Staving off the search war apocalypse

March 7, 2011


Think the search engine wars are over? They’ve only just begun.

The fight isn’t over who’s the most popular anymore. Google has that sown up for now with a nearly 90 percent share, according to what StatCounter published last week. Microsoft’s Bing Yahoo account for an anemic 8 percent worldwide.

The battle isn’t for the hearts and minds of the public; It is for the heart and soul of the internet — a battle to put “content farms” in their place and suffocate sites which, due to creative SEO, somehow manage to appear higher in search results than the original sites whose content they are re-blogging or flat-out stealing.

The sanctity of search is critical because search is the entry point for the internet, the gateway to everything you haven’t bookmarked or that hasn’t been recommended to you. And since it is the 800-pound gorilla, if Google’s results are compromised, everyone loses.

“You’re not on the web if you’re not on Google,” according to my former boss Leander Kahney — whose own Cult of Mac site was caught up in the content farm wars: “Google is the web — who uses anything else to find stuff?”

So when Google takes aim at content farms, as they did last week by releasing a change to their secret algorithm which put them on top by showing the most relevant results to a query, you are witnessing a shot heard round the world.

With Project Panda, Google attempted to weed out what Matt Cutts, the company’s top search-spam fighter, calls “shallow content sites.” The changes affected almost 12 percent of all search results, and instantly brought a big drop off in traffic for some sites, including some “good” sites caught up in the major change.

Still Cutts told Wired’s Steven Levy that the changes seemed to be working as intended.

“I got an e-mail from someone who wrote out of the blue and said, ‘Hey, a couple months ago, I was worried that my daughter had pediatric multiple sclerosis, and the content farms were ranking above government sites’,’’ Cutts said. “‘Now,’ she said, ‘the government sites are ranking higher. So I just wanted to write and say thank you.’”

It will take a while for the dust to to settle before for we can fairly judge whether Google’s algorithm change has had the desire effect. But the cat and mouse game continues.

Caught in the middle are us. Search is so much part of living and breathing that we take it for granted. We reflexively assume that the “best” results are at the top.

If this truism ends … well, that apocalypse is too scary to imagine.

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