Lots of websites churn out thousands of low-quality articles for the online ad revenue. Google's not too happy about these so-called content farms showing up in your search results, so recently it struck back.
On Feb. 24, the Internet giant changed the formula it uses to generate search results, with a change code named "Panda." Now, when you search for, say, a leather sofa, your results look very different from the way they looked two months ago: They are largely the same results, but in a different order.
This new ordering of Google's search results is having some serious real-life consequences.
There's an expression, 80 percent of success is showing up. Well, Mitch Lieberman says that it's just not true. "It's a matter of who appears before the other one," he says.
Lieberman has a corner office on New York's Long Island. He sells furniture. In his business, though, there's no warehouse. He's the middleman, aggregating, say, couches, from more than one manufacturer in one place online — think Amazon for chairs and tables. It's called One Way Furniture. And if your entire store is online, then visibility in search results is everything.
A few days after Feb. 24, Lieberman got an email. "Someone, a competitor of mine actually, sent me a list," he says. "It showed that One Way Furniture was in the top 100 for the biggest drop, you know, in rankings."
Immediately, Lieberman pulled up his traffic numbers. He found that two-thirds of his customers had disappeared.
"As days went by, and I saw that dip in the graph was holding — and it was a cliff — it was really a shocking drop," he says. "My first reaction was not to panic, try to find articles related to this Panda update. What is it about?"
Lieberman formed a support group of sorts with other competitors who'd been badly hit by the change. They called and emailed back and forth, desperate to parse Google's intent.
"Kind of like the Fed chairman," he says. "When he speaks, everybody listens for every single word that he's saying, looking for hints and clues."
It took a few weeks, but Lieberman came up with a plan. "I decided I can't dig deeper than what's on the surface," he says. "Google is saying over and over again: 'Content. It's related to content.' That's where I need to shift my focus."
Indeed, the Google update was aimed at pushing low-quality content out of top search results.
Lieberman figures the main reason his site got caught in the dragnet is that he pulls product descriptions from other manufacturers — so Google's new formula thinks the writing on his site isn't original.
"We all wanted to believe it was something else," he says. "Because rewriting the content is a tremendous task, when you have 35,000 pages."
All those pages showcase dozens of individual pieces of furniture. Lauren Fernstrom is one of the writers tasked with rewriting the product descriptions of each of these items. She writes 20 in an hour. (That's three minutes per item.) And the rewrites cost Lieberman about $1 per barstool. But each item on the site — and there are a lot of them — gets the makeover.
"We want to give it more romance," he says. "We want customers to imagine sitting on [a] warm summer's day, drinking their favorite beverage, sitting on that particular stool."
This is not the only change Lieberman will have to make. He's looking at possible furloughs or cuts.
Google controls 70 percent of search in this country. Was this its intent? That a furniture seller romance each bar stool?
In a word, yes.
"The sites that do put a little bit more individual care and attention and work into the content of their site — whether it be a product description, or a blog post," says Matt Cutts, Google's lead engineer on the Panda update, "those are the ones that users tend to prefer a little bit more and appreciate."
Cutts says it's unfortunate, but these are the breaks. An algorithm doesn't make exceptions.
So Lieberman will be paying outside contractors like Fernstrom a buck a description for the rest of the summer. She's got to be on her game.
"The best thing to do is take a deep breath before you move on to every product," she says.
So far, 7,000 descriptions are in, with 25,000 to go. Google will re-rank One Way Furniture, or not, in the next few months.