July 22nd, 2011

Google Panda - Why Brands Aren’t Always Best and the Decline of the Web Ecosystem

Full Disclosure: I am the founder of TravBuddy.com, a large, independent travel community. Our site was affected by Google Panda, and I will highlight some content from my niche (because those are the easiest examples available to me), but this post isn’t about my site vs Google. This is about my personal opinion on the terrible state of Google’s search results, and why it’s bad for everyone.

Google Panda, a large update to Google’s search algorithm released 5 months ago, is supposed to be about surfacing “quality” and “original” websites. In my humble opinion, it has utterly failed in the travel niche, to the great cost of the consumer.

Why should you or anyone else care? Because if you ever want to research your travels online (and almost all travel searches still start at Google), your results are going to be littered almost entirely with homogenous, duplicate content or low quality websites, and it will be harder for you to find information and advice from independent sources.

HOMOGENOUS, DUPLICATE CONTENT

One of Google’s stated goals with Panda was to reduce “duplicate” content and promote sites that “provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis”. Five long months later, here is the kind of diversity and original content we can find on the first page of the results:

TripAdvisor is a good website with tons of original content, but there is no reason why Google should rank 3 of their domains that have the EXACT same content - (tripadvisor.co.uk, tripadvisor.ca, tripadvisor.com.au) and two of their domains (holidaywatchdog.com, virtualtourist.com - both owned by TripAdvisor) that have almost exactly the same content - all on the front page.

What this means to the consumer is 4.5 / 10 results on the first page of Google effectively point to the same exact content. Users are getting less useful information than ever before.

LOW QUALITY WEBSITES

Also, consider the fact that two of remaining results are occupied by Google owned properties that provide no additional value to the user. They are exactly the type of websites that Panda professes to destroy.

Result #2: The Google Places page - a mish-mash of ads, booking links, and scraped photos. Plus a short, unhelpful review from a Google User named “Marketing Concept” which is most likely spam.

Result #5: A link to a video on YouTube (which is owned by Google, by the way) that is nothing more than a slideshow of low resolution, scraped images found on hundreds of other sites. Hardly “original” or “providing substantial value”.

The end result for the user, for the traveler looking for useful or helpful information about this hotel, is that 75% of the content / links on the front page are spam. Unfortunately, this is not a unique example and can be repeated across many hotel/travel related queries on Google.

WHY BRANDS AREN’T ALWAYS BEST

Google has been trumpeting “Brands, Brands, Brands” for the last year as a solution against declining search quality. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this approach, but taken to its extreme it results in less relevant, spammy results.

Taking the query above for “Riad Dar Najat Hotel Marrakech”:

The first result is a link to the official hotel website. Here is an example of the brand emphasis working. I think most people would agree that a brand should rank first for its name.

Next, nearly half of the results are from the TripAdvisor brand. TripAdvisor is a good site and a strong brand, but here the emphasis on brands has gone incredibly wrong. We have 4-5 links to the exact same content, providing no additional value to the user. Looks spammy to me.

Then, two of the results are for Google’s own properties. No brand is stronger than Google on the Internet but, just looking at things from the consumer perspective - how does linking to a Google “Places” page with no helpful or original content, or a YouTube video with no helpful or original content, ever help the end user? Looks spammy to me.

THE SLOW DECLINE OF THE WEB ECOSYSTEM

When Google launched Panda, they openly stated that:

"Google depends on the high-quality content created by wonderful websites around the world, and we do have a responsibility to encourage a healthy web ecosystem. Therefore, it is important for high-quality sites to be rewarded, and that’s exactly what this change does.”

In fact, I would argue that Panda, combined with Google’s insistence on brand hegemony, is in fact causing tremendous damage to the web ecosystem.

The search results are now dominated by powerful brands, often with low quality or duplicate pages, often at the expense of search quality and user experience.

Independent sites and personal blogs with unique information are much more difficult to find now. The first page of results now has 3-4 “real” results, when before it used to have 10.

The travel searcher loses out because 75% of the results they are getting are basically spam or regurgitating the same information.

The web loses out because thousands independent websites honestly attempting to provide unique, high-quality information are not getting any feedback on why their sites were penalized. They are going out of business while Google turns a deaf, hypocritical ear, and brand spam continues to pollute the results.

THE FUTURE

Google faces a tremendously difficult problem with spam, and I don’t claim to have any easy answers. I wish I could say “Just use Bing”, but their results often suffer from the same brand blindness (10/20 of the first results link to the same content).

What I do know, though, is that brands are not always the answer, especially when they crowd out a diversity of independent, higher-quality information.

The message that Google is sending is that “duplicate”, “unoriginal”, and “low quality” content will get you penalized - unless you are a large brand or Google itself.

I also know that the web-ecosystem is suffering tremendously as a result, because, like it or not, for most people the web is Google.