Content Farms – The Who, What and Why

by rishil on January 24, 2010

SweatShop Labour Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/erikv/86969161/

SweatShop Labour Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/erikv/86969161/

The name “Content Farm” kind of describes it perfectly. What a strange concept, isn’t it? Or maybe not. Spammers and BlackHat SEOs have been auto generating low quality content for long tail search engine rankings for a while now. The content farm technique arguably takes this a few steps further by creating better quality (note – still questionable quality), user friendly content for the exact same reason.

Essentially certain companies have hired thousands of writers and video content producers to churn out content that is determined algorithmically:

The system starts with an automated process, crunching data and running it through an algorithm to identify story ideas that have the best chance of success. The algorithm factors in audience type, ability to attract advertising and potential for traffic. Source

The whole “Why” of the situation is pretty much easy to decipher. After all, there are over tens of billions of searches every month. That traffic has some serious value, especially for Informational Queries.  After all, more than 80% of searches fall within this category.  It doesn’t really matter if these sites aren’t selling anything, they are monetised either via affiliate links within content or by display ad revenue, selling value by every thousand impressions. Tell me numbers, you say? How much do they really make? At last estimate, one such network reported revenue of  over £$200 million a year. EDIT NOTE: I screwed up the currency quoted. Thanks to Gil for picking up on that.

Quality based content farms aren’t a new concept either. Answers.com and  About.com fit the bill and have been milling the content out for years. And google adsense revenue finances many of these sites. I would also argue the case for Mahalo and MoneySavingExpert being included in the label of content farms . MSE had over 71m  Page Impressions December 2009, while Mahalo averages 15Million unique visitors and over 1Million Adsense Clicks a month.  However, I doubt that the writers / developers of this content are paid anywhere near that in perspective:

Demand pays from $0 (with revenue sharing) to $100 per piece; it averages at $20. Copy editors make $2.50-$3 per piece, which works out to $15-20 an hour. He said these people like to wake up and know there’s work they can do—there are 100k assignments waiting for takers right now—while they wait for old, human editors to respond to pitches. He said they also like being paid twice a week. Kydd said Demand employed 4,500 creators (text and video) and 400 copy editors in the last 30 days. Source

What do you think of these “content farms”?

McDonaldisation of Content - Is it a Pretty Picture? Photo Source http://www.flickr.com/photos/seeminglee/611540734/

McDonaldisation of Content - Is it a Pretty Picture? Photo Source http://www.flickr.com/photos/seeminglee/611540734/

Boutique content sites. The rise of content sweatshops like Demand Media will keep putting pressure on content producers who actually offer value. It’s McContent versus the mom and pop diner. Who wins? You make the call (I hope I’m wrong, since I’m the latter). – Ian Lurie, Conversation Marketing in 11 Marketing Trends to Ignore in 2010

So what really scares me? It’s the rise of fast food content that will surely, over time, destroy the mom and pop operations that hand craft their content today. It’s the rise of cheap, disposable content on a mass scale, force fed to us by the portals and search engines. Michael Arrington, Techcrunch in The End of HandCrafted Content

…algorithm-aided human writing will meet human-aided algorithmic curation; quality will rise – Jeff Jarvis, via Twitter

I am not sure what stance to take as yet, however I must admit to lean towards Ian and Michael. Niche content has been a great opportunity for small businesses, and these moms and pops stand to lose out to assembly line content.

How to Create Your Own

Ok, dont take this tongue-in-cheek approach too seriously, but you can build your own content network too at a fraction of the cost. Yo may not have a “Content determination Algo”, but you do have access to a number of free SEO Tools that can help you determine long tail content. At the same time you can get poor / average quality content as well. The example below describes how to put it all together.

(I am running a test using this technique on Sookie Stackhouse Novels)

I want to create a content rich site geared solely for search engine traffic. The site is focussed on Plumbing. Lets take one of my favourites long tail content research tools : Google Suggest

Google Suggest Long Tail Content - Plumbing

Google Suggest Long Tail Content - Plumbing

Aha! I now have nine possible topics that I should optimise for. So what do I do next? Well I have the list, now I need someone to actually write the content. So I use any of the services that help me do that at a very low cost. Some that I have used are below:

Typically you can get a 200-400 word article under $4(!). So for 9 articles I would expect to pay around $30-$35.All I need to do now is sit back, wait for the content, approve it and add it to my Plumbing Content site. Of course, as an SEO I know the importance of page titles, URLs, Headings etc, and use all of that to make the content as possible a match to search engine requirements. I havent tried it, but have been reccomended Content Now as a low cost resource as well.

There you go. I have my own long tail research tool, and my own content mill, all on a budget!

