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

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The Business Models of Content Farms

The delivery models for this sort of content business vary widely. Suite101.com, for instance, works in many ways like EzineArticles.com, which is a site where would-be experts post articles hoping to gain web exposure that will boost their recognition and web traffic. However, Suite101.com differs from EzineArticles.com in at least a couple of important ways. While EzineArticles.com offers very lengthy and specific editorial guidelines, the editing process itself isn't as rigorous as Suite101.com's, relying instead on "self-policing."

In addition, Ezine Articles.com writers don't earn anything for the pieces they post (other than revenue they may generate themselves through driving traffic to their sites). Suite101.com's "over 10,000 professional, paid contract writers," on the other hand, participate in a revenue-sharing arrangement. This can represent small change, though Berger says some earn thousands of dollars a month. "Our best-earning writers make more than $3,000 monthly for all of the content they have written in the past," he says.

Suite101.com differs, in turn, from content providers such as Demand Studios in that Suite101.com writers can write about anything they choose; search algorithms do not drive content creation. And, while Demand Studios does offer a revenue-based payment option for some of its pieces, most of the work is paid at a flat rate ranging from $3 per item for Answerbag items (30-word answers to questions such as, "What percentage of mortgages are from third parties?") to $15-$20, and sometimes more, for longer (400-500 word) pieces on a wide range of articles that writers can "claim." Article titles are literally driven by actual searches performed by content consumers, which Demand Media believes promotes the creation of content that aligns with consumer interests and, ultimately, that will drive advertising revenue.

AOL's Seed works similarly but pays a bit more: A quick look at a recent list of available assignments ranged from $10 to $40, and the site's owners say some articles may be worth as much as $300. With Seed, though, writers undertake a more speculative process in which they write and submit a piece that, presumably, others may also be writing and submitting, and they are taking a chance that their copy will be selected.

Content branding also varies among these content approaches. Both Suite101.com and Examiner.com privately brand their content. When you access these materials, their websites will be part of the domain name. Other providers such as Demand Media and Seed distribute content through other sites-generally sites that they own, such as AOL's DailyFinance and MovieFone.

Examiner.com is quite similar to About.com; both offer writers an opportunity to be aligned with their own content. You become an Examiner, for instance, for a particular city or an About.com guide for a particular topic.

The growth in demand for this content has been "phenomenal," says Blair. Unique visits to Examiner.com, for instance, were up 58% in May compared to January 2010. This growth and the potential for related revenue is not going unnoticed, and competition has continued to arise from many sources, including very small providers such as Emerging Cast, Inc., "a fast growing company focused on producing digital content on a massive scale." Based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Emerging Cast is recruiting freelancers "proficient in English and/or Spanish from all over the world," according to a press release.

It is going to be hard, though, for new entrants in this market to compete with the already established content providers, especially as large media firms such as Time Warner-owned AOL enter the fray. In fact, Wengroff predicts that the next entrants will be companies such as Viacom and CBS, stating, "Larger publishers that have a substantial number of internet properties will also develop, probably just to acquire content and distribute it among their family of sites."

In fact, one area for which Wengroff sees growth is online video, an area in which these large media companies already possess great content resources. "Online video is the last great hope for reaping advertising dollars," he says. "It probably really moves the market forward."

However, there are low-cost upstarts in this area as well. Daniel Blackman is co-founder and chief operating officer of Howcast Media, with offices in San Francisco and New York. He and co-founder Jason Liebman worked together at Google on the Google Video team. They noticed a trend of high demand for searches related to how-to, instructional types of information. Video seemed to be a great delivery mechanism to provide that instructional content in a very user-friendly way. Today, Howcast.com produces hundreds of videos each month that are distributed across its network of top platforms including mobile, TV, and on-demand. Howcast.com produces video content based on search engine results, similar to Demand Media, but also produces unique content for
clients that include Kodak, 1-800-Flowers, and Home Depot. Video content is in high demand, and that demand is likely to continue to grow, as YouTube well knows.

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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.