Content farms are the recent hot topic in the search marketing world. Ever since Google via Matt Cutts announced some algorithmic updates targeted at reducing the visibility of content farms in the results, it has become a major point of discussion and debate across the search marketing web. Not sure what a content farm truly is? Well that’s a subject of debate in itself. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on content farms:
In the context of the World Wide Web, content farms are companies (or their divisions) that employ large numbers of (often freelance) writers to generate large amounts of textual content.
The articles in content farms are written by human beings but may not be written by a specialist in the area. Proponents of the content farms claim that from a business perspective, traditional journalism is inefficient: stories are chosen by a small group of people that frequently have similar experiences and outlooks. Content farms often commission their writers’ work based on analysis of search engine queries that proponents represent as “true market demand”, a feature that traditional journalism lacks.
Content farms are criticized for providing relatively low quality content as they maximize profit by producing just “good enough” rather than best possible quality articles. Authors are aware that the quality is not that good. Search engines see content farms as a problem, as they tend to bring the user to the less relevant and lower quality results of the search. Because of the attempt to deliver as much as possible and as cheaply as possible, content farms are called “McDonalds online”.
In one of Google’s own promotional videos the majority of the links available were actually produced at content farms.
Content farms contain huge number of articles. For instance, Demand Media will soon be publishing 1 million items a month, the equivalent of four English-language Wikipedias a year. Big content farms are expensive resources, sold for many millions.
A content farm writer usually gets only several dollars per article yet produces many articles per day and may earn enough for living. A typical content writer is a female with children that contrasts with sites expecting voluntary unpaid contribution for the sake of idea, where the typical writer is an unmarried (single) male.
(emphasis added)(citations omitted)
While there are some content farms that are easy to identify in terms of very low-quality content, by their very nature they have a very subjective component. One person’s low-quality content farm web spam maybe another person’s blog. Allow me to explain.
Let’s say I like to write about football. However, I have never played football, never played football, and never worked professionally in job even remotely related to football. My experience is as a casual watcher of football (not even a super fan). And so I start a blog up on the subject of football. Have I created a content farm? I am not an expert on football and am not claiming to be? At what point is my writing low-quality enough that it begins to enter content farm land? On the other hand, perhaps people that come to my website learn something that they didn’t know about football. Perhaps they have a laugh. Who knows.
My point is that the only tangible difference between the content on my example football blog and a true for-profit content farm is the intent. While my intent may simply to write publicly on the subject of football, the content farm is aggressively pumping large amounts of content onto the web. My response, so what? Last time I checked, so long as you’re willing to pay for web space and bandwidth, there is no law about the quality or amount of content, posts, or pages that you are permitted to create.
It seems to me that if there is an issue here, it rests with Google and other search engines. If they want to protect their users from content farms, then it seems to me that is their prerogative. To me, as long as content doesn’t break any laws (or professional codes as in the legal profession), then the responsibility for sifting through content becomes the responsibility of the search engines, as it always has been. For example, Blekko has recently banned several content farms including:
It seems to me that this decision is a choice that rests with each search engine. The alternative is an unnecessary, and perhaps unconstitutional, ban on Internet speech. Are we really going to go after these content farms for producing low-quality content? Are we penalize authors and bloggers for writing crappy blog posts about kittens?
As law firm search marketers, we see this issue all the time. Legal professionals lament that they simply don’t have time to produce articles. Some legal professionals have outsourced their content creating mini content farms of their law firm websites and/or blogs. Again, it seems to me that the issue here is that these content farmers are getting traction in the search engines. Again, the disagreement seems to be with the search engine and not the authors.
Who is the ultimate arbiter of the quality of web content? Well there can really only be two options, either the users or the search engines. The last thing we need is some form of online content regulation. Of which, I am sure that we shall begin to see discussions. Ultimately, if we don’t want to see content farms, then Google needs to find a way to stop serving them up in the results.