Google Declares War on Content Farms, What's Demand Media to Do?

Yesterday Google announced changes to the PageRank algorithm that will affect nearly 12% of search results. According to their post at Google’s blog, Matt Cutts and Amit Singhal say the changes are “designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites — sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful.”

Presumably this will have an enormous effect on content farms such as Demand Media and Yahoo’s Associated Content. So what’s a content farmer to do?

A few days ago I wrote a post expressing my hope that content farms might grow up into something useful and generally less sucky. Maybe I’ve been reading too many happy-ending fairytales to my daughters. But when I pull back from the actual content from Demand or Associated that makes its way to my search results (which is usually quite bad), I see a platform — and platforms, theoretically, are things on which you can build something lame or something good. If the content farmers help individuals with knowledge find questions (search queries) that need answers (topics too niche for large or mid-sized publishers to cover), it seems plausible that some individuals might create useful content.

My argument, though, misses at least two important points, which Glenn Fleishman and Jeff Jarvis helped me think through.

From BuzzMachine:

“Why do people write on Huffington Post? Because they can. Because they give a shit. Because they like the attention and conversation. Because they couldn’t before. Why do they sing their songs on YouTube? Same reasons.”

Jarvis’s argument is: When we’re doing work, we expect to get paid. When we’re doing something for the love of it, we’re motivated by passion and the opportunity to be heard. When we’re doing it for love, in other words, we often create value for free. Quality content is traded for distribution to an audience and for a chance be an authority.

In a Twitter exchange with Glenn Fleishman, he said “The more you spend, the better content you get, up to a point.” His site, Wi-Fi Net News, was one of the first 10 sites that teamed up with Federated Media back in 2005. So my question back to him was: “But what about WFNN in the early days when the money wasn’t great but the content was?”

Glenn Fleishman tweet

Aha. It’s about ownership. Glenn is specifically referring to IP ownership (his words, his URL, his business), but there’s a different kind of ownership too — one that Jarvis is getting at. I’m willing to contribute (to the best of my abilities) good content, free of charge, to Twitter, Quora or the Huffington Post even though I don’t own the IP or the business. I’m willing to do that because I do get to own the authority. Those platforms publish my by-line, picture and bio, so if someone out there thinks something I write is smart or funny, I own that goodness. I’m not making money, but I get credit. I work hard to create value because, if I’m successful, that content distributed on those platforms polishes my brand and my reputation.

Even if Demand Media keeps most of the money they’re making from their websites, they might dodge the Google bullet if they can improve content quality by giving their contributors a sense of ownership over what they create. And then they marry the handsome prince!

(This post also appears on Techdirt, where the comments are much more lively.)

  1. # Shena said: February 25th, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    I think the best way to address the problem of questionable/useless content is to provide users a rating or like/dislike (not to be too facebooky but you know ;) ) function. This would let the content searchers tell you if they found the site to be helpful or not. It would also be good to let people block content delivered from a site all together. That is really the only viable way I can see that this sort of thing can take effect.

    There are SOME things you just can’t automate.

  2. # Chas said: March 1st, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    It’s going to be really hard to automate for “quality” in subjective, human sense. But I do think search algorithms can improve results by factoring in bounce rate and identifying the source of original (versus scraped) content. It will also be interesting to watch what Google does with the crowdsourced input collected from Chrome users who blacklist URLs.

  3. # Virginia said: March 2nd, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    You know its funny, I work for a “content farm” and I am a registered nurse who provides very accurate and helpful information to readers. It is important to remember, these sites such as eHow and Associated Content also allow members to post articles, not just “content farmers.” The members are not always factual in their writing, and only do it to get attention. If you learn how to look for the actual professional articles on these sites then you wouldn’t have a problem. Grouping all of the writers in with the less knowledgeable members is just wrong, and to say that our writing is low-quality shows that you have no idea how these companies work. My suggestion is before you bash so-called content farms, you may want to go inside and find out how things are really done. Demand Media, for one, has very strict regulations on who is allowed to write for them. You must have degrees or certification in a specific field to write the subject matter. This just seems like a modern day witch hunt to put thousands of more people out of work in this dwindling economy. Way to go!

  4. # Nathan Safran said: March 3rd, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    Conductor just posted a study on the impact of the farmers update to ehow: http://blog.conductor.com/2011/03/google-farmer-update-shakeup-followed-by-unexpected-recovery/

    I think the problem of producing quality content at scale is one that will persist. One of the findings of the study is that Google is clearly getting better at determining whats relevant to the searcher query and whats not.

    Nathan Safran
    Senior Research Analyst
    Conductor, Inc

  5. # Chas said: March 3rd, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    Virginia–Thanks for that comment. It makes me happy to hear that platforms like Demand Media are making room for expert contributors like you. I’ve come across some of eHow’s bad content (by way of search — I haven’t spent much time exploring eHow directly), and now I look forward to hunting down the good stuff by people like you. I’m optimistic.

  6. # Chas said: March 3rd, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    Nathan–Thanks for that link. From people I’ve been talking to, it sounds like pages that aggregate content (even pages that license high-quality content) are still getting hit pretty hard. Much of the content at Demand Media sites (eHow, etc) and Associated Content are, in fact, original material, which seems to be faring better in Google’s new algorithm. I assume that Google’s approach is limited to measurable behaviors — click-through rate, bounce rate, time spent, and originality (ie, penalties if they find very similar content with early time-stamp associated with it) — which don’t always equate to quality in the human definition of it. I just hate to see some smaller original-content sites getting caught in the crossfire.

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