Jinfo BlogContent Farms: Fertile ground for controversy

Saturday, 29th January 2011

By Jan Knight

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Recent headlines on “content farms” have caught my attention. It’s a controversial topic that has been causing a lot of buzz and the buzz is coming from all angles ranging from information experts, blogs, search engines and mainstream media like The Wall Street Journal and PBS.

Content farms are businesses who hire large numbers of freelance writers to create web content. The writers may or may not be experts in any particular field and they are paid very little per story. Companies considered key players are Demand Media (recently went public), Associated Content  (recently purchased by Yahoo), and Suite101.com. The companies themselves often refer to their industry with phrases like “contributed content” or “community network” thus we already see that language and semantics create different perspectives.

The main criticisms of content farms is that they don’t provide quality content, and because they can “fill” up the search results on search engines, users are possibly seeing the less relevant, lower quality results at the top of the engines’ results pages.  Techcrunch’s view over a year ago was that the goal appeared to be to deliver as much content as possible in a quick and cheap manner, likening it to “McDonald’s online!”

Proponents of content farms argue that the articles they publish reflect reality and “true market demand” because the topics are based on an analysis of the keywords in search engine queries. Contractors are paid to write content pertaining to the popular keywords.  Proponents believe that content farms are actually filling a void that traditional journalism has created where topics are selected by a group of like minded individuals rather than based on demand by users.

Returning to the criticism, there are many discussions focusing on Google’s recent weak search results, probably due in part to the aforementioned content contributors, but Google has issued a response saying that they believe the opposite is true and that its search results have actually improved. They do, however, admit that they are paying attention to the issue of low quality sites created by content farms and have even launched two major algorithmic changes to counter the web spam.

MediaShift, a division of PBS, argues that this is all part of the transformation of the information industry and is another viable business model.

Regardless of controversy, it’s obvious that content farms are big business to some. Demand Media, valued at $1.4 billion just went public and became the “biggest venture-backed technology IPO since 2007" according to Venture Source, an industry tracker owned by Dow Jones & Co.

For those of us who spend a lot of time searching or teaching others to search, it’s imperative we continue to look at how authoritative our sources are – basically we need to know who “grew” our information.

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