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?

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Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Content Farms | Industrial Strength


About The Author: is the president of Stone Temple Consulting, an SEO consultancy outside of Boston. Eric publishes a highly respected interview series and can be followed on Twitter at @stonetemple.

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  • Andrew Boer

    So each example of “negative media attention” you are able to cite was written in 2007 when this model was in its infancy. I gave that interview to Kate, and she certainly made some valid points at the time. Twitter wasn’t so great in 2007 either.

    I agree with your assertion that consumers and search engines will change to demand quality content… But you, and folks who assume that Demand Media and its ilk won’t be able to create quality content, are erroneously linking two ideas: the idea of scaling content creation based on actual consumer demand and performance, and the inability to create “quality” content.

    Were those things linked back in 2007 at AC– sure, they probably were. But the level of quality kept, because advertisers and readers demanded it…and it will continue to improve.

    Consider — for years a Rolls Royce was considered the pinnacle of quality because it was handcrafted by experts in every way. An assembly line simply couldn’t come close to the level of precision and expertise. Today, the Rolls Royce is an anachronism — and Toyota (once a seller of cheap shoddy cars — if you want to cite articles from the 60′s) makes much higher quality cars on assembly lines at scale.

    Scaling content creation, and pricing based on performance are the two real contributions of the content farm model; I think they are here to stay. In my view, the Huffington Post is 100% based on the metric driven, scalable processes that AC,, and others pioneered. It gets better and better.

    Brands and Publishers will move much more in the automated editorial direction, while Content farms will continue to automate the processes of traditional publishers.

  • Marcus C

    I don’t think these sites will see a demise. As the search engines begin to factor in social signals (tweets, Likes, Shares, etc.) for pieces of content these will begin to be a primary driver for search engine results in the future. Everyone will adapt to this, and content publishers will do more to present quality content. The best content on their site will drive the majority of their traffic and they will make adjustments along the way.

  • johnee99

    Sounds like you long for a time when there was one authority when it comes to the news and true arbiters of what is relevant. Also sounds like many other journos I hear who misunderstand what these sites do. Take a moment and read the top blogs out there (TechCrunch et. al.) who also breathlessly rail against DMD and others…LOTS OF TYPOS, LOTS OF POOR GRAMMAR. This is a straw man argument that fails to address the dynamics of the content business.

  • Zippy Cart

    It’s like anything else – you can do it right or you can do it wrong. These things tend to fluctuate to extremes at the beginning, then self-regulate over enough time. The nice thing about the internet is that it is somewhat Darwinian: good things survive and multiply, lower-quality options eventually die out. Demand Media and its ilk will survive, but not necessary in the form they exist in now.

  • pcsourcepoint

    Me being involved in many forums, sometimes that’s where the best tutorial based material can be found, often involving many experienced industry related and practical members – oi.e. content contributors?. I now ignore ehow search results listings, for example on how to do car repairs, since they seem to offer basics, with no real insight, depth of material, and images.

    Though in the know that have done things first hand, I think offer the most beneficial information, often with images, tips, advice, etc, but seem to be relatively buried in forums with little exposure in search results queries. Is that not how the internet started – user group type forums?

  • Mark McLaren

    I agree that the Internet evolves according to Darwinian principles – more or less – but it’s important to think about who has the greater ability to influence demand, the content farm or the craftsman.

    I like the agribusiness analogy. When big business starts growing apples, you get great looking fruit that lasts forever but, compared to the home-grown/organic variety, it has less nutritive value, much less taste and much greater susceptibility to insects and disease. People don’t want to pay for the home-grown stuff. But in part that’s because it’s harder to get, and because they don’t know the difference. They think mass-produced apples are what apples taste like.

    Is it in the best interest of agribusiness to educate the masses about the potential for better produce, or is it in their best interest to keep cranking out cheap, flavorless shiny fruit? Obviously it’s the latter, and that has a tremendous dampening effect on demand for anything better.


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