Why Was Demand Media Torched by Google? Branding

Apr 26th

We Are Not a Content Farm

When Google began speaking publicly about content farms Demand Media's Richard Rosenblatt stated that it would be silly to call their stuff a content farm & he emphasized the quality of their content & care that went into it. Of course, those who bothered looking at the content often saw something different

Panda II Hits Demand Media

When Google did the global roll out of Panda earlier this month, they also modified their approach to core Panda algorithm to include user block data:

Today we’ve rolled out this improvement globally to all English-language Google users, and we’ve also incorporated new user feedback signals to help people find better search results. In some high-confidence situations, we are beginning to incorporate data about the sites that users block into our algorithms. In addition, this change also goes deeper into the “long tail” of low-quality websites to return higher-quality results where the algorithm might not have been able to make an assessment before. The impact of these new signals is smaller in scope than the original change: about 2% of U.S. queries are affected by a reasonable amount, compared with almost 12% of U.S. queries for the original change.- Amit Singhal

While many of Demand Media's sites got dinged in the first update, the fall of content farms in general meant that any site operating in that space which was not hit ended up seeing a sharp increase in traffic (as so much of the competition fell). As sites like AnswerBag and Livestrong fell, eHow's traffic increased significantly. I believe Google didn't want to rely on end user block data because it would make it easy for people to do competitive sabotage, however I think they needed to use it in order to hit eHow with the update. eHow had a number of signals (some older quality content, nice web design, syndication partnerships, tons of media exposure, etc.) which made it hard to whack it without creating too much collateral damage unless the block data was used.

Demand Media's Google Traffic Off 40%

Forbes.com highlighted Hitwise data which estimated that Demand Media traffic from Google is off 40%:

In the first two weeks of January, 0.57 percent of those who departed Google next visited a site operated by Demand Media ... by mid-April, with the full suite of Panda updates in place, Demand was feeling the pain. As of April 16, it accounted for only 0.34 percent of Google’s downstream, a 40 percent decline from the start of 2011.

Demand Media's Stock Falls 40%

Incidentally, over the past couple weeks Demand Media's stock is off roughly 40%

With that in mind, let's consider why eHow got torched. Here is a visual interpretation of the rise & fall of content farms. Here is part 1 of the eHow story, and part 2 follows below.

Branding

Ultimately I believe if content farms did not market themselves as sleazy operations almost nobody would have noticed or cared. You didn't see many people talking about "the content farm problem" until after Demand Media was featured in Wired as the cheap, disposable answer factory.

That article not only inflamed journalists (who were losing their jobs due to downsizing, outsourcing, and technology changes), but also inflamed anyone who created original content and later saw a rewrite of their own work replaced by eHow.

That article (which claimed eHow to be profitable as hell, a fuzzy claim depending on how one accounts for content depreciation) was aimed at trying to position Demand for an IPO and to try to pull in more media syndication partnerships.

What it did was inflame the web community & encourage others to play the same game & create content farms based on the blueprint Demand gave away. When a piece of marketing either pisses off almost everyone & encourages many of the people who are not pissed off to compete directly against you & cut your margins it is not a successful marketing approach.

Wages

A reason it was so easy for journalists to claim bad things about Demand Media was that the wages were so low that they didn't practically allow for any in-depth research to be done (unless a person was willing to work far below minimum wage). Thus when journalists started to dig into eHow's business model they got eHow writers to state things like:

"I was completely aware that I was writing crap," she said. "I was like, 'I hope to God people don't read my advice on how to make gin at home because they'll probably poison themselves.'

"Never trust anything you read on eHow.com," she said, referring to one of Demand Media's high-traffic websites, on which most of her clips appeared

Scale

The larger your scale is the easier it is to find something wrong with what you are doing. 1% of a really big number is much greater than 10% of a rather small number. If you are cutting corners & operating at scale & create a lot of enemies then I wish you the best of luck, because you are going to need it!

