Online Business Passive Income Search Engines

What is a Content Farm and Why Does Google Hate Them?

Matt Cutts has the best job in the world. He writes one little blog post and puts the whole of the Internet Marketing community into a tail spin – and his latest is a good one – in fact when googling “what is a content farm” the first result was a news result – indicating that the term is hot, hot, hot at the moment.

But WTF is Google doing? Are they trying to destroy all of us who want to make a few dollars of passive income a month? Is the era of making a living online gone forever? Google search is failing – and what Google is doing is a public relations exercise in order to recover some credibility – and the evidence is in the results of the above search.

So what is a content farm I thought? I asked Mr Google (using US results via the nifty Chrome Google Extension tool) – and Google told me –

News results: according to

The term “content farm” is commonly used to describe these sites that add pages and pages of unoriginal, useless information to the search engines database.

and thinks that:

Companies that do this have come to be known — somewhat disparagingly — as “content farms” because of the low rates they pay the people producing their content and because of the factory-style atmosphere of some ventures.

They then go on to quote examples of such companies as including:

Demand Media, Associated Content, AOL (with Patch and Seed),, HubPages, and Suite 101.

Odd list – doesn’t pay me a cent – I get paid from a share of revenue from articles on their site- my biggest payout comes from Google’s Adsense… BTW I never heard of either of these sites I was thinking maybe LATimes or TechCrunch – its not like the discussion is not being had…

But getting on to the very, very best results for my query:

wikipedia: the entry is somewhat shorter than the list of references and says precisely – nothing … asks What is a content farm and offers an opinion based on personal experience – rather than rehashed content – odd how its coming in at #4 behind the nonsense in front of it.

Next we have the site called – yup – “The Content Farm” – and yes you can find really useful stuff like how to talk to a child (hint first check if he is wearing priest’s clothing …) or how to determine the weight of an Oscar (TM) Statuette – hint – first win one … In fact its a lot more amusing than the usual stuff on ehow and good luck to them I say – and it just goes to show the Exact Match Domain (EMD) bonus still works ..

At position #5 we have a 2009 post from age and authority will allow you to rank with little effort at all…

Many people know how to rank in Google’s search results – and Google doesn’t like it. If you missed the broadcast mesage – to rank content in the search results it is easiest if:

  • your domain name matches the search term;
  • failing that the term you want to be found for is in your url and within your article using the basics of on-page SEO
  • build links to your site – some of those links should be anchored using your search term or near relatives to it.

Google is trying to rank quality – but frankly – it can’t.

Lets take a topical example. Christchurch New Zealand has suffered 2 damaging earthquakes in the last 6 months. In September 2010 there was a damaging earthquake which didn’t kill anyone, on the 22 February and aftershock of that quake may have killed as many as 240 people (figures still unconfirmed at the time of writing). So I am in NZ and I know that this story is so big that it has played in primetime on CNN, BBC and elsewhere around the world. There was non-stop media coverage (without ads) for the first 48 hours in New Zealand in TV1, TV3 and Radio NZ – my point is that there is an awful lot of information on the topic – a lot of new information – which can’t have been gamed by the clever SEO’s. So what does come up with when I ask it the question many have asked me (an ex-Geologist) in the last week:

So in order we have:

  • a bunch of very useful official sites – any query about christchurch and/or earthquake is displaying this in New Zealand at the moment – fair enough but not contextural search.
  • news results from legit  daily newspapers – though it seems a little bit unfair that the UK telegraph  showed up an the NZ Herald didn’t – NONE of these results relate to my actual query –  the cause of the quake.
  • now the first actual search results is from – Yahoo Answers – yeah font of all legit qualified opinion that is – at least the answers on this particular listing are not too outrageous – but its hardly at a technical level – or even a good English level.
  • next we have a pretty awesome photoblog from MSNBC – nice article – nothing to do with the question.
  • the next two  – yup – two results are from suite101 – one of  the supposed farms – the first article has a sub heading which matches my query – but it doesn’t relate to the most recent event – thought Google was better than that – the second article – does relate to February’s quake – was written several days ago (I can tell from the estimated death toll) and there is nothing really about the question I asked in my query. These articles are reasonably well-written but obviously not by anyone who is either anywhere near Christchurch or knows much about Earth Science.
  • Wikipedia is up next – but the link is to the 2010 quake not the 2011
  • Wikianswers makes it into the top 5 with a  little gem – we don’t know in about 300 words.

