Gaming Google Well and Paying Writers Poorly: Bad Strategy for Content Farms

[first posted by Alice on 2/28/2011]

On February 24, 2011, Amit Singhal and Matt Cutts posted “Finding more high quality sites in search” on the official Google blog. They described what some have since termed the “Farmer algorithm,” which will change how Google ranks sites and may affect up to 11.8% of queries. Singhal and Cutts say: “This update is 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. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.”

Even to a casual web surfer it’s obvious that there are a lot of low-value pages on the internet, as well as pages which are “just not very useful,”  First of all, there’s spam – search engine blekko.com has a spam clock that illustrates the relentless appearance of a million new pages of spam each hour. Then of course there are the pages produced by content farms, which are of dubious value. According to Wikipedia, “In the context of the World Wide Web, the term content farm is used to describe a company that employs large numbers of often freelance writers to generate large amounts of textual content which is specifically designed to satisfy algorithms for maximal retrieval by automated search engines. Their main goal is to generate advertising revenue through attracting reader page views.” By definition, this implies that their main goal is not to produce what web users need and want most.

Google’s decision to target content farms didn’t come out of the blue, and many at these prolific, low-value sites knew they were creating a problem for themselves. On February 8, a couple of weeks before Google’s announcement of its new algorithm, Jason Calcanis, CEO at Mahalo, made a presentation at Signal LA. He cited the following figures on the output of some of the best-known content farms: Demand Media gives us 5,700 pieces of content per day; AOL 1,700 per day; Yahoo’s Associated Content 1,500 pieces per day; and Mahalo produces 1,100 pieces. He quoted from a January 21 post on the Google blog which said, that people want stronger action on sites that produce spam and poor-quality content, and he warned fellow content farmers not to “make Google look stupid” or they “will f**k you up.” He went on to say, “eHow and Demand Media: You have awoken the giant. Don’t do this kind of stuff. We’re all running off a cliff doing this sh***y content. And we have to look in the mirror and say, ‘Is this what we want to have created for our users?’ We are polluting the internet.” He said Mahalo now plans to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on each page to ensure better content and added, “It’s good for business if we get back to focusing on quality.”

And Calcanis wasn’t the only voice speaking up about the need for quality. Lisa Barone at Outspoken Media posted a February 10 article called “Why Google, SEOs & Users Must ‘Blekko Up.'” In it she advised those involved in Search Engine Optimization as follows:  “…if content is King, then put your money where your mouth is and use real copywriters. People that don’t get paid $.50 a word. If we ban content farm sites from the Web, we’re going to be left with a lot of content holes that need to be filled. There’s an opportunity there to create content that will rank on merit and be worthwhile.”

So obviously we need better content on the internet, right? Making content better is good for those who run sites, for the search engines, and especially for those of us who use the internet. Therefore, producers and consumers of content for the internet should be glad that the National Writers Union has launched a campaign to “raise the pay scale for online content writers.” A recent post on the Writers Union site says, “The new world of electronic journalism makes it much easier to get published. Yet, it’s also made it much harder for writers to make a living. Websites keep their finances secret. They encourage writers to submit content with pleas of poverty or calls to civic commitment. Writers are understandably confused. These sites are making money and preaching the civic good, but they are unwilling to pay fair wages.” As a member of the National Writers Union and a reader of online content, I’m glad to see this campaign begin.

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