Mark’s down at SMX San Jose this week, rubbing elbows with some of the SEO industry’s top authorities, and the most-discussed topic or theme is easily the recent Google algorithm update. Most of the industry has taken to calling it the “Farmer Update,” a nod to the so-called “content farms” that were supposedly the target, but Google wants us to start referring to it as the Panda update (because who can be angry at a cuddly panda bear?)

Vanessa Fox over at Search Engine Land has a great rundown of some of the predominant logic among conference attendees. And as these industry veterans socialize and discuss search together, some fairly universal conclusions are begin drawn regarding the Panda Farmer Update. Aaron Wall also has a great write-up today with his own usual good insights.

Why Your Site Was Penalized

Many website owners have been asking themselves a lot of questions lately, like, “Why me?”, “What did I do wrong?”, and “Why does Google hate me?”. And we’re beginning to see a bit of a consensus on the reasons certain sites were likely punished:

  • Thin content – not enough overall content on the page
  • Poor ad-to-content ratio
  • Content that was directly copied from another site
  • Poorly written content
  • Content that is generally not “useful”

Great. That’s fantastic. And by “fantastic” I mean “not remotely helpful at all.” Because all of those things are subjective. Who determines what copy is well-written and what copy is poorly written? Is it the algorithm? Because I doubt it is. How much content is enough to avoid being thin? Three paragraphs? Four? Worst of all, whose definition of “useful” are we supposed to use?

Using his own investigation as well as the opinions of industry vets at the conferences, Wall put together a brief list of the defining characteristics of “useful” content:

  • A useful document will pass a human inspection
  • A useful document is not ad heavy
  • A useful document is well linked externally
  • A useful document is not a copy of another document
  • A useful document is typically created by a brand or an entity which has a distribution channel outside of the search channel
  • A useful document does not have a 100% bounce rate followed by a click on a different search result for that same search query ;)

So, if search is my primary way of finding customers, then my content isn’t useful? That’s just patently false.

What Can You Do Improve Your Standing?

Following the general consensus, you can:

  • Readdress your ad-to-content ratio. If you’re focused too much on ads, you could improve your site’s “usefulness” by removing some ads or beefing up content.
  • Remove or redirect poor quality pages. This allows the high-quality pages to shine all the brighter. The lower quality pages can negatively impact the entire domain.
  • Get involved in social media (and traditional media). It will help you be perceived as a brand that interacts with customers outside of search.

Of course, if you already had original and useful content, and yet still got penalized (and there are many of you in that boat), then this list is pretty useless to you.

The Problem With Google

The problem with Google is that they think math can do everything better than a human can. They want to take a problem that is highly subjective (which content is useful and which content is not?) and solve it with ones and zeros. At least, that’s what they claim. According to them, this wasn’t a manual edit, but an algorithmic one. And with some of those criteria listed above… you just can’t assign a number value, like “poorly written content,” for example.

Is Google really saying that people with bad grammar or a lack of creative writing ability don’t have anything useful to say? Because I can think of a number of popular blogs written by kids and teens that rank tremendously well but display the writing talent of a stump. But their content is considered useful to the masses, because it’s cute… it’s endearing… and there’s usually a unique and magnetic personality beneath the poor writing.

What about The Huffington Post? Specifically… what about their weekly article entitled “Watch the Top 9 Videos Of The Week?” Because that series seems to break all kinds of these content-farm rules:

  • The content is directly copied from YouTube Trends, and the article even says as much.
  • The content is thin–there’s about three paragraphs there, six sentences, and 139 total words.
  • It’s presented in a slideshow, which is designed to boost pageviews (and ad impressions) and is about the furthest thing from human-friendly that I can think of.
  • The site also has a pretty horrible content-to-fluff ratio.

And those weekly “Top 9” articles on that site rank extremely well–just Google “top YouTube” and you’ll see this:

Huffington Post’s weekly article even outranks! And yet they’re basically doing almost all the things that Google is now telling us to avoid if we wish to be viewed as a “quality” website.

Now, before you get the wrong impression, let me explain: I’m not on a Huffington Post witch hunt. I don’t think they should be punished. People enjoy videos, so they share some every week–I do the same thing here (albeit with a lot more original copywriting accompanying it). Heck, I have even been known to read these Top 9 articles. But I don’t think some of the sites I’ve seen penalized should have been punished while sites like Huffington Post are allowed to flout the rules.

This is sort of why I don’t really believe Google in this case at all. They say this update was algorithmic, and not by hand. But there are clearly a bunch of examples of sites that don’t pass the “useful content” smell test but are still ranking well… which suggests there actually was a bit of manual editing going on.


I think the Panda/Farmer update was completely necessary. There were far too many sites churning out cruddy articles which were dominating the SERPs. I’m not suggesting Google should have just done nothing. But the stonewalling on answers in the wake of the update is maddening. Google would have you believe that nothing was manually edited, and that hardly any “good” sites were penalized. But that’s bordering on a flat-out lie. If it was all done algorithmically, then they’re worse at math than i thought, because there are far too many sites with quality content that have been hurt.

Honestly, would it have been so bad for Google to simply say, “Hey, we made a change to the algorithm to improve the results, but some of the good guys got hurt too, and we’re going to be working on ways to remedy that moving forward?” For some reason, they’re incapable of saying any such thing. And ultimately, it’s the lack of answers and feedback that will turn penalized site-owners’ frustration into a seething rage.

Isn’t letting a mathematical formula judge a site’s usefulness to humans kind of like letting a blind man judge a beauty┬ápageant?