Google's Panda update could bring down paywalls

Google has installed updates to its page rank algorithm that should highlight quality web content over search engine optimised (SEO) garble and promote quality journalism without paywalls.

Google's Panda update was rolled out on the firm's English language search engine on 11 April, with the firm claiming that it will produce search results that favour high quality websites, not ones that rely heavily on SEO. Now results from web analytics firm Searchmetrics show that some of the UK's most popular websites have suffered significant declines in Google visibility.

Visibility on a search engine is a metric used to gauge how close to the top a particular website appears when particular keywords are entered. Searchmetrics CEO Horst Joepen told The INQUIRER that websites that have low search engine visibility appear farther down in search rankings and are seen by fewer web users, adding that it would be "very bad" for website traffic.

Joepen said that Searchmetric's tests showed that some price comparison websites fared particularly badly in its visibility tests with Google's Panda algorithm. His firm reported visibility drops of up to 98 per cent, with Joepen saying that the declines were so great that the firm had to manually double check the validity of its algorithm.

When Google announced its Panda update the search giant claimed that less weight would be placed on websites that implement SEO, or in simple terms, binge on keywords. Google now says that quality, not quantity of keywords, is what it looks for, a claim that is backed up by Searchmetric's tests.

Searchmetric has found that the time users spend on a particular website now plays a significant role in where it is ranked. Jeopen said that "the pressure on the [publishing] industry is to avoid SEO keywords" but added that Google might need to re-evaulate its algorithm as it has caused "collateral damage" to some websites.

Jeopen also said that Google's changes could mean a return to quality content being ranked near the top of Google's results. More than that, Jeopen's comments suggest that paywalls might not be the way to fund high quality journalism, despite what Times' owner Rupert Murdoch keeps banging on about.

If Google's new algorithm places greater weight on quality content then Advertsing revenue should be able to fund good journalism. Jeopen mentioned one Searchmetrics client that had erected a paywall only to find that it blocked Google's web spider, causing the website to slide down in Google's rankings.

Google's Panda update has now resulted in significant differences in the web search results offered up by Google and Bing. Jeopen said that Searchmetrics had seen this but did not carry out the same level of research because "Bing has so little market share" in Europe.

So it seems the SEO journalism market that Google created is the very same one it is trying to unravel. Good writers will breathe a sigh of relief when they realise they don't have to carve up stories and apply irrelevant SEO tricks to get them seen by readers using Google

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