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Want Google to Get Tough on Mills and Other MFA Sites Spamming Their Rankings? Now You Can!

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You know my thoughts on content mills. You know I'm pissed that Google has so far allowed these MFA (made-for-adsense) sites to spam their rankings using tactics that would have smaller independent publishers penalized in a heartbeat (and that's been the case for years). They didn't pay attention when we brought up the issues in writing communities. But now that the tech segment is on the issue too -- sick of the same old mill-style spam littering their rankings -- Google is suddenly paying attention.

They've released a new extension (thanks to Tamar from Techipedia for bringing it up on Twitter) for users of the Chrome browser. When you install the extension you'll see a new link in your Google search results. It allows you to block a site.

Why This is Good

  1. You can block sites that you personally do not want to see in your results -- bidding sites, blogs you frequently see but don't want to read, answer sites, etc. It's all personal and on an individual basis doesn't affect the sites in question.
  2. Google can use the feedback on a massive scale to see what sites are being blocked by a large percentage of users. This will give them a better idea of what's really spam or an MFA site as opposed to content people really do trust and want to see in their results.

Kinds of Sites You Might Block

This doesn't just apply to content mills as we tend to think of them in the freelance writing world. It applies to any sites that game the system for rankings and Adsense revenue or ones that frequently contain spammy content written for links. Here are some examples of sites based on ones I personally blocked:

  1. eHow.com
  2. Suite101.com
  3. AssociatedContent.com
  4. HubPages.com
  5. Squidoo.com
  6. Helium.com
  7. Examiner.com
  8. Experts-Exchange.com
  9. WiseGeek.com

What I consider spam in my SERPS (search engine ranking pages) certainly doesn't have to mirror your own standards. You might be fine with some of those sites, especially if you write for them. I consider the majority of the content there crap and their tactics to fall squarely in the MFA site classification, so I don't want to see them regardless of whether or not there is occasionally decent material available. You might be sick of seeing things like Wikipedia entries, dictionary sites, or answer sites like Yahoo! Answers.

There's no guarantee Google will finally take a strong stand against these larger MFA sites (especially since they profit from the ads there too), but for once they're finally willing to listen. And hey, if nothing else you no longer have to see sites you don't want to see in your own listings. Well, if you use Chrome at least....

29 thoughts on “Want Google to Get Tough on Mills and Other MFA Sites Spamming Their Rankings? Now You Can!”

  1. Oh yay!! It drives me nuts when I am doing research in my niche that even with the best of keyword search techniques, I constantly have to wade through the garbage.

    Thanks for sharing (especially what MFA meant-funny, I was thinking something else). 😀

    Reply
  2. I don’t have Chrome, yet. But, having the ability to block ehow, alone, would make it worth it. Completely. That site comes up pretty much every single time I use the search engines.

    Reply
    • There might be ways to block it in other browsers through their own extensions. I’m just thrilled that Google’s going to get to see what people block overall so sites people regularly want removed can be dealt with as the spam sites they are. Other plugins probably won’t have that benefit. Of course for any of it to matter people need to start using the extension.

      Reply
  3. In my world, MFA is a graduate degree meaning Master of Fine Arts! Thanks for the laugh and for the great information. I don’t know if I’ll use Chrome all the time, but I have definitely installed that extension just to help weed through the garbage when I’m doing serious research.

    Reply
    • lol Yeah, very different meaning on the Web. MFA sites were talked about a lot maybe 3-4 years ago when there were crack-downs. When people stopped talking about them, these bigger MFA sites came up — with decent funding early on they could grow so quickly that they didn’t look like your normal Joe Schmo’s MFA site (often in simple blog format). The problem is that they’re big enough that they can independently manipulate rankings by connecting several of their sites.

      Glad to hear you installed it. Even if you don’t use it all the time, setting up the block list at least sends your feedback to Google.

      Reply
      • That’s exactly why I took the time to download and figure it out this afternoon. I’ll probably stick with Firefox for now, but whenever a mill catches my eye (besides the ones you already listed), I’ll jump over there and add it to my list. I get sooooo sick of wasting time weeding through the trash.

        Reply
        • Awesome to know people are getting in there and using it. 🙂 I have to admit I still like Firefox better in some ways. But I had to stop using it. It would overheat my system (not a common problem, but on searching I found I was far from the only one). I played with their newer versions and it ran more smoothly. But I’ve been spoiled by Chrome’s speed in the meantime. If Chrome could give me the “real” Google Toolbar, it would be the perfect browser. They keep claiming it has all the functionality built in, but it doesn’t — namely the word find feature which was far superior in the toolbar. 🙁

          Reply
  4. I don’t get why, with all the hate for these content mills, there isn’t a similar attack on the Huffington Post/Patch. Both are super-low paying or none at all, and rarely provide anything of value.

