Google, Content Farms & Why This May Be Blekko’s Moment

At the beginning of Google’s “Searchology” event in early 2007 original Google employee Craig Silverstein opined, “If Google had started a year or two earlier, it wouldn’t have worked.” That’s because prior to that time (1998) the internet wasn’t yet large enough to require Google or enable people to see the value of its approach.

As sites and pages multiplied exponentially Google became an increasingly necessary tool. We’re all familiar with the story. Now Google controls a majority of search traffic in most countries around the world. It has become a seemingly unstoppable force.

The influence of search (paid and organic) has been so powerful that billions of dollars have changed hands and established media companies have been all-but-toppled by their failures to recognize and exploit search effectively. Newspapers in particular fall into the latter category.

But the lessons of search and SEO have been well-learned by some media companies, many entrepreneurs and investors. In response, a range of so-called “content farms” has arisen to drive page views off “content” created by hundreds of mostly low-paid bloggers (and some former journalists).

Demand Media, Associated Content (now part of Yahoo), Examiner.com, Suite 101 and others recruit and train freelancers to quickly generate articles on all manner of niche topics that will drive qualified page views or lead generation in some cases. Yahoo just made a $100 million bet on this version of SEO. And AOL is pursuing a somewhat more refined version of this same strategy with Seed.

The original model arguably is “The Mining Company,” which in 1999 became About.com and was later acquired by the NY Times for its SEO/link value. While About.com was originally about “content curation” (organizing and commenting on links), the content farms are about content creation.

Despite the protests of the companies themselves about the terms “content farm” and “content mill,” the truth is that the articles and columns produced by these operations are of variable quality at best. And in some cases the content they generate should be considered a form of spam.

The proliferation of dubious or low-quality content from some of these sites is, over time, a direct threat to Google in my view. Google doesn’t present any publisher “branding” in search results so users must often click back and forth to find a quality source for the information they’re seeking. Google’s algorithm is supposed to address issues of quality and authority — and it often does — but the rising tide of mediocre, SEO-driven content creation is a fundamental problem for searchers.

Enter Blekko.

Over the past several years there have been many runs at Google and general search, including Powerset (acquired by Microsoft) and the ill-fated Cuil. None of these independent challengers has succeeded to date. (The jury’s still out on Bing of course, but arguably it has already succeeded by several measures.)

For those who haven’t heard of it, Blekko is a general search engine that will launch relatively soon. It has been written about several times by TechCrunch and I wrote about it briefly a year ago after an initial demo from founder Rich Skrenta and Mike Markson. Danny intends to do a “deep dive” on Blekko shortly so I’ll let him discuss features in depth.

There are two general characteristics that differentiate Blekko: transparency and user control. It’s also social in interesting ways; registered users can “follow” one another.

Blekko’s motto is “Slash the Web.” The centerpiece of that slogan and its chief innovation is the concept of “slashtags.”

Slashtags allow search personalization and filtering through the creation of mini-indexes of authoritative or favorite sites. For example, Skrenta has created a slashtag for wine blogs that he likes: “/skrenta/wineblogs.” In short this allows him or me to search an authoritative or personal sub-index of the internet for wine-related content and recommendations.

This way I can get articles and commentary from sites I trust or that people I trust recognize as authoritative — and cut out the, pardon the expression, crap content.

While there’s a short learning curve slashtags are easy to use and their value is almost self-evident. Blekko can also be used just like Google without slashtags as well.

Slashtags address the content-spam problem I described and provide control over results not offered by Google today. My prediction is that sophisticated search users will immediately be drawn to Blekko for the personalization, SEO tools (I’ll let Danny discuss) and social features it offers. I also predict that after it formally launches we may see some slashtag-like development from Google.

In 1998 the web was ripe for Google. But Google’s profound success and the way it has shaped the internet, giving birth to content farms, may have paved the way in 2010 for Blekko.

NOTE: Please see our detailed review that’s now available, Blekko: New Search Engine Lets You “Spin” The Web.

Related Topics: Blekko | Channel: SEO | Features: Analysis | Google: Web Search | Search Engines: Cuil | Search Engines: Custom Search Engines | Search Engines: Open Directory Project | Search Engines: Powerset | Search Engines: Social Search Engines | Search Features: General | Top News

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • http://linkmunki.blogspot.com LinkMunki

    Yes, I know, I’m champing at the bit for a new toy to play with, rrrrrrrrrrrr, let’s go blekko

  • http://2helixtech.com matthiaswh

    I couldn’t agree more with the timing being perfect for Blekko. The average Internet user has become more technical over time. People are figuring out how to use tags on Twitter, something that the average person 10 years ago would have scoffed at. Slash tags won’t be much more difficult.

    I also like their view of themselves. They’re not setting out to take on Google. They have opinions on how search should function, it’s contrary to how the major search engines currently operate, so they’re making their own. Even if they barely put a dent in Google, they’ll be successful because that isn’t their ultimate goal. Other past failures set out to be Google killers (much like the many failed phones that were meant only to take on the IPhone). The only real success in that regard has been Bing, because Microsoft poured so much money into it and already had a firm foundation.

    The time is perfect for them, they’ll be successful in their objective without a billion dollar investment, but I don’t think Google is shaking at the knees yet.

  • http://searchengineland.com Chris Sherman

    Skrenta and crew always have great timing – and I’m sure Blekko is going to be as successful as dmoz and Topix were.

    I’d like to clarify one point, though – I was an About.com guide for several years. As you noted, part of our job as guides was to create topic specific directories, but we were also required to create original content at least once a week (often 2-3 times weekly or more). This was true even during the MiningCo days. We also moderated our own topic-specific forums. The difference between About and today’s content farms, imho, is that the vetting process to become an About guide was intense – as I recall an 8-10 week process with progressively more challenging tasks to demonstrate subject matter expertise, typically competing with others for a single guide opening. I don’t think the content farms exercise this degree of vigor when selecting writers (though not sure if About does any more, either).

  • http://screenwerk.com Greg Sterling

    Thanks Chris for the clarification. Wasn’t aware (obviously) regarding that part of the job. In almost every way then About.com was the progenitor of these companies, though now w/o the vetting process you describe.

  • http://www.search-usability.com/ Shari Thurow

    Hi Chris and Greg-

    Google content farms??? No wonder most websites stink. I have to fix these “Google content farm” sites on a daily basis, practically.

    Topic-specific directories is normally a job that I would not trust an SEO or a copywriter to do (Chris, you are one of those rare exceptions) because users/searchers do not always group content by topics or by keywords, ESPECIALLY by keywords. You might be very surprised at how users/searchers group, categorize, and prioritize content.

    Personally, I think Yahoo made a mistake in that purchase. It just gives competitors the opportunity to outperform Yahoo…because “content farms” are incredibly annoying. I usability test these sorts of sites all of the time. They all score poorly on task completion and user satisfaction in the desire to increase page view per visitor and time spent on site. I’ve seen search results pages manipulated to increase page views…and the result? Lost income, higher abandonment, negative brand impact…but oh yeah! Some higher search engine traffic.

    I think it’s sad that search companies just can’t past the rankings “thing.”

  • http://KJ KJ

    Blekko does look interesting and I hope they do well in their niche. I think the content farms will only be an issue if Google let them and I can’t see them letting anything interfere with the user experience.

  • Ruth_OL

    I may have misunderstood the concept, but what’s to stop a spammer creating a slashtag and linking to dozens of junk sites? When searching do I *have* to specify trusted slashtags/individuals, or will it default to searching everything added, in which case won’t this stuff come up?

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