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by Stephen Logan on 2nd February 2011
Content farms have been under the spotlight in recent months, mostly thanks to the work of Demand Media. Their basic function is to fill the cracks found in search engine results and get obscenely rich as a consequence – as indicated by their purported stock valuation of $1.9billion [Business Insider]. This has, understandably, ruffled a few feathers within the online marketing and news distribution communities.
On a small scale, this is fine – at the very least, acceptable. Low quality content is everywhere on the Internet and plenty of people are making a decent wage out of it. There isn’t much that can be done about that.
However, Demand Media has decided to take this to a whole new level. Rather than producing a few articles of questionable repute each day, they are churning out thousands. Using eHow as a front, their content appears on all sorts of weird and wonderful searches.
Whilst the articles may have little in the way of value for a reader, they are far from worthless for Demand Media. In fact, it has been reported that 28% of the company’s overall income comes directly from Google [Search Engine Land] – i.e. advertising. This suggests that the wealth of content they’ve created, which happily hosts PPC and display advertising from the search engine, is developing substantial fiscal gain. It has also led many to question whether this profitability has encouraged Google to continue handing strong rankings to eHow et al.
Let’s take a step back though for a moment.
The whole premise of eHow is to create content that matches search phrases with little or no competition. Fine, it’s not a Haynes manual, but it serves a purpose. It’s not all that different to those creating and publishing content online for SEO purposes.
If you’re writing an article, you want the title to be unique. It makes it easier to track and can assure you a good ranking for researched terms. But rather than doing it for the link, Demand Media and the other ranches of this ilk are only interested in the money.
Yahoo and AOL Join the Content Farm
Yahoo and AOL are both trying desperately to copy this exact same model – or at least create a viable off-shoot. The recently leaked AOL content master plan on Business Insider is the perfect example of this. All members of staff are going to be expected to produce between five and ten stories each in an effort to produce 55,000 pieces of content each month. Utter madness.
That’s 55,000 new pieces of news, information and other such rarefied nonsense spilling out of the sewage overflow pipe that is AOL HQ each and every month. Now, is that really going to be any worse than what Demand Media have done? Not really. So is AOL (and arguably Yahoo, although they’ve still got work to do to achieve full status) a content farm? You better believe it is.
Of course low quality information has the potential to be damaging, particularly if it’s inaccurate or burying authoritative pieces by genuine experts. But if there’s nothing out there competing with it, then the web space (theoretically at least) is fair game. Search engine users are demanding information through their queries; these companies simply meet that need – classic supply and demand.
The Dangers of Diversification
The worry for most is that these content farms could start encroaching into news and other competitive industries. Through strength in numbers they could seriously impact upon the earning potential of many established online newspapers and blogs. This creates a genuine problem, as well as a potential conflict of interests – particularly if Google make more from one site than another (not that this should change their algorithm, just hypothetically speaking).
AOL of course has a long tradition of buying up successful online news sites and amalgamating them within their amorphous blob of a business. Recently this has included the acquisition of TechCrunch – a pre-eminent technology blog. Yahoo has also looked at ways in which they can expand their own content empire, both internally and externally. Without digging up old graves, both businesses have turned to content production/syndication to prop up their flagging core services – for more read Has Yahoo Jumped the Shark? (Following AOL and Netscape) or Yahoo Increasingly Looking to Content to Fill Search Void.
Yahoo bought Associated Content last year, they created Upshot – a stripped down, quick fire news service based on search trends – and regularly fill their (horrendously overcrowded) homepage with news content on every conceivable subject. The basic theory is that the more content you have, the better your chances of getting hits. In this line of business, hits inevitably lead to advertising revenue.
Quality Costs, Quantity Pays
You’d be fooling yourself if you believed that the primary concern for any content farm – be it AOL or Demand Media – is quality. Creating quality content takes time, which in turn costs money. There’s not a great deal of return to be made on quality content. Therefore, these companies adopt the supermarket shopping ethos of ‘pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap’. Get your stuff out there for people to find and the money will follow.
This could be a dangerous precedent, far moreso than eHow or any other informational farm. If you start pouring content into already overflowing areas, the result is complete overkill. The job for search engines and news syndicators will become increasingly difficult as they have to weed out scraped content and other low value articles.
SEOs might be a little peeved at Demand Media for reducing their content marketing opportunities, but content farming isn’t restricted to just one company. They, like few others before them, have realised the potential that search traffic – even on low volume searches – and are simply exploiting this revenue stream. Ezine articles do it, Squidoo does and blogs all over the world do it. The only difference is scale.
Genuine experts writing on authoritative news sites should have any issues with outranking this AdSense fodder. But with the volume of published work on the rise, competition is inevitably going to rise – steeply. As a consequence, some will find it increasingly difficult to get the search engine exposure they could have expected previously.
Content has always been a key weapon online; however, now it appears that more are willing to take notice of it. But even in the most competitive markets, the cream will almost always find a way to rise to the top. Whilst search engines like Blekko have taken a stance and deliberately eradicated pages from content farms, Bing and Google probably don’t see this is viable or necessary – certainly not at the moment – simply because they trust their algorithm to do this for them.
Yes they make money for Google, but the same is true of blogs, newspapers and any other website that carries AdSense or DoubleClick/DART. Content farms are a nuisance. They are purveyors of mass-produced, lightweight copy. But, like any online obstacle, they can be avoided and overcome.
Content will always have a value. The better it is, the higher this will be – in spite of, or maybe even because of heightened competition. If you focus on quality, you can outmuscle a content farm.
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