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Google Tweaks Algorithm To Spot 'Content Farms'


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Let's look again at those Internet sites that serve up answers to your pressing questions. Yesterday, we heard how popular and profitable how-to content has become on the Web. Today, we'll examine the explosion of such sites. When you type how do I brush my teeth or how do I fix the light in my 2000 Silverado, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of results. And Google is not too happy about it, as NPR's Zoe Chace reports.

ZOE CHACE: The reason there are so many answers to your questions online is simple. It's easy money. Popular answers to how do I brush my teeth can stay at the top of your search results for a long time. That means a lot eyeballs on the answer and the ads right next to them for, say, toothpaste, dental floss or mint gum. Advertisers love to appear next to answers to your questions.

The money is so easy, some content-providing sites contain more ads than they do answers. Fortune editor Daniel Roth calls them content farms.

Mr. DANIEL ROTH (Editor, Fortune Magazine): Content farms pay people almost no money to turn out very mediocre content that can serve up very cheap ads. It's pure Google arbitrage.

CHACE: Here's how you know a content farm when you see one. Google how to change a tire.

Mr. ROTH: And there is a six point explanation of how to change a tire and point three is something like, get out of the car. Try to find your jack. You can tell that whoever was writing this was trying to finish it as quickly as possible in order to get the tiny amounts of money they're making for doing these stories.

Ms. SASHA MAGGIO: I look at it like $8 is $8. I'll give them $8 worth of work. The more I can cram in the better on a payday.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHACE: Sasha Maggio writes for a few of the sites that some have called content farms. Here's how she structures her day.

Ms. MAGGIO: So when you log in, it brings you to what they call my work desk.

CHACE: At the work desk, there's a list of automatically generated topics, based on how popular they are in search engines. [

Ms. MAGGIO: How to inflate tennis balls, history of the NBA championship ring, guide to dating mature women.

CHACE: How to date a Japanese girl?

Ms. MAGGIO: Yes. I mean, these are not ones that I pick up, though. I just - I mean, I don't create these topics. I just go into the content pool and I find them. How to buy martial arts training mats, five tae kwon do tips.

CHACE: Maggio is a military wife who works from home with a Pomeranian on her lap. After looking for work for months in Fairfax, Virginia, where her husband is stationed, she decided to go back to school to get a masters degree in Psychology. She supports herself by freelance writing.

Ms. MAGGIO: My best day I wrote 10 in about 75 minutes. So you got to figure, I made 80 bucks in 75 minutes, which is decent. I mean, that's more than I made when I was working full time.

CHACE: It's 15 bucks an article for eHow, $8 an article for, and a buck an article, plus revenue traffic, for

To keep it straight, Maggio has a notebook open on her desk, with a different colored pen assigned to each of her employers. Today, she starts with eHow.

Ms. MAGGIO: So I have sales closing tips, tips for a passive aggressive boss, the effects of a tsunami on oil storage tanks. Some of these you have to look up, some of them they're not too bad, but all of them require a reference. So you've got to do some kind of research.

CHACE: Because eHow requires a reference - not all of Maggio's employers do -Google might consider it a higher-quality site and rank it high in your search results.

There's so much money to be made at ranking high in Google's search results that we ought to just ask Google how it's done. Google?

Mr. MATT CUTTS (Google): We use a lot of different factors. In fact we have more than 200 different signals that we use in our ranking.

CHACE: Matt Cutts is an engineer in charge of the algorithm that Google uses to generate search results. And what Cutts and his team of engineers decided recently is they don't like the glut of sites that show up every time you search how to do something.

Mr. CUTTS: Does an article have spelling or stylistic or factual errors, you know. How well is it edited? Does the article have an excessive number of ads maybe that might interfere with the primary content.

CHACE: So on February 24th Google made possibly the most visible change they've ever made to your search results.

Mr. CUTTS: This is a relatively large change to the algorithm - about 12 percent of queries are affected.

CHACE: And we found out what sites Google thinks you want to read and what sites Google thinks are content farms. Though Cutts is cagey when it comes to naming names, other people have. EHow was spared initially, but Examiner was not, according to one study.

The site that pays Maggio a dollar an article is almost 80 percent less visible than it was before Google made the change. And Google continues to tweak its algorithm, implicitly if not explicitly targeting content farms. After another update last week, eHow's visibility did drop, though by how much is in dispute.

But the story's not over yet. I'm going to bring back Daniel Roth from Fortune Magazine to make one last point. He says what if people just start searching the web without Google. That kind of messes up the game for all the players.

Mr. ROTH: I know, speaking personally, I read a lot from what I see from my friends on twitter.

CHACE: Roth says your social network might be the next search engine. And it's still pretty hard to game the system of hearing directly from your friends.

Mr. ROTH: When they suggest a story, I'm way more likely to click on it, because it's already been vetted. So I spend less time on aggregation sites, and I spend more time looking to see what my friends are aggregating for me. And how do you win in that game? I think you win in that game by writing stories that people really want to read.

CHACE: If people stop using Google for search and travel the internet by a new path, like Facebook or Twitter, then the game starts all over again.

Zoe Chace, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Zoe Chace explains the mysteries of the global economy for NPR's Planet Money. As a reporter for the team, Chace knows how to find compelling stories in unlikely places, including a lollipop factory in Ohio struggling to stay open, a pasta plant in Italy where everyone calls in sick, and a recording studio in New York mixing Rihanna's next hit.
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