Should Google penalize sites that use paid content?April 12th, 2010 10 Comments
Here’s a quote from Aaron Wall’s recent post, ‘Paid Content: the New Paid Link’:
“If paid links that subverts [sic] search relevancy algorithms shouldn’t count on the web graph, then why should Google trust paid content that subverts search relevancy algorithms?”
Aaron is concerned specifically with the recent USA Today / Demand Media deal, which will see thousands of what he calls ‘backfill’ articles placed on the USA Today website. He urges Google to crack down on this approach before “…the search results start filling up with similar sounding misinformed content ranking for 1 then 3 then 8 of the top 10 search results”.
If you’ve read any of my previous rants, you’ll know I’m no fan of crap / filler content. But I still can’t say I agree with Aaron here. You see, unlike paid links, which (supposedly*) present a black and white case of ‘subverting search relevancy’, the paid content situation is a little less clear cut.
- Is a site subverting search relevancy just because it uses paid content? I certainly hope not! Most sites contain paid content — whether the webmaster paid a copywriter, incentivized a guest-blogger or syndicated a paid journalist. Even if they just got their web designer to write the copy. For that matter, the design, itself, is a form of content, and just about every website uses paid design.
- Or do they have to be using a content farm to be penalized? (And to be fair, content farms are the main target of Aaron’s post.) Trouble there is, how does Google decide what constitutes a ‘content farm’? Is a single copywriter a content farm? What if I write really quickly? What if I employ other copywriters? What if I outsource to other copywriters? What if I outsource to journalists? What if I outsource to would-be copywriters and journalists? Is a big web development company a content farm? They regularly outsource copy to people like myself (and probably you). If the job’s big, they ask me / you to call in other copywriters, or they engage numerous copywriters, directly, to get it done.
- Or do you get penalized only if your quality is crap? I checked out a few of USA Today / Demand Media’s articles (here’s one), and they were… OK. Nothing earth-shattering (or link-worthy), but they definitely weren’t auto-generated, nor were they written by someone with absolutely no writing or English skills. They were mildly helpful (if a little boring and simplistic) ‘step-by-step’ articles. What’s more, they were no worse than the non-paid mildly helpful ‘step-by-step’ / ’10-things…’ articles found on competing media websites (like this USNews.com inhouse mashup, or this by an NBC columnist).
Ultimately, what USA Today is doing is no different from what other media sites (and non-media sites) are doing: they’re paying for content. Some of it may be crap, but some of the content on other sites is crap too (including their stories, however well written!).
“How will Google be able to filter out the Demand Media content without filtering out the rest of the media sites?”
My answer is that it shouldn’t even try. Google should be concerning itself with identifying relevance and quality, based, not on the source of the information, but on the information itself. And let’s face it; if Google does outlaw ‘content farm’ arrangements, those arrangements will simply go underground**, and Google will be forced to assess each case on its merits (relevance and quality).
I think Aaron’s over-reacted a little to the situation. If USA Today publishes crap articles:
- Readers will stop reading; and
- Google will figure out that the articles are crap, and — solid domain authority notwithstanding — will deal with them appropriately.
Anyway, I have to go and write some paid content for a client now. I hope Google’s not reading…
* Some paid links do, in fact, provide value to readers, and should not be devalued or lead to penalty. For example, I gladly link to a variety of products and services, and I only ever link to things that I believe in. My readers benefit, whether or not I make money when they click on these links (which I don’t).
** You may argue that Google successfully outlawed paid links, but people are still making money from links. The deals have just gone underground.
Please comment below with your thoughts. I'm not so old a dog that I can't learn a few new tricks!