The 'Information' Age

Relevancy is a good thing. It makes search and the world more efficient. Many attempts at relevancy, like search is getting more social, may just create more noise. But computers are getting better at understanding language is a good thing "our measurements show that synonyms affect 70 percent of user searches across the more than 100 languages Google supports."

But it seems each increase in relevancy justifies additional increases in irrelevancy to increase monetization.

'Accidental' Hijacking

Each individual piece sounds useful and helpful, but the end effect (and goal) is hijacking and misdirecting traffic to display more ads.

Search companies are hijacking publisher content to offer "answers" right in the search results, while testing displaying full images in the image search results.

Even when you claim your own business listing, Google will show your customers recommendations of other competing businesses on your business profile page. One of the best advertising based business models is extortion. And while the sum of the pieces may amount to that, certain ad networks are clever in how they tie it all together to *appear* innocent, even when acting like a shark.

What does a spam site do? Scrape content, misdirect visitors, and hope to get an ad click. Look at the above sequence through the same lens. It is the same thing - eeeeeeeeeevil.

SEO is Evil, Except When I Am Selling It!!!!

And yet a lot of the largest online spam publishers / scraper websites are taking a page out of Google's book...call SEO professionals scammers selling snake oil, while building search arbitrage businesses based on stealing third party content and wrapping it in ads. Perhaps the goal of charlatan douchebags like Dave Sifry and Jason Calacanis are to promote the Google anti-SEO public relations messaging in hoping that Google will not burn their sites to the ground. It may well work.

A popular SEO figure who sold a content management system based on cloaking mentioned at a secret meeting amongst Google's spam team and top SEOs that he loves turning in spammers. If he didn't promote Google's misinformed view he probably wouldn't get away with a business model built on cloaking.

What are Technorati and Mahalo but glorified scraper websites? And yet to promote such trash they claim to be search evangelists fighting for the purity of the search results (while they scrape scrape scrape).

While publicly those people trash SEO, they sell SEO services, and a friend told me that they are even using high pressure telemarketing and email spam to pitch "services" ... one such message I was forwarded stated:

Thanks for taking the time to review our new and improved demo. I'm glad you liked it and I'm forwarding you the PowerPoint version for you to truly experience the animation. Once you've distributed to the right parties I can always hop on a quick call to go through the demo really quick to really emphasize the value as an SEO component which is what the end result really is. Along the way you reap the benefits of having great content, a social media platform that all work to SEO and drive traffic. So even if up front the value is hard to fit into the normal SEO purchase, think of it as SEO with bells and whistles.

And as long as Google continues to rank the main scraper websites from such companies, that provides the proof of value which sells the garbage content to big brands. And so the above pitch was made by you-know-who, and Demand Media is going to start selling content to old media sites "One example Kydd mentioned was Demand’s partnership with the travel section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which, like most newspapers, is strapped for cash."

Quick question: what is to prevent Demand Media from partnering with hundreds of such media sites to leverage the combination of cheap labor, keyword earnings data, the media site's PageRank, and really just doing some serious damage to the search results? Unless the trend is altered, within 3 years almost any midtail to longtail keyword of value will have at least 7 of the top 10 results recycling the same poorly researched semi-legible informationless information.

All of the top Google search results say it is true. SO IT MUST BE!!!

AOL made a slight profit this past year and they are scaling a similar "content" business model, pushing tons of robo reporters to conduct flavor of the minute interviews.

Who Does This Hurt?

  • searchers who may presume stuff in the search results is factually correct
  • publishers which actually do real research and ensure their content is factually correct
  • individual artists and authors who are experts but who are not hype driven & not self promotional enough to outrank dumbed down rewrites of their content heavily wrapped in Google ads

Recently there was an article about how fremium often does not work as well as advertised and the NYT highlighted Jaron Lanier's take on the online social contract:

“The basic idea of this contract,” he writes, “is that authors, journalists, musicians and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.”

The above has been highlighted many times on this blog, but its damage has been far faster and far more widespread than even I anticipated.