Outrageous Content

In spite of letting a few things fall through the cracks, to this day there are some OUTRAGEOUS eHow titles. A friend showed me a couple and after 5 minutes of searching I found:

Nose Picking

  • How to Pick Your Nose The Proper Way ehow.com/how_5722363_pick-nose-proper-way.html
  • How to Pick Your Nose or Scratch Surreptitiously ehow.com/how_2181862_pick-nose-scratch-surreptitiously.html
  • How to Effectively Pick Your Nose ehow.com/how_5067366_effectively-pick-nose.html

Exploring Other Orifaces

  • How to Fart ehow.com/how_2151823_fart.html
  • How to Stop Farting ehow.com/how_4785860_stop-farting.html
  • How to Muffle a Fart ehow.com/how_2320127_muffle-fart.html
  • How to Poop in the Woods ehow.com/how_2179463_poop-woods.html

Productivity Advice

  • How to Not Get an Ehow Article Erased ehow.com/how_5570908_not-ehow-article-erased.html
  • How to Slack at Work (and not get caught) ehow.com/how_4522164_slack-work-not-caught.html
  • How to Slack Off at Work and Not Get Caught ehow.com/how_4837878_slack-off-work-not-caught.html
  • How to Do Nothing at Work and Still Get Paid ehow.com/how_4430256_do-nothing-work-still-paid.html

Honing Your Social Graces & Charm School

  • How to Manipulate People to do Your Bidding ehow.com/how_2167832_manipulate-people-do-bidding.html
  • How to Get a DUI ehow.com/how_4825159_get-a-dui.html "You might think getting a DUI is as easy as getting behind the wheel of a car after drinking alcohol. But that's only half the battle. You also need to get pulled over by law enforcement and cited for it."
  • How to Not Be a Husband Caught Cheating ehow.com/how_5528899_not-husband-caught-cheating.html
    "Don't leave trails which can and will turn into signs you're cheating. First point to remember is to not use any computer your partner has access to when you communicate via email or IM to the cohort."

AdSense Click Fraud

  • How to get banned from Google Adsense ehow.com/how_5740892_banned-google-adsense.html
  • How to Increase Your Click Through Rate with Google AdSense ehow.com/how_5203081_increase-through-rate-google-adsense.html
  • How to not get Caught With Google Adsense Click Fraud ehow.com/how_5979999_not-caught-google-adsense-fraud.html

Leveraging Expired Domains

Demand Media bought out a leading domain registrar named eNom & leveraged some of the expired domains with links to prop up eHow, by 301 redirecting those domains into eHow's deep pages.

Javascript Nofollow on Outbound Links

Most of eHow's outbound links were coded in a javascript that prevented search spiders from being able to credit the original content sources which Demand Media writers used as the base for writing their content.

If you throw off links you get some love for it from your fellow webmaster, but no publishers like a PageRank black hole (unless they own it).

Duplication & Auto-generated Content

eHow was not only churning out loads of shallow content, but Demand Media was also using the data gleaned from eHow to make sister sites which included auto-generated pages and feeding search engines their own results.

They Made Google Look Stupid

Doing one thing and claiming another can provide cover for some finite period of time, but ultimately when you create such a spectacle out of Google that your exploitative ways become the core marketing message for Google's competitors you know your days are numbered. And given that the Wired piece made the media hate Demand Media, there was nobody left to defend them other than folks who would also seem in some way conflicted.

Ultimately this goes back to the core issue that hurt Demand Media: branding.

Don't make Google look stupid. That is the #1 rule of SEO.

Published: April 26, 2011

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Comments

April 26, 2011 - 8:02am

Incredible Post Aaron! I could not agree with you more and while explaining this same situation to an inquiring customer I felt like I was rambling on and on but it truly is a complicated mess and not based on just 1 simple action!

This is my new favorite phrase... "Don't Make Google Look Stupid"

April 26, 2011 - 2:46pm

You're absolutely right Aaron, branding (or negative PR to be exact) has put external pressure onto Google to self-inflict a small injury to the cash-cow they're all milking. Much along the lines of "Don't make Google look stupid" indeed.

Demand Media got ahead of themselves, slightly outgrowing the boundaries of their own ego Google was willing to tolerate... and got the bitch-slap many marketers are quite familiar with in one way or another ;)

Some food for thought: What if Demand Media followed a strategy similar to EzineArticles / ArticleBase / etc and flew under the radar by not (loudly and proudly) publicising their industrialized process for churning out content??? The content quality on these other sites is by no means of any higher standard... and in many cases even worse (surprise, surprise)... yet you don't hear about it on the e-news.

