AOL's New Strategy Is To Fill The Internet With Crap?

from the pollution-is-in-their-genes dept

Remember how AOL first became "famous"? It cluttered the world (and our garbage dumps) with millions upon millions of CD-ROMs offering "try AOL for free!" It seems that pollution is in AOL's genes, and it just can't get away from it. How else to explain AOL's new plan to rebuild its brand: to flood the internet with poorly written, but quickly written, content based on whatever search terms are hot. Danny Sullivan points out the amusing fact that AOL is looking to leverage search engines for more traffic this way, at the very same time as others, such as Rupert Murdoch, are claiming that Google is "stealing" from him in sending traffic, and he's considering opting-out.

But, of course, that doesn't make AOL's strategy very well conceived either. Farhad Manjoo makes the case for why this is a dumb plan, and there's plenty to agree with:
The trouble with AOL's plan, then, isn't that it's based on data-mining. Instead, it's what the company will likely do with search data--publish quick, vapid posts that do little to advance any hot story and instead feed readers a collection of factoids gathered from other places. How do we know this will happen? Because AOL's model is strikingly similar to that of Demand Media and Associated Content, two start-ups that also use search data and user contributions to build Web content. Indeed, AOL's Armstrong--who was an advertising executive at Google until earlier this year--is reportedly an investor in Associated Content, whose CEO is also a former Googler.

Associated Content stands as a cautionary tale for anyone looking to do news by the numbers. It is a wasteland of bad writing, uninformed commentary, and the sort of comically dull recitation of the news you'd get from a second grader.
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. But as folks like Umair Haque are fond of pointing out, business models based on tricking people and not adding any real value aren't business models that will last. They're short-term scams. Manjoo, in his writeup, helps explain why:
Will this plan do wonders for AOL's bottom line? It very well might, at least in the short run. If AOL can replicate the success of Associated Content across its network of sites, it will surely see huge gains in traffic and renewed interest from advertisers. But this plan hinges on something that can't be guaranteed for long--a weakness in search engines. By any measure, stories like those found on AC don't deserve top billing in search results. If you search for "Tiger Woods mistress pictures," you should get pictures of Tiger Woods' alleged mistress, not a story that repeats that phrase a dozen times. Google and other search engines constantly battle search engine spam, and over time they're sure to steer people away from sites that rely on such trickery to get visitors. Then what? Associated Content gets 90 percent of its traffic from search engines. Once Google and co. wise up to AC's schemes, its business model is toast.
A short-term strategy based on polluting the internet with bad content may be a last-gasp effort to revive a dead brand, but it's difficult to see how that's any sort of long-term strategy to survive.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

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    Will (profile), Dec 2nd, 2009 @ 2:43pm

    dead?

    I though AOL was dead by now.

     

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      :Lobo Santo (profile), Dec 2nd, 2009 @ 3:22pm

      Re: dead?

      More than dead--it's been undead for like a decade.

       

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      You can tell me better than I can tell you, Dec 4th, 2009 @ 2:57pm

      Re: Crap On The Net

      Crap here, crap there, crap is everywhere. You need not worry. As the old saying goes "nothing lasts forever". What is happening is definitely going to cease one day and it is evident when all the nonesense that's going on with the internet regardless of the company get's out-of-hand. Actually, who are we dealing with here when we click on anything for any reason - it's the employees of these large entities who hide behind their employer's name in order to vent their frustations. And, these frustrations are not new. A racist will vent by coloring icons Black, or some strange shade as well as publishing unattractive pictures. If they are potential anger management patients it will come out in revealing the fact that have access to your hard drive or by forwarding insulting pictures. Lawsuits are popping up everday by those who angry and have decided that they are not going to take it anymore. Until regulations are put in place, crap is what we all are going to experience. I await the replies that ask what has this to do with "the price of eggs," but that's to be expected.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 2nd, 2009 @ 3:21pm

    2nd link is the same as the 1st (the Guardian article).

