Content Farming - SEOs Get It, Journalists Don't

Jul 13th
posted in

Recently, there have been a series of negative articles about content farms.

Content farms, such as Demand Media's eHow and similar low-cost content publication sites, are now deemed an industry "concern". "Industry" being the traditional publishing idustry, and concern presumably being "competitive threat".

A trade group called the Internet Content Syndication Council (ICSC) has been circulating a document entitled "Council To Counter Web Content Generators Growing Clout". They talk about "job threatened journalists" and "diminishing content standards". Look, see what happens when the proletariat gets their hands on the printing press! :)

The pundits have also weighed in. So many journalists, eh. Looks like an over-supply if you ask me :) Some of them could learn a thing or two from SEOs.

For starters, many seem to be working on the false premise that Google returns "quality" results. Since when has Google ever been about "quality" results? Google's aim is to return links the searcher finds relevant.

"Quality" and relevance may not be the same thing, and thinking in terms of an arbitrary notion such as quality is to misunderstand what Google does.

For example, if a searcher, with a below-average level of reading in English wants a quick answer to a question about the common cold, then who's to say a simple, peer-produced bullet-point explanation is less relevant than a doctoral thesis on the same topic? Everyone benefits when the answer is factually correct, of course, but there's nothing to say the content mill won't offer factually accurate content just because the production process is low cost. If geared towards rankings, the content may also offer the facts in a format the user finds more useful.

Google is mostly about utility. It's about providing value to the end user. "Quality" is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Let's also not forget Google argue that Adwords - advertisements - are content, which are also rewarded by a relevance algorithm. I'm guessing the council won't be arguing that advertisements can be a form of quality content any time soon.

And what does quality mean anyway? And who defines it? I think I can guess what the elitists at the ICSC may argue - they know what it is, and they will define it! Nice work if you can get it, I guess.

Solutions To The Content Crisis

One solution they offer to this perceived "content crisis" is to create a set of public guidelines for internet content, or an accreditation process for syndicated content.

Heh.

Reminds me of the SEO "best practices" debates of years past. The result will be the same, of course - they'll end up talking to an audience that consists entirely of themselves. Everyone else will be getting on with the job of producing content.

What concerns us is that most of these new content syndicators are producing low-quality articles that are link based,” said Tim Duncan, the ICSC’s recently installed executive director.
“They are designed to score high on search. That drives down high quality content.

Wikipedia, and white hat SEOs, might not agree, of course. Content can both be ranked well and be highly relevant. This is, after all, Google's aim.

Some ICSC members have even advocated reaching out to Google to urge the search giant to tweak its algorithm to give more weight to content quality in its search results

Hilarious. I think they mean "any content they think is quality" Perhaps Google can send them a regular cheque each week, too! I suspect money is the true driving force, as opposed to any real concern for editorial standards. Have you seen some of the trash the MSM serves up?

Quality stuff, certainly.

At the end of the day, quality standards arguments are pointless. Besides the confused frame of journalistic news vs Q&A-style content, the end user decides the level of quality they will accept and pay for on the internet. The real problem traditional publishing and the mainstream media is facing is that their business model is screwed. Their content production costs are simply too high, and they are being undercut. If they think that people want higher quality, then the answer is simple - produce it and let the visitor decide.

And get some good SEO advice, so they don't inadvertently bury it.

Google Joining In?

In a further twist, Google might be looking to join the content mills at their own game. An interesting patent, "Identifying Inadequate Search Content" identifies keyword areas where there is search demand, but low levels of relevant content. That's essentially what Demand Media does. Assuming Google don't/can't get into publishing for every vertical in existence, Google would do well to make this information publicly available.

Especially to their hordes of Adsensers ;)

How You Can Create A Successful Content Mill

Ignore mainstream media journalists and whiners who like to form councils.

Understand that Google is looking for relevant content. "Relevance" is, in the end, deemed by the searcher. If there are a lot of searches for "pay levels for doctors" and you publish a page that shows "pay levels for doctors", then you are producing relevant content and Google will reward you.