Would Google still have penalized these sites the same way? I have no doubt that a more advanced "duplicate content" algorithm would have been put in place anyway, but I get the feeling that the more authorative sites would have stayed practically untouched.

April 26, 2011 - 4:39pm

Some food for thought: What if Demand Media followed a strategy similar to EzineArticles / ArticleBase / etc and flew under the radar by not (loudly and proudly) publicising their industrialized process for churning out content??? The content quality on these other sites is by no means of any higher standard... and in many cases even worse (surprise, surprise)... yet you don't hear about it on the e-news.

Those sites were fine with growing quietly for years (and over a decade even for Ezine) and nobody really cared about them. It was only the Demand Media hype pump program to generate controversy and create "demand" for their IPO that put all this stuff on radar.

Think of how long article directories have been online...sites like Buzzle have been online longer than people like me have. They grew quietly and aggressively for the better part of a decade, and it was only the PR campaign by Demand Media which ended that cycle IMHO.

Richard Rosenblatt didn't raise hundreds of millions of Dollars to build a viable longterm enterprise and quietly live off the earned cashflow. Most content /media business models are slow growing & low margin...the exact opposite of what Wall Street loves to sell. If he was building something for the longterm he wouldn't have needed to raise any capital & could have built it from scratch with his millions and millions of savings. Capital was about momentum and leverage to sell a high-growth story at a high-growth multiple.

Think back to his past sales like iMall or MySpace...how are they doing today? He is a great salesman, but it is a lot easier to sell a story at a precise moment in time than it is to build real lasting value.

April 26, 2011 - 5:18pm

It was only the Demand Media hype pump program to generate controversy and create "demand" for their IPO that put all this stuff on radar.

My thoughts exactly, glad to see that others feel the same way :)

The online world is finally commercialized enough for larger companies to come in (or more like buy in) and speculate an exponential growth on their overvalued cyber-assets. Wall Street 2.0 anyone?

I know this is not a new or an uncommon phenomenon, but it seems like it's going to happen a lot more often in the coming years... and it will be interesting to see how Google is going to react to an overflow of high-profile players all pouring into the same business model on the back of national PR campaigns, with tens of millions to invest into online promotion to grow overnight.

My guess is that SEO is going to get more "restricted" in a way, with more and more weight leaning towards historical authority and user satisfaction (do I get a +1 for stating the obvious!?)... and as mentioned in the other post, content farms are here to stay... so stalk up on those indexed pages and watch AdSense revenues (as well as AdWords costs unfortunately) continue to grow exponentionally and hit record highs year after year.

P.S. - Just joined this community and I love it, Aaron I'd love to shake hands in person :) I thoroughly enjoy your long posts, and find the contributing members to be very well educated and a pleasure to interact with.

P.S.S - Why did my comment "preview" button disappear!? :(

April 26, 2011 - 5:28pm

one vertical at a time. Video / local / CPA offers / books / travel / etc.

It is easier for them to manage the verticals if they manage who can participate in them & have a formal direct financial tie with them.

April 26, 2011 - 6:16pm

Keep in mind that folks at Google knowingly helped fund the model of the Content Farm. Demand Media ripped off Associated Content, which was funded by Tim Armstrong -- to help create more content destinations for AdSense. About.com pioneered the idea, but Google money scaled it.

Content Farms aren't necessarily a bad thing if they confine themselves mostly to the long tail, create original content, and have reasonable quality filters -- and as long as there is a working feedback loop. Presumably they are providing information that people are looking for where no one else would. I am sure there are people who are interested in how to stop farting -- and I don't see any thing wrong with someone providing that content and making a profit.

The problem isn't with the Content Farms -- it is with the algorithm that allowed Content Farm results to dominate throughout the tail, and didn't take into account consumer dissatisfaction with the results. If Google looked briefly stupid, I think the shoe fit.

Arguably, Google is now being quite long-sighted for a public company with quarterly earnings -- it is taking the short term hit by deliberately abandoning some of the companies it helped create (many of whom use a ton of adsense) for the sake of preserving search integrity.

