
The logical reaction is to produce more focused and in-depth content which probably means you do it a little less frequently. I recently attended a presentation from Avinash. He is one of the most read bloggers on the internet, but he only posts once per month. But when he does – it’s a 3,000 word post that people can’t wait to read.
The real question with more in-depth content is whether or not people will actually want or take the time to read it. But these concerns are somewhat secondary since the first step is to actually get your content found by searchers, and if Google says it wants more in-depth pages than longer pages it will get. I’m sure it will take time to figure out what the best practices are going forward, but it’s obvious that the trend is headed in this direction.
More social sharing of content
The other strategy going forward is to make sure this in-depth content is not just posted to an article site somewhere – but rather shared on as many social channels as possible. There is no doubt that the social sharing of content is fast becoming the indicator of the value of content. And with that in mind the more people that are commenting on and sharing your content the better.