But maybe that’s the best there is – so I dug a little deeper – here’s a good explanation and another one here and here – of course I only found those because I know that earthquakes are explained by the science of plate tectonics: obviously no one told Google.

Summary for those who skipped the preceding 993 words:

  • Google can’t make a judgement call about “quality” – all it can try and match search terms with content on a site and the authority of that site. It doesn’t understand even the most basic LSI – plate tectonics goes with earthquakes like cheese goes with wine – go figure.
  • Google is doing a bit of smoke screen exercise designed to scare the f*k out of some SEOs.
  • Google can’t even really distinguish between original and copied content  – I wish they would because I am bored with the scrapers stealing my content – but I certainly haven’t seen it improve in the last few days.
  • Google can’t even pick up grammar –  not should it – Christchurch’s mayor has been widely quoted as  “However it is bad news for one of the city’s key sewage facilities. “Our main sewer truck is seriously munted,” Mayor Bob Parker told TVNZ.” – in my mind the quote of the event and exactly right if you are of a certain age and grew up in New Zealand.  So don’t bury it in the results because its not grammatically correct!
  • Google trusts older sites more than newer sites – and PR has almost nothing to do with it.
  • They have (almost certainly) temporarily – reduced rankings for some large content sites. Apparently including hubpages – I say apparently because my long-standing well-ranking hubs are still exactly where they were in rankings.
  • From forum comments it appears those with affiliate sites promoting Amazon/eBay type products have been slapped down and the affiliate site promoted above them. I remember now why I gave up on promoting eBay and Amazon.
  • From my own figures – niche sites with unique but hardly stellar content are still going strong.
  • Go read Allyn for his take on Content Farms for Google to Zap

18 replies on “What is a Content Farm and Why Does Google Hate Them?”

Heh, Lissie, I was waiting for you to weigh in on this latest dust up…you didn’t disappoint! For all of Cutts’s blather about this being an “algorithm change,” it looks to me like a combo of 2% algo change and 10% manual penalty on the big Web 2.0 sites, designed, as you say, to grab headlines and try to get their brand credibility back. We’ll see if it works – so far their SERPs are still (as you would say) shite.

A lot has changed for Google in the past couple of years. Bing appeared, merged with Yahoo and now owns 30% of search traffic (though their SERPs are shite too). Facebook grew and started stealing traffic from Google. And Google did an IPO, which is when all the clutter started appearing in their SERPs. Shareholders get hungry.

I’m happy to say that this has been my best month online ever, and the days after the update have been my best this month. Not bragging, though – there are more changes on the way.

Lorecee I’m really glad that your income is on the way up – mine isn’t quite as good as Jan was but Feb (a short month) is still the 2nd best Adsense month ever. Oh yeah its definitely a manual penalty (which for programmers is a massive fail) – but not over the whole sites I feel – because my hubs haven’t been touched – go figure! I mean sometimes I have typos LOL Good point re the IPO I hadn’t thought of that ..

wow Lis, thanks for the link but more importantly, this was a VERY well researched article. In fact, this is EXACTLY what matt cutts would refer to as compelling and original content. Nice work and I did learn something about earthquakes as well. I also didn’t know you were a former geologist. coolness!

where exactly did you think I learned to drink beer Allyn LOL – yeah its a bit long though don’t you think – clearly I should just write a real short wiki answer and I will good to go!

