Content's Latest Creation Model: Factory Farmed or Organically Grown

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What is a Content Farm?

About.com. AOL's Seed. Associated Content. Demand Studios. Examiner.com. Suite101. These are just a few of the rapidly growing list of new-breed content providers seeking to take over the world of online content. Search for just about anything these days and much of what shows up in the first three pages of results will provide content driven by these providers. That is, in fact, the point. This generation of content company-many of which have their roots in search-are all about search engine optimization (SEO) and rising to the top of page rankings to pull in web surfers. And in today's web-oriented content business, this makes sense-and dollars: Web surfers find what they want, which creates click-throughs and, ultimately, advertising sales.

The foundational premise for this form of content delivery is really no different than it has ever been. Consider the 1950s, when television network executives created and delivered content to the masses and attracted advertisers interested in those eyeballs because they had products to sell the viewers attached to them. Today, internet executives are creating and delivering content to the masses and attracting advertisers interested in these same eyeballs because they too have products to sell. The basic principle is the same. The impact, however, is magnified exponentially.

Digital Content Demand

It is estimated that YouTube surpassed 2 billion hits per day in 2010-about 70 million unique visitors a month in the U.S. It isn't difficult to understand why online advertisers would be interested in capturing a share of this volume. Examiner.com says that it receives about 21 million unique visits according to Omniture rankings and about 3.5 million according to comScore.

In 1955, U.S. News & World Report magazine examined the impact of television and found, "The biggest of the new forces in American life today is television. ... Two out of three U.S. families now own their own sets, or are paying for them. In 32 million homes, TV dials are flicked on and off, from channel to channel, at least 100 million times between 8 a.m. and midnight."

In 2010, 221 million people in the U.S. will be online, according to eMarketer.com-about 71% of the total population. These numbers will continue to grow, reaching 250 million in 2014-more than 77% of the population. These growing numbers have created a virtually insatiable demand for content that will attract eyeballs and ad dollars; content providers such as those listed earlier are eagerly attempting to meet the demand.

While this new breed of content providers have been the brunt of a significant amount of criticism and vitriol, most notably from journalists and freelancers who chafe at the low pay being offered for this content, branding these ventures "content farms," many do not think that these models represent a threat to traditional journalism (at least not as a whole). For now, at least, they're simply responding to a rapidly growing demand for information. Examiner.com, for instance, creates 3,000 articles a day and has 1.2 million stories in archive. But these stories are significantly different from the coverage that a U.S. News & World Report-or an Econtent, for that matter-would provide.

Rick Blair, the CEO of Denver-based Examiner.com, says, "We don't cover breaking news. We don't cover crime. We seldom have opinion pieces." He says, "The news media space has their role and we have ours. Their role is to be the watchdog and our role is to make sure we provide readers with useful content from knowledgeable sources."

Peter Berger, president and CEO of Suite101.com, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, with offices in Berlin, Madrid, and Paris, also points out that the competition for Suite101.com does not come from newspapers. "If there is competition, it will be much more from nonfiction book publishers," he says. "In the past, you would have had to buy an entire book, for example, on how-to gardening." Through Suite101.com, access to this type of content is free.

In fact, a phrase you'll hear frequently from these new media content providers is "evergreen." They're not out to provide news that is timely and that will be "old news" in a day's time-the purview of many in the breaking news media. They're instead out to provide content that can be distributed for months, longer if possible, and still be attractive to advertisers who wish to place their ads adjacent to this information.

In fact, some critics of the model suggest that these content providers really don't care whether anybody actually even reads the content, as long as they click on the advertisers' links that appear near the copy or images they're pushing out to the masses. Jake Wengroff is one of them. Wengroff is global director, corporate communications for Frost & Sullivan, a consulting firm based in Mountain View, Calif. "I suppose these companies have found a hole in the market," Wengroff says, "and perhaps web browsers could care less about the quality of content. We'll see how this will pan out. I think quality is going to suffer."

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With the proliferation of search-oriented online content providers such as AOL, Yahoo!, Demand Media, and About.com, internet users are increasingly likely to find that most of the general searches they do return results from these SEO-oriented content creators and so-called "content farms". Whether this is a good or a bad thing from the user perspective remains to be seen—and opinions vary. But from general tactics, to long tail search and universal search strategies, SEO remains critical to web publishers.