Google are, no doubt, measuring how relevant visitors think the information is, and there are various signals that could be used to determine this. These signals will not come from a council of elitist, self-interested old media. The signals will be based on user activity and user voting patterns. These signals must be scalable i.e. links, visits, timeliness, recommendations, frequency of appearance, re-quoting, etc.

Increases in "quality" i.e. content depth and accuracy - will come from end-user voting. If users want deeper answers to search questions, either Google will deliver it, or users will abandon Google and go somewhere that provides it. Perhaps that's what ICSC should do - start their own search engine ;)

Having said all that, a lot of samey, lightweight content won't survive in the long run, because Google likes to provide variety in their result sets. Look for ways to differentiate your content. Quality is only one - arbitrary - point of differentiation. You'd be better concentrating on aspects such as ease of access, readability, findability, relevance and freshness.

Keep the end user firmly in mind.

Published: July 13, 2010

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Comments

July 13, 2010 - 8:06am

At least in one point they are right: Doorwaypages create too much non-sense! The net is flooded with sites which are meant for only one single reader: google. Every SEO will recognize (and leave) this site within 5 seconds. Unfortunately they do well sometimes in SERPs and are therefore a real pain for people looking for some useful information (regardless of quality).

July 13, 2010 - 9:03am

I hope you have more than a "highschool education" Peter otherwise your writing has no merit and should be discounted:

Added Zinn: “I’m not certain of the quality of some of the content out there. I don’t want to sponsor content that was produced by someone who just has a high school education.”

I feel this quote symbolizes the #1 issue with "professional media"...they're elitist and believe what they have to say (or write) is more worthy than what we create. For example: They think the majority of women want to know all the tricks to pleasing a man sexually, how long skirts should be, how to decorate our new york penthouse apartments or our hampton's cottage retreats (or drool over the glossy photos of others who have that) and what lindsay lohan has painted on her fingernails today...current issues of 4 out of 5 womens magazines will prove me right on this. Or men are only interested in sports, boobs, porn, business/money.

What's happened: we've created our own content to fulfill what we're REALLY hungry for and interested in. And it aint what we've been force fed for decades. The publishing elite are no longer shaping the conversation or consumption as they once used to and we're slicing off their earnings.

The content we're creating may not be technically well written or may be poorly structured and sometimes misspelled, but it's interesting enough to our audiences and filling a need or interest. And that's why online publishers (even those with less than a highschool education) are whipping the butts of traditional media.

I realize they're mainly addressing mass content creation and the "poor quality" of content that's cranked out by demand media, mahalo, associated content and others typically create--and I'm no fan or follower of those types of sites myself, but when the elitists successfully pull down that type of site, they'll be after ours next.

PS: I have more than a highschool education but that quote really burned my butt.

July 13, 2010 - 9:39am

Well said, tantastic.

he publishing elite are no longer shaping the conversation or consumption as they once used to and we're slicing off their earnings.

And that's what it all comes down to - the objection is not about standards, it's about loss of power. The Wikipedia/Demand Media/Mahalo model may not produce content to a standard deemed "worthy" by the media establishment, but it doesn't need to.

And you're right - they'll be after us next. To them, we are no different from Demand, et al. We "unschooled" lack the "right" structure.

July 13, 2010 - 10:28am

I don't believe it. This is is part of the evolution of the web.

This influx of low quality content topping search engine results makes people more likely to use services like Digg or maybe Twitter to see what people are buzzing about.

Google IS AWARE of this, hence their recent implementation of social media buzz into search results.

July 13, 2010 - 11:37am

I think the implementation of Twitter in the search results was more of a reactionary move by Google. After Bing integrated Twitter then Google felt they had to as well, lest they allow the competing brand to gain buzz & marketshare.

In aggregate Twitter is no better than the garbage spewed by other mills. Its just another flavor of content without context.

