As a professional writer, there’s a lot I could say and a lot that I want to say about the issue of content farms and its effect on search engine relevance, SEO, and branding. But I know me. It would get angry and passionate and people would accuse me of ranting. So I won’t. The fact that content is the red-headed step child of the Internet is just something us writers have to accept. For all its importance, as vital as it is, writers will never earn the respect they deserve. Not when you can buy a batch of 100 unique articles for less than a McDonald’s value meal. Oreo McFlurry and chocolate chip cookie included.

However, there is something I did want to comment on.

Earlier this week Danny Sullivan shared a great recap of the talk Mahalo’s Jason Calacanis gave on “Ending the Content Arms Race” that took place during the FM Signal LA Event. It’s a good read.

Jason made some interesting remarks during the event. They were interesting because though Jason was up on stage pleading for an end to the content farms race it’s no secret that Mahalo has repeatedly been bashed for being a content farm. He can cry innocence but Mahalo’s bread and butter is creating 1,100 pieces of useful content a day that ranks without providing much value. According to Jason, Mahalo will be changing its ways and working harder to improve things and that’s great. I guess competing with Demand Media had become too difficult. So now they’ll just try and turn the tables and pretend we were blind to what they were doing. Fantastic PR spin.

Jason’s comments also made me incredibly sad about what content is on the Web. Sad that this is where we’re at and this is what’s accepted as passable. It doesn’t matter that content is one of the best way to build trust in your brand, we’re content to produce low quality crap, in mass, and plop it on a high authority domain to rank. And brands, the people who put it out, and consumers are okay with that.

But, oh wait- consumers AREN’T okay with it. And neither are the search engines.

Last month Matt Cutts took to the Google blog to talk about Google search and search engine spam. The post came in response to recent digs that Google was allowing more spam into the search results and it was creating a relevance problem. It was noteworthy that it wasn’t “traditional” spam that people were complaining about. It wasn’t the keyword-stuffed pages, content scrapping or anything else we’d normally refer to as bad behavior. Instead, Matt and users were both talking about content farms. Demand Media-type pages that flood the search results and leave users to scroll up, down and sideways wondering where the real content is.

Matt wrote:

As “pure webspam” has decreased over time, attention has shifted instead to “content farms,” which are sites with shallow or low-quality content. In 2010, we launched two major algorithmic changes focused on low-quality sites. Nonetheless, we hear the feedback from the web loud and clear: people are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content.

Google hears the feedback and they’ll now be forced to deal with it. They’ll have to deal with it. As Jason said in his talk, Demand Media has made Google look stupid and now they’ll pay. Because the other option is to keep letting the quality of their search results deteriorate and Google’s not going to do that.

It’s time for Google and for Bing to ‘blekko up’ and and remove these pages from the search results. Is it extreme? Maybe. Will highly SEO’d content also end up taking a hit? Maybe. But we have to clean things up. There’s no other option.

But a lot has to happen for things to get cleaned up.

  • As a brand or business, it’s up to you to provide content that truly is worth of ranking. Content that provides value, that stands on its own, and that a user will identify as being relevant to what they’re looking for. Look, I’m not saying you need to hire the next Shakespeare to write thousands of pages for you, but you can’t hand someone a kitten and call it a jaguar. We can tell the difference between real content and fake content. Maybe it’s time to get away from the quantity approach and start creating subscription-based quality platforms. Stop playing catch up with the guy next to you, what are you really providing?
  • As an advertiser, you need to look at where your ads are going and at what type of content you’re supporting. If it’s crap, stop it. Why would you put your brand on content that’s simply going to annoy people? Brand association fail.
  • As SEOs, if content is King, then put your money where your mouth is and use real copywriters. People that don’t get paid $.50 a word. If we ban content farm sites from the Web, we’re going to be left with a lot of content holes that need to be filled. There’s an opportunity there to create content that will rank on merit and be worthwhile. Embrace it or hide from it. Your call.
  • The search engines need to grow some balls and stop these worthless sites from showing up. Because you know what? It’s embarrassing to the engines, their algorithms, and the people they represent each time that these pages do. If this is the content “most relevant”, we’re all doomed to hell.

Will any of that happen? Some of it simply has to because it’s time to end the content farm race. Not because Jason Calacanis can no longer keep up, but because we’re flooding the SERPs with crap and real users can’t find anything. As SEOs, you should care. As users, you should care. Google’s just learned they have to care. And with that comes motivation to fix things now. Because you don’t want to be on the wrong site of the fence when the gauntlet is thrown down.


