Epic Fail
December 10, 2013 4:43 PM   Subscribe

Demand Media, once valued higher than the New York Times, is seeing a rapid decrease in profits because of Google changing its search algorithms. Does this mean the beginning of the end for "content farms"?
posted by reenum (41 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
We can only hope so.
posted by entropicamericana at 4:52 PM on December 10, 2013 [8 favorites]

No. SEO will just adapt and adapt and adapt for the simple reason that a significant chunk of Google's revenue relies on this same marginal content--they just get *you* to write it. The only thing it could do is uprank its own results, which would generate a tremendous shitstorm.

Basically, the only thing that would make it go away is Google getting out of the ad business completely.
posted by mobunited at 4:54 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

But Joanne Bradford, newly named head of partnerships at Pinterest, who left her post as chief revenue officer at Demand in May, believes the company’s struggles are symptomatic of those at many Internet content companies. “There’s a big challenge for all content creators to overcome,” she said. “I think Demand has done a very smart, focused job and now needs to figure out how to take it to the next level.”

A remarkably content-free quote from a content farm milker.
posted by benzenedream at 4:58 PM on December 10, 2013 [15 favorites]

Some of their content is pure web spam but is eHow really so bad? I usually get to an eHow page by searching for some very specific question like "how to dial a German cell phone area code from the US" and it always seems to provide the right answer, albeit in a padded and long-winded form. Without the existence of an eHow type content farm, what would the next result be? I mean without any economic incentive, who's gonna put up clean simple single-page answers to questions like that?
posted by pete_22 at 5:00 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

It is how I ended up here. I was directed to an eHow answer to a question and the answer sucked so much that I went noodling around on the green. So some good has come of content farms.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:12 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

So, apparently, devaluing content in favor of ads eventually numbs and drives away readers, you say? Who could imagine that?
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:25 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Read my article about the World's Tiniest Vio... click here for more.
posted by feloniousmonk at 5:29 PM on December 10, 2013 [13 favorites]

Beginning of the end of "content farms?"

Tell me again how Buzzfeed and HuffPo are doing...
posted by chasing at 5:30 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Content farms are websites that have lots of articles, or "content" on them. If you are asking a question about Viagra, or Obamacare, or refinancing, sometimes you can't find the right answer on the Internet. You may be asking yourself, "How do I get rid of content farms?" You can get rid of content farms by following these six simple steps:

1.) First, become a search engine. Look at other search engines, like Bing or Yahoo or Google or Lycos to see how they work. Copy that and become a search engine. You can find lots of good resources for doing this at http://www.sba.gov.

2.) After you are a search engine, you will want to index the web. You do this by spidering. Build a spider and index the web. Be sure to avoid common pitfalls, like not indexing the "deep web". The "deep web" is the part of the Internet that search engines don't crawl. So this is something to know.

3.) Refine your search engine algorithm. Algorithms are named in honor of Pythagreon Thereom, a famous Greek mathematician who answered the question, "How do I find the area of a triangle?"

4.) Once you have refined your algorithm, let the content farms have good SEO for a while. "What is SEO?" is a common question. SEO means "Searching Everything Over".

5.) Around this time the content farms should be letting their guard down. This is what you want. Allow at least 48 hours for this to happen.

6.) Re-optimize ("fix") your algorithm so that content farms never show up again. Instead you should be showing results about DVD Blu-Rays and symptoms of diseases you can have.

If this doesn't work, become illiterate and start reading pictures instead of words.
posted by compartment at 5:33 PM on December 10, 2013 [87 favorites]

Basically, the only thing that would make it go away is Google getting out of the ad business completely.

This doesn't make any sense. Content farms would just find another ad partner. Google will have SEO people dogging it as long as they are popular and rank websites. SEO happened for other search engines, and Google, before Google ever did ad sense.
posted by zabuni at 5:52 PM on December 10, 2013

eHow is a wretched scummy site. I have it blocked from my Google searches (both when signed in to Google and also with a handy Firefox add-on). If I'm searching for something on my work computer and am not signed in to Google, it'll come up in search results and I won't notice until I've clicked the link. Usually I am searching for how to make or do something type information, let's say something like how to make a witch's hat or how to make a papercraft robot or how to convert an old t-shirt into an evening gown, whatever. The instructions will invariably be something like (1) get a pattern for x; (2) cut out the pattern pieces; (3) attach the pattern pieces to each other; (4) Done! I mean it is totally, utterly, infuriatingly useless and I always feel tricked when I've clicked the link from Google and discovered that I've landed on eHow.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 6:08 PM on December 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

The instructions will invariably be something like (1) get a pattern for x; (2) cut out the pattern pieces; (3) attach the pattern pieces to each other; (4) Done!

