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A small victory against the info-parasites of the Web

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Feb. 26, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
February 25, 2011 6:04 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

There are horses on the Web, and there are ticks. Google last week made life a little harder for the ticks.

The world-dominant search engine announced Thursday that it had overhauled its algorithm – the way it processes queries – to brush more of the parasites out of its search results. This is a small victory in a much larger war.

People who use Google – and that means the vast majority of people online – have been plagued by junk websites that muscle their way ahead of genuinely informative ones.

Search for a doctor, and you may wind up on an ad-saturated site that merely scraped the doctor’s name off some other site – and doesn’t tell you anything you need to know. Hit after hit provides similar results. If you’re lucky, somewhere far down the list is the actual website of the clinic.

Results like that get frustrating in a hurry. Nor are they accidental. Large, highly profitable companies exist solely to game Google’s algorithm and place content-free, auto-generated pages at the top of the hit parade.

Demand Media, for example, has struck it rich tricking Google into putting eHow and similarly skimpy sites on the first page of a search.

But even Demand Media looks good compared to outfits that assemble text almost at random to generate as many key words as possible. Your search terms lead you to the site and there’s nothing real there – except advertising.

Google itself makes big money off Web traffic, regardless of whether users are being driven to junkyards or real information. Many suspect it hasn’t been eager to solve the problem for fear of hurting its revenues. Last week’s fix looks like a serious effort to dispel those suspicions.

The larger war pits people who produce valuable information – breaking news, for example – against websites that scoop up their original work, post it and profit from the parasitism.

The Huffington Post, for example, has been an especially successful tick. Its strategy involves paraphrasing and condensing original articles, including all the essential information so that no one feels the need to follow the links to the media that paid for the original reporting or analysis.

Ultimately, it’s a self-defeating strategy. If the parasite sucks enough blood out of the host, the host dies – and there goes the parasite’s living. In the short term, though, it pays to be the tick.

The battle over Google’s algorithm is a microcosm of the big conflict.

“This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites …” company officials blogged last week. “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.”

That’s the hope, anyway. If the Web doesn’t reward original content, a large chunk of the human race may wind up on a diet of brain spam.

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