Content Farms Or The Smartest SEOs in the World

March 8, 2011
By Lisa Barone in Internet Marketing Conferences

Welcome back! Are you ready for this? We’re here to discuss content farms so I’m hoping for a little excitement and maybe some of the fisticuffs we saw in today’s Yelp’s session. What? A girl can dream, can’t she?   Up on stage we have the adorable Matt McGee moderating speakers Luke Beatty, Matthew Brown, Byrne Hobart, and Tim Ruder.  C’mon, someone wants to get in a fight!

Matt McGee steps a little too close to the mic and ends up YELLING AT THE AUDIENCE.  He says he’s already 0-1. Heh. Hang in here, M2.

Content farms, if you’ve been paying attention, has been a hot topic over the past couple of months. He says over the next hour we’ll hear content farms being criticized, content farms being defended and lots of big picture outlooks.  One thing that’s important to get out of the way is that the very definition of a content is subjective. He asked everyone what a content farm is and there was no real consensus. There’s no specific definition.  However, when you find articles on the web on How To Boil Water it can be easy to throw stones at an entire Web site, but the reality is that some of them have real helpful articles.   For several months there’s been a lot of complaints online among various bloggers and media that Google’s search results has seen a hit in quality. People have been referring to content farms as one of the real problems in terms of impacting search quality.  A week or two ago Google launched the Farmer Update/the Panda update which affected 12 percent of all search queries.  In the immediate analysis there were some real losers mentioned like ezine articles, Associated Content, Hub Pages, etc.  Other sites like did not suffer from Google’s update. That’s where things stand today.

And with that primer, we start.

Up first is Luke Beatty. He oversees Associated Content/Yahoo Contributor Network.  I’m resisting my urge to throw my Sprite can at his face. No offense, Luke.

They wanted to build an open democratic platform where people could publish content, in any format they want.  Today they have more than 400,000 contributors. They keep a third of them with active content at a time.  It’s a place where there’s multiple formats — some people submit unsolicited content, while others submit solicited content.   The focus is to put content on the Yahoo network – Sports, Finance, etc.   Fragmented content goes onto Associated Content.

What’s up with Associated Content’s Google referrers? 1/3 of their content is up, 2/3 of their content is down.  93 percent of the site’s assets remained indexed in Google, even if they’ve been moved around.  Results are very much up and down for people. It hasn’t stabilized.  It seems like the algorithm has changed on an asset by asset basis, not on a property basis. The crowdsourced content that ends up on the Yahoo properties is up and doing very well.  They want people to take a democratic view of their content.

The questions we’re asking:

  • What do the contributors thing
  • What is the overall impact on Yahoo traffic
  • How will this affect quality?
  • What is the impact on marketers?

Their evoluton:

2005: All about creating context for advertising. They wanted to build inventory on the fragmented longtail Web. It was very democratic and very open. People that wanted an audience, could get it. People who wanted to publish a poem for three people, could get it.  It was all about publishing on Associated Content.

2008: Switched models and started building out hyper-targeted display. It was big brands telling them they wanted a lot of content on a specific niche. It was Ace Hardware who wanted 100k articles on drill bits.  Content pushed out by people with some type of area of expertise or a passion point.

Today: 70 percent of the content you consume on a daily basis is crowdsourced. 30 percent of the content you consume on a daily basis is by someone you know. They can employ their contributors to help out big brands.  He doesn’t chafe at the content farm title [You should. #justsayin]. If content farm is equivalent to creating content as a massive scale, that’s what they are, just like eBay is ecommerce at a massive scale. [You are not eBay.]

Next up is Tim Ruder. He doesn’t have a Power Point.

This is an important topic to him because of the values that traditional media brings to the table.  For the moment, the quality of what you get from mainstream media is really high, yet the economics have some challenges in front of them. He thinks traditional media can learn from content farms.  He plays an old clip from Saturday Night Live where people couldn’t figured out how to spell “gaddafi”. I tried to find it on YouTube, but couldn’t, sorry.

You would think that in the Internet age, people would understand language and what language to use. Content farms have systematic tools and organization to write content. They also have tools to help them realize what terms people are interested in. Content farms have data to help them understand what kind of commercial demand exists underneath each of the topics. Content farms, in their accounting, amortize the cost of the content.

On the consumer demand front, things begin to diverge a little bit. Traditional publishers take reader interest into account but it’s defined very broadly and is based not only on what readers what to know today, but what smart readers would like to know or what would be important to know. That leads to investigative journalism, but also to service journalism and reviews. This idea of what people are searching for is totally absent from the real process of news-gathering. That find its way into the organization via search engine optimization.  It points to an organization disconnect between the creation of new content and the optimization of that content. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t happen in traditional content farms – the way that taxonomies are developed.