About the Author

Lisa Barone

Lisa Barone co-founded Outspoken Media in 2009 and served as Chief Branding Officer until April 2012.


28 thoughts on “Why Google, SEOs & Users Must ‘Blekko Up’


  • Ken Jansen on said:

    Thank you. Great article. I would LOVE to see Google and Bing “Blekko up”. Nice turn of phrase too. As a Local real estate agent, I would like to think my knowledge of the area is better than homes dot com or some of the others. Besides, I (and thousands of other agents) wrote the info on the listings that they scrape and redistribute on their website.


    • Lisa Barone on said:

      It would definitely be nice to see the content OWNER given favor for the material they produce. You look at the Huffington Post and the majority of what they publish is ripped from someone else. I’m not sure we’ll see that end, but hopefully the engines can do something about the domains that do nothing but publish meaningless crap.


  • Chris on said:

    I’m with you on this one Lisa. It all goes back to quality over quantity.

    The struggle is telling that to a company that only wants to mass produce garbage… lol


  • Frank Reed on said:

    The linchpin will be Google.

    Advertisers will go (or be placed) where the eyeballs are. They desire that in the Internet’s version of TV advertising where impressions mean something (but conversions take a back seat, go figure). So they will be hard of hearing enough to listen to the sales pitch that the content is actually desired by regular folks.

    Back to Google. Unless they step up and take some steps nothing will happen of any importance. Trouble is that defining taste (good content v bad content) is a slippery slope. If Google wanted to wipe out about 75% of content farm drivel on a less subjective scale just measure the correct use of punctuation and grammar (not spelling please because I am the typo king but if I have to tighten that up so be it). that will get rid of most content from Demand Media, Associated Content, Examiner.com and others.

    At any rate, I do agree with your call to action to “Blekko up” but that’s easy for an upstart to do at such an early stage that has not truly established itself and is looking for a true differentiator from Google. Google’s job will be much more complex and could be difficult enough for them to drag their feet on rather than put together an actual solution since they are trying to balance quality and revenue which rarely match up perfectly.

    In the end, the Internet will always be home for craptent. It’s populated by things people create and a lot of what people create is, well, crap.

    Rant over. Thanks, Lisa.


    • Lisa Barone on said:

      I definitely agree that Google has to be willing to make the move for anything to happen. But right now they have a great incentive to at least consider doing that because users are getting vocal about how shitastic the results. When you do a search and all you find are pages from Associated Content, Examiner, etc, it’s embarrassing to everyone.

      And you’re right, it’s a hell of a lot easier for Blekko to take a hard stand like that because they’re small and because they need that differentiator, but – good. We needed someone to force Google’s hand. Maybe we got it through Blekko.


    • JadedTLC on said:

      Unfortunately, Google still believes the “Examiner” is news. I think if Goog was serious about killing the content “factories*,” these sites wouldn’t be allowed in Google News. Where’s the discrimination?

      *Sorry, but content farm sounds organic to me. Content factories are contrived products being pushed through the assembly line with little QA.


  • Aaron Bradley on said:

    Reading your list of things that need “to happen for things to get cleaned up” I kept returning to the same question: who gets to decide what’s included in the search engine indexes (or, depending on your slant, who gets to decide what’s well-ranked in the search results, though you seem to arguing for Blekko-like content bans)?

    It’s easy in general terms to say “ban content spam farm” but becomes much more difficult when you look at sites on a domain-by-domain basis, and pretty much impossible if one were to try to look at the Web on a page-by-page basis (one of the many challenges of “benign censorship” online is that it is difficult to get very granular). Rather than rant on in this comment, I invite you to read what I’ve already said about the Blekko ban and this type of content: suffice it to say that excluding sites from search indexes because of “poor quality” content makes me very uncomfortable, and that “quality” is in any case a word full of nuance.

    Would writers like to get paid more for what they produce for websites? Obviously. Do they deserve to get paid more? Well, it depends on the writer, the website, and the collective motivation (I don’t think many would consider the Huffington Post a content farm, but it is famously produced, in part, by many unpaid bloggers who have other motivations besides money). I know, having worked for a “content farm” (Suite101.com) that many writers for such sites actually do care passionately about what they produce, and certainly would argue voraciously that their work is not “crap.” Marshall Kirkpatrick’s experience writing for AOL is not unique: a number of “content farm” writers sign up specifically so they can gain exposure, experience and perhaps even be admitted in your august Pantheon of “real copywriters” one day.

    This is not to defend the virtues of content farms (insofar as they are in any way meritorious), but to say I’d like to be able to judge the value of a web page and its quality myself. Flawed search engine algorithms that return “low-quality” resources in their results are, for me, preferable to somebody I neither know nor trust preventing those resources from turning up in the search results to begin with.


