On the subject of "content farms"--sites like AOL's Seed, Associated Content and Demand Media--observers seem to speak with one voice, and it's a disapproving one. Google, simultaneously these sites' biggest critic and most powerful booster, has decided to ask its users what to do with them.
Say what you will of this content, mechanistically catered to the whims of search engines and turned out at a breakneck pace by low-paid authors, but it has accomplished its purpose: in a day of searching, it's almost impossible to avoid links from these sites. By monitoring and quickly responding to the habits of searchers, content farms have been able to shoot new articles to the top of popular query pages on Google, which supplies a huge majority of their visitors. (For more background, check out Tuan's post of Google's strained relationship with content farms.)
One problem! These articles, why refreshingly specific, are often of low quality. Google can identify a lot of properties of a given piece of content, but that nebulous quality of, well, quality isn't apparent to existing algorithms. Further complicating the issue, Google can't exactly ban results from a specific source simply because they're subjectively judged to be of a lower quality--it would set a worrying precedent for the preferential treatment of content sources.
Rather than arbitrarily penalize the likes of Demand Media and Seed, Google has turned to its users. From a post on the company's official blog:
We’ve been exploring different algorithms to detect content farms, which are sites with shallow or low-quality content. One of the signals we're exploring is explicit feedback from users. To that end, today we’re launching an early, experimental Chrome extension so people can block sites from their web search results. If installed, the extension also sends blocked site information to Google, and we will study the resulting feedback and explore using it as a potential ranking signal for our search results.
This is a remarkable for two reasons.
First, it will create actionable data. I think it's extremely likely that the people who choose to use this extension, having found it in the above quoted Google post or in the context of an article like this one, will use it to flag the most pervasive content farms. This feedback can--and evidently will--be used by Google to help determine search results. If Google is worried about the optics or ethical ramifications of knocking companies out of its search results based on the subjective judgments of its employees and executives, getting permission and support from its users is a convenient out.
Second, it's an open and outright declaration of war on content farms. It's obvious that Google isn't thrilled with the idea of content farms--they game Google's system and degrade its product--but to see them refer to these sites as producers of "shallow or low-quality content" should be hugely worrying for their owners and investors. (Demand Media went public in January, attaining a valuation of over $1.5bn.)
These sites can't exist without search engines. And now the biggest search engine of them all is marching into a gory conflict in which it dictates the terms. If Google sticks to its guns, content farms with either fall into obscurity, or adapt, producing more thorough--and expensive--content.
In other words, they will either die, or cease to be content farms.
Image from the hilarious--and fake--thecontentfarm.tumblr.com