Google is tweaking its search results in an effort to prioritise “content by people, for people” and fight back against the scourge of clickbait, the company says.
“We know people don’t find content helpful if it seems like it was designed to attract clicks rather than inform readers,” Danny Sullivan, from Google, said in a blog post. “Many of us have experienced the frustration of visiting a webpage that seems like it has what we’re looking for, but doesn’t live up to our expectations. The content might 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 for the purposes of appearing high up on the results pages of search engines, has long been a thorn in the side of companies like Google. To tackle it, the company is launching a “helpful content update” next week.
The update covers a number of tweaks to the company’s ranking algorithms that attempt to identify content “that seems to have been primarily created for ranking well in search engines rather than to help or inform people”. Google says that, in tests, the update has resulted in particular improvements for searches related to online education, arts and entertainment, shopping and technology.
In one example, Sullivan says, a search about a recent movie can sometimes bring up articles that simply aggregate reviews from other sites; now, “you’ll see more results with unique, authentic information, so you’re more likely to read something you haven’t seen before”.
There are winners and losers from such changes, of course, and online publishers may fear that their content strategies will see them caught up 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 useful if they came directly to the page.
The “banhammer” will be wielded liberally. “Any content – not just unhelpful content – on sites determined to have relatively high amounts of unhelpful content overall is less likely to perform well in search, assuming there is other content elsewhere from the web that’s better to display,” Google says. “For this reason, removing unhelpful content could help the rankings of your other content.”
In recent months, Google has launched a concerted effort to fight perceptions that the company’s search products have grown worse over time. Headlines like “It’s not just you, Google search really is getting worse” and “Google search has gotten worse. Here’s the trick people have found to get around it” blame the company’s increasing desire to offer structured results, paid-for adverts and links to other Google services above simple web links, as well as the constant cat-and-mouse game with SEO spam, and suggest focusing on sites like Reddit to find useful answers to queries.
Navneet Alang, writing in the Toronto Star, called the process a “sort of vicious cycle”. “Google endlessly refines search to try and predict what people want, but in response, entire industries work to pollute search results by giving people a cheap, knock-off version of what they want,” he wrote.