July 13, 2010 - 1:35pm

@ tantastic: that was the same line I grabbed out when we were discussing this in another place...what a stupid thing to say. Your comment was spot-on. "what we've been force fed for decades" is right on the money, too - we definitely don't suffer from that anymore, as there are MANY more voices in the mix than previously. Not always good, but a good start for sure.
I do think that the majority of bad content is simply a play for Google love - there is no altruistic "Let's share" kind of thought behind it.
And the ONE thing I agree with the council about, is that Google could fix this - or try - and they don't. Why should they? They get paid on bad content, they get paid on good content. They'll allow both, and let us sort it out (by clicking) while they keep getting paid on both sides, pretending to be neutral. They'll pick-off obvious SEOs/Imers, but then allow major news and media sources to arbitrage whatever works best. Selective rules of participation, rolled-out and enforced based on Google's best interests.
If they did some semantic tweaking and (more importantly) devalued some obvious link ploys, lots of thin stuff would evaporate - or at least, stop growing so fast. But it works. When SEOs and IMers see that they can spend less time and money and still get where they need to be, why would they spend more time and money? That's bad business.
And Google is also a business (a really really big one) - so why do they have to be additionally burdened with providing us "quality?" The reality is, they don't. And we are all free to use Bing whenever we feel like Google is unfair...but do we? I don't - I just learned how to see and sidestep the poop in Google, and keep on.
But I believe 100% that Google is responsible for encouraging this cesspool. They made filling it profitable, but accept very little responsibility for it now that it is getting unruly. It's wrong, but I can't think of any company that would do it differently. Look at Yahoo!(quick)
Thanks for the good start this morning, Peter!

July 13, 2010 - 2:57pm

"Since when has Google ever been about "quality" results? Google's aim is to return links the searcher finds relevant.

"Quality" and relevance may not be the same thing, and thinking in terms of an arbitrary notion such as quality is to misunderstand what Google does. "

They warn people about malware.
They try to avoid returning slow-loading results. (Though whether this is probably both a patience issue and a get-ppl-to-search-more thing.)
Officially, they care about user experience. (If I needed to linkbait and had money to blow, I'd run user tests to try and prove universal SERPs are poor UX.)

July 13, 2010 - 5:41pm

For years I've tried ranking for an ultra competitive term.

I rented links for 2k a month, re-did the site so it looked like an information resource on the subject, and even purchased a domain with the exact term in the domain for 5k (it was a steal if you ask me :)

I couldn't get the term to rank in the top 5 for the life of me. It was stuck at the top of the second page.

So what did I do? I copied what the rest of the top 5 sites were doing.

And now I'm in the top five.

Give people what they want, and Google will reward you.

I tried creating compelling content, but I couldn't build an audience in the niche I was targeting. There weren't any people interested in investing their time.

They were satisfied when they consumed their information.

That's the last thing I wanted my site to be, but oh well.

It's not about what I want ;) (at least not in that niche)

July 13, 2010 - 8:05pm

I'm reminded of a time I watched my mother surfing around the web. She had a page open that was chock full of Adsense ads. There was little additional content. She clicked from one advertisement to the next, visiting pages as she went.

"You do realize those are advertisements?" I said.

"Are they?" she said.

She wasn't bothered. She thought they provided useful information.

An SEO, or other experienced web user, may regard such a page as junk, at best, and spamsense, at worst. Worthless.

But not my mother.

She may have been equally happy on Mahalo.

That's my point. It's not an elitist quality argument (i.e. this document is much higher quality than this one) - it's more a user experience argument (i.e. does the user feel this document is relevant to them). If the user is happy with the content they see, then Google is happy.

Demand Media et al are SEO models. The models are driven by searcher intent as signaled by keyword searches. In journalism, the journalist and editor publish what a captive readership reader *should* be interested in reading. It is still driven by user demand, but less directly. I'm not sure journalism is comfortable handing over control to the user and the search process.

We've still got a way to go to find out what the reader really wants/needs to read, and what content is viable to produce. SEO/Social Media/Google/Content Mills circle around this question, refining and pushing boundaries, hoping to get ever closer to the solution.

We live in interesting times :)

July 13, 2010 - 10:37pm

Quality will improve as the writers write more. We are seeing a flood of new writers from around the world. Give them 2-3 years of experience and see what these people can do. Publishing is exploding. The consumer will benefit.

July 14, 2010 - 1:29am

This is an interesting topic since I am a SEO who was originally schooled as a journalist.

