Guest/User-Contributed Content is Clogging Google

In 2011 and 2012, Google introduced sweeping updates to minimize low-quality, thin content on its search results.

However, there seems to be a new type of ‘spam’ that is more subtle but also annoying: user-contributed content, also known as content farms.

For the sake of simplicity, assume there are three types of sites:

Sites run by a sole proprietor (such as this blog)

Sites that have multiple authors, but these are professionals on a payroll (New York Times, Bloomberg, Wall St. Journal, Washington Post, etc.)

Sites that allow anyone or almost anyone to submit content, with contributors paid per page view or impressions generated by said content.

The last one is problematic. Although some sites have higher standards than others, often the user-submitted content is of mediocre quality compared to content written by professional writers, academics, and journalists, on sites that are filled with ads and or are engaging in dubious practices.

Some major offenders include, Lifehacker, and Wikihow.

Forbes is like a for-profit Wikipedia, but with plodding content and ads everywhere. It’s impossible to not see a Forbes result after doing a Google search. They are everywhere now. Like a kudzu., as everyone knows, bombards its visitors with a very annoying ‘welcome screen’ (which is more infuriating than welcoming), possibly violating Google’s policy prohibiting cloaking/gateway pages.

The transformation of Forbes from a respectable finance magazine to a content mill goes as far back as 2011:

Carr predicted that the Forbes decision would result in the magazine suffering the “Death of a Thousand Hacks,” which has two meanings: “The first, much like the death of a thousand cuts, is that they’re chipping away at everything they used to represent by replacing real reporting with SEO-driven bullshit and an army of unpaid amateur hack bloggers. The second meaning is that those thousand hacks are going to kill their brand.”

Since then, hundreds of bloggers received invitations to join including myself. The email I received implored me to “Just continue to do what you do best–write. I am not looking for exclusive content (although it’s most welcome), request copyright or ask that you blog any more than you already do. Forbes does not wish to control, alter or affect your blog in any way,” the editor told me. “You can publish simultaneously on your blog and your personal blog… As an uncompensated contributor, your posts will be available to millions of dedicated Forbes readers.”

Given that Forbes ranks in the top 5 for virtually all keywords it targets, and that all Forbes pages are filled with ads, it’s safe to say the strategy has paid off handsomely. Whatever debasement of the Forbes ‘brand’ incurred is a small price to pay for presumably tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising revenue.

Wikihow is cluttering Google results with ‘how-to’ topics, often poorly written, including some really inane ones such as ‘How to Form an Opinion: 11 Steps’ (I’m not kidding).

Content farms will also sacrifice user-experience to pad page and ad-impression counts, such as by using an extra-large font, inserting unnecessary low-quality stock photos, or breaking content into too many pages.

High domain authority allows content farms to rank very well. A Forbes article about taxes will easily rank in the top 10 for most tax-related Google queries. It’s really gotten out of hand, with Forbes dominating the top three results for the query ‘when to file taxes’. The IRS, however, ranks at #7.

There should by some sort of mild penalty for sites that have interstitial screens or low-quality user-submitted content. Perhaps instead of Forbes always ranking in the top 4, it should be pushed to the bottom 6-10 if there are other sites that have better content but less domain authority and no annoying welcome screens.