Will Demand Media and Other Content Farms Ever Create Good Content?

I loved this tweet by NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin on journalism versus newspapers. One is a specific type of content, he reminds us, the other is a distribution platform.

Andy Carvin Tweet on Newspapers v Journalism

In the early days of Internet newspapers and magazines, which banged out new content more frequently than their print counterparts, web publishers were criticized for their lack of quality, spelling and fact checking.

Right around the time web publishing had attained mainstream credibility, blogs emerged as the new enemies of quality journalism. How could people writing without pay create anything good? But somehow quality publications emerged from the blogosphere, including the Huffington Post, with its small staff of editors and its thousands of unpaid contributors.

Evidence of the Huffington Post’s legitimacy among journalists is a recent post at the Daily Beast by Newsweek’s Dan Lyons. Its new model of journalism — some created by paid staffers, some for free by independent bloggers, and some aggregated from other sources such as AP — is in danger of destruction by the “AOL Way,” an approach advocated by AOL CEO Tim Armstrong to create more search-engine friendly content. Much like the technique used at content farms such as Demand Media and Yahoo’s Associated Content.

“It’s all about making stories based on traffic potential and profit potential. It’s all about numbers — and volume. It’s a depressing, sickening, embarrassing document. AOL’s hacks are expected to write five to 10 articles a day — which put me in mind of the scene in Ben-Hur where the slaves are put to work rowing a Roman warship, and their Roman master tells them, ‘We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well, and live.’”

Before I go on, let me first admit that Demand Media and Associated Content are certainly producing a lot of crap. Earlier today I was searching to find caffeine levels in Mighty Leaf brand breakfast tea (is there any?! I’m falling asleep as I type this), and on the first page of Google’s results was an “article” from Associated Content.

Associated Content on Might Leaf Tea

It’s really atrocious. Someone or some machine seems to be inserting phrases such as “your search for excellent quality teas” and “great online source for tea drinkers” in nearly every sentence. And there’s almost nothing useful between the search-bait clauses.

Yet I still hold out hope for the content farmers. In its extreme form, where somebody or something is generating and inserting nonsense phrases in sentences written, presumably, by a human being, these content-farming platforms are spewing out spam. If Google can’t figure out how to sift out this dreck, it will (as has been widely reported) lose its share of our attention and the ad dollars chasing that attention.

But what’s to say that content farms can’t operate like quality-agnostic platforms — like Blogger, WordPress and Twitter? Or “platforms” that are less defined by their underlying technology than by their ability to delivery content to audiences, such as the Huffington Post or print newspapers of old? If you turn off the god-awful search-bait phrase creator, isn’t content farming just a new way of assigning stories? We’re certainly in trouble as a civilization if this becomes the only way! And you’ll still have lots of junk — just like you do across the blogosphere, Twitter or those beloved newspapers from the golden age of print journalism — but there’s also an opportunity for a passionate tea drinker to publish a useful paragraph comparing breakfast blends from Mighty Tea and Peet’s, or a community organizer to get news out to neighbors without the costs associated with publishing a neighborhood paper.

Who knows? When I first created a Twitter account, I dismissed it as a chat room for my narcissistic friends. Now it’s helping to power revolutions.

Related: As Google Declares War on Content Farms, What’s Demand Media To Do?

  1. # Neil Chase said: February 28th, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    Your tea example looks like a Saturday Night Live spoof of SEO, but it is indeed real. And, you’re right. Atrocious.

    Yes, it’s designed to get search traffic. But that’s not why it’s garbage. Lots of articles, including the several thousand per week published by a top-notch news organization I used to work for, are optimized for search with carefully crafted headlines, appropriate keywords, etc.

    It’s garbage because it provides no value. You can’t learn anything, or answer your question about the caffeine content (yeah, I know, you need more caffeine listening to me drone on). When you read it, you feel deceived. Your time was wasted. That’s the definition of a bad search result, something Google needs to filter out to better serve me.

    But that doesn’t mean every company producing large volumes of content is all bad. Demand Media produces a wide range of stuff, ranging from simple how-tos (which are valuable as long as the answer the question “How do I …” regardless of whether or not they’re “journalism”) up to articles by professional journalists that run on sites like USA Today.
    If Demand or The Wall Street Journal or Chasnote produced an article like the one you cite above, it should be treated as garbage by the search engines.

    Besides, where do a bunch of stuck-up city folk like us get off using the term “farm” as derogatory? Farms feed us. Bad farms feed us e coli, which does the same thing to my stomach that Mighty Leaf Tea story did …

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