Google's relevancy algorithms have largely been driven by taking the "authority" shortcut. Have lots of other domains linking to your site? It must be good. Here is a golden ticket...your site ranks for everything.
That curbed some types of spam (by increasing the sunk cost needed to rank a new site), but it has taken brands only a few years to adjust to that hole in the algorithm. Witness the rise of answer spam, scraper re-purposing spam, social media recycling tools, freelance articles for a nickel spam, machine spun articles that are textually unique, etc etc etc
Increasingly, the biggest role of brand in search publishing is to legitimize stuff which might otherwise seem illegitimate and give them enough scale that it hopefully kicks off enough AdSense revenue that it matters to Google.
Demand Media recently highlighted their business model in Wired magazine:
To appreciate the impact Demand is poised to have on the Web, imagine a classroom where one kid raises his hand after every question and screams out the answer. He may not be smart or even right, but he makes it difficult to hear anybody else.
The article (unlike most eHow articles) is well worth a read, but a quick summary...
- buy up some aged well linked to sites (that were perhaps linked to when it was easier to get links with watered down content and before the web graph was as corrupted by $ as it is today)
- create algorithms to mine their analytics data and Google's tools to estimate the earnings potential of any piece of content
- pay freelancers crumbs to write write write based on whatever the algorithm spits out
- run the content through a tool like Copyscape to verify it is unique
- pay a reviewer ~ $1 to verify the article is (nearly) legible
- keep refining and optimizing the above components based on feedback from earlier tests
- create sister websites that are heavily cross-linked which host a second page about the highest earning topics
And in opening up their playbook to Wired, Demand Media likely created dozens of additional competitors who will aim to monetize the longtail of search via freelance articles of varying quality. Aol, headed by former Google executive Tim Armstrong, has been talking up a revolutionary media model to the media, which reads exactly like the Demand Media playbook:
The predictions, it says, are based on a wide swath of data AOL collects, from the Web searches people make on its site to the sites visited by subscribers to its Internet services.
The system is designed to track breaking news and trends and identify the best times to write about seasonal events, such as Halloween or Monday Night Football.
Based on these recommendations, the company's editorial staff, which totals about 500, will assign articles to a network of free-lancers across the country via a new Web site called Seed.com. AOL says it now works with about 3,000 free-lancers, but it is hoping to sharply increase that number through the Web site, which is open to anyone looking to submit a story. To cut costs ahead of its spinoff, AOL recently said it was cutting about a third of its total staff, or 2,500 employees.
If authors are going to get paid for performance on a freelance basis to churn out junk then they may as well spend a few months learning internet marketing, blogging, and Wordpress...if publishing is algorithm driven you don't really need to work for someone else to make a few Dollars per article. It is VERY easy to beat that, so long as you are willing to wait 3 to 6 months for your payout.
And the process of scaling automated low quality content generation is only going to make existing media channels reliant on search feel more pain. Dollars become dimes. Dimes become pennies. As traditional media companies go bankrupt companies like Demand Media and AOL will buy up the brands and fill the sites with more good content.
This not only will further harm traditional media models, but it will also pollute up the search results so much that...
- it makes it hard to find quality information via search
- private membership sites and paid niche content will become more popular
- Google will either be forced to change their relevancy algorithms or make an example of a big company in the search (g)arbitrage game, or else searchers are going to have an awful experience over the next half-decade or so
I wish there was an Exchange Traded Fund which allowed me to place a bet on information pollution...until Google stops it, the profit potential will be too great for opportunistic "publishers" to ignore. It is a rare sure bet. And it is entirely up to Google to decide how big they want to let the bubble get before they deflate it.
Here is what the content revolution Tim Armstrong speaks of looks like:
Imagine 8 of the top 10 search results for every longtail query looking like THAT. And yet, it is about to become reality.
Those who know the least yell loudest. And Google is colluding with the likes of Demand Media and Aol to ENSURE every idiot has a megaphone. Ignorance is powerful.
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