Mahalo’s Calacanis: Time To End The Content Farm Arms Race

No stranger to controversy, Mahalo CEO Jason Calacanis threw down a gauntlet at his “content farm” competitors, arguing they’re polluting the web and angering Google, to the detriment of searchers and their own companies.

Calacanis made his remarks during an “Ending The Content Arms Race” talk at FM’s Signal LA event. My semi-live blogging of his talk is below.

Jason recaps how he started Mahalo in 2007 reaction to what he considered bad search results on Google, results that were filled with spam. He felt human editors could do a better job selecting results for the most popular searches. Along the web, the company transformed into providing content. But last year, as he felt the Mahalo was heading “sideways,” he revisited its mission.

The Content Explosion, But Where’s The Quality?

Mahalo found that people really wanted articles, video and Q&A content, so it began to focus more strongly on that. But it also found it was playing catch-up against companies that were cranking out huge amounts of content.

Demand Media does 5,700 pieces per day; Aol 1,700 per day; Yahoo’s Associated Content at 1,500 pieces per day. All this versus Mahalo’s 1,100 pieces. The figures are all off a slide Calacanis flashed up — I don’t know the source materials for those figures, sorry. The slide above is from later in his presentation, when he shows the figures again but says less content might be better.

But in trying to fight in punching out more content, Calacanis also realized he was generating bad content. He flashed up a slide of Mahalo’s “How to Play The Xylophone” page which started out as step one, “Be Sure You Want To Play The Xylophone,” as you can see below:

Why was he putting bad content like this out, he asked himself? [Part of the reason for him asking was because last week, Business Insider did a send-up of that page -- the screenshot above comes from that post, which goes into more detail about the former page].

Why were his competitors doing the same? He flashes a pretty bad Yahoo Answers page that gets laughs; a page from eHow on how to bathe a small rodent:

Calacanis also pokes at the Huffington Post. After explaining he knows Arianna Huffington, has talked to her in the past, likes her — he brings up an example of the Huffington Post summarizing someone else’s news articles. He says 80% of the Huffington Post is simply rehashing of other people’s content like this.

“It’s mind blowing to me when I see the Huffington Post beating the people who are doing the original reporting,” Calacanis said.

The Google Giant Awakens

But the days of riding to the top of Google are over, he says, flashing up a blog post from the head of Google’s web spam team Matt Cutts, who said in late January that Google would looking at ways to to prevent “shallow or low-quality content” from doing well in its search results:

People are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content. We take pride in Google search and strive to make each and every search perfect. The fact is that we’re not perfect, and combined with users’ skyrocketing expectations of Google, these imperfections get magnified in perception. However, we can and should do better.

Says Calacanis, this was a sign that Google was awakened to content factories, bad news for those businesses.

“The one rule of working with Google is don’t make them look stupid. If you make ‘The Google’ look stupid, they’ll f- you up,” he said — except the audience got the full F-bomb. “eHow, you’ve awoken a giant,” he went on — explaining how he’s been on the wrong end of the Google giant in the past.

Calacanis went on to say he likes Demand Media, knows executives there as well as at other so-called “content farms” and has lots of admiration for them. But they all need to change, and the solution to calming the giant is for the content to get better.

Stop The Internet Pollution

“We have to look in the mirror and ask, ‘Is this what we want create for our users?’ We are polluting the internet.”

Now Mahalo spends $100s to $1,000s on each page to ensure better content, Calacanis says. “It’s good for business if we get back to focusing on quality … we have to switch.”

Calacanis shows a “How to cook a turkey” page on Mahalo which he says has tons of good video content, the decries it has to compete against 17 different articles from eHow on every variation of how someone might want to cook a turkey. “Do you guys understand now why I’m going insane?”

Going on, he said: “We’re going to make high quality content, and I will ride Google every day until I’m number one for ‘How to cook a turkey’.”

Calacanis also asks the advertisers at the event not to support poor content. “You shouldn’t put your ads next to sub-par content. We will not make content unless we have an expert. Demand Media will make content if someone will take $10.”

He warns again about Google: “Google is figuring it out. eHow makes Google look stupid.”

Last week, Calacanis says the Mahalo Xylophone article got updated, at the cost hundreds of dollars, with lots of videos. “But I can sleep at night again.”

Looking at the page myself quickly, I see what appear to be two original videos. I don’t know how much more content has been added overall compared to the old article. I suspect no single page is really going to explain how to play any musical instrument in any depth.

Calacanis concludes with a question to his competitors: “Are you making content we can be proud of or pissing off Google?”

See also: Demand Media & Being “The Best Click” On Google for a related article from the event today.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Content Farms | Features: General | Search Engines: Mahalo


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Timothy Groth

    Google knows that if quality is buried in quantity, users will turn to friend recommendations that aren’t going to get fooled by slick SEO. It would be nice to see more content providers realize it as well.