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 2nd, 2009 @ 3:39pm

    Will they then place all that content behind a paywall and complain about the search engines "stealing" said content?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 2nd, 2009 @ 3:55pm

    I used to turn those unwanted and unloved AOL CDs into drink coasters by cementing a round piece of cork on the underside of the CD. The funniest thing was how people would steal them. After a party or when overnight guests left, they always swiped a few AOL coasters, and when I ran out I'd just make more, since there was absolutely no shortage of AOL CDs. I hope someone stole my idea and got rich marketing their own line of AOL coasters.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 2nd, 2009 @ 4:04pm

    The reality is that Google loves crap, and there is little that can be done "in the algorithm" to stop crap, especially well constructed and on point crap. The crap is still valid, and Google cannot eliminate crap content.

    If they won't do anything about racist pictures of the first lady, do you think they will do anything about quality crap?

     

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    interval, Dec 2nd, 2009 @ 4:09pm

    1) The headline just made me burst out laughing.

    2) 'The reality is that Google loves crap' & 'little that can be done"in the algorithm" to stop crap...'

    What the hell does this have to do with the point of the article, make up your mind about your perception of Google's opinion on 'Crap', and you have no idea what you're talking about anyway, do you? You're sounding like those third world countries that blame Google because somebody halfway around the world published an unflattering web page about their dictator and is blaming Google for its existence.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Dec 2nd, 2009 @ 5:56pm

      Re:

      Did you read the story?

      Once Google and co. wise up to AC's schemes, its business model is toast.

      The reality is that Google can't separate out this crap from other valid crap, and thus crap will flourish, unless Google manually penalizes them.

       

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    Dave, Dec 2nd, 2009 @ 4:10pm

    Best Headline You've Ever Had!

    Sure, AOL's raison d'etre has been exactly that for a very long time. But you gave me a big laugh with that most excellent headline!!!

    I will confess that way back in the dark ages, I was a member for awhile. And now everyone knows that I was a dork. :)

     

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    Rex, Dec 2nd, 2009 @ 4:27pm

    Firefox's "customize google" plugin fixes this problem

    ... thank you very much.

     

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    Brian (profile), Dec 2nd, 2009 @ 4:42pm

    Since when has AOL not been pure crap?

     

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    harbingerofdoom (profile), Dec 2nd, 2009 @ 4:45pm

    so thats what happened to endgadget....



    /snark

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 2nd, 2009 @ 7:00pm

    So what you are saying is they stole techdirt's business model?

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Dec 2nd, 2009 @ 7:09pm

      Re:

      That's impossible! I stole it first!

      Ransom is my game.

      Now, give me $10 or the business model walks the ramp!

       

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    Daemon_ZOGG (profile), Dec 2nd, 2009 @ 7:24pm

    ...!

    A-O-Hell, America-Off-Line... Yeah, they reeeeeally suck.
    Way back in the day, I remember having to manually clean customers' hard-drives to get rid of A.O.Hell's mountain of rubish piles.

    Although there was a time when their free, stylishly-labeled CDs made great coasters for my coffee mug. And after that, the CDs made great test subjects for my new CD cross-shredder!
    " };> "

    ;) .. I reeeeeally hate AOL. Always have, always will.

     

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    Richard, Dec 2nd, 2009 @ 9:37pm

    ok ...

    its like this, I've been in SEO for a long time.. This is a totally failed strategy.. two things pop out, one.. the idea that it will work even for a little while.. no.. it wont.
    two.. if you think that pumping "tiger woods mistress" into the content of your page will get you traffic on that term .. your delusional.

    you have to SPAM the text link .. across their "network of sites" this will only work for a time, eventually GBot catches on (within two days) then its over as far as using those same TLDs to garner position. The thing is.. you can't use the same domains to command ranking over and over (I wanna use the ol -- PR, but I know it's not exactly right). At any rate they should hire a 9th grader to tell them how this actually works as they clearly have no Idea! Google has a about nine sources that are root servers for news, everything else is expendable. SOOOOOO AOL is going hyper nova in it's final bid for viability? How appropriate.

