Google is adjusting its search results to prioritize “content by people, for people” and fight back against the scourge of clickbait, the company says.
“We know people don’t find content useful if it appears to be designed to attract clicks rather than inform readers,” Google’s Danny Sullivan said in a blog post. “Many of us have experienced the frustration of visiting a web page that seems to have what we’re looking for, but doesn’t meet our expectations. The content may not have the insights you want, or it may not even seem like it was created for, or even by, a person.
So-called “SEO spam”, content written explicitly to appear high on search engine results pages, has long been a thorn in the side of companies like Google. To address this, the company is launching a “helpful content update” next week.
The update includes a number of tweaks to the company’s ranking algorithms that attempt to identify content “that appears to be created primarily to rank well in search engines rather than to help or inform people.” Google says the update has led to improvements in tests in particular for searches related to online education, arts and entertainment, shopping and technology.
In one example, Sullivan says, a search for a recent movie can sometimes turn up articles that simply collect reviews from other sites; now “see more results with unique, authentic information, so you’re more likely to read something you haven’t seen before”.
There are, of course, winners and losers in such changes, and online publishers may fear that their content strategies will trap them in the net. In its advice for “content creators,” Google implies that some of the signals it will use to downgrade search results are whether or not a website has a primary purpose or focus, and whether there is “an existing or intended audience.” that would find the content helpful if they came directly to the page.
The “banhammer” will be handled liberally. “Any content – not just useless content – on sites that have been found to have a relatively high amount of useless content in general will perform less well in search results, assuming there is other content elsewhere on the web that can be displayed better,” says Google. “For this reason, removing useless content can help rank your other content.”
In recent months, Google has made a concerted effort to combat the perception that the company’s search products have gotten worse over time. Headlines like “It’s Not Just You, Google Search Is Really Getting Worse” and “Google Search Has Got Worse. Here’s The Trick People Found To Get Around It” blame the company’s growing desire for structured results, paid advertising and offer links to other Google services over simple web links, as well as the constant cat-and-mouse game with SEO spam, and suggest focusing on sites like Reddit to find helpful answers to questions.
Writing in the Toronto Star, Navneet Alang called the process a “kind of vicious circle.” “Google is endlessly refining searches to try to predict what people want, but in response, entire industries are working to pollute search results by giving people a cheap, fake version of what they want,” he wrote.