Five Reasons Not To Fear Content Farms

The recent surge of so-called content farms has inspired a torrent of commentary from new-media pundits, most of it disapproving. Content farms (also called content factories) are web sites that produce huge numbers of short articles based on keywords popular in search engines. The leading examples are Demand Media, Associated Content, Answers.com, and, most recently, AOL. Some of these sites rely on free user-generated content; others, like Demand Media, pay small sums to content contributors.

Objections to the content farms fall generally into one or more of three categories:

  • They are bad for writers
  • They are bad for readers
  • They are bad for the Internet

It’s not surprising that people who write for a living would be troubled by the pay rates of content farms. Folio:‘s Jason Fell, for instance, noting that he used to get $100 for 300-word reviews, is appalled at the $15 per article averaged by Demand Media writers. He concludes that “online content and its creators have been devalued.” Similarly, Wired’s Daniel Roth sees Demand writers as “the online equivalent of day laborers waiting in front of Home Depot.” How, he asks of the pay, “can anyone survive on that?”

A broader concern is for the content consumer rather than the creators. The premise here is that the quality of articles produced by the farms is constrained, if not outright bad. The argument is that, through a mechanism never fully specified, the bad content will somehow drive out good. ReadWriteWeb’s Richard MacManus puts it this way:

“If a small number of companies come to dominate a content market, usually blandness and lowest common denominator fare follows. The network television and radio markets in almost any country in the world are evidence of that. Likewise, if you search Google for a reference article and the first page of results is littered with Answers.com and Demand Media articles, is that crowding out the real topic experts?”

TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington is not just worried, he’s frightened:

“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. … These models create a race to the bottom situation, where anyone who spends time and effort on their content is pushed out of business.”

Content farms, from this point of view, threaten not just content consumers, but society as a whole.

But to some observers, content farms imperil the Internet itself.  Paul Kedrosky writes “Content creators are simply using Google against itself, feeding its hungry crawlers the sort of thing that Google loves to consume, to the detriment of search results and utility.” TechDirt’s Mike Masnick, writing about AOL’s intent to enter content farming, says “Effectively, it’s a plan based on adding crap into the system to trick search engines. It’s pollution and web spam as a business model.”

It’s pointless to argue against the claim that content farms produce a lot of lousy articles. Any Web site publishing 4000 articles a day is likely to produce a number of gems on the order of “How to Make a Custum Bookcase.” (Of course, the misspelling may well be strategic—who knows how many Googlers spell custom that way.)

So should we fret about content farms bringing us and the Internet down with them? Here are five reasons why we shouldn’t.

1. 90% of everything is crud. Sturgeon’s law is always a handy rejoinder to unrealistic expectations of high quality. The Internet is already full of crap. Will content farms push it up to 91%? Maybe. But who’s going to notice? Now it may be true that since content farms target their content so carefully, advertising might move away from higher-quality content for a while. But there will always be a market for high-quality content (see reason 5 below). As Doc Searls observes, “Nothing with real real value is dead, so long as it can be found on the Web and there are links to it.”

2. Competition will drive improvements in quality.
At least some of the content farmers will get better at what they do. As more money flows in, they will start spending it on improving content as a way of distinguishing themselves from the competition. Indeed, they will need to do it to stay alive–even the most casual Internet searcher will start to expect better content. As noted in the Wired article, Demand Media is putting more resources into editorial quality assurance, and, to judge by job boards, hiring more full-time editors.

3. Content farms fulfill a real need. Though sophisticated types such as you and I may find their articles lacking, I suspect that many others looking for a quick and simple answer are reasonably satisfied with what the content farms dish out. Jeff Jarvis points out that where the content farms excel is in identifying and responding to what people really want to know:

“In all of this, I caution us not to miss Demand’s key insight: that the public should assign the creators, including journalists. The public often knows what it wants to know. I learned this lesson when I consulted at About.com and saw how they monitor search queries to see where there are questions for which they don’t have answers. When that happens, they go write answers; Demand automates the process. Makes sense.”

4. There are many levels of demand; content farms only serve one. But if the farms serve needs well, those needs are strictly the common-denominator variety, the mass-media appetite. There are many more types of need for advanced, detailed information that remain. The trick, of course, is to identify them. For the moment at least,  search engines may unduly favor the basic tiers of content over the more advanced. (MacManus puts it this way: “Google is being infiltrated on a vast scale by content farms.”) But this will not be a problem for long, John Battelle says:  “I’m not worried about this. Audiences always route around that which they don’t want, and when something better comes along as a navigational interface, we’ll pick it up, and quick. If Google doesn’t figure this out, someone else will, and the cycle will repeat.” Similary, Jarvis argues that “as search becomes more personal and no longer universal, SEO as a dark art and as the fertilizer for content farms will diminish and the social graph—our own circles of authority—will become more important in search as well. So I have faith that there are solutions to stem any rising tide of crap.”

5. Mass-produced content makes hand-crafted content more valuable. Contrary to the worst fears that mass-produced content will overwhelm and eradicate the hand-crafted variety, I suspect that it will stimulate demand for such content. In his blog, the Digital Media Rucksack, Michael Madej makes a clever argument that producers like Demand Media stand to benefit from low-quality content that leaves many readers “hungry for more”:

“When users view a video that doesn’t quite answer their question or read an article that falls short, they still probably want to find an answer elsewhere on the web. Luckily for the user, they see a Google ad adjacent to the Demand content that looks encouraging, so they click it. Demand makes money from that click. Bingo. Lower quality content generates more revenue than higher quality content would have made.”

The same instinct for more and better information will drive those same users to seek out other, more-comprehensive and detailed articles when the content farms (and related advertising) fall short. In the long run, good content will come out on top.

So do the content farms pose any real threat to small-scale online publishers? I don’t think so, as long as we keep a focus on high-quality, thoughtful content. As Sonia Simone effectively argues on Copyblogger, the best strategy for individual bloggers and small publishers is simply to “keep cutting through the clutter and noise by being smarter, more relevant, and more interesting.”

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