Perhaps it was the early hour—maybe the panelists hadn’t had their morning coffee yet—but the mood seemed subdued at the “Quality, Quantity, and Mass Content” session at Thursday’s paidContent conference—and some of its participants seemed defensive.

In the day’s agenda, the panel promised to address the question, “When a business can be damaged by a flick of the Google algorithm and when everything is SEOd to the max, what’s the advantage of mass content?” ZDNet editor in chief Larry Dignan, moderator of the discussion, started out with the recent announcement by Google that its search engine algorithm had been tweaked to suppress site-scraping and low-quality content.

Dignan said that he had not seen much change in his sites’ traffic, and the rest of the panel said much of the same. Lewis Dvorkin, CPO at Forbes, said that it was too early to tell how it would affect traffic, but that he didn’t really waste too much time thinking about it. Reuters president Chris Ahearn said that he was still waiting to hear how their client sites were faring after the change. Jason Rapp, president of Mahalo, which produces educational videos for the web, expressed long-term optimism but conceded that the company did make some immediate layoffs in response to the hit their posts took in traffic.

The head of Yahoo’s Contributor Network, a.k.a. Associated Content, Luke Beatty, said that he’s seen a third of the content in the network pushed up by the algorithm switch, and two-thirds of it pushed down. Since that content is contributed by—and promoted online by—freelancers, the fate of each post rests on the authors. “It’s really about how the contributors are managing their library, for them it’s very significant,” said Beatty. Translation: if the individual writers aren’t putting the effort into bringing readers to their posts—through SEO, through Facebook, through Twitter—then they’re not going to get the clicks.

A blog post by Google’s Amit Singhal and Matt Cutts last week announcing the algorithm fix was titled “Finding more high-quality sites in search.” An excerpt:

Google depends on the high-quality content created by wonderful websites around the world, and we do have a responsibility to encourage a healthy web ecosystem. Therefore, it is important for high-quality sites to be rewarded, and that’s exactly what this change does.

High-quality. But what does that mean? For that matter, is the label “content farm” fair? Is SEO an underhanded enterprise, or does it help readers find exactly what they’re looking for? If we search on Google for “What time does the Super Bowl start?”, will we actually be disappointed when we are directed to a post on HuffPo that answers our question?

So after the panel’s slightly somber start, Dignan asked the group to help define “quality content,” and to opine on “whether we’re comfortable outsourcing the judging of it to Google.” What’s good, and who gets to decide? Can an algorithm be the arbiter of taste?

Yahoo’s Beatty answered first: “I think quality has to rest in the hands of the consumer, and in the editor that’s reviewing the piece,” he said. “It’s on a content by content basis.” He added that the definition of quality for a piece of news will be very different for the definition of quality for an evergreen piece, like a recipe, for instance. Consumers will decide whether it’s useful to them, and editors will decide whether the contributions that come in meet their standards.

Mahalo’s Rapp said that he saw quality differently; being an educational company, he thought of a piece as high-quality if a viewer had learned something by watching or reading it—how to play a song on the guitar, or how to solve a math problem, for instance. For him, “quality” is synonymous with “expertise.”

News, of course, does not have a long shelf life, said Ahearn. So at Reuters, quality is defined by whether a reader can act on a piece of news: whether they trust its accuracy and its ethics. Ahearn added that he is thinking about ways to include more freelancers and contributors to be part of their network, to expand their reach.

“I’ve been looking at the Demand [Media] model…the Associated Content model, and asking, ‘What does this mean for news?’” said Ahearn. “I think for a journalistic organization to adapt to the changes that are before us, we need to be more flexible.”

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner