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Archive for the ‘Content Farms’ Category

Content farmers’ harvest proves hard to collect

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Analysis by Tim Dawson

“When you pay nothing, you are the product” goes the saying.  As a truism it might pre-date the internet, but it is a sentiment whose perfect expression occurs in the relationship between content farms and their users. Cheaply-generated material on search-engine-optimized pages, surrounded by advertisements seemed, a year ago, as though their rolling progress would soon see them dominating the internet and reduce search engines to the status of satellite states.

In January, the biggest of these operations, Demand Media, was launched on the New York Stock Exchange with 8.9m shares successfully offered at $17 each.

On balance, that launch might represent the high-water mark of so-called content farms.  In February, Google announced that it was launching “a pretty big algorithmic improvement to our ranking”.  It quickly became evident that the target of these changes was “the proliferation of low quality sites”.  Of course the search giant did not specify which sites it had in mind – but it has become known at ‘the farmer update’, it immediately made it more difficult for low-quality pages to achