What happened?Google has taken aim at sites that cynically use search engine optimization (SEO) to push themselves to the top of results pages. SEO is the practice of using specific words and HTML code that Google looks for when ranking sites in search results.
Google said it would tweak its algorithm - the complicated recipe it uses to find and rank sites- to favor those with quality content that didn't rank as high because they didn't use SEO tactics. Meanwhile, it would punish those that sneakily pack their website with keywords and other optimization tools, purely to push themselves up the rankings.
"The idea is basically to try to level the playing ground," said Matt Cutts, Google's head of search. The change follows the Panda update last year, which saw Google target so-called 'content farms'- sites that reuse or even steal content from others in order to attract advertising.
Google also said it will include semantic tools in its search. This means it will try to understand the meaning of the words in the questions you ask, and answer your query directly, rather than focus on finding sites containing matching keywords and links.
This already happens for some popular topics, including air fares, mathematical equations, scores for major sports events and weather forecasts (see screen photo, below), but Google will now use it more widely.
How will it affect you?As these changes roll out, you should see better search results, which is exactly why you use Google in the first place. You won't have to sift through so many junk sites to find what you're looking for, while web pages that don't look as professional, but have more original content, will be rewarded with more visitors.
The semantic update means Google will return more answers at the top of the results page, so you won't need to click a link that takes you to another site. For example, the question: "What is the world's longest river?" could produce answers on the search page, saving you having to click a link to Wikipedia.
However, it won't affect every search you make. The Wall Street Journal cited Google sources as saying the change will only apply to between 10 and 20 per cent of queries.
What do we think?It's about time. Google is a brilliant tool, but it's annoying to click a link in a search result and be taken to a page of spam content. SEO experts won't welcome the change, but they'll quickly unpick the algorithm tweaks and figure out how the new system works. Google needs to stay ahead of those abusing the system, but also needs to work with honest website owners and SEO experts to reward those who are doing good work, rather than punishing them with confusing changes every few months.
The semantic search changes seem innocuous, but one of the wonderful aspects about the web is the ability to check sources. We hope Google makes it clear where the information in its answers comes from, and continues bringing up links in the results so we can look for alternative sources.