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The Google Algorithm-It's Not Out to Kill You, It Just Seems that Way
The Game Changer
Google is the game changer of the Internet age. It's been called a Black Swan, the thumbnail phrase that describes something unexpected and amazing. Anyone who's been around for a few years remembers the early days of the Internet. You would put a search term into Yahoo or Alta Vista and you would then have to wade through pages of semi relevant material in hopes of finding an answer to your question. It was better than pouring through books in a library, but not much.
People recall where they were when JFK was assassinated, when the World Trade Center was hit by the planes and when they heard that Osama Bin Laden was killed. Some, like me, also recall when they first heard of Google. What a weird name for a company. I was standing in front of a building chatting with an old friend. It was the summer of 1999, less than a year before Google was founded. He was over 80 years old, but always kept up with technology. I was telling him about some research I was doing for an article and how I was stumped. This 80 year old guy suddenly turned into a teenager with excitement, and told me that I should try out this new search engine called Google. When I got back to my office I took him up on his suggestion. What I saw was a paradigm shift right before my eyes.
What blew me away is what blew everyone away when they first used Google. "Oh my God - There's the answer to my question!"
The Google Algorithm
Larry Page, Sergei Brin and the other propeller heads at Google came up with an idea. Looking at the way things were done in academia, they noticed that a scholarly work is rated, so to speak, by the number of times that work is cited in other articles. If Professor Jones writes an article on, say, the origins of World War I, and that article is cited in 2,000 other articles it tells you something. It tells you that Professor Jones' article is pretty authoritative. So if you want to do research on the origins of World War I you would plow through the books that keep track of such things, and you would be led to Jones' article. So the brilliant folks at Google figured that if academia scores an article on popularity, why not do something similar with digital technology. If a particular word or phrase is constantly used, and points to relevant Internet sites, voila, you have a business plan. With mathematical precision the Google people came up with an algorithm (a formula or set of rules for finding the answer to a problem) that would point you to websites that most accurately conform to the keyword or search string that you put in.
In one respect the mammoth corporation Google is no different from your corner dry cleaner. They both have the same objective: deliver excellent service and the customer will return, and tell other people about the experience. That's it. There ain't no more. With all of the amazing technical prowess built into its processes, Google knows that the key to its success, the only key, is to make the customer (you, me and other people who search for stuff on the Internet) happy. Produce good relevant returns to a search query and the customer is happy. Isn't that why we use Google?
The Attack of the Google Gamers
SEO, Search Engine Optimization, soon became a household phrase. The better you are at using the right keywords or phrases, the more visitors you can bring to your site and the better your chances at selling something or collecting money from advertising revenues. But the Google folks aren't the only smart people out there. It wasn't long before people started to figure out how to game the system, by "keyword stuffing" articles or posting inappropriate linking to other sites.
When I began my own blog a couple of years ago, I was flattered when I received an email notification that there was a comment on one of my posts. When I looked at the comment I was baffled. I had written a blog post on the popular election of judges, and admittedly dry but informative post. The comment read (I'm going from memory but it's close): "I am greatly liking your thinkings on this subject and I am learnings a great amount knowledge from it. I have told all my friends to be visiting this posting. Please putting me on your RSS feedings (get it - the link)." The origin of this comment came from a pole dancing studio site. I was amazed and angry, because I started to receive a steady stream of such semi literate comments on my posts. I then realized that the creepy spammers were just trolling for links. I subscribed to a program called askimet which solved the spam problem on my blog. But the point is that there are vast numbers of people out there who try to game the Google algorithm to achieve high search rankings. They also do this with Bing, Microsoft's excellent search engine.
Anyone who has written a ghost article on a site such as textbroker.com is abundantly aware of how keyword stuffing works. Textbroker is a fine site and legitimate way for freelancers to get paid for ghost writing articles for other people's websites or blogs. But the client requests are sometimes hysterical. A typical request may require an article of no more than 300 words with the phrase " Personal injury lawyer Atlanta " repeated five times using the EXACT phrase. The result, of course, looks like crap but since it's ghost written you don't have pride (or shame) of authorship. The obvious purpose is for this ambulance chaser to get a high ranking on Google by "keyword stuffing."
The Cuddly Killer
No More Link Bombs
Google Fights Back
The spammers, keyword stuffers and link bombers seemed to assume that the people at Google are dumb. Bad assumption. Google, in its ongoing quest to provide value to its users, decided to start tweaking its algorithm to cut down on the gamers' games.
In February 2011 Google released its adorably named Panda, an algorithm change that aimed to cut down on low quality sites being returned in search results. The next major tweak came in April 2012 with the equally cuddly name of Penguin. Penguin was aimed at "spamdexing" or "link bombing." Some entrepreneurial folks figured out that if they created a huge number of websites, with very little content beyond keywords and links back to their main site they would achieve SEO nirvana. Penguin slammed the brakes on that.
HubPages Executive Distinguishes Content Farms
Google and Content Farms
On its official blog site Google said, with regards to Panda that the purpose was to: "... provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on."
Google had declared war on content farms. A content farm or content mill, according to Wikipedia, which provides extensive source references, is an organization or website that often uses "freelance writers to generate large amounts of textual content which is specifically designed to satisfy algorithms for maximal retrieval ... Their main goal is to generate advertising revenue through attracting reader page views."
HubPages is a large site for independent writers, and is the site on which this article is written. HubPages management disdains the moniker content farm. HubPages thinks of itself as a community of writers. Well, okay. That's not a duck, it's just a waterfowl that quacks, has webbed feet and an elongated beak. In the above video, HubPages executive Simone Smith discusses the difference between a user generated content site (which is what she considers HubPages to be) and a content farm. The main difference, according to Simone is that people who write on a site like HubPages are not motivated by money, but rather that they like to write about something they're "passionate about." It's a "fun recreational activity," whereas content farms are all "about money." View it and make your call.
I joined HubPages at the end of February 2012, and therefore have been here about a year. I was unaware of Panda, which had hit months before I joined. But the constant forum posts and hubs devoted to Google traffic problems are amazing. Many folks appear to have lost a significant amount of income since Panda. But that shouldn't matter if a person writes on HubPages as a "fun recreational activity."
To be sure, HubPages staff endlessly promotes good content. Any writer on HubPages who doesn't realize it hasn't been paying attention. Sure, they coach members on how best to take advantage of SEO, but so does Google with its keyword tool and Google Analytics. But a core problem with HubPages is its decision to allow anyone to post a hub. A hub is taken down only if it flagrantly violates HubPages terms of service. It's perfectly understandable for Google to look beady eyed at a site that puts up a lot of, let's face it, crap.
There are good writers on HubPages, some very good. But the semi literate, keyword stuffed nonsensical hubs keep appearing.
What Does the Future Hold for Online Writers?
Spammers, keyword stuffers and link bombers aren't going away. Therefore the Google whiz kids will be forced to strike back, and a lot of innocent freelance writers will get caught in the cross hairs.
I have no idea about the finances of HubPages, and because I'm not a shareholder it's none of my business. But unless someone in management realizes that they have to exercise some editorial control, and yes that means hiring people, I don't see the relationship between mother Google and HubPages, or any other content provider, getting better.
Copyright © 2013 by Russell F. Moran