    • Lisa Barone on said:

      So you get to rant but I’m just supposed to go read your post. Is that fair? ;)

      I don’t want to ban them on a page basis, I want to ban them on a domain basis. If you’re known for producing low-quality spam articles – you don’t need to be cluttering up my search results. You really don’t have to preach to me about writers who blog for free for exposure. I’ve done it for years and I still do it. But there’s a difference between blogging for free and eHow’s “tutorial” articles that provide no real information. When I’m looking for shoes, does this really need to be ranking

      http://www.ehow.com/how_2077397_buy-shoes-online.html

      I’d argue not.

      The algorithms are flawed, in part, because they can’t keep up with the amount of SHIT people create on a daily basis that has no worth. It’s time to take that into account when it comes to ranking sites.


      • Aaron Bradley on said:

        My purpose in pointing to my post is that I didn’t want to simply reiterate at great length in my comment what I’ve already ranted about: didn’t mean not be fair. :)

        I don’t disagree with you that the search engines should take quality “into account when it comes to ranking sites.” But I disagree that banning sites is the way to do this accounting. I would rather that “SHIT” receives less visibility, but is still accessible in the search engines, rather than being removed altogether.

        By the way, did you mean perhaps $.05 (or $.005) when you said – in comparing real copywriters to others, “People that don’t get paid $.50 a word”? $.50 a word would amount to $150.00 for a 300 word article, which content farm writers would be thrilled to make – as MKR has pointed out, the going rate is about 10% of that.


  • Caitlin on said:

    Lisa – Thank you for writing this! It needs to be addressed – and despite what a lot of people think, even big companies think, this is a big deal! 25 keywords and 5$ does make people like your brand, it does not connect people, it does not inspire anything. It might make your brand appear higher in the Google rankings….. but that’s it.


  • MKR on said:

    I made about $15 on Associated Content before realizing what I was doing to myself and the rest of the Internet. Definitely not worth it, and I hope the people who write for these places start wising up.


  • John Nagle on said:

    [i]Lisa Barone writes: “I don’t want to ban them on a page basis, I want to ban them on a domain basis.”[/i]

    I tended to agree. But that no longer works, as the content mills mix useful content with vast amounts of dreck. Aol just bought the Huffington Post, Demand Media supplies content to the San Francisco Chronicle, and a sizable fraction of YouTube content is now ads. Do we block all those sites?

    We (as SiteTruth) used to view search spam as a “bottom-feeder” problem. The job was to filter out the anonymous junk sites that cluttered up search results – the “domainers”, the made-for-Adsense pages, and similar junk. The big brands stayed away from spam, for fear of being blacklisted by Google.

    The annoying bottom-feeders are still there, but now the big guys are doing it too. Their new weapon is ambiguity – mix some good stuff in with the oceans of junk, and the search engines don’t dare block you. The bottom-feeders can be filtered out at the domain level, which we do, but what do we do about the big guys? I admire Blekko for taking a hard line, but will they start blocking news sites that are mostly junk? At what point does this become censorship?

    “Crowdsourcing” won’t help. Recommendation systems are far too easy to spam. Recommendation spam has already run local search into the ground. Google had to deemphasize “Google Places” results in web search once the spammers took over.

    What might help is explicit result classification, the opposite of unified search. When looking for a product, it would be useful to have separate results for

    * Sites that are actually selling the thing. No directories or referral sites. Within this section go local businesses that are selling the thing. Sites which run third party ads do not appear in this section.

    * Reviews

    * Directories which mention the thing.

    * Other info that seems to be related.

    The user gets two or three results in each category and can expand the one they want.


  • bluephoenixnyc on said:

    I saw one piece of the Google-Demand Media relationship not addressed and it might explain why despite being an internet behemoth, Google has been dragging its heels to put the kibosh on content farms: Google makes a *lot* of money [http://digitalquarters.net/2011/01/demand-media-google-mutually-assured-destruction/] from Demand Media’s (mis?)use of Google AdWords.

    Is this then a critical crack in Google’s otherwise flawless foundation? Google’s allure has always been its objective approach to the internet and this clearly falls on the wrong side of that.

    Would love to hear what others think.


  • Jami Broom on said:

    .50¢ a word? that’s a LOT? That’s $250 an article. A really GOOD article could be written for $250. Truth is they go as low as $5/article (in the United States, even!).

