Search is not getting better, or it certainly seems that way. In the evolutionary battle between search engines and search engine marketers, the search engines are not keeping ahead, and crap content is finding its way into the top of search results. This makes search users unhappy, opens the way for alternatives to the dominant player in the Western world, AKA Google.
In a blog post on search engine spam by its principal engineer Matt Cutts Google says it is ready to respond, in particular to filtering out low-quality content. He says:
Today, English-language spam in Google’s results is less than half what it was five years ago.
However, we have seen a slight uptick of spam in recent months.
To the first point, people’s expectations are continually getting higher, and so they should be. And it turns out that people’s perception that the problem is getting worse is true.
Google’s response is two-fold: cracking down on duplicate content, and downgrading in search results what Google algorithmically determines to be “low quality content”. The video describes Google’s initial changes on this front that happened around 1 May of last year.
A few points to make on this:
Definitions of quality of content.
What seems to be a hard question is actually easy. In the context of search, if people find what they are looking for, it is high quality.
The impact on content farms.
Cutts refers explicitly to “content farms”, of which the best known are Demand Media and Associated Content (now owned by Yahoo!). Demand Media is expected to launch its IPO next week, based on financials that capitalize the cost of content creation based on it having long-term value. That value may very quickly erode.
The spectrum of quality in media.
A good definition of a media company is that it creates content and monetizes it. That is what both New York Times and Demand Media do, arguably at different ends of the spectrum of content quality (though in fact there is a massive amount of lower quality content than that produced by Demand Media). Media companies will have to make strategic choices about the quality of their media relative to the available monetization mechanisms. Many would suggest there is already considerable downward pressure on quality of content at the top end.
As search engines get better, high-quality content will be favored, potentially dramatically more than it is today. This continuous change will mean that media business models cannot be static but must change with the times as well.
The key issue is the cost of content creation relative to the revenue it can generate. While most media business models are focused on explicit distribution channels, the reality is that more content distribution will be through explicit search as well as aggregation, which will be driven by similar algorithms.
The rise of reputation models for content.
I have written about the rise of content reputation models and the proliferation of crap content before, and we have some ventures planned in this space. Google has recently introduced a Chrome extension for reporting web spam, which will assist at the low end, but as content reputation models develop, we will have better indicators of content reputation, available across the web.
How it relates to contextual search.
I wrote earlier in the week about the rise of contextual search. However quality of content has different parameters when put into context such as location. If you are looking for content relative to location or mood, you are not necessarily looking for the deepest and best-researched article, but the snippet of information you want. The quality filters would have to be applied in a different way.
In summary, the dominance of search in social and economic activities means that how search evolves can have a very broad impact. In particular, it will drive the structure of the media industry. Expect rapid change.