Since Google is scraping so much CitySearch content, CitySearch felt the need to become a distributed content & ad network to remain relevant.

Strategic Advertising Fraud

Many solid publishers are getting lost in the ad mix:

The lingering effects of the economic recession, coupled with an expanding supply of efficient, and highly targeted online advertising networks, is reshaping the way big advertisers and agencies perceive the value of online media outlets. The result has been a pronounced polarization of the online advertising marketplace, with perceived demand rising for both the high-end of the most premium publishers and the low-end of ad networks and aggregators. This has caused perceived advertising value for the muddled middle of the marketplace - all but the most premium publishing sites, and the major online portals like AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo - to erode, as the ad industry focuses its attention on the top and the bottom players.

Those ad networks are (of course) full of fraudulent distribution which helps make them seem cheaper than they are, while leeching off the legitimate publishers and driving down CPM rates on legitimate media.

Click fraud has hurt the Google network's image, but a lot of it was isolated incidents from amateurs. While Yahoo! search got killed by fraud, Google still did pretty well.

But as Demand Media saturates their site the returns lower and they are in need of more links to get more "content" indexed. And so they are promoting a business model based on incentivized publishing, which includes both "The more high quality links to your article there are on the web, the more highly a search engine will rank it" and "Your family and friends are probably curious about what you are writing anyway. Send them links and invite them to take a look!"

Given that those author's articles are hidden in the bowels of a large site (and that they are already being encouraged to build exposure), how big of a jump is it to assume that some of them will search for this or this? How many of them will create unofficial click rings? How many will ask friends to click an ad while they view it? How will Google be able to detect such activity given the big smokescreen such a large site provides? They can't.

The Shifting Moat

As online ad networks become more polluted will that finally push brands into investing in top social media sites? Yes a lot of social media is seedy...but, increasingly, the "content" websites are not looking much better.

Who does the rise of content scrapers help? Those who are involved in the manufacturing of bulk misinformation, search companies which pay people to steal content and wrap it in their ads, and those who sell subscription content (well, up until some of the above outfits buy subscriptions to those sites to re-write and dumb down the content). In some markets (where the market leader is clear and obvious and oftenly referenced on the garbitrage websites) the backfill junk content might also help develop a competitive moat between the top brands and weaker competitors. It might also help some people involved in analytics, as more businesses need to squeeze every ounce of profit to stay alive.

Success from scratch in many polluted markets will require more grit, more scars, and better differentiation. As robotic content fills the search results, people will likely gravitate toward the expression of emotions. At the same time some employers are trying to prevent employees from having the opportunity to get their hands dirty, leaving an opportunity for competing businesses who want the additional exposure.

Published: February 6, 2010

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Comments

February 7, 2010 - 6:12pm

huh, just noticed you linked to me here, thanks aaron. great post too-- your long ones are always my favourite.

February 9, 2010 - 1:43am

Aaron,

I think you're really getting to the meat of the issues we're dealing with here. I'd like to hear how you feel that 'regular' site owners can really compete with these automated quasi-spam sites. It can't be in google's best interests to allow this dumbing down of search results to occur, but I don't see any indication that they are aware of the issue and have any intention to do something about it.

Are we basically at the mercy of the algorithm gods at Google and Microsoft?

February 9, 2010 - 8:30am

Well the obvious answers is that regular site owners will need to be that much better to remain profitable.

All this does is take the wealth distribution curve and cut out a lot of it, shifting it to where the top winners win bigger and a lot of the people in the middle become (relative) losers.

So now more then ever you need to *own* your market. And if you don't own it, consider re-branding or re-categorizing yourself into a parallel niche which you feel you can own.

February 9, 2010 - 8:11pm

I've been following all of Aaron's posts about demand media et al. While I do think that sites like these are going to ruin the search results for informational searches in the short term I don't think they ultimately prevent companies from selling product online.