    Reply
    • I haven’t seen any love for either of them here. HuffPo isn’t really relevant to our audience so we have little need to talk about them when others are blatantly targeting new and naive writers with outright lies — a far bigger issue in my eyes. There are plenty of sites we don’t talk about. That doesn’t imply support of the sites or their policies with regards to writers. And the last I heard Patch was still paying far more than most of these gigs — $50 per article is what they advertised here previously for example, and that’s a far cry from the $15 Demand pays and the unpaid work or $5 gigs out there. It’s a major step up for a lot of these new writers. That said, I still don’t personally consider Patch to be a good move or a good deal for the writers. But we have to draw the line somewhere. And when we’re talking about newbies looking for a start, I’m perfectly fine with $50 per article gigs over the things eHow puts out. In the end, what they choose to accept is on the writers. They’ll succeed or fail based on the decisions they make. I just want the crap out of my search results.

      Reply
  5. I think this is called “free competition”. Instead of banning these websites, it is the responsibility of Google to make their algorithm more intelligent. Hey, IBM can make a machine intelligent enough to compete in Jeopardy, right? Why can’t Google make theirs more intelligent to detect MFA’s????

    Banning is different from pushing the websites down the ranking order. With banning, you are not giving the websites anymore chance to improve or perhaps change their platform so they become more relevant. How can you climb up the ranking abyss if your website has been banned due to a perception of “low quality” content?

    The fact that “garbage” is showing up at the top of search results, means that Google’s ranking system is flawed. So put the task on Google.

    Reply
    • Putting the task on Google is exactly what this extension helps to do. The issue isn’t that they don’t tweak the algorithm to go after MFA sites. They have for years. But the site owners get smarter over time and work to make the sites look more legit. It’s when the idiot CEO and staff open their mouths and blatantly admit to the real motives and design that the MFA classification becomes clearer. And it’s not on Google to monitor everything that comes out of their mouths. Spammers have found ways to beat the algorithms since the start of search engines. That’s why they constantly change. Did Google drop the ball on this one? Sure. It’s been brought to their attention for a solid 2-3 years now. They only paid attention when it came from the tech community.

      And yes, they do have a chance to improve. Being banned from Google doesn’t mean they can’t get back in. Like every other webmaster they can fix the problems and request reconsideration. This is nothing new. Google has manually banned sites for even less (like directories a couple of years back on a somewhat mass scale). eHow and similar site are not above the rules the rest of us have to play by. And if Google wants to have a heavy hand with independent publishers who game the system and try to manipulate results, then they damn well better do the same with the big guys if they want to survive as a search engine in the long run. Right now they’re leaving the door wide open for some young buck — kind of like their takeover of Yahoo!’s results — back in the day people didn’t see that coming either.

      Google’s responsibility is to stop serving crap. The mill’s responsibility is stop whipping it up. Otherwise neither will survive. And as of now, that’s a-ok by me.

      Reply
  6. Hello Jennifer –
    I love your site. I truly do. I owe part of my success to you. So let me begin by thanking you. However, (there it is, the “BUT” of this relationship), I also owe part of my success to content farms. It’s sad. I know I know. And to be honest, I get annoyed myself when I’m trying to write for the content sites – because I need to go through pages of search engines before I find a reputable source. But, your post stung. Just a little. It only hurt because a large part of my career is devoted to these mills. I am using them as a leaping point, and other offers are beginning to trickle in, but I’ve only been doing this for two months – I am using eHow to pay my weekly bills while I try to sell myself to more reputable companies. It’s working. A lot of us do it this way. So, you hurt me just a little. I only commented because your blog is often an inspiration for me – but today I was a little scared, a little hurt, and a lot worried for my future career. What do you think about my future?

    Reply
    • I’m sorry you feel personally hurt Rebecca, but the article isn’t personal. The simple truth is that the vast majority of content from these sites is garbage in my eyes (and I’m hardly the only one who feels that way). I know the motivation. I’ve heard it right from the horse’s mouth. I’m always baffled when I see writers for Demand come to their defense with “no, it’s not like that!” stories when yes, yes it is. Your CEO admits it when he’s interviewed.