    I think you’re kind of a dreamer here, Lisa, though I totally agree. *HOW* are search engines supposed to be able remove this content from the web? They can’t tell the difference, or else wouldn’t they already be making a better product by eliminating these annoying, annoying results? If they started picking on certain domains, wouldn’t that open it up to liability for not picking on other domains? Or maybe Google COULD have the answer, but has gotten fat and lazy and will wait until another search engine figures it out before going to the gym and pumping up a better product.

    @bluephoenixnyc
    I agree with you that Google doesn’t fix things because they bring in a LOT of revenue. How can we trust a company to ever do the right thing when they won’t even pay their fair share in taxes?


    • bluephoenixnyc on said:

      I think that when the average consumer comes to the same conclusion that SEO/people who are intimately-versed with the search space already have, we’ll see a massive deflection to another search outlet–maybe a split between Bing and something else?


  • Mir Rooshanak on said:

    The simplest solution would probably be for Google’s algorithm to increase the penalty for high bounce rates. However, this could lead to some issues of its own.


  • Scott Jenkins on said:

    I don’t mind babies being thrown out with bath water as long as none of those babies are mine.

    Striking out entire domains seems unfortunate but it may be a harsh reality. As an sem some of these pages make seo a bit more challenging. It doesn’t seem fair that their deeper pages get a boost from the domains “reputation”. It’s frustrating battling for rank when you know the page in the number one slot is absolute crap.


  • AJ Kohn on said:

    What I see is a culture war being played out in search.

    The old adage is one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, right? Well, I think we’re seeing this on a massive scale right now.

    There are sites I find completely useless but I know people who actually think they’re useful. You mentioned McDonald’s in your post and that’s a great example from the offline world. McDonald’s is pretty horrid food IMO. I don’t eat there. But millions of people do. And they do knowing they could eat better or healthier food. Yet, it’s good enough and dang convenient.

    One person’s content farm is another person’s easy-to-follow guide.

    Do I wish more people would want the really good content? Sure. God yes! But I’m not holding my breath.

    I wrote at length on the subject recently: Are Content Farms the Problem, or Are you just a Snob?

    Quality is a matter of taste and I’m not going to judge (too much) how others view their content. (I’m sure few people would join me in saying David Mitchell was one of the best authors of our age.)

    So, I’m against banning domains and censorship in general. What I think needs to happen is features and functionality that allow each person to personalize their search experience.

    In essence, users could deep six domains for their own searches, but not for others.


  • Charles Bohannan on said:

    Nice congruent angle, Lisa. Quality content after all these years of everything else being on top is finally getting the care and attention it deserves (no more red-headed stepchild syndrome?).

    Many of us have been saying it all along, but nobody listens to writers. Editors carry more weight and should be more vocal about, but they’ve been busy putting out the fires in their industry.

    When the marketers finally get it is when we’ll see the shakedown. Most of them haven’t gotten it yet, most notably the SEOs.


  • Jen Adams on said:

    Part of the problem with proposed solutions is that they all seem to be game-able in one way or another. Based it on any known activity, and a site can find a way to work around that or penalize a competitor (user ratings, bounce rates, etc).

    The call for quality content is worthy – I just don’t know how to ensure it! I work doing copywriting and ghostwriting, and when I’m putting out content I try to make it as accurate and informative as possible because I HATE CRAP CONTENT. I have to put up with enough of it when I’m researching for clients, and it frustrates me to no end to have to sift through masses of regurgitated and imitated “articles” to find a single useful fact.

    Lisa, thanks for keeping the issue at the forefront of the conversation. I’ve even been motivated to try Blekko, though I’m not thrilled with their results either (I tend to have to search for really specific things for clients, rather than general personal search). But I think what they are doing is a step in the right direction, and hopefully there will be more like them in the future.


  • Danny Sullivan on said:

    The problem is that good content sites aren’t out content farming the content farms with their own good content. So if Google were to “Blekko” up, and drop the known content farm domains, it seems like you get poor content replacing sometimes so-so and sometimes good content.

    I mean seriously. Go to Blekko, which has already Blekko upped:

    how do i get a passport: Google, for those in the US, points you at the US State Dept tops. Blekko is a mess — Yahoo Answers number on, on how to get an EU passport (with the top answer not backed up by any citation but hey, 1 person voted on it, so it must be awesome)

    how do i cook a ham: Google puts a recipe tips site tops; Blekko gives me a 1 paragraph answer from Yahoo Answers tops. My favorite is down at the bottom, where Blekko lists an answer for canning soup with meat. Use awesomesauce!

    how do i fix my credit: Google’s results don’t thrill me, but neither do Blekko’s. At least Google lists a really good page from the FTC, which Blekko doesn’t.