I think many people reading this blog have gone the route of producing relevant content to drive links to transactional sites and then have gone through SEO hell to optimize and build links to said sites to rank well for generic keywords. How many of you, speaking mostly to lead generators, have gone through the process of really learning the business you were driving leads for in order to create a unique and compelling information site about the subject matter? And those who haven't, where did you get your content? I'm sure most of it is created through content rewrites and in some cases scraping combined with UGC like reviews and comments.

SEO has always been a survival of the fittest type of game, and this will be no different. Unless the engines single out some of these business models like Mahalo as blackhat and hypocritical, we all need to move on to the next tactic and beat them at their own game.

My guess is people will learn to filter through these sites when they realize that the content doesn't actually say anything of value, and move on to the next result. The bar will be raised eventually and it will be people, not the engines, that are the cause of it.

February 9, 2010 - 8:23pm

Unless the engines single out some of these business models like Mahalo as blackhat

I think that is the point I am trying to make...such models were already singled out as black hat, and described by none-other-than Matt Cutts as "shoot on sight".

Search engineers going after small players while arbitrarily ignoring content scraper farms makes the whole SEO process more arbitrary than it needs to be. Many of the best will still thrive...but that sorta stuff will drive people out of the market who may have been successful if such auto-generation of content crap was not permitted.

And I agree with you that nothing creates lasting sustainable revenues as well as *really* knowing the industry you operate in inside out. Eventually many verticals will require that to compete...the fact that many industries do not is just a testament to the amount of opportunity that still exists.

February 17, 2010 - 1:12am

well said Aaron! my thoughts here - http://www.internetinc.com/job-search-trash

a fan,
eric

February 17, 2010 - 5:22am

Another option you could have considered (rather than turning comments off) would be to require registration to comment. Won't stop all the spam...but will stop a good chunk of it.

March 20, 2010 - 7:34pm

Fascinating post.

While it is obvious to me you have a pretty good understanding of the many machinations going on in the area of scraping, culture becoming advertising, etc., I'm wondering how much of it are just complicated manefestations of one basic thing. . .

Most of us have to make a living, and if we aren't known, we aren't found or sought after.

Knowing that, some will attempt to get known by ethical and honest means, and if possible, render some value while doing so, while others simply want to push themselves to the front of the line and gain attention at almost any expense.

I might be a blind optimist, but while short term gains are and will be made, I tend to think that people and companies that build reputations and render value tend to come out the winners- even under thick blankets of Internet complexity.

I see that as a basic truth in large part to the fact that when someone has a positive experience with a company, product, or value-rendering article, they are more apt to come back and leave the noise. Over time that should leave the "empty but noisy" screaming at fewer people.

Thanks for helping others better understand this topic. Useful info. In the mean time, let's hope the good guys inspire more good.

March 21, 2010 - 9:23am

Spot on about lack of brand or reputation equating to low demand and limited wage power.

I think you are right in that most people will try their best to do good. However when you look at the subset of people *who succeed wildly and influence the lives of many* you will see that their ambitions typically put moral limitations in the back seat.

How else would you explain sweat shop labor, mass environmental destruction, the endless layers of financial fraud at top banks, the level of secrecy with which the government handed those bankers money (against the will of the people), and so on.

Is online any different? Well it does allow conversations like this to happen, where there is direct feedback...and that can be quite cool. But there is a downside too, as to some degree it allows us to self-subscribe to our own existing biases. With the rise of social networks there has also been a sharp rise in hate groups...now they have a place to share that hate.

And relevancy algorithms that aim to learn our weaknesses (to better exploit them with targeted ads) are pushing more for personalization...making it seem more normal to be warped because you keep finding the same warped views over and over again. They must be normal.

And property rights online are next to non-existent. Freetard culture makes it such that you are offensive to a large group of people if you try to make any money off your labor. Search engines like Google suggest that people download the torrent, serial, or cracks to access your goods.

And look at Youtube...its founders admitted in private that piracy was the key to their growth, then lost those documents for the court, then had amnesia before the court when being asked about those documents when they were produced.

Until the bankers who looted Trillions of Dollars via mortgage fraud see jail time I don't think there is any hope for change. The system is rotten to the core, from the top down.

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