Hey Lis,

Good post. The reality is that Google will never be able to figure out “quality” and has to use some other methods to do it. Frankly, I am a bit surprised that hubpages was hit but considering it’s growth, you have to figure it was on the radar. I won’t miss EZA, buzzle or the other article directories though- Most of the articles are nothing more than content fodder generated for the user to click to go somewhere else (which, in a sense, is what we want).

I am not so sure that it was a manual penalty though. Some of my more heavily linked hubs are still ranking well….others not so well…so I know that it comes into play.

But I haven’t paid that much attention to web 2.0 properties and web directories. A lot of e-commerce review sites have been hit, including many that were getting hundreds of thousands of hits monthly such as and

So, don’t be so rash to assume that the penalty was manual. There are a lot of sites that are feeling this that aren’t web 2.0 properties.

From my perspective, almost all the sites have 3 things in common- They are large, rank for a lot of keywords and they monetize with Adsense. And as you know, if you give google that window, they can peer in and see more of the going ons within your website than if they didn’t. Things like time on site, bounce rate, time on page….it is all there for them to peer into and analyze.

Still, you make some excellent points.

Thanks Leo – the more I learn online the more I see a disconnect between google’s pronouncements and what they actually do!

Hey Lis – nice post! My hubs have hardly changed either. My niche sites and 2 supersites are unchanged. Whatever Google did has not affected me … so far.

There are so many search terms with screwed up results, that I think the only way Google could fix it would be to blow the whole thing up and start over again. I suspect that the algo is now so huge that any one change probably makes little or no difference. This latest round reminds me of a coldwar disinformation tactic more than anything else: Lets spread some scary news and hopefully people will react to it. So far for me, it’s business as usual … will wait and see what the fallout is.

Totally agree milker – I would say the algo is that the point that it really isn’t understood by any of the PhDs – maybe it will become a Hal ….

Hey Lis,

I have no hubs, no lenses, no eza’s – none of that content farm stuff pointing to my other sites. Guess what? All of my sites are climbing in the SERPS. My lowly main blog just shot to 2000 uniques in a day for the second time in history.

Nice post Lis, quite a research effort indeed. (Allyn pointed me to this article from his comments)

I really don’t know what to make of this whole ‘Google farm slap’ episode. There seems to be a lot of theories and such, but the only one that really makes the most sense to me is this: Maybe Google ISN’T that great at search as everyone thinks they are. I mean if they can’t decipher valuable content from non valuable content, then they aren’t really a search engine, they’re a content aggregator with identity issues.

I’ve been using Bing lately and have actually been pretty pleased with the results. It seems somewhere along the way Google BECAME the internet and people just stopped thinking there are other places to search online.

It’s almost as if Google is becoming WORSE from all their efforts instead of better. Not that I have a solution, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater doesn’t seem to be it.

Unfortunately until the majority of searchers start using another search engine what Google does good or bad has an impact on my business!

Nice thorough article Lis. I was quite glad to hear about the algo change when it was first talked about by Matt. However, since then I can’t say I’ve seen much change when it comes to Google’s search results. In fact it almost seems worse than ever! I find myself having to come up with all manner of ways to type my search phrase to get relevant results…you know, results that are in CONTEXT to the search query! I end up getting frustrated and turn to an alternative, which might be asking a friend via email, looking up a Wiki or heading to a well known legit site like for health related issue etc.

I’ve sat and pondered how exactly could Google really get a grip on the best sites to rank for certain terms and it seems as though it would be near impossible without massive numbers of human reviewers. I wonder if Google has a plan in regards to search eventually falling over and where they’ll head instead? Hmmm, sounds like Science Fiction to think search will die off so perhaps I’ll keep trying to get those high organic rankings for a little while longer yet. 😉

PS Glad you didn’t get directly hit by the earthquake, although I imagine the indirect impact is quite substantial.

That’s exactly what happened with me when I did the earthquake search – I knew what I wanted to see – and I wasn’t getting anything relevant.