      Personally I wish you all the best. But as for your future I’d say if you succeed it will be in spite of content mills, not because of them. Two months for other offers to trickle in is a long time. And a few offers isn’t a big deal unless they lead to even better gigs later — even longer in the process. You can do better with other approaches. We showed that when I coached a DS writer and had her earning more than they paid her for a fraction of the work in two weeks. Just. Two. Weeks. No one has to write for mills. It’s not an ideal starting place for newer writers. And when you work for them you do so knowing that you’re putting your reputation at risk — if you associate with the garbage they publish it can hurt your professional reputation no matter how good your own material is there. Been there. Done that. The fact that a lot of people think Demand is a good stepping point doesn’t speak to its validity. It speaks more to Demand’s marketing ability in sucking people in. And we’ve covered the lies they use to do that previously.

      I’m glad it’s working out for you, and I hope you’re free of them and on to better things soon. But there will always be better, and faster, ways to build a freelance writing career. Some people like mills because it’s easy — low barriers to entry and quick pay. Some choose them because they fall for the hype. Others are hobbyists who just want to see their name published somewhere (and for that group mills are probably a good option). Regardless this post isn’t about the position of writers. It’s the MFA nature of the sites and how that means they should be out of our search rankings. They’re not above the rules because they pay their writers. If a site is all about the ad revenue and writing for search engines, that’s a spam site according to Google’s guidelines. That’s what Demand does. Writing for readers means writing one great article on a topic. Not a bunch of extremely vague ones with slightly different keywords but the same basic content because they want to rank for all versions and get the corresponding ad revenue. In the end, that’s an MFA / spam site. If people choose to associate their professional careers with that kind of buyer, that’s on them. Many will move on. And others will burn out and kill their freelance careers there, just as they’ve been doing for years. I sincerely hope you’re in the former group. [Wow – major typo… meant “former” not “latter.” lol Really do wish you best!]

      Reply
    • Hi Rebecca,

      If Jenn will let me interject a point – I think the “hurt” you’re feeling is a reflection of how you feel working for a content mill. You even apologize a bit for it in your post here. You don’t like working there, so this post about how to ban these sites from searches felt personal. It wasn’t, obviously, but you’re trying to justify in your own head working for so little.

      My own view of your future? I think you’re better than this. I think you’re able to work for a better quality of clients, and I think you’ll do well once you convince yourself to aim higher. I know former mill writers who have done it. So can you.

      Reply
      • That seems to happen a lot actually when it comes to the content mill conversations. A lot of people working for them take very impersonal comments personally. I can talk about something right out of the CEO’s mouth and someone will take it personally as an attack on their own articles somehow. We can talk about the problems with the so-called health insurance they offered (from a licensed insurance professional nonetheless) and someone will take it personally.

        Unless I call out something you personally wrote and say “this is an example of the crap I don’t want showing up in my search results,” there is nothing personal about it. I do that rarely — an example being the article on how to get away with illegal drug use (supposedly against their terms yet I found when it was “removed” it was really just published at a different URL on the site later — guess they weren’t giving up the ad revenue over ethics). Knowing the kind of material they’re willing to publish for ad revenue, I’m always baffled that otherwise decent writers willingly associate their own reputation with this company. It makes me wonder if they really research the sites they’ll be writing for before they start collecting the pay sometimes.

        I don’t have to like the business model. I don’t have to like the vast majority of content on the site. I think many writers make poor business decisions regarding mills, but that doesn’t mean I’m saying they don’t know how to write. But for some reason any attack on mills seems to be taken personally these days. And they’re usually not. I even go out of my way here to mention that they could be a good option for certain groups and that not all of the content is crap. Even in this post I don’t say “all” content there is crap. Yet people reading it associate w/ the sub-par content I’m talking about instead of the exceptions, so they take offence. That happens in almost every one of these conversations where Demand comes up (and occasionally with other mill-style sites). And I think that says a lot.

        Reply
  7. I use Chrome, but I probably won’t use the extension. I need to have a clear idea of how competing sites fare in Google search and how their search terms rank.

    Google needs another way to tweak the algorithm to weed out content mills because this extension has flaws. For example, a content mill with hundreds of writers could easily exploit the system to get rid of competitors. Sort of the same way certain companies don’t let you use competitors as references no matter how credible they may be. The biggest thing they could look for is awkward keywords phrases within a document. Sure users are searching for this stuff, but no legitimate website is going to force that keyword phrase to fit, not even by putting quotes around it.

    Reply
    • Valid point about their ability to exploit the system. At the same time I think most would be exposed fairly quickly if they tried any kind of organized action. There are plenty of writers at these mills who aren’t completely happy with them and they forward the emails and screenshots of forums posts when people try to incite any kind of mob mentality — happened after that PBS piece recently and quite a while back when a mouthpiece tried to pull something similar using their forum. So they might try, but I doubt they’d get away with it for long. And I’d be surprised if they made up a large enough percentage of total users to manipulate the extension altogether.

