The impact of content farms on social media and SEO

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Those involved in search engine optimization (SEO) know that one thing Google “loves” is content. The more content the better, and one of the ways to analyze the competitive level of other sites in search engine results is to see how many pages of that site are indexed by Google. The bottom line on this metric is that the more content you have, the more can be indexed, and the more that is indexed, the better for you and the harder for your competitors to shake your site out of its position.

Of course, ranking in the search engines is not just about quantity; the content has to be relevant to the keywords being searched for, and there are certain quality checks that Google can do on pages to determine whether it contains spam or is stuffed with keywords. But a newish phenomenon is rising on the web that has been getting quite a lot of coverage from major blogs like ReadWriteWeb and TechCrunch, and that is the “content farm.” Many of you may be familiar with the term “link farms,” which are sites that link out to hundreds or thousands of other sites, giving them the inbound links that many sites desire in order to rank higher in the search engines. This type of strategy worked for a while, but Google altered its algorithm so that not just any inbound link would contribute to a site’s ranking; in order for a link to be worth anything now it has to be from a quality and relevant source, among other factors.

“Content farms” are a new way of gaming Google. These types of sites pump out hundreds or thousands of new pages of content per day. The quality of this content is medium to low since the goal of the content is not to teach or inspire, but to create content for content’s sake, increase traffic and reap the rewards from ad revenues. Some examples of these types of sites are Demand Media and Answers.com. ReadWriteWeb reported that Demand Media produces 4000 pieces of content per day, and Answers.com (which has origins in Israel) has nearly 38 million pieces of web content. Both sites are in the top 20 web properties in the US.

At the moment, Google can generally identify, and penalize, very bad content. However, it cannot tell the difference between ho-hum content and great content. Ho-hum content is content that meets the rules of language syntax, and says something that can be understood by humans, but does not contribute to our store of knowledge. This type of content would be relatively harmless if it wasn’t being created on such massive scales, and if it wasn’t having such success in the search engines. The scale of this content’s production means that we may find a lot of ho-hum content taking over search results, and it will become increasingly difficult to find the really useful and thought-provoking content.

What this means for SEO, social media and the web

SEO professionals will increasingly face competing sites whose only redeeming factor is the number of pages they have published. In order to compete with those sites, they will have to create the same amount of content, or more. This is a matter resources (money), and very few web properties will have the budget to support this type of activity.

Unless Google figures out a way to determine whether content is quality or ho-hum, users will become more and more frustrated by the results and start to depend on their peers and social media to refer them to quality content. Highly retweeted posts on twitter, for example, may start to take on more value than the first result on Google.

And finally, if ranking well on the search engines is about who can produce the most content, which is theoretically infinite and linked to one thing only: money, this means that the winners on the web will not be those with brains, but those with brawn. Demand Media has $355 million in funding to put towards creating tons of mediocre content. If the winners are those with millions, this will destroy the much trumpeted democratic web.

But isn’t this just survival of the fittest?

The traditional news sites have been complaining about the hit they’ve taken by blogs and other forms of new media that, according to them, produce content that is not on the same level as that of news sites. Bloggers were quick to tell the news sites that they must adapt to the new realities or suffer the consequences. Now it seems that the bloggers are getting a taste of their own medicine as they face this new threat from low-level mass-produced content. Shouldn’t they just accept that things evolve, especially on the web, and that this new reality is par for the course?

I don’t think so (obviously I’m a bit biased). In my opinion, blogs add value to the web. High traffic blogs get so much traffic because they are written by authority figures who offer useful insights and breaking news that weren’t previously available on conventional news sites. Also, readers find the personal, casual style of blogs to be refreshing, and appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the conversation in the comments.

Content farms do not add anything refreshing or useful to the world of publication. Writers of content farm content are, on the most part, not writing with the goal of inspiring and educating. Instead, their goal is “produce 10 articles of 350 words by 5 pm.” This content is not ranking thanks to its value, but due to the sheer volume being created. Therefore, unless something changes we may find our web increasingly clogged by useless information.

Let’s just hope that it’s in Google and Co.’s interest to serve us useful content rather than increase their revenues from AdSense ads placed on content farms.

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