Google has arguably been the worst enemy of working journalists for the last decade, but now the tide is turning and the search giant is trying to repair the damage it has done. It deserves our patience and understanding as it continues on a course that hopefully will revitalize journalism as a career and rescue hundreds of thousands of freelancers who have seen their livelihoods damaged by the monster Google unwittingly created.
A little historical background: Google changed human behavior, which is a pretty big deal when you think about it. Before it burst upon the scene in the latter days of the first dot-com bubble, people mostly browsed for information. Today we default to search because it’s a better way to find stuff. Thank Google for that.
But one of the weaknesses of all search engines going back to Lycos is their dependence upon keywords. Spammers have always used keyword tricks to game search engines, but Google’s enormous influence gave birth to large companies that do nothing but vomit forth keyword-laden text, the sole purpose of which was to drive traffic through Google search results. We’re looking at you, Demand Media.
The Ascendance of ‘Top 10’ Lists
The growing influence of keywords has diminished the importance of content quality. Why pay for professional writers when you can get the same or better results by employing interns or offshore body shops that write to formulas defined by keyword frequency? The reason you see so many “top 10” lists and tip sheets online is because they perform well in search results, people click on the links a lot and they’re cheap to produce. We don’t think Google intended for this to happen; it just worked out that way.
Many capable writers have seen pay rates plummet by 75% or more over the last five years as publishers have pushed quantity over quality. The only way you can make a living at 25 cents a word is to churn out a lot of them. These journalism serfs are the real victims of the collapse of print media. They’re skilled professionals whose livelihoods have been stolen by publishers who make no distinction between writing and typing.
Now Google is throwing them a lifeline. With the release of its Panda search algorithm last year, Google made its first strong statements that it’s cracking down on keyword farms. Last month’s release of the Hummingbird algorithm continues a campaign to elevate the value of quality content in search results and penalize formulaic gamesmanship.
For example, officials sent the PR industry into tizzy by stating that press releases can no longer be used to juice search performance, calling them “link schemes” and “advertisements.” Executives have made it clear that their mission is to deliver search results that most closely match what the user is looking for, not just those that have the right keyword combinations.
Writing on Forbes.com, Joshua Steimle summed up Hummingbird thusly:
If you’re the best at what you do, these updates Google has been rolling out are opportunities to separate yourself from your competition. [Your competitors] may have been engaging in spammy tactics to get good rankings, but if you’ve been focusing on creating content that provides real value to potential customers, their days are numbered.
People like Mike Moran, who really understand search engines, have said for years that the only true search optimization is quality content. Google is finally speaking the same language.
So what does this mean for journalists? We think it’s all good. Marketers, who are hiring increasing numbers of journalists to stoke their content marketing efforts, are going to have to step up their game. They’ll need better content, which means hiring better writers who charge higher rates. Publishers will also need to re-examine the merits of paying for quality content instead of publishing anything turned in by someone with a pulse.
Does Google’s strategy point to the rebirth of traditional news organizations? Sadly, that horse is already out of the barn. But it does indicate that the days of search engine gamesmanship are numbered and that quality is going to count for something again.
Google can’t change the way search has commoditized news and diminished the value of media brands, but that’s only partially its fault. In any case, it’s hard to feel sorry for the rich executives who have seen their bonuses cut amid falling profits.
The victims we feel sorry for are the career beat reporters who couldn’t anticipate the seismic shifts in their field and who were ill-equipped to adapt. Perhaps their fortunes are finally about to change.
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