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NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Google made one of the biggest changes ever to its search results this week, which immediately had a noticeable effect on many Web properties that rely on the world’s biggest search engine to drive traffic to their sites.

The major tweak aims to move better quality content to the top of Google’s search rankings. The changes will affect 12% Google’s results, the company said in a blog post late Thursday.

“Our goal is simple: to give users the most relevant answers to their queries as quickly as possible,” said Gabriel Stricker, Google spokesman. “This requires constant tuning of our algorithms, as new content — both good and bad — comes online all the time. Recently we’ve heard from our users that they want to see fewer low quality sites in our results.”

Typically, Google’s algorithm changes are so subtle that few people notice them. But these most recent changes could be seen immediately.

How to test the change: The IP address 64.233.179.104 displays Google search results as they would have appeared before the recent algorithm change, according to several webmasters posting to the WebmasterWorld.com forum.

Google would not confirm that IP address uses the older algorithm, but comparing searches of trending topics on google.com with searches using the special Google IP address reveals how the search engine now seems to be favoring certain content.

The changes appear to be affecting so-called “content farms” the most, which are websites that amass content based on the most-searched terms of the day. Demand Media, AOL, Mahalo and the Huffington Post have all been accused of such tactics, including a notable “story” from HuffPo about the Super Bowl that Slate.com media critic Jack Shafer called “the greatest example of SEO whoring of all time.”

Tests using trending topics show Google’s tweaks in action.

The current top Google result for a search of Charlie Sheen rant target “Haim Levine” is a New York Daily News page, followed by a story from gossipcop.com. The old algorithm would have featured two Huffington Post stories at the top, with the New York Daily News story not appearing appear until the second results page.

A controversial decision: Any change to Google’s algorithm is a zero-sum game. Some websites win, some lose.

Comments from site operators lit up on the WebmasterWorld.com forum starting on Wednesday. Many webmasters complained that traffic to their sites dropped dramatically overnight, and others expressed concern that they can’t adapt quickly enough to Google’s changes to its algorithm.

“Why is it that every single time the search engine result page starts to stabilize and sales return, Google has to throw a monkey wrench in the system again?” asked commenter backdraft7. “Hey Google, this is not fun anymore – YOU’RE KILLING OUR BUSINESSES!”

“My God. I just lost 40% of my traffic from Google today,” said commenter DickBaker. “Referrals from Yahoo, Bing, direct sources, and other sources are the same, but Google dropped like a rock.”

There are many legitimate ways content creators optimize their sites to rise to the top of Google’s results. But Google has been cracking down on what it regards as inappropriate attempts to do so: The company recently penalized Overstock.com and JC Penney in its search results after the companies were found to have set up fake websites that linked to their own, causing Google’s algorithm to rank them higher.

When it comes to site content, the lines get very fuzzy. Operators like Demand Media (DMD) — which now has a market valuation of $1.9 billion, more than the New York Times Co. is worth — sit right on the ever-shifting boundaries.

“Sites of this type have always been controversial,” said Daniel Ruby, research director at Chitika, Inc. a search advertising analytics company. “On one hand, they often do produce extremely informative, well-written articles. On the other hand, they put out countless articles on a daily basis, and some claim they exist only to generate the top result on as many keywords as possible.”

Demand put out a very carefully worded response to Google’s changes.

“As might be expected, a content library as diverse as ours saw some content go up and some go down in Google search results,” Larry Fitzgibbon, the company’s executive vice president of media and operations, wrote in a blog post. “It’s impossible to speculate how these or any changes made by Google impact any online business in the long term — but at this point in time, we haven’t seen a material net impact.”

So will Google’s changes have a lasting effect on search quality? Perhaps. But it’s an arms race: Any time the company adjusts its algorithms, those determined to beat them immediately adjust.

“Content originators make money, and Google makes money,” said Whit Andrews, analyst for Gartner. “Their interests will always be in conflict, and as long as there is greed, people will try to game system.”

