Google is ready to fire a shot across the bow of the so-called content farms, willing to acknowledge recent criticism of the quality of its search results but still not quite ready to detail specific remedies.
The company plans to announce this morning that it has heard the complaints over the past several months regarding the quality of Google search, without question the most important component of Google's public image. While no hard details were provided in an interview prior to the announcement, Google's Matt Cutts, principal engineer and lead voice on search-quality issues, told CNET that the company will employ crowd-sourced feedback and other metrics in hopes of penalizing content scrapers and obviously low-content sites within its index.
"Today, English-language spam in Google's results is less than half what it was five years ago, and spam in most other languages is even lower than in English," Cutts plans to say in a blog post Friday morning. "However, we have seen a slight uptick of spam in recent months, and while we've already made progress, we have new efforts underway to continue to improve our search quality."
Google has been thinking for quite some time about how to deal with content that isn't obvious spam but is clearly not designed with the best interests of the user in mind, Cutts said. "Google needs to be open to ways where we can improve."
As with anything pertaining to ranking Google search results, the stakes are high. In just one example, Demand Media is set to pursue an initial public offering next week expected to price the company at around $1.3 billion: a company based almost entirely on the prospect of creating content geared to rank highly in Google. While Demand employees might disagree, it's fair to say the quality of much of that content ("How to prepare a house as a rental property") is questionable at best, as the company's main interest is in pumping out high quantities of cheaply produced content for the Web.
Google is considering a number of options to deal with the rise of content farms, Cutts said. First off, it plans to change its famous search recipe to ding sites that are clear content "scrapers," or those that copy content wholesale from other sites and repost it under their own domain, credit or not.
Quality, however, is a much more subjective matter. One thing Google plans to promote is an extension for its Chrome browser that allows users to label sites as spam, hoping that if it amasses enough data on sites that consistently put out low-quality content it will have more standing with the publishers of those sites to deflect complaints about ranking changes, Cutts said.
Otherwise, Google will try to find an algorithmic solution to the scourge of low-quality Web sites designed solely in hopes of ranking high within Google, Cutts said. Google would prefer that you conduct searches logged into its site with all the personalization options that are available, all the better to weed out spammy sites that offend individual users. However, not everyone wants to provide Google with that much information, and so the company is also working on ways to deal with search quality at a basic level.
Despite the obvious benefits toward improving the quality of any search engine's results, there are clear landmines for Google in going down this road. The first content publisher dinged by Google's new algorithmic recipe (Cutts refused to say when it would be implemented, citing a long-standing policy of not preannouncing specific changes) is likely to scream bloody murder about unfair treatment to anyone who is interested, and it's fair to say Google competitors and government regulators are listening for such complaints.
In response, Google pointed to arguments against the nascent concept of "search neutrality," which suggest that government intervention in search results could actually create a field day for spammers. Specifically, it chose to highlight the arguments of James Grimmelmann, a professor at New York Law School, who wrote an essay on search neutrality that concluded "A good search engine is more exquisitely sensitive to a user's interests than any other communications technology." (emphasis author's)
Yet for Google, there's little less important to the company's well-being than the notion that people still find its services useful. And it sounds like it's willing to risk whatever flak comes its way as a result of future ranking changes, although it's worth noting that the details of how such a strategy might be implemented are quite sparse.
"Google really cares about our search quality," Cutts said. "If we run into complaints on the Web, often we've already complained about it internally," he said. Google reviews its search algorithms constantly, making about one change a day to the 200 or so signals that determine where a site ranks against a search query.
It's fair to say that search quality will rank among the higher priorities for new Google CEO Larry Page over the next several months. Cutts acknowledged the importance of the issue to the company but noted that anything driven by humans is subject to flaws.
"We take pride in Google search and strive to make each and every search perfect," Cutts plans to write Friday. "The fact is that we're not perfect, and combined with users' skyrocketing expectations of Google, these imperfections get magnified in perception. However, we can and should do better."