Further Reading:

Read Write Web have  a series of decent posts on Content Farms:

Balancing the Equation

The posts below are for suggested by Gil Reich, who works at Answers.com:

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Rishi Lakhani is an independent Online Marketing Consultant specialising in SEO, PPC, Affiliate Marketing and Social Media. Explicitly.Me is his Blog. Google Profile

{ 18 trackbacks }

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Footinmouth January 24, 2010 at 4:54 pm

Organic: Not just for Apples anymore

I think that the concern about the Mcdonalization of content is a real concern, but there is an element of human nature that will combat this naturally. This is the trend of people to seek out quality and will actually pay more for improved quality (or perceived improved quality). Look at the Organic industry in real farming: Controversial to some, this method of growing costs far more to the consumer, but it’s perceived improved quality has saved a large part of the farming industry from super-sized farms. I think there will still be a push fornot just “an answer”, but “the best answer”. That being said… I do think a smart site owner will harness both opporunities (like supermarkets do) and put out both high and low quality content. Because it’s better to get something out there, then keep yourself sidelined…would you agree some “farmed” content is better than none?

EDIT: (by Rishil) I really suggesting reading the Foot in Mouth blog for great ideas and conversations around content by the way!

Reply

rishil January 24, 2010 at 5:13 pm

I think that you are right in saying that “farmed” content is better than none. And regarding the “push for best” answer is what Jeff Jarvis (twitter quote in article) is reffering to.
Googles recent push towards real time may be affected by content that gets social approval, for example content that get retweeted often.

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Elaine January 24, 2010 at 6:03 pm

thankyou for that – I never knew it was that easy, I shall TRY to remember this – cheers

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Ryan Beale January 24, 2010 at 6:49 pm

Excellent Post, Rishil! While Content Farms are creating an abundance of long-tail content to be gobbled up by the search engines, I do think an area where real authority figures with high value-added content will continue to gain exposure and reach is the Social Mediashpere. With Real-Time Search becoming more important as a part of Google’s Algo, “Real Authority” figures in niche markets have opportunities to create content, share the content on Social Networks and increase chances for 1) gaining exposure to like-minded individuals (same demographic) with hopes of getting links back and 2) ranking in multiple listings on Google’s SERPs with Real Time Search

I am assuming that this high quality content that is being produced and shared on Social Networks will have a better chance of having other high quality (read: high value websites in the eyes of Google) content creators to link back. In my experience, high quality inbound links are more important that the quantity of inbound links.

What do you think?

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Goosh January 25, 2010 at 8:53 am

I’ve just been looking into this recently for a personal project of mine and that’s pretty much the same concept of coming up with content I used as well – it’s scary how simple it is.

Also, have you seen Aaron Wall’s “Black Hat SEO Case Study” (http://www.seobook.com/black-hat-seo-case-study)? Really tears Mahalo a new one!

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rishil January 25, 2010 at 9:06 am

Hey goosh – I did read the Mahalo Post – its linked to under resources :P

But you are right, its is pretty easy to set your own one up. The difficulty is getting it just right so it doesnt look like spam, and strengthening the domain enough so that all the rubbish you put out there gets picked up in the SERPs

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Goosh January 25, 2010 at 1:39 pm

I must be link blind, I checked – I swear lol. But the domain authority and enough “unique” content to mask the 100% bulk of the farm (at least initially) are the main challenges I saw when looking into it – especially with very small number of staff to maintain (i.e. me).

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jaamit January 25, 2010 at 9:00 am

Really interesting stuff. I guess you could describe UGC reviews and guest posts as a sort of content farm too? Amazon owe a lot of their amazing long tail traffic to lots and lots of review content.

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rishil January 25, 2010 at 9:09 am

I agree that the amazon traffic is def influenced by its UGC, but I wouldnt call it a content farm Jaamit – farming is kind of aiming for a certain set of results specifically targeting SERP gaps – wheres UGC although great for developing content, isnt necessarily such a contrived method.

If you were to say UGC=content farm then flickr, youtube, FB, etc (every social network) would be one :P

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jaamit January 25, 2010 at 9:22 am

Fair point! I guess I meant its another way to chase longtail traffic – yes its not (usually) laser targeted to specific longtail keyprases but using your plumbing example, what if you set up a “your plumbing solutions” sections where you had a list of plumbing issues you needed content on and offered incentives to people to write guides for you. Its not as easy to do (particularly if you dont have a readership in the first place) but arguably the content *could* be better quality and more importantly potentially involves building a relationship with someone in the process… I do realise I’m possibly going off the track here, I think what you’re suggesting is definitely a lot more realistic and immediately achievable for most SMEs.

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rishil January 25, 2010 at 9:29 am

You arent going off track – and infact Demand Media’s model is more clever than I give it credit for – check out ehow.com – they allow User Submitted Content – which means apart from their onw targeted traffic, they also make use of UGC to get other long tail traffic. In terms of concept and execution, I cant fail them, and must admit to being a tad *jealous* :(

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Baggsy January 25, 2010 at 9:32 am

There’s a future post for ya – “Sphinn: the Content Farm” :-)

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Jim Banks January 25, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Rishil, I finally get to follow up after our meet up in London!

I’m not going to go into a lengthy comment here, I am just going to put some words and the readers can fill in the gaps : article directories | video to text | text to video | madlib | PLR | article spinners | thesaurus | synonyms | Google Translate

Creating “unique” content is such a misnomer. When Michael Jackson died there were millions of news sites that reported his death, none of them had unique content, the topic was the same in every newspaper/magazine/blog/video the words were different, some put a different controversial spin on it etc.