      Not sure how much it helps, but from my testing they don’t just bump other sites up. They simply let you know some results are blocked. So for example if you ranked 12 for a keyword and three blocked sites are in the results, you still show up at #12. There are simply fewer visible links on the first page. So in that sense tracking more legitimate competition is still very feasible with the extension active.

      Reply
  8. Squidoo??? The others OK, but Squidoo? Yes, there are some bad apples on there (and a team of volunteers are working to eradicate them), but there are also lots of good people too. Heck, Seth Godin owns it, and gives half the earnings to charity.

    Reply
    • If including things like Hubpages, Squidoo falls right in line. The simple fact is that Squidoo never fully recovered from the spam abuses. A few years ago I’d agree with you completely. Now? Not so much. Most lenses I come across are absolute garbage — just republished content from their own sites, extremely shallow content in general, and a bunch of ads. Are there exceptions? Sure. There are exceptions on all of these sites. But that doesn’t mean I want to see them in my search results given the basic quality issues I come across. You don’t have to agree with me. You don’t have to block that site. I made it very clear in my post that I don’t expect every reader’s list to match mine. The list was full of examples I personally chose to block (which I said in the article) — not a list of things I’m telling others to.

      Reply
  9. Jennifer, I’m certainly not trying to start a fight. I’m just puzzled by your response. As I said there is some junk there (which they’re trying hard to get rid of), but I certainly wouldn’t put it in the same class as e-how or associated content. Google stuffed cabbage for instance, and the first result is a lovely Squidoo page about how the person’s grandma made stuffed cabbage, recipes, family photos, etc. It’s a labor of love and it’s very well done.

    No site is going to be perfect and free from junk, but I don’t think we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    Reply
    • There’s a simple solution. Don’t block the site on your account. As I’ve said multiple times, your list doesn’t have to match my own. What you search for — and therefore the results you see most frequently — doesn’t necessarily match what I search for. Most content I come across from these sites in my typical searches is utter garbage. That’s what matters — not the fact that there might be gems in there. If people want to focus on a labor of love they can always start their own site and have it ranked based on nothing but their own work. If it’s junk, it’s blocked; if it’s solid, it stays. When they choose to associate with massive sites that knowingly publish a lot of crap in the mix, getting blocked is a risk they take.

      Reply
  10. I wouldn’t remove the first site in your classification from serps.. because they sometimes offer valuable results (of course, some articles are written just for getting some more traffic and ads).
    Anyway, I guess you are perfectly right, some will think a site is usefull some will not.. so it’s up for the search engine users to choose which sites should be removed from their serps.

    Reply
    • The first site is the worst of them all. If you actually pay attention to the people behind the site, they prove the site’s MFA status beyond any doubt. If any site deserves to be penalized, it’s them. They and their owning company are what started much of this issue in the first place. So, to be frank, that site doesn’t even deserve to be up for a “vote.” Whether or not anyone approves of the site, they blatantly violate Google’s guidelines — the same kinds of violations that have gotten other sites penalized for years. And as long as that’s the case (and if Google were doing their job), they’d be penalized regardless of any extension data collected. Other sites weren’t put up for a vote when Google slammed directories and websites using ad models they didn’t approve of, and many of those sites were far higher quality than anything owned by Demand.

      Reply
  11. I’m putting this update here in regards to search engines and mills, in case anyone is interested.

    Google just announced a new algorithm; it is not based on the Chrome extension data, but they said the lists do match well. I don’t know if this can be html enabled (or not), but here is that link: http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2011/02/finding-more-high-quality-sites-in.html

    Also, there was an article in the Atlantic where they tested the new algorithm vs the old and found most of the content mills are removed. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/02/testing-googles-new-algorithm-it-really-is-better/71720/

    About time, google.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the update Sarah. This algorithm update sounds like it’s more targeted to sites with duplicate content. I see no change when it comes to the major problem of large blatant MFA sites however (the ones that have violated the guidelines for years and that should have been dealt with manually long ago — like all the independent sites they penalized over the years — rather than relying on an algorithm change at all).

      Reply
    • The Atlantic article notes a decrease in rankings for eHow for example, yet I’m still finding them in the #1 and #2 spot for several searches. When a site is MFA, it needs to be penalized in its entirety in order to keep the owners playing by the same rules as the rest of us — not selectively for different niches like health where there are orgs like the CDC to replace them. That doesn’t tell people to stop gaming the system. It just tells them to game the system in different niches.

      Reply

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