I call these results "How To Draw The Tick".
posted by Rock Steady at 6:13 PM on December 10, 2013 [20 favorites]

Ha, yes, that's about right.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 6:16 PM on December 10, 2013

Tired of content farms? Here's One Weird Trick Spammers In Your Area Don't Want You To Know.

I don't understand what's happening there. Explain?
posted by ReeMonster at 6:21 PM on December 10, 2013

Also eHow results are often tautological. If you search for, say, how to tie a granny knot or something it'll say: (1) Get a piece of string; (2) Tie a granny knot in it.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 6:25 PM on December 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

On the other hand, I'll sorely miss the ability to half-ass an article for $5-15 bucks and make enough in a few hours to have some nice walking-around money.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:28 PM on December 10, 2013

Another hideous site is something called "big resource," which just scrapes tech sites and yet somehow always manages to end up in google's top 10 or so results. I mean, scraping sites cannot be that hard to discover...hm, site x has the exact same words (in huge chunks) as 75 other sites, but none of those share words with each other except for in tiny pieces here and there. Hmmmmm.

One thing content farms have taken away from me (not a huge loss, but whatever) is consumer goods reviews. You simply cannot type "[consumer good you're interested in] review" and find anything at all of value, 19 times out of 20.

Likewise, as mentioned above, if you're looking for a how-to on something very common, it's really difficult to find a good set of instructions. If you want to do something off-the-beaten-path, it's a lot easier, even if the results are sparser.

I've given up trying to game google with plugins, they rarely seem to work for more than a month or so before they're either taken down under pressure from google or google changes their code in a way which stops them from working.
posted by maxwelton at 6:32 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Valued higher than a newspaper" is, er, kind of a low bar. I think they're just driving content out to free creators, but in a way I prefer people who are creating good content for free in exchange for technology services over people who are creating bad content for peanuts. Google has, I believe, for a long time now been trying to weed out content farms, but last I heard they were actually using paid labor to try to pick out the bad results (or maybe just refine the algorithms?) and it was clearly not just as simple as 'write a few lines of code that ignores these places'.
posted by Sequence at 6:36 PM on December 10, 2013

Dear Santa:

I know I've not been very good this year, but if you bring about the end of Upworthy, you won't just get me the best Christmas gift ever, you'd do a good thing on general principle...
posted by ocschwar at 6:52 PM on December 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

"Google Domain Blocker" Greasemonkey plugin FTW! I've had really good results with it and just added eHow and Bigresource (surprised I didn't have those already on my list).

Same old adage now as it was back in the '90s, to use the internet effectively, you have to use the right knowledge and tools to filter out MEGATONS of worthless crap (and the ability to speed read really helps, too).
posted by mizjana2u at 6:53 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've been noticing that Google is getting clogged on the top 2 or 3 pages with links from just 1 or 2 sites lately. Very crappy user experience.
posted by srboisvert at 7:02 PM on December 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

The worst of these are the pages that claim to solve some problem lots of people are having, but just have a bunch of word salad talking around the fact that there isn't a solution. Thousands of people search for "what is error 200 on a sony dvd player", nobody knows the answer, and you end up reading an article that goes on and on and the only real advice is to check that the cables are plugged in.

The worst of these I encountered was when I stained some wood the wrong color and wanted to know if there was a way to fix it. The answer is "no", but that didn't stop eHow from producing a 10 minute long video with a guy talking randomly about wood, doing some sanding, then concluding without even showing the supposedly un-stained wood to the camera. What a waste of everyone's time.
posted by what of it at 7:37 PM on December 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've been noticing that Google is getting clogged on the top 2 or 3 pages with links from just 1 or 2 sites lately. Very crappy user experience.