What I believe the rest of my former colleagues need to understand is that content doesn't sell itself and it never has. The newspapers, radios and television broadcasts were just the old way of dissemination. Journalists marketed their content to the papers (via employment) and their relevancy/prominence was held at the mercy of the editors.

Today there is a new way of doing things to get your content found online through social media and the SEs, if you want to stay competitive, learn how to position yourself online. (That's what I did and I enjoyed it enough to switching careers!)

Another factor to consider is that while older media streamlined and concentrated to what was important for the masses as a unit, the internet is different in that it is severely fractured. You want to survive? Find a niche and start the conversation, but add value to it with superior writing and research skills.

And while I am on the topic, yes, journalists are elitist and it is a great thing. These snobs' standards for reporting result in more unique and quality content, less libel-related threats (intentional and unintentional), and protects freedom of speech and information.

Content farms and journalist don't have to be enemies, they can actually create quite the circle jerk.

July 20, 2010 - 10:16pm

I'm neither journalist nor SEO. By even the 3rd para, my impression of bias was growing strongly - "Look, see what happens when the proletariat gets their hands on the printing press! :)". Now my guess is that document has been principally circulated via PDF which puts it in exactly the same 'printing press' category as your piece PeterD.

I was going to point out the hypocrisy para by para but that would have been too tedious. So I'll simply respond to your "And what does quality mean anyway? And who defines it?". There are many specific definitions of quality and I'm sure online sources for these will be as useful as the printed word PeterD. But a general definition is "fit for use" meaning (take a breath) that an item is of acceptable quality if it works for the use towards which it is going to be put.

That ties in nicley with your 'common cold' scenario. Looking at that same scenario form a jounalistic viewpoint, a reader of the Lancet would expect and likely get "a doctoral thesis". Whereas a reader of the tabloid Herald-Sun would expect and get an explanation suited to that readership. The proof quite simply is that if those and any other media don't give their readers / viewers / listeners 'fit for use' material, then those media (including the medium we are using now) will fail. So what was your point?

I don't necessarily disagree with your apparent suspicion of the motives of the ICSC in publishing that document. But your specious argument has put yourself and SEOBook in exactly the same situation that you consider is true of the ICSC.

Not a good look PeterD.

July 21, 2010 - 6:01am

I don't see us defending a dying business model based on selling people access to unneeded duplication of content.

And I don't see us stating that all content other than that promoted by our trade group's duplicated rehash content is suspect and harmful.

How exactly is what Peter wrote in any way hypocritical? The web forces innovation and change. You deal with it or you watch your business go down the tubes.

Did I like the idea of changing our business model here and hoping that when I flipped the switch that it would work? Nope. Did I have to do it? Yes.

Markets evolve. And so do the best participants.

July 22, 2010 - 1:44am

Kenny,

The media establishment, for the past few years, has been arguing their content is quality, and should naturally rank well, and much independent content is junk, and shouldn't. I'm saying that the term "quality", as used in this context, is self-serving and elitist.

The rest of your criticism appears to have simply restated my point that search is a question of relevance as defined by the user, not the publisher.

July 28, 2010 - 12:21am

I'm not disagreeing with what either of you have stated in response to my previous posting. Nor am I positively agreeing as I don't know enough about your topic area.

But I do know enough to recognise an argument put forward in a biased manner. Subtle and not so subtle references to the opponents and their case that are not germane to a logic based destruction of that case.

That simply puts my guard up and I wonder why someone has to employ such tactics to present an argument. And from that point on I become at least ambivalent about the worth of that person's statements (technical expertise aside).

As a contrast to Peter's attempt, take a look at Aaron's "Even Search Engineers Don't Know All the Search Algorithms". Now that is an impressive fact based and very clinical destruction of counter arguments by three or so people to analysis reported by Aaron. My estimation of Aaron's technical ability went up and also his ability to return serve devastatingly.

Anyway, these responses and counter responses are in themselves shaping up to be an argument that none of us will 'win' so I close off although I do welcome any response.

August 4, 2010 - 4:05pm

I do not like when I search and get 22 "review" sites with made up reviews of the same products. I hope Google keeps slapping them off their front page so that the real content providers can get back to the top of the listings.

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