The Rise And Fall Of Content Farms
With Demand Media having gone public last week, it is worth taking some time to discuss the future of content farms. Clearly, lots of people are seeing value in the business model, as shown by the street’s willingness to accept the IPO, and the acquistion of Associated Content by Yahoo! last May.
But what is the real value, and where is this headed? That is the subject of today’s column. I will begin the column with some background, and then finish up with my commentary on why I think this model will ultimately fail (hint: it won’t be because of Google).
Looking at the Demand Media IPO filing reveals that they use a variety of sources, including data that they purchase from ISPs to detect demand for different types of content. This has a particular value in identifying long tail search queries. This type of long tail data is not readily available from any of the keyword tools out there.
Demand Media, and its rival Associate Content, then leverage an army of freelancers to scalably create articles. How many freelancers do these companies have? Associated Content has 380,000 freelance writers. These freelancers get paid relatively low fees to create this content. So do you get what you paid for?
Quality Problems In Content Farms
A lot has been written about the quality problems that exist with the content created by these two companies. The IPO filing of Demand Media even acknowledges this:
Perception that the quality of our content may not be the same or better than that of other published Internet content, even though baseless, can damage our reputation. We are frequently the subject of unflattering reports in the media about our business and our model.
As an example of this negative media attention, Kate Kaye over at ClickZ wrote: Bottom Slurping for Google Juice and highlighted many quality problems from Associated Content. For example, the first sentence of this article is an incomplete sentence: “Xenical, a medication that may help you lose weight by decreasing your body’s absorption of fat“.
Other problems that people point to are the way these target their content towards search engines using article titles with insignificant differences with different content (e.g. “How to buy a house”, “how to buy a home”, “home buying tips”, “tips for buying a home’, etc.) for the purpose of ranking for every conceivable search phrase. The problem here is that there is no added value in providing these redundant articles.
The Core Problem
Even though lots of quality content comes out of these content engines, the problem is that there is a lot of created content which is not of decent or better quality. This puts these companies at direct odds with the good folks at Google. Google addressed the issue in this January 21st blog post:
As “pure webspam” has decreased over time, (Google’s) attention has shifted instead to “content farms”, which are sites with shallow or low-quality content.
As Seth Godin said in June of 2007, Don’t Bet Against Building 43 (this is the building where the Webspam team at Google resides).
But to me, this is a secondary issue for these businesses. The web is still in its infancy, and we tolerate a lot of things from it. We have accepted the existence of spam (even if we don’t like it), we have accepted the existence of poor quality content, and a lot more. The reason why is that we all inherently understand that this is a new frontier, and that it offers tremendous value. But the days of that tolerance are numbered.
When I grew up, I watched guys like Walter Cronkite give us the news on TV. Newspeople, back in those days, represented authoritative people that you could trust. You knew that the information they were delivering what the very best information they could get their hands on. Our culture has allowed that trust to erode as we now demand entertainment from our news shows (e.g. Fox News), if we even watch them, or take our news in microscopic snippets delivered to us through news online.
Our acceptance of articles generated in massive quantities by people who have questionable qualifications, and where there is no human review of their work is a part of this pattern. It is worth repeating that it is acknowledged that some of the content will in fact be good, or even quite good, but its a crap shoot, and that means lots of it is bad or of no unique value.
There are two issues with this: (1) we will need to weed through content to try and figure out what is good, which wastes our time, and: (2) some people won’t bother to do that and are therefore susceptible to accepting as fact information from poor quality and unverified sources. Internet users will lose patience with the first of these, and will potentially be overtly harmed by the second.
The pendulum will swing back the other way. Over time the demand for high quality content from trusted and authoritative sources will rise. We will look for this generation’s Walter Cronkite, and the age of freewheeling content machines will come to an end. Does that mean I am predicting the end of Demand Media and Associated Content? Not necessarily, but they will be forced to adapt. If not by Google, than by Internet users choosing where they want to go to get their information.
What Does This Mean For Publishers?
I have long been a strong advocate of understanding how to generate large quantities of hand crafted content. I remain a fan and practitioner of that today. The difference I strive for, and urge you to strive for as well is to make sure you are generating quality content.
You can do this, obviously at a bit higher cost, and generate articles that add actual value, not only in the article itself, but in its uniqueness and differentiation from other articles.
Whether Google plays a major role in transforming this existing flaw in search algorithms or not, the web will figure out how to deal mass generation of no added value content, particularly when it is done by large visible entities.
If you have a site with a large number of pages, such as an e-commerce site, my advice is to stay away from trying to replicate what the content farms are doing and build something better for yourself. It may not be easy to do, but to me that just means that your competition probably won’t bother to do it. Sounds good doesn’t it?
- Google Says Search Quality Improved With New Spam Detection
- Google Sets Sights On Content Farms In 2011
- The New York Times, Demand Media Edition
(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)
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