I've noticed this for years, easily, and have probably complained about it to folks on this very site at least once. I'm in a financial place where I can't afford to be choosy about where my money comes from, and yet I've resisted the push to write for content farms, despite the regular weekly notice from Monster that HubPages is "hiring," because I'd like to make money at something that doesn't make the world a worse place in the process.
posted by JHarris at 8:49 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm surprised there has been no mention of one particular Demand Media site, Cracked.com, which has been providing better quality content lately in spite of its historical devotion to the listicle format (it has even made MeFi's front page a few times without mass protest), and according to Alexa is holding up traffic-wise (maybe because of the listicle thing).
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:10 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Today I did a quick search for "museum curator interview questions" as I prepped to do a mock interview with one of my grad students in advance of his actual interview later this week. I got pages of content farms with supposed sample questions like: "What would you do to do better, job, CURATOR?" It was Chinese spam run through Google Translate, I swear.
posted by LarryC at 9:50 PM on December 10, 2013

This doesn't make any sense. Content farms would just find another ad partner. Google will have SEO people dogging it as long as they are popular and rank websites. SEO happened for other search engines, and Google, before Google ever did ad sense.

I do not. If Google wasn't in the ad business it could change search to make *any* form of bait content useless. It would be downranked to the depths of SERPS. But Google is in the ad business, and wants things the way they are to drive Adsense. Google cannot give its own Adsense-anchored content preferential treatment, however, so the same algorithms that lead to Adsense-sponsored sites allow targeted content.

Basically, "Don't be evil" in this context means, "We can't be a little evil without letting everybody else be evil." They can think of trick after trick to defeat webspam, but the truth is that because they must apply these all equally--including to themselves--or risk various legal catastrophes, anything that impacts webspam enough to stop it probably puts an unacceptable dent in Adsense. The idea the Google is a neutral party in the delivery of search results (and that these results are *never* directly tampered with by human judgement) is the bedrock of its ad business. Google's model is based on the idea that you can never buy mainline SERPS, only AdWords, so results are always as useful, trustworthy and neutral (from a certain point of view . . .) as G can make them.

If Google didn't give a shit about Adsense, it could just design against all tailored, externally served ad content--period. It has proven capable of rapidly responding to the spamification of a platform--it's why you don't see Hubpages or Squidoo results rank anymore.
posted by mobunited at 10:40 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Content farms fucked me over, basically by driving the cost of advertising down - they delivered the hits, the agencies are addicted to traffic, and the cost of providing basically machine-generated SEO-spiked crap is far lower than doing decent journalism.

I come from a tradition of doing tech journalism and reviews that would stand up in court (we never had to prove it, but we did help out a competitor who was about to be sued by a vendor, by telling the vendor that we'd back the other guy if they brought the case. And that was that).

That's not cheap, so after a long, slow process of attrition we stopped being able to do it. There wasn't much corporate taste for investing in alternative ideas, and not much taste (or ability) on my part to do the sort of things that they did have a taste for, so off I toddled, along with the rest of an excellent team who were far too good for me.

The only million-hit article I ever wrote, which was some years ago and well avant la lettre, was a listicle. (A very good listicle, mind.) I should have taken the hint then...

The demise of content farms cannot come too soon. And yes, better search algorithms are part of that, because once you get search that actually delivers what you want ("when you want it", oh do shut up at the back there) then you get a sensible differentiated advertising model back driven by independent journalism that respects the reader. It will look rather different to the good old days (which had plenty of bad old bits - smoke and mirrors operated at every level), but by the bleeding hand of Orwell there's no shortage of needs to be met.

Buzzfeed and Cracked may be showing some of that evolution at work, although...
posted by Devonian at 11:43 PM on December 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

This business was a parasite off google. It was doomed to die. Its very purpose was to defeat Google's business model, selling ads to people on the side to reach google users who rely on the site's ability to provide excellent search. The content farm is a way to get up in the page rank on Google, making its service not work as well at helping you find quality content. It was only a matter of time until google found a way to weed them out. It had to do it.