  • Lou Kerner

    I don’t understand the concept that $100′s or $1,000′s the right price, why not $2,000, why not $100,000? This is just stupid logic. Make content, spend whatever you want, and let Google figure out who to ranks the highest. The incessant whining about “content farms” is absurd. Isn’t wikipedia just one massive content farm, and it cost $0 to produce.

  • Ryan Critchett

    I think this is great. Because they can’t possibly human edit everything, this is the next big thing.

    As a former SEO, I know (we all know) that millions of people are using “tactics” to rank low quality sites. This will always happen, and I’m not saying blackhat is ALWAYS a horrible thing. I heard Rand Fishkin talking about someone he knew that had to pay for cancer treatment because the company he worked for, which let him go to avoid paying for it, engaged in some blackhat stuff to make money. Something to the tune of 175 grand.

    At any rate, quality is ultimately what should be coming up in search. Let the people vote, because they can’t human edit everything.

    I’m for it!

  • Habinar

    Mahalo should remove all of the advertising from all of the low quality pages that they have made. They won’t because they must make a lot of money from them.

    If Mahalo isn’t a content farm why are they making pages like these?

    The page source on each of these says that they were created in the last few days.

  • Jason Calacanis


    you realize those pages all have a killer, originally produced video in them right?

    and the ATDHE.ME and ATDHE.NET page are solid as well.

    are you saying we have too many ads on the page? you can turn ads off by logging in! :-)

  • Jason Calacanis


    Also, find me a better video than these:

    and here is a screen test of us looking for new talent. we bring in 20-50 teachers most weeks to teach our members

  • mvandemar

    Jason, you’re still trying to pass your crap off as quality? How about your McDonald’s coupons page? The entire page is fluff, where the only “on topic” content consists of 1) look in the paper, 2) check the mail, and 3) check Facebook. The rest is bullshit like this:

    “Like many other fast food restaurants, the McDonald’s menu features a solid variety of different products. You can order Hamburgers/Cheeseburgers with or without bacon, French Fries, salads, soft drinks, chicken burgers, and chicken nuggets. There is a kid’s menu as well.”

    Oh yeah, that’s quality. Wouldn’t matter if you had a few fluff pages, either, except that these, along with “Wendy’s coupons”, “White Castle coupons”, “Sonic coupons”, etc, are your featured pages occupying your header sitewide. There is no “killer, originally produced video” on any of those pages, either. Just a slideshow that repeats what the text on the page already suggests.

    What you continuously pretend to ignore Jason is that your entire business model is based on finding what people are searching for, and then rank for it cheaply enough to turn on profit on page views alone. You are not adding anything new to the internet, there is no added value with Mahalo, because the stuff people are searching for already exists, much if it in the form of already high quality content. You are building for the search engines, and trying to build just enough “quality” so you have something to point to when people comment on the site. Nobody goes to Mahalo on purpose, looking for something that they can’t find elsewhere… they go there because you gamed Google and now outrank other content. It’s spam, plain and simple, and it is not sustainable, no matter what you line are selling your investors.

  • UltimateBaker

    My question for Jason… would you be making these statements if your sites were performing (and by that I mean generating revenue) like Demand? I feel like you lost the arms race and now you are yelling at everyone to change their tactics. Personally, I feel that Mahalo provides little value to the internet – and the same can be said for eHow, etc.

  • TinyVox: ∞ Tape Deck

    Encyclopedia Galactica > Wikipedia.

    It’s a bold vision and should change the world or else don’t do it.

    Good luck to Jason and Mahalo. This is the correct set of arguments on this issue.

  • Tomas Van den Berckt

    i’m hoping Google will at some point release a feature that will enable people to permanently block certain domains from appearing in search results. That way everyone can choose for themselves what they want to see and what not.

  • Rob Blatt

    When you’re in last place, you aren’t the person who has the ability call off the race. I don’t disagree with Jason’s point, I think it’s very valid, but overall he can’t stop the Demand machine. Maybe he needs to move Mahalo out of the content farm business instead of trying to change content farms.

  • TimDineen

    Any SEO who ever wanted to get under Jason’s skin now has a way to do so: Outrank his site – be #1 for ‘How to cook a turkey’ :)

  • Jason Calacanis

    We are making killer content and services for those coupon pages…. stay tuned, we’re only 2/3rd done with them.

    our new coupon/deals project is amazing. coming April 1st.

  • LAWriter

    Mahalo CEO Jason Calacanis is calling for an end to the content farm arms race, while his employee Katherine Peach is hiring writers with this pitch “writers are allowed to write as many articles as they want for $10 a piece.”

    Just for the record, Demand Studios, which I equally despise, is paying $15 each.

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