    Content farms are doing good SEO, from the perspective of understanding how people are searching and creating content to answer those questions. Where content farms are falling down is not providing the quality content, in some cases, that searchers demand. Search engines are falling down in not killing off some of this so-so content — but again, if they do, what takes its place. From what I see, any time I do these types of searches — not a lot of great stuff to take its place.

    So, let’s get going good content writers. The should be room at the table for you.


  • Doc Sheldon on said:

    Great post, Lisa. I certainly agree with you that it’s a problem that needs to be addressed, and aggressively. I don’t necessarily think that domain-wide bans are the answer we should want, though. That’s abdicating my right to select from the results to some machine and its designers, and I’m not comfortable doing that.
    I think John Nagle has a good idea, with hit results classification. AJ Kohn may have hit on something too, by allowing each user to “kill” a site in just their own results. I’d like to see either of those followed up on by the SE taking such bans and lack of clicks into consideration in their ranking. Sort of falls in line with Authority Rank, I think.
    As an aside, referencing Matt’s spiel in regard to content farms is more than a little misleading, IMO. I think he was addressing attribution (or more succinctly, the lack thereof) more than just content farms, per se.


  • Jim Rudnick on said:

    re: “…The algorithms are flawed, in part, because they can’t keep up with the amount of SHIT people create on a daily basis that has no worth…”

    spot-on @Lisa….aint’ that the stinkin’ truth!

    :-)

    Jim


  • Kristinn on said:

    I came across a content farm the other day doing research on a competitor’s site. The diction was horrible. It was obviously coming out of an ex British colony. And there was lots of it on the site. It was pure junk.
    I doubt these people make 50 cents a word. Probably more like 5 or 2 cents a word. I don’t blame them. They are not the vampires sucking the blood out of our society. It is the attitude that says me above all else no matter what. Trade laws encourage this sort of thing. Content farms are a symptom, no the disease.


  • Sherry Gray on said:

    Lisa, while I agree with your main concept, I think you chose a bad example. Demand Media employs professional editors and requires credible, verifiable resources before publishing. I write for them during slow periods between independent gigs and contract positions, and they are more demanding than most of my private clients. DM does not get my A-game for two reasons: 500 words can’t provide a highly detailed overview on most topics, and they don’t pay me enough to spend more than half an hour on any article. However, every article I write is well researched and written in excellent English, and I make it a point to put in as much information as the word count will stand. Many writers far more experienced and educated than I write for DM, assuming the credentials listed on their profiles are honest. This is not true of every content service, but DM has much higher standards than average.

    What annoys me are affiliate marketing sites jam-packed with nonsensical jumbles of words that relate in some way to repeated keywords, articles written by people with only a passing familiarity with English who will write for pennies, and articles generated by one of those Chinese menu phrase programs that pick one from column A and one from column B to make full sentences. Like business mad-libs. Oh, and those articles that talk about making points without ever actually making any.

    I recently read an article about a software that analyzes emails for tone, to ensure that businesses send appropriate responses that will make the right impression. If a concept that sophisticated can work, then I don’t think it’s a stretch to expect search engines to devise search parameters that weed out bad grammar, text so keyword dense it makes no sense, and identify content with tangible value.


  • SEO Freak Show on said:

    How can a search engine determine ‘true’ content quality in addition to the intent behind the content?

    If you write junk, build links etc, junk will rank.

    If you write quality, build links etc, quality will rank.

    Can Google engineers program the algo & bots to be English majors?

    Here is the bottom line: Just because you spent 8 hours writing some content does NOT give you the right to rank higher than some dude who spent 30 minutes writing similar content that you ‘think’ is ‘not as good’ as yours.

    Do you think the guy who builds out houses is complaing to the guy who builds toilets about the plumber, and how the plumber is taking away his business? Do you think the guy who builds toilets really cares about the plumber? Indoor, outdoor; you still need a toilet.

    You need a better marketing strategy and business plan with the right platform to execute, leave the plumber alone – all he did was figure out a better and more profitable way to do YOUR job!!!!


  • John Nagle on said:

    I just searched for “Google search spam” with Google. Today’s results are amusing. First, Google returns a news item “Get Rid of Spam in Your Google Search Results” from someone who just discovered the “-” flag. This is followed by “Real time results”. These consist of many Twitter references to the same article from programs that are scraping Google News and generating Twitter spam. It’s hard to think of anything more useless to return as search results.

    Supposedly Google had recently implemented algorithms to catch obvious copying. Looks like that was all talk, no action.

    (Screenshot here: “http://www.sitetruth.net”)

    That’s just pathetic.


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