Why dumbass investors didn't see that, I don't know.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:07 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

One of my great joys in life has been when Google started changing their algorithm to weed out content farms. Not that, but the thread where Google asked "if you think we made a mistake by delisting/down ranking your site, please tell us here." The howling, the whining, the complaining just tickles me as content farm owners try and justify why their site is not really a content farm, unlike everyone elses.

Content farms have needed to die for a long time. They corrupt real topics. Ehow is the worst; I've seen information that isn't just lazy, it's harmful.

I run a website on seahorses, among other things; and it is a very knowledge intensive subject. People, including myself, keep them as pets. My goal is to be informational, an the only advertisers on there are ones that traded me for prizes I gave to my readers as part of a contest to give something back. I'm writing for the reason many people write, because I can't not write.

So I have regular "encounters" with content farms - the first are the content stealers. I've had my whole site lifted. I've had it lifted and spun with article spinners. I've had photos stolen. Some of the time I'm able to get the issues addressed when I complain, many times not.

However, the worst isn't the copiers. It's the ones that are outright wrong. the ones that writing on this subject matter, and give incorrect information because some writer looking to make a few bucks may or may not have done 10 seconds of research, and are offering out dated or misunderstood information. But because some of those sites look like real websites, there are numerous people getting wrong information that end up killing their pets. And people like me end up picking up the pieces when they find sources of correct information and have to relearn everything. They think they did everything right because a site with a professional white background told them it was the right thing.

My "favorite" are the ones that include author bios, and the author tries to justify why they're writing on the subject matter. Things where they have 3 years of journalism writing content farm articles and they once thought about owning a dog, so we should trust their knowledge on advanced behavioral rehabilitation in aggressive dogs.

Let them all burn.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 12:17 AM on December 11, 2013 [7 favorites]

I'm surprised there has been no mention of one particular Demand Media site, Cracked.com, which has been providing better quality content lately in spite of its historical devotion to the listicle format (it has even made MeFi's front page a few times without mass protest), and according to Alexa is holding up traffic-wise (maybe because of the listicle thing).

An interesting note is that writing for cracked is really, really difficult. They know their place on the internet and are pretty damn proud of the quality they put out now and there's fierce and open competition for slots. Moreover, because of that competition, and because they've got writers/editors as good as David Wong, John Cheese, Daniel O'Brien, Michael Swaim, Kristi Harrison (who seems to shepherd a lot of new writers in) and now Christina H. returning from maternity hiatus, they are more concerned with the meat of the content than with the humor and writing quality of submissions. Essentially it works like this:

Got an idea? Like, a really original idea that we haven't seen here before? Because you might see a lot of ideas repeat themselves here but those are from our featured regulars, so that's not what we're looking for. Okay, good. Write up a bunch of examples of your idea and one very brief example for a treatment. Submit it with the hundreds of others.

If the pool of supplicants like your idea it will be commented on until the group-editing process deems it worthy of editorial first-look. Then that list will be culled. And then again. And then again. Finally the editorial team will take the nearly-polished product and mostly rewrite it for humor and site-consistency. Once you've gone through this process successfully I believe five times then you will be hired on as a regular, at which point your own style can shine through a bit more.

And what they want right now are basically fascinating AMA-type contributors - people with unique life experiences and expertise in unexplored things. The editors can make it funny. What they want is information. Oh, and every asserted fact must be well-sourced.

The idea, (and all of this is easily discovered by going through their very public writers workshop) is that people come to the site primarily because people like to learn things, and the humor makes that more fun. The listcicle makes it more easily digestible and helps keeps their traffic up, so they're sticking with it. But if you try to go through the process you'll find that the guiding principle is not "will this be funny" or "will this grab page-views" but rather "is this something people might not know?" And when you bring in their sourcing and fact-checking, well... I liked them going into the process (I haven't succeeded yet) but came out of it respecting them quite a bit.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:24 AM on December 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

Related to this: has Google ever made a real statement as to why they got rid of "manage my search results", which included an option for blocking domains that you didn't want to see in your results? Was lamenting this again last night as I rewrote my terms to block fixya for the millionth time (yes, I know, there are extensions, I'm always in the middle of something else when this comes up).
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 3:44 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't know Lentrohamsanin, but I miss it too. It seems to me like they could even use that information, of which sites people tend to block, to better weed out content farms.
posted by JHarris at 4:42 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised there has been no mention of one particular Demand Media site, Cracked.com

Huh, I don't think that Cracked has ever once come up in a search for me; I either browse it on purpose or someone posts a link here. Didn't realize that they were part of that crappy company.
posted by octothorpe at 5:32 AM on December 11, 2013

Count me in as someone that loved the ability to block sites. The added puff of smoke was great. I remember blocking Fox News gleefully, telling a coworker about it, and having another coworker get really upset over hearing us blocking Fox News. Ah... Those were the days.