This strikes me as both smart, and non-evil.

April 26, 2011 - 6:52pm

Keep in mind that folks at Google knowingly helped fund the model of the Content Farm.

Yes, in a sense that Google did fund it, but no, in a sense that they did not knowingly encourage such business model. It's not like Google modified their infrastructure to better suit content farming type sites (aside from the privilege to style the ads for higher CTR). Credit for exploiting an already existing AdSense platform on a large scale should go to the publishers.

Also, while Demand Media might have ripped off the basic principles of Associated Content, they went after an entirely different business model. Associated Content actually tried to screen out good writers from the bad and paid them modest wages to write quality pieces covering local events and such, rather than outsourcing the cheapest possible writers to produce grammatically correct nonsense.

The problem isn't with the Content Farms -- it is with the algorithm that allowed Content Farm results to dominate throughout the tail, and didn't take into account consumer dissatisfaction with the results.

Consumer dissatisfaction is a very vague statement... I believe Blekko (correct me if I'm wrong) tried filtering out pages from "content farm" sites and the outcome was a huge dip in search results relevancy! Also, to be honest, it was on a number of occasions that I had ended up reading an ezine after searching for something random and found it at least remotely useful. This is not to mention that the apparent consumer dissatisfaction only surfaced after Demand Media's PR stunt.

Arguably, Google is now being quite long-sighted for a public company with quarterly earnings -- it is taking the short term hit by deliberately abandoning some of the companies it helped create (many of whom use a ton of adsense) for the sake of preserving search integrity.

I'm wouldn't be so sure on this one, in terms of the short term hit... as far as I see it, it's a simple shift of who gets the ad impressions now, rather than an overall decrease in the amount of content ads they will be serving.

April 26, 2011 - 8:03pm

Would have been rolling out a first algorithm against content farms that missed the likes of eHow, but they have since corrected that.

Ask.com is *really* lucky that there is a big brand shortcut for huge brands, because their scrape and serve "answers" stuff is actually often even worse than eHow's...but I don't know if Google would hit Ask right after signing a big distribution partnership agreement with them.

April 26, 2011 - 7:42pm

And you do it more frequently then most others. Though a search for f**k Google is still showing some nice results :)

April 26, 2011 - 8:10pm

Rather it highlighted how aggressive Demand Media was & how short-sighted that aggressive behavior was if they intended to create a long standing company.

Maybe they did, maybe they didn't, but I am pretty sure they didn't want their stock to tank before the lock up period! Though their stock seems to be up today, so maybe the carnage is over for a bit. The problem is, their main revenue source (or, rather, their main profit margin source) now has a tainted brand...and they can't easily change that without over-investing in content quality, but if they head down that path then they risk margins with that as well.

Who the big winners on the content farm stuff were are Google (on the public relations front), searchers (who get to search without seeing as much rehashed farm crap), the big brands that Google gave a ranking boost to, and Wikihow (which branded itself as the anti-farm content farm).

April 27, 2011 - 1:48am

The Demand Media how to style sometime is self-parodying, but this is worth a read. http://thecontentfarm.tumblr.com/post/3497556147/how-to-hire-a-prostitut...

April 27, 2011 - 7:05pm

I realized I have been doing this all wrong.

April 27, 2011 - 3:38pm

Wow, blast from the past. When I was first learning SEO (end 07/beginning 08), primarily through online reading SEOBook, Moz, and SELand, that Shoemoney video (I think linked to from something in this blog) was one of the first I remember watching. Though the techniques discussed at the time were way over my head, it was phenomenal timing to learn the number one lesson in search marketing.

August 27, 2011 - 2:14pm

Demand Media's business model is to have people write crappy articles that rank in a timely manner - just enough of the promise of content and just crappy enough to drive people quickly off the page through the nearest adsense ad. This, so far, is the standard aggregator model for audiences, ads, and writers.

If Google intended to slap Demand Media, then how did it explain this penalty to the YouTube division which seems to rely heavily on Demand Media's video content?

August 28, 2011 - 1:49am

...thus the "content farm" stuff that applies to most content farms does *not* apply to YouTube.

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