If you've noticed a recent change when you do an Internet search using Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), you're not alone. Google is trying to improve the quality of the results it delivers to Web searchers -- and in a major way.

Google is so focused on search result quality that they're paying extra attention to items they believe negatively impact search results, including so-called "content farms" like Associated Content and eHow, as well as the practice of paying for links to help a site boost its Google rankings. So while people won't necessarily change how they use Google to search the Web, if Google has its way, what users get back from Google is going to be markedly different.

In the search field, there is a term known as the "long tail," which is somewhat subjective. But let's say for a moment that we're talking about searches with three or more words in the query. Such searches have been steadily rising in frequency and often generate results from content farms that are able to churn out lots of content of questionable quality.

Content farms typically leverage user-generated content, non-paid content contributors, or outsource content creation to low-cost producers. The result is often vapid and poorly produced. Very often, searchers see these content farms ranking prominently for long tail searches, but Google would argue that searchers aren't necessarily finding what they're looking for when they select these results.

For Google, the solution to this problem was to rewrite its search algorithm to lower the relevance of these large content farms, and allow smaller niche sites to flourish on many of these long-tail searches. This change affected 12 percent of Google's U.S. search results, and although searchers may not easily recognize these changes, they are certain to have a significant impact on the user experience.

Among online marketers, it's common knowledge that links are the gold standard for getting a site to rank high on the non-sponsored Google listings. This is the reason that many online marketers spend so much time and money trying to acquire links to content from other sites. To simplify a major part of Google's strategy in revising its algorithm, a page with a lot of links from other sites and pages around the Web must be relevant to users.

Links have become so important that companies will pay webmasters to place links on their websites to key pages in an effort to get those pages ranked highly on common Google searches. What's more is that this tactic worked so well that for the last few months of 2010, JC Penney ranked No. 1 on Google for search terms like "dresses," "bedding," and "area rugs" because of a campaign that involved paying webmasters to place thousands of links to JC Penney Web pages. That is, until Google caught JC Penney and, unlike its method for dealing with content farms, decided to manually and very publically correct the problem -- in the New York Times, no less.

A week later, Overstock.com took a hit on their Google rankings for keywords they had dominated, such as "laptop computers," as a result of offering discounts to college students and employees for placing links to Overstock Web pages.

Since Google's corrective action, there has been a massive drop in search rankings for both JC Penney and Overstock, along with a very public shaming of these companies and their link building practices. This has led many other online marketers to change or carefully reconsider their link building tactics, if not drop them altogether.

For searchers, the results are less obvious, and it will likely take longer to realize as online marketers adjust how they approach optimizing their sites for Google. These circumstances are likely to favor large brands that tend to get lots of links and mentions in social media platforms naturally. At the same time, the changes will have a decidedly inverse impact on those sites that have traditionally had to invest in links to show both searchers and Google that they offer products for which they may not be well known (e.g., "laptop computers" for Overstock).

For those who remember search 10 years ago, the landscape of irrelevant search results was what pushed so many users to Google and cemented Google as the place to go for online information. And now, like the search engines back then, Google must work to maintain its quality as the Web grows larger and larger. While it's still not totally clear whether these changes will improve the searcher's experience, it's certain that the results searchers obtain will be different and the methodologies by which Google identifies what it considers to be content farms or web spam are far more advanced. Searchers should expect to see less uniform results filled with sites like Associated Content or eHow, and more niche sites related to their search queries. These changes are indeed major to Search Marketers and will affect how websites show relevancy to Google, and in the long-term results searchers see.


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Jeff MacGurn is the director of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) at San Diego-based Covario, a venture-backed software and search marketing services firm.