@ pC2011: Publishers Learn To Live With Google’s Black Box

Online media owners, on a panel at our paidContent 2011 conference, reported differing impacts from Google’s recent algorithm tweak in the name of “quality”.

— Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) Contributor Network and Associated Network VP and GM Luke Beatty: “We’re seeing about a third of our content pushed up and two thirds of our content pushed down (in Google). Yahoo Answers and other properties are definitely up. All of our crowdsourced content is probably in flux, with some up, some down.”

— Forbes Media chief product officer Lewis Dvorkin: “It’s been difficult for us to tell the outcome. We had other issues with Google (NSDQ: GOOG) which affected traffic and we’re still trying to resolve those.”

— Reuters (NYSE: TRI) Media president Chris Ahearn: “It’s about the same. We naturally have a lot of Google juice.”

— Mahalo president Jason Rapp: “Our strategic focus is (now) the education videos we do – those were unaffected. Our question-and-answer was up a bit. The bad news is, we had a body of general-interest content – that was affected rather significantly. We’re reacting to that. We think Google will get it right in the long run.”

Mahola already announced it’s laying off 10 percent of its staff as a consequence. “We’re paring back some of our expenses,” Rapp said. “We don’t have deep pockets so, when we see a hit like that, we react accordingly.” This is the latest reincarnation of the company, which started out as a kind of human-powered content guide.

The panelists debated the evolving nature of “quality” web content and the gatekeepers who determine it as such. Most appeared resigned to the fact that, for those interested in page views, Google remains a critical source.

“It’s meant to be a black box that everybody can game equally,” Ahearn said. “From what I can see, they do give preference to their own sites.” Although the idea of greater transparency to Google’s algorithm could emerge from an ongoing European antitrust inquiry in to the matter, Ahearn was ambivalent on the idea and, later, the moderator of the panel, Larry Dignan told me he was uncertain opening Google’s kimono could change things – indeed, it may be an instructional manual for publishers to game the system even more accurately.

People will figure out how to game the black box and the black box will change,” Yahoo’s Beatty said.

Are things changing? “The one way to game was to create low-quality, 200-word articles,” Rapp said. “That era is done. That’s what we welcome – we’ve figured out the formula for what is a high-quality and engaging experience.”

Likewise, Forbes’ Dvorkin said: “I don’t have an answer for it, it makes me nervous. I don’t want to think about it that much – we just push forward and get stuff done.”

Dvorkin is trying hard to move beyond a Google dependency. “I don’t look on it that way,” he said. “Friends and family determine quality. I spend more time focused on social, more than what Google is doing. You can have a traffic impact from Twitter or Foursquare that can have a real impact on quality.”

Perhaps both social and search can be bridged, as Facebook works with Bing and Google tries injecting Social Search in to its results.

“Ultimately, there’s got to be an algorithm for the social graph,” said panel moderator Dignan.