In February, Google updated its algorithm in a significant way. The update impacted nearly 12% of all queries and, in Google’s own words, was “designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites [and] provide better rankings for high-quality sites”. But it also might represent a fundamental shift in Google’s philosophy about search and user-experience.
Search, Relevance, and UGC
Nearly all of Google’s revenue comes from Adwords, but Google is so much more than just a search engine. The company’s mission statement, after all, is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Search might provide a platform (and revenue model) for indexing everything that’s online, but what Google really wants to become is the go-to cloud-based app for the entirety of human knowledge — i.e. the how-to and what-is guide for everything.
But Google’s algorithm update also happened to napalm certain content farms and competitors. Indeed, when you look at the top 25 losers, you notice that Google seems to have devalued user-generated-content (UGC).
This represents a significant shift in Google’s approach to content because, traditionally, Google has been partial to UGC. The logic behind their UGC bias, moreover, seemed sound because UGC doesn’t have the same vested interests as so-called “commercial” sites.
Whereas commercial sites produce content (and link to other sites) for the purpose of creating revenue, UGC is more about actual people/users sharing their opinions and experience through content because they find it useful. We are, after all, social creatures, and since Google wants to give the most valuable results to real human beings, UGC seemed like a promising resource to help them do that.
But then you look at the top 25 sites to lose out from Google’s latest algorithm update, and you notice just how many of them are UGC-driven. From shopping sites powered by user-reviews to article submission sites, many of these losers had built their business model on UGC to the extent that they leveraged it to rank well in the SERPs and attract new users/customers.
Of course, these sites had found a loophole in the Google algorithm and were exploiting it. In other words, their revenue models were (on one way or another) piggybacking off of Google’s own technology and user-base. But depending on just how altruisitc you are about content and search, some of these sites deserved to penalized, and some didn’t.
On the less extreme end of the spectrum, there were the sites that were leveraging Google’s preference for UGC and how-to content to generate traffic that they could then monetize. One example is TheFind.com which used user-reviews to rank better on product searches, and then make a commission on the users they then referred to various online merchants.
On the more extreme end of the spectrum, sites were actually incentivizing users to generate content content. These sites were more problematic because UGC loses its value when its incentivized. Basically, if there’s something in it for the user to produce the content, the motive behind the content becomes less altruistic and it becomes that much less likely that the content is actually share-worthy.
Search and the Changing Face of UGC
So what does this all mean for the future of UGC and search? Well, it depends on which search engine we’re talking about.
Most UGC these days is being produced on social networks, not on content sites. It’s coming in the form of tweets and wall-posts and likes. This is even more valuable as “altruistic” UGC because (1) it’s being created at a much higher volume, and (2) it’s more closely tied to “real” user identities and less likely to be spam.
The only problem is that most of it is happening on Facebook, and Google can’t get at it there That is, its crawlers can’t get in behind the Facebook registration wall, so they can’t see what’s happening there and factor it into their index.
Bing, on the other hand, has a deal with Facebook, and is actively factoring data such as Facebook Likes into its index. Specifically, it’s able to personalize your search results based on (1) how much something has been liked on Facebook, and (2) how much it’s been liked by people in your network.
This, of course, gives Bing a significant edge over Google in offering a “social” kind of search. But the real point is that as search evolves, the kinds of UGC that are going to matter is going to be the stuff that social graphs are made up of. It’s going to be about the content (1) real users have produced, and (2) how what each user has produced can be used to personalize their own search experience.