     

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    Clyde Smith, Dec 3rd, 2009 @ 12:16am

    Business Models Based on Trickery

    "But as folks like Umair Haque are fond of pointing out, business models based on tricking people and not adding any real value aren't business models that will last."

    It works for governments and other criminal enterprises all over the world. Umair Haque lives in a bubble.

     

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    Vishal, Dec 3rd, 2009 @ 2:29am

    Similar to Demand Media

    Wired did a great article on Demand Media, a company based on this exact concept (and doing very well):

    http://www.wired.com/magazine/2009/10/ff_demandmedia/

     

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    Glenn, Dec 3rd, 2009 @ 6:28am

    Why change now?

    After all, it's not like AOL is alone in the "filling the Internet with crap" department. Make it attractive enough (I mean, you can't actually smell it), and they may do quite well. :D

     

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    Jimmy Daniels, Dec 3rd, 2009 @ 7:09am

    RE: ok...

    Richard, of course it will work, it's working for mahalo why the heck wouldn't it work for a site that has loads more links pointing to it?

     

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    Yakko Warner, Dec 3rd, 2009 @ 7:54am

    Exclude from search results?

    What would be useful is if Google would allow you to blacklist sites from search results for every search. (I think you can do that if you add "-site:domain.com" to your search, but only on a case-by-case basis.)

    Or is that feature already there?

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Dec 3rd, 2009 @ 4:46pm

      Re: Exclude from search results?

      What would be useful is if Google would allow you to blacklist sites from search results for every search. (I think you can do that if you add "-site:domain.com" to your search, but only on a case-by-case basis.)

      Or is that feature already there?


      No, Google won't allow you to do that. You might filter out some sites of their advertising customers and they wouldn't like that.

      However, if you're using Firefox as your browser, you can install the CustomizeGoogle extension and it has a filter function that will let you do that. :)

       

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    Curt Craighead, Dec 3rd, 2009 @ 3:12pm

    AOL can't stop sucking

    AOL is the Montgomery Ward of it's generation, and we know how that turned out. With a marketing department populated from the School of Numbskulls, where the shotgun approach is the only approach. Boorish rubes, all.

    Will they get more traffic at first? Yes, but shame on anyone buying advertising too, because any customer "duped" into viewing your message will not only abandon, but abandon with a bad feeling about your collusion with a company as subversive as AOL.

     

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    Isaac M. Wright, Dec 3rd, 2009 @ 3:22pm

    AOL

    Curt Craighead is right. Any outfit looking to shore up short-term dollars (or traffic) but sacrifices brand deserves all the jokes made about them.

     

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    John Nagle, Dec 4th, 2009 @ 9:09pm

    They're going to have to write very fast.

    They're going to have to write very fast.

    For a while, I was tracking Google's top searches. The time something stays in the top 10 is measured in hours.

    There's a little-known feedback effect with Google search. Google Suggest (the command completion in Google's search box) is driven from Google Trends. So once a phrase gets some popularity, it shows up as an option in Google search boxes. That phrase then tends to get picked by later users looking for something roughly similar to a top search. Suddenly, an obscure phrase gets to the top of Google Trends.

    This system is spammable. Right now, the top entry in Google Trends is "discount medspa". That didn't happen because millions of people suddenly developed an interest in that topic.

    Google doesn't try very hard to stop web spam. They can't. It's essential to their business model. If search takes you where you want to go on the first try, Google doesn't make any money. It's those Adwords-heavy pages that bring in the revenue.

     

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    Paul McKeon, Dec 8th, 2009 @ 4:50am

    AOL Forgets: Readers are Human

    If the high rankings of search engines counting keywords turned directly into dollars, AOL might have a great idea here, but they don't. Between the keywords and the ads, human beings read copy and make decisions.

    Searchers will be able to tell the difference between good content and bad. This strategy is all about reducing the costs of content production, without recognizing that only quality content--that is, the words people read--can be monetized in the long run.

    Thanks for your article, I blogged on it here: http://bit.ly/6pox3T

     

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