The secret is to know how unique your content needs to be, and then how to get people to link to it, etc.

You could get JK Rowling to write your content, if you don’t know how to get links and eyeballs to it and to subsequently monetise it then your wasting your time.

Let’s reprise London with Al and Judith soon!

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Paul Allen January 25, 2010 at 2:28 pm

While most of this is really clever and I have used about.com lots and I have respect for this approach in some ways; automated/cheaply produced content should never be allowed to completely drown out good hand written content, because if it does, the opportunity to monetise hand written content will have gone, leaving everyone having to jump on the mass produced content bandwagon just to compete!

This could kill off the content producers that I like best, unique, independant bloggers with their own opinion & thoughts!

Pauly666

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Chris Frost January 25, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Funny you mention this, as it was covered at the Affiliate Summit by Wil Reynolds in his “How to Fix Failing SEO Efforts” session only last week. Very interesting, very simple, and as you point out – it’s a tool that if used wisely, can only help!

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Marc January 25, 2010 at 8:26 pm

As much as we cringe when we hear the words content farm, some sites like About.com (as you’ve mentioned) & Suite101.com are pushing out some quality content out there. Yes, they are filling the search index with tons of content. But some of that content can be quite good.

For writers, the advantage of writing for one of these sites is that they can just focus on their writing and don’t have to worry about marketing their site (or even having their own website in the first place). As much as we all want writers to be paid for their work, there is a cross-section of writers who just want to write and not have to worry about maintaining a blog.

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Kim January 26, 2010 at 12:42 am

Your info on how to start a content site may come in handy for former eHow writers who are leaving in droves. The aspect that sets eHow apart from the other mills (and not in a good way), is that by using both pre-paid and residual-earning content, they can get the residual writers to do the SEO work, promote the site to increase their earnings, then use Google Analytics to determine which residual articles to delete and replace with pre-paid content from Demand Studios. I can’t imagine anyone looking for a residual income to invest in this scam once they understand the inherent conflict of interest that is built into this model.

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rishil January 26, 2010 at 1:02 am

Hi Kim, I wish it was as easy as I make it sound. Truth is the strength that inbound links that eHow andd other content networks get means they ca outrank a lot of others.
However I would suggest to ex-ehow writers to potentially join up with some freelance SEOs who can help gain rankings and advise further, if they want to set up their own content sites.

I also suggest potentially looking into Blog Networks as an alternative.

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Gil Reich January 26, 2010 at 7:46 am

Hey Rishil. Question: You write “At last estimate, one such network reported revenue of over £200 million a year.” Why aren’t you naming the network? If you’re referring to Demand Studios, the information was $200 million, and most of that revenue was from their domain registration business, completely unrelated to their content business. If you’re referring to someone else, who?
General point: I think this piece would have been more useful if your presentation of the counter-argument weren’t limited to a single Jeff Jarvis Tweet. You could have balanced the negative links with for example the excellent articles by Kara Swisher, Doc Searls, and Ross Dawson (or with mine). Thanks.

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rishil January 26, 2010 at 9:59 am

Hey Gil, thanks for stopping by. To answer your questions:
Naming the network – This piece hasnt been intended to “out” Demand Media, nor is it meant to be a conversational piece – its simply stating things as I saw them in my limited SEO related vision. I dont debate ethics nor need to. The business side on me sees this as a great opportunity for revenue, while the small business side of me is worried about my clients. I must admit, it probably does read one sided, as your own piece seems to me. I have several doubts as to all the content knocked out being quality, but thats just a personal opinion. I wont argue the point (just as I probably wouldnt use wikipedia as a real resource).

Regarding balancing the equation, I think for fairness, I will add in the links to the articles you reccomend (having skimmed them) in the main body, and then follow up with an opinion piece, which I would love to invite you to be involved in.

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Gil Reich January 26, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Thanks Rishil. Happy to be involved in your follow-up piece. My biggest concern with how this discussion has played out (across various sites) is that a lot of evocative language gets used and various issues get combined. Sweatshops, content farms, fast food, etc. The issue you’ve mostly focused on is Large Scale Content Creation Network vs the Mom & Pop. Even if the large networks produced quality content through a diverse group of well paid freelancers (which I’m not arguing is the case) I think you’re concerned with big sites WalMarting small sites out of business. Which is a fair concern. But I think it’s important to separate out the arguments. Too many posts on this topic have just demonized Demand Media unfairly, IMO.

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wayne January 29, 2011 at 7:31 pm

How did you get the number of searches to show next to the google suggest keywords in the drop down. Is that a special firefox plug-in or did you pencil those in yourself? Please share the plug-in name if available.

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rishil February 1, 2011 at 2:17 pm

This used to be a Google Functionality, which they discontinued http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Web+Search/thread?tid=1890895d44fd71d5&hl=en

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Chris January 21, 2012 at 4:48 am

The only problem I have with Google’s original penalization of “Content Farms” is that they wound up catching sites that actually put out quality content. It seems as though they’ve changed the algorithm since and fixed that. I saw good riddance to the low quality, true content farms.

Reply

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