The point about consumer demand is also really important.  This is what content farms do really well. They think about it at an aggregated level. We’re going to send health advertising to the health sections and movie advertising to the movie sections.

The economics of content farms – content costs are amortized over a five year period. What that does is makes them think about the long-term durability of content. That’s foreign to a lot of traditional newsrooms. Newsrooms operate on adrenaline, focusing on The Daily Miracle. It’s a miracle that the newspaper goes out every day. The content isn’t considered on a longer term fashion. [Okay, that’s a solid points. A lot of bloggers/businesses are run on the same principle.]

The knock on content farms is that the quality can be very low [IT IS!]. The market pressure, however, is going to change that. The recent Panda/Farmer update certainly ups the need for quality for anyone producing quality.  Most of the mainstream press was not affected in any sort of dramatic way. Content farms will not sit still. They’re going to improve over time and up their quality controls.

Well, let’s hope so, eh?

Next up is Byrne.

Supply Media

  • Content based on outside sources
  • Monetization: Gets a big audience, sell ads, hope they notice
  • This is a great way to get the kind of media that media creators like

“Demand” Media

  • Giving people what they want that’s happened for years, we’re just targeting better
  • Monetization: Highly targeted contextual ads: “If you’re reading this, you’re probably will to pay for that”
  • RPM of #13.45 for 2010, up for 26 percent – That doesn’t meant the content is good, it means they’re good at plastering the crap content with ads that DO tell you how to solve your problem.
  • Ridiculous economies of scale
  • Best monetization strategy out there for old domains
  • …or for celebrities.

So who wins?

  • Anyone with more money than time
  • Online “absentee landlords”
  • Lots and lots of nontraditional employees
  • Searchers looking for long tail terms
  • Shareholders


  • Anyone with more time than money
  • Traditional media
  • Angry bloggers
  • Anyone trying to get into the industry
  • Searchers looking for head terms


  • Content factories
  • Separates content creation from site ownership
  • Separates content creators from the marketing process
  • (The job that got me into the industry no longer exists)
  • More efficiency = a Red Queen scenario
  • Bigger labor arbitrate since China.

What should SEOs do?

  • Invest more time in spending high-quality content
  • Sneak by with Social Media
  • Dust off your email newsletter
  • Made- for- Made-for Adsense

In the end, Google is going to figure out how to rank high quality content and low quality content effectively. In the short term, you need to adapt to this world. In the long term, you’re optimizing for the search engine of the future.

Next up is Matthew Brown.

He thinks Google’s Panda update is the biggest update since Florida. They weren’t specifically targeting content farms. They’re looking for low-quality content. It doesn’t matter what type site you are, it matters if you have an over-abundance of thin content on your site.

How we got here: Domain Authority

  • Ability to rank thousands of pages by domain trust/time
  • Longtail rankings add up to a critical mass of traffic
  • Demand Media, Associated Content, get their start.

At the New York Times, they created Topic pages for popular things that they wrote about. Some of them were really great, while others kind of sucked.  But even so, they’d rank really well because of domain authority.  That’s what Google was correcting for.

Farmer: A site-wide filter on domain authority.

Farmer Factor applied to the site’s normal ranking ability

If you have enough of this “farmer smell” on your site, it can pull you down site-wide on stronger terms if you’re that bad.

Possible Panda Signals

  • Quality vs Quantity ratio
  • Big sites relying on domain authority
  • Small sites with few quality pages
  • Sites with an overload of ads/links

What’s a common factor of survivors?

Good brand signals, enough juice to escape the ‘farmer smell’.

That Elusive Brand Smell

  • Google News exclusion
  • Tweets/Shares/Links
  • Balanced ration of deep links vs index page links

How do I get out of this/or avoid getting into it

You’re probably not getting out of this by whining to Google. You got caught in the algorithmic filter. It’s time to cowboy up and figure out how you got in here.

  • Follower eHow’s template. No ads above the fold, good content
  • Clean up your site.
  • Build out brand signals
  • Channels/domain
  • Tighten editorial controls
  • Scale promotion

For years, SEOs have been telling clients to look at our analytics and write content related to those terms. There’s nothing wrong with that, right?

Tim: The problem is with the actual quality of the content.

Byrne: If we don’t harm the search experience, I don’t think we should spend too much time worrying about the quality. [I…did he…I WILL THROW THIS CAN OF SPRITE RIGHT NOW!]

What are some things to avoid with crowdsourced content?

Luke: Avoid people doing the standard garbage SEO tactics because you don’t need them to come into your domain and hurt your user base perspective on what you’re doing. The purpose of crowdsource content should add depth and perspective to your site. If you’re using crowdsourced content to create pages, you’re begging for problems in your decision making.

And we’re out of here. Quick break before the keynote starts in 15.  See you in a bit!


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