There's been a lot of fretting lately in the journalism field about the rise of so-called "content farms." These are operations like Demand Media or Associated Content (recently purchased by Yahoo) or even AOL's "Seed" experiment, that focus on generating a ton
of content at very low cost, mostly aimed at ranking high on search engines. Last year, Wired Magazine ran a pretty good story covering the details of this particular business model
. Basically, you find really cheap freelancers, tell them to quickly write up content on "popular" topics, pay them very, very little and don't worry too much about quality. The whole point is to rank high in search engines when people search on various topics.
Not surprisingly, this state of affairs worries some journalists who fear that these "content farms" are "killing" journalism
. In fact, a group of online content syndicators are even talking about setting up an official "online quality" standards guidelines
for internet content, even to the point of considering "accrediting" whatever is considered "quality" journalism.
I certainly understand and recognize the concern. When you look at much of the content produced by these content farms (and it's certainly worth pointing out that these operations deny the whole "content farm" claim -- as well as the insinuation that their content is bad), it's hard not to quickly recognize that much of the content is really, really bad
. It's not well written. It's not very thorough. It's often not very accurate or useful. But, even given all of that, the "concerns" that this is somehow harming journalism seem wildly overblown.
The internet has always
been filled with a lot more crappy content than good content. That's what every internet-hater points out first. But that's always been a search and filter
problem. Bad content does not directly impact good content unless you become obsessed over the fact that some people are reading the bad content over your good content. In the early days, it's why sites like Yahoo developed in the first place: as a directory to try to help you find the good content instead of the crappy content (so, yeah, Yahoo buying a content farm is a bit ironic). And when the concept of "directories" became overwhelmed, we moved onto search, mostly based on things like metatags. And when that got gamed to death such that crappy content crowded out the ability to find good content, we moved on to much better search algorithms, like those found at Google, which tried to solve that basic problem.
The situation that we're in right now is one where the current filtering mechanisms might not yet be good enough to distinguish quality content from crappy content. But that's a temporary state of affairs. On top of that, one person's crappy content may be good enough
for whatever it is they're trying to do or understand. There is no rule that says the best quality content has to win. For those of us who like quality content (and, every so often, try to produce it), it may be painful to hear that, but welcome to the competitive marketplace. If someone's serving the need better than you, then that's the market you deal with. It doesn't mean that quality content producers should crappify their content, but it might mean they need to rethink some aspects of what they're doing -- such as not relying on crappy filters as the source of your traffic.
It's that last point that highlights the real "problem" that journalists seem to have with these content farms. The journalists have become so convinced that Google is where they need to get all their traffic, that when Google ranks web farm content higher, that's somehow the fault of the content farms. In reality, it means that relying on Google for traffic may be a mistake. Quality content is hard to figure out algorithmically, though my guess is that Google is working on this issue all the time. If Google starts realizing that people do, in fact, find content farm content to be useless, that content will eventually get rated down, no matter how much they try to play SEO games.
But, even beyond that, the way people discover and consume higher quality content is changing as well. The value of "passed" or "earned" links -- i.e., links that are sent around via email or social networks -- is growing rapidly, and that's the sort of filter that tends to focus more on "better" content, rather than pure content farm content. So, in the end, this seems like a "problem" that corrects itself over time. Sure, right now, these content farms are good at getting their content seen. But if that content really isn't that useful, the rest of the market will adapt and adjust.