That being said, there were a number of sites I'd block that would show up again. Ehow was one of them, and in retrospect, I wonder if somehow sites were using redirects to get around that. Of course that wouldn't seem like a huge technical challenge Google couldn't get around.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 8:12 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

The worst experience I've had with content farms was when I was doing some Googling for the disease that my mom has. I came across an "article" on Yahoo! Voices that had information that I knew from other, reputable sources was just plain wrong. The worst part is that the wrong piece of information was that life expectancy for someone with that disease was at most 5 years, which is not true.

I was like, "Wait a minute, what are this woman's credentials? Is she a doctor?" and found out she had "more 15 years experience as an SEO professional."

It made me really sad that some people might read something like that on the Internet and think it's accurate information. It's also sad to me that the employment situation is so bad that there are a lot of folks desperate enough for work/money that they'll write for these sites.

Btw, does Yahoo! Voices technically qualify as a content farm? I'm not really that familiar with the term and what qualifies. I mean, Yahoo! is a legitimate company....
posted by Asparagus at 9:15 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

You lost the ability to block sites because it interfered with Google's bottom line. It's the same reason you lost a large amount of experience customization over the last few years.

Google is primarily an ad firm. It is not and never has been a charity.
posted by mobunited at 9:22 AM on December 11, 2013

You lost the ability to block sites because it interfered with Google's bottom line

Oh sure, I assumed that was the reason, I was more curious to find out what excuse they made, if any.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:28 AM on December 11, 2013

Google is primarily an ad firm. It is not and never has been a charity.

98... 99... boiling! Right.

This gets said in every damn Google thread. What the heck does that have to do with anything?! They have long recognized that, if their search results are crap, then people will stop using them. It is not in their best interests to advertise at people un-usefully, or obnoxiously, and they are one of the few companies who has historically realized this and said so. It's a big reason people started using Google in the first place, back when all their competitors (Alta Vista, Excite, and others that have now faded from memory) outright sold placement in search results.

Furthermore -- Google is a big company these days, and they make money in lots of ways. You've heard of Android, I expect? Chromecast? Google Glass? They have been working at not having all their eggs in the ad sales basket -- as any large successful company will do, to alleviate risk.

And they are not "an advertising company," which is just a stupid game of semantics anyway, because you don't call TV networks "advertising companies," even though they support themselves through ad sales too. Selling ads is their business model, but it's not what they do, primarily. That huge server farm isn't loaded to the brim with ads, after all.

And lastly, even if you granted your premise (and no one in this thread has ever said they were "a charity," oy), in what possible negative way would removing the ability to customize search results have on their ad business? Statistically speaking, the removed pages would have the same likelihood of hosting Google ads as the remaining ones, and the search result pages themselves have ads on them no matter how many results you remove. And since the reader is unlikely to visit pages he specifically wanted to exclude from search results, any ads on those pages weren't going to get looked at anyway!
posted by JHarris at 2:56 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think I saw someone on hacker news or somewhere like that put it this way: Google is an ad company rather than a technology company in the same sense that Albert Einstein was a food person rather than a physics person, which is to say, the former enables the latter, but is hardly the ultimate point.
posted by feloniousmonk at 3:13 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

> cracked.com

Cracked is often clever and often LOL funny. It's also amazing, in that it's somehow descended from a paper-magazine MAD knockoff that was definitely, absolutely in second place because it was second rate. I can never visit the current Cracked site without marvelling over HTF that ever morphed into this.
posted by jfuller at 5:08 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older Crazy as a rocket   |   Beyond a boundary Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments