The term "content farm" is a popular label in the content industry, but is a relatively new term, and has only appeared as a part of the vernacular in the last five years. Many people point to an article in ReadWriteWeb as the first time the term was used, but it is unclear who coined the phrase.
In general terms, "content farm" is being used to describe a website-or network of sites-that publishes large amounts of inexpensive, often low-quality content specifically designed to generate search engine traffic, and, therefore, advertising revenue. This is often done through the use of many freelance writers, and heavy use of terms designed to appeal to search engines.
SEO expert Danny Sullivan defined "content farms" this way:
- Looks to see what are popular searches in a particular category (news, help topics)
- Generates content specifically tailored to those searches
- Usually spends very little time and or money, even perhaps as little as possible, to generate that content
Who are the Content Farmers?
Demand Media, Inc.-owner of eHow.com and other sites-is perhaps the most criticized and well-known company saddled with the content farm label. Other well-known sites often pointed to as content farms include AssociatedContent.com, Ask.com, Examiner.com, Suite101.com, EZineArticles.com, Buzzle.com, and Mahalo.com. However, there are many sites doing at least some amount of "farming."
Part of the reason these sites inspire so much criticism is that they are succeeding in a big way, at least in terms of traffic. According to comScore, in August 2011, the Ask Network and Demand Media, Inc. both ranked in the top twenty most trafficked U.S. web properties. Other companies in the top 50 Web properties that have content farms in their organization include Yahoo, AOL, and Answers.com.
Is Content Farming Bad?
In and of itself, creating content specifically to foster viewership and therefore advertising is just part of digital publishing. Creating digital content that answers specific search engine queries is not an objectionable goal. After all, getting an answer to a question is the purpose of search.
However, there are two main objections to content farming. First, the pay being offered to the freelance creators of this content is, for the most part, extremely low. So low, in fact, that the qualifications and motivations of the freelancers are often called into question. The second issue is with the quality and depth of the content contained on these sites. With search engine click-throughs set as the main goal, authors are motivated to churn out large quantities of articles, and the quality of the content is often secondary. Accusations of plagiarism and just plain misinformation abound.
What is the Future of Content Farming?
In February 2011, Google announced an update to its search algorithms. Officially named "The Panda Update," it was often called the "farmer update," the purpose of which was to stop shallow, low quality content from dominating the top of search results.
Possibly in response to the Google update, in June 2011 Demand Media began announcing plans to use more staff writers for content creation, hinting that it was pursuing higher quality content. On the flipside, AOL's Patch.com announced plans to recruit 8,000 unpaid bloggers to fill its hyper-local content site. In many cases, the "content farm" trend seems to be moving toward communities more like Examiner.com which allow writers to create content in specific areas of expertise and, in some cases, even use the platform as a launching pad to greater success.