Did Google Just Declare War on Demand Media?

Over the past few months, there has been a growing chorus of criticism — much of it anecdotal, but coming from a number of respected technology observers — about Google’s (s goog) increasingly useless search results. Now the web giant has responded to these criticisms in a blog post, saying it doesn’t believe its search is getting any worse (if anything, it claims results have improved), but noting that it is going to be coming down hard on so-called “content farms” that try to game its algorithm with low-quality pages filled with keywords. And that could mean some pain for Demand Media, which is planning a closely-watched initial public offering that could launch as soon as next week.

The Google blog post came from Matt Cutts, who heads up the company’s search-spam team. Cutts said that in contrast to some of the criticisms, “according to the evaluation metrics that we’ve refined over more than a decade, Google’s search quality is better than it has ever been in terms of relevance, freshness and comprehensiveness.” He also said that English-language spam in the web company’s results is less than half what it was five years ago, although he admitted there had been a “slight uptick of spam in recent months.” But while pure spam has gotten better (the Google staffer provided this example of what the term means to Google) Cutts admitted that there was more work to be done in the area of low-quality pages from “content farms.”

As we discussed recently, the criticisms about Google’s results — from tech analysts such as financial blogger Paul Kedrosky, entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa, programmer Jeff Atwood and Instapaper developer Marco Arment — almost all focus their hate on content from mass-production outfits such as eHow, which is a subsidiary of Demand Media. Kedrosky wrote about companies whose business model he described as: “find some popular keywords that lead to traffic and transactions, wrap some anodyne and regularly-changing content around the keywords so Google doesn’t kick you out of search results, and watch the dollars roll in.” This is almost a perfect description of what Demand Media and other similar companies do.

In a securities filing related to its IPO, Demand — which is run by former MySpace chairman Richard Rosenblatt — says that “while traditional media companies create content based on anticipated consumer interest, we create content that responds to actual consumer demand.” What this means in practice is that Demand produces text, images and video that are designed to attract keyword ads. The company looks at what keywords are being searched for most, and pays contractors to produce content that fits that description. So if Demand sees that keywords related to winter tires are fetching a high price on auction markets like Google’s, it will pay someone to write an article about how to put snow tires on your car.

Some of these articles are filled with useful information, but others are closer to what Marco Arment described when he railed against content “generated by penny-hungry affiliate marketers and sleazy web ‘content’ startups to target long-tail Google queries en masse, scraping content from others or paying low-wage workers to churn out formulaic, minimally nutritious pages to answer them.” Demand isn’t the only “content farm,” of course. Associated Content, which was bought by Yahoo for $100 million last year, also produces tens of thousands of articles a month on similar kinds of topics, and there are several smaller sites such as Suite101.com that take a similar approach.

Demand Media is by far the largest player, however, and that means it could bear the brunt of Google’s wrath. Demand mentioned this in the “risk factors” section of its S-1 filing, referring to “the possibility that our relationship with Google — from which a significant portion of our revenue is generated — may be terminated or renewed on less favorable terms,” and “the “current dependence of our Content & Media service offering on the success of eHow.” The filing noted that Google could easily “change its existing… methodologies and metrics for valuing the quality of Internet traffic and delivering cost-per-click advertisements” in a way that would negatively affect Demand’s business.

In his Google blog post, Matt Cutts made a point of refuting the allegation made by some critics that the search giant takes a less-than-rigorous approach to pages from content farms like Demand because they carry Google advertising, and therefore the company shares in some of that revenue. This is not the case, Cutts said:

One misconception that we’ve seen in the last few weeks is the idea that Google doesn’t take as strong action on spammy content in our index if those sites are serving Google ads. To be crystal clear:

  • Google absolutely takes action on sites that violate our quality guidelines regardless of whether they have ads powered by Google
  • Displaying Google ads does not help a site’s rankings in Google, and
  • Buying Google ads does not increase a site’s rankings in Google’s search results.

That seems to make it clear that Demand Media can’t expect any favors just because it carries a lot of Google ads (which Demand says accounted for 28 percent of its revenue in the nine months through September 2010). At the very least, Google’s saber-rattling on the content-farm issue could make investors a little more nervous about Demand’s stock offering — and put more pressure on the company to boost the quality of some of its content so that it doesn’t get caught in Google’s spam filters.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Atli Haroarson