9th March, 2011 - It was Google biggest update ever, in terms of impact. In mid-February the Google Farmer Update rocked the SEO world, taking aim at so-called “content farms” which generate low-cost content to attract Ad-Sense advertising earnings.
Commentary ranged from the vacuous (“write good content and Google will reward you”) to excellent. The best coverage was in SEO Moz (SEO Moz analysis of winners and losers). Aaron Wall published a nicely cynical review (Aaron Wall’s take). Wired did a good article suggesting that many good sites had been unfairly penalized (Unfairly penalized sites). One Valley site (Cult of Mac) complained to Cutts that it had been disastrously hit; he tweeted that it would soon get fixed, and within a day Cult of Mac was back! For those without Valley connections, Google opened a forum for victims of the Farmer Update.
The Farmer Update had catastrophic consequences for our site – US traffic down 50%, PR down from 6 to 5 (www.globalpropertyguide.com)
The idea that ‘great content is the answer’ and that our content was weak is, frankly, laughable. Our site is 100% original, with very deeply researched content, recognized within our industry as a leader, and is frequently updated. Central Banks, Multilateral Institutions, and academic researchers write to us asking for data. Yesterday I had the Chief Economist of the Czech Central Bank write to me to ask for data.
Our site looks clean and modern. Yet our US traffic is 50% down, across all keywords, new articles and old, more or less entirely undifferentiated.
Our content is almost 100% original, written by us, at a cost of enormous hard work. Each article takes 2-3 weeks. The only non-original section is a small part of the Home Page, which references news articles which appear elsewhere.
Prior to this update, we had 180,000 visits/month and a Page Rank of 6. We have never done any link trades. People write to me to ask for link exchanges, I ignore them. I have always ignored them. So we are unlikely to have received links from ‘bad neighbourhoods’.
One problem may be that our work gets copied. Everyone in the international property industry copies us, putting our information up for free, and then offering properties alongside. At first we sent ‘cease and desist’ letters, but as an international site we have no legal remedy. The copy-cats realize this very well. So they carry on copying. We stopped doing anything about it, relying on the Google promise that ‘you will never be penalized because others have copied your site’.
My take on the Farmer Update:
Google’s new perspective
Previously, there was a rule:
“Google does not rank web sites, they rank pages”
Not true any more – Matt Cutts has now said, somewhere – you want to remove low-quality pages, because they impact the whole site.
So Google is saying: “If you LOOK like a content farm, we WILL TREAT YOU as a content farm”.
We will rate the site as a whole.
Sites with diverse old content = content farm = BAD
Sites with diverse new content = news site = GOOD
Sites with Above Fold small ads = content farm = BAD
Sites with targeted keyword SEO = commercial site = OK
Sites with messy untargeted keyword SEO + old content = potential content farm = BAD
Sites which look low budget = potential content farm = BAD
Why we got hit
1. Our classical SEO isn’t the greatest, so Google sees an enormous diversity of keywords when it looks at our site. Previously, we thought this was quite a good thing. We relied on the increasingly strong consensus – just write good content, don’t link exchange, don’t cheat, have good internal links, and make your site content visible to the bots.
2. We have a strong diversity of content within the one research category, because our research covers our subject from many angles.
3. We update frequently, but not enough to be considered a news site.
4. We get copied a lot, so our site loses uniqueness. Everyone is writing the same material – our material.
These factors, we believe, caused us to be hit by the Farmer Update – diversity of content, yet updates not frequent enough to be considered a news site. Plus we have some above the fold Ad Sense type advertising, which we are removing.
That’s why we were hit. Not because of content or design.
What to do about it, is less clear.