Google declares war on content farms

Posted by arnon_k On February - 26 - 2011 ADD COMMENTS

(Mashable) — Google has announced a major algorithmic change to its search engine, subtle in nature and perhaps unnoticeable to many users, but one that should dramatically improve the quality of Google’s search results.

With this move, Google is targeting content farms — a common name for low quality sites whose main goal is to attract search traffic by piling up (mostly) useless content, usually by either producing large amounts of low-quality text or by copying it from websites with original content.

Google does not go into details of the change which should impact 11.8 percent of Google’s queries (currently only in the U.S., with plans to roll it out elsewhere over time), but it does say that it will affect the ranking of many sites on the web.

“This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites — sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites — sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on,” explain Googlers Amit Singhal and Matt Cuttsin a blog post.

While the change will surely have many website owners up in arms, complaining that their website was unfairly ranked lower than before (we’re sure that in some cases they will be right), it’s a very welcome one.

The popularity of Google’s search engine is still second to none, but Google has been plagued by black hat SEO practices and content farms for a while now, with thecomplaints from users slowly mounting over time.

If Google manages to put an end to content farms or at least significantly reduce their influence in search results, it will be an important step in regaining the trust of its millions of users.

Map your Facebook friends in a few clicks

Posted by arnon_k On February - 25 - 2011 ADD COMMENTS

(Mashable) — You know who your Facebook friends are, but can you visualize where they are? You might be surprised when you see “Where My Friends Be?,” a Google Maps mashup with all of their locations pinpointed, showing you just how far-flung your friends really are.

We’ve seen other Facebook/Google Maps mashups before, but this one’s different from other friend-mappers. It’s fast, it takes just a few seconds to click into, and suddenly it’s dropping little pins all over the globe, showing you precisely where your pals reside. Says one of its developers, Ajay Mehta:

“Surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of apps like this. There were a few that were very poorly developed and eventually canceled years ago.

They weren’t this visual either, most had a lame loading bar or something similar and the mapping was laggy/slow. We have friends pop onto the map in a cool, interactive way (which was the hardest part to hack together).”

Written by college freshmen Ajay Mehta, Wesley Zhao and Dan Shipper, the mashup gives you a quick way to remind yourself that you’re not in Kansas anymore, and neither are your friends. Unless, of course, you all live in Kansas.

The enthusiasm of these frosh is infectious. Future Zuckerbergs?

Google: Sting proves Bing copied search results

Posted by arnon_k On February - 3 - 2011 ADD COMMENTS

(CNN) — Microsoft’s search engine Bing is copying results from Google, the dominant search engine on the internet, has claimed.

Suspicious of their new rival, Google engineers set up random results on their site for a series of unlikely search terms, such as “hiybbprqag.” (Google arranged for the nonsense word to point to a Los Angeles theater seating plan on its search engine.)

“Within a couple weeks of starting this experiment, our inserted results started appearing in Bing,” Google said in a statement on its official blog Tuesday.

Google said it welcomed honest competition, but sneered at Bing’s “recycled search results from a competitor.”

Bing did not deny that it took Google into account when producing its own search results, but suggested they were only one factor among many. They also accused Google in turn of a “spy-novelesque stunt” that would only affect very unusual search terms.

“We use over 1,000 different signals and features in our ranking algorithm,” Bing vice president Harry Shum said Tuesday, referring to the mathematical code that search engines use to choose their results.

Each company develops its own search algorithms, and the quality of the results depends on them, making them the key to a search engine’s effectiveness.

Bing gets “a small piece” of the data for its algorithm “from some of our customers, who opt-in to sharing anonymous data as they navigate the web in order to help us improve the experience for all users,” Shum said, saying many internet companies used “collective intelligence” gathered online the same way.

He shrugged off Google’s sting as “a creative tactic by a competitor, and we’ll take it as a back-handed compliment.”

Google had more than 70% of the U.S. search engine market as of the end of August, when it started running its sting, according to Experian Hitwise, which monitors web traffic. Bing had just under 10%.

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