Actually the earthquake has been thinking about a new niche …

Thanks for sanest analysis I’ve seen yet of Google’s recent changes. I tend to agree that it’s almost completely a political and PR-driven change. Penalizing hubpages while not penalizing ehow seems arbitrary. I had always liked EzineArticles for backlinks, traffic, and distribution, but their prominence did seem too good to be true and couldn’t last forever.

(Long-term reader, first-time commenter – found you through Griz years ago it seems!)

HI Lis –

Another great article. I agree with the theory that it is mostly scare tactics, but the point for me is that it is working, and the whole emphasis is shifting over to well written pertinent content.

I believe the overall “pertinancy” ratio is improving.

– Rhys

Google them self are content farmer too, their news site is farming from tons of other sites and even we can add our own content farm list to our iGoogle page, wondering why *sigh*

I did manage to read those 993 words…and the other ones as well…and I can certainly tell you that if you swear by EMDs, you’re most likely at the top of results — even if your website is complete and utter crap. This latest update has done more harm than good in my opinion.

All but one of my websites improved during this update, and the one that completely tanked was replaced by nothing but keyword stuffed Amazon scraper websites. I have a lot of theories floating around in my head, but ultimately I chalked it up to Google being Google and I’ll keep on chugging along. I haven’t lost sleep over the latest update and I don’t anticipate that this will be the last one for 2011.

A good article, Lis. I like Matt Cutts in many ways, but I’m very disappointed in Google’s overall attitude toward small business and entrepreneurship in general. It’s easy for Matt to pontificate about rights and wrongs as he luxuriates in his 9remorted) $300,000 USD annually) salary, but there are a number of other folks out there who are honestly trying to earn a living that he ‘mows down’ along his Quixotic quest to ‘rid the ‘Net of spam (as he alone sees it to be).

Google, in my opinion, should spend a lot less time worrying about what Google perceives to be spam, and especially in their insanely anti-business philosophy of penalizing paid links, and focus on actual cobtent and context. You pointed out really good examples on how poorly Google finds the answers to intelligent questions about current events. I’ll give you an even more pertinent exmaple of how the absolutely miss the mark on common, everyday stuff.

One of my professional interests is the GPS .. (Global Positioning System). Most folks able to sit up and eat their breakfast in the morning understand that while GPS may have a large content of ‘rocket science’ involved, an ordinary general practitioner physician probably doesn’t have much to do with outer space,

But do a search on GPS and you are at least even money to get back articles involving GP’s in the UK arguing some point with the National Health folks, or some similar completely off the mark result. A simplistic, almost sure way to fix the issue would be to simply recognize capital letters.

Most people would recognize immediately that “disputes with GP’s” and ‘problems with GPS satellites” are not even close to the same query. I only mention this becuase twice now Matt has publicly asked for suggestions from the public regarding improving Google search and I’ve suggested this simple improvement … and not even received a “yeah, thanks, we’ll think about it” response. Way too simplistic for the geiuses in the Googleplex I suspect.

But if the subject matter is esoteric, secret analysis of articles to artificially determine what sites are ‘legitimate’ and which ones might be ‘content farms’ … then apparently Google’s budget is huge.

Just do search, Mr. Cutts, please. Most of us are smart enough to figure out for ourselves what seems ‘spammy’ to us … and what seems spammy to you may well not seem ‘spammy to me .. which is the way the world should work.

Will Google’s next move involve taking library books off the shelves, rating them for ‘quality’ and burning the ones that don’t live up? Go find a book on, say, geology, or computer science for that matter, which does not consist in large part of a repetition, restatement or exposition of the work of previous authors in the field.

I mean, really, Matt, how many original principles of computer science have been ‘created’ in say the past year? Much of what Watson does as ‘he’ plays Jeopardy can be found in the works of Charles Babbage … so should a diagram of the “Difference Engine” be at the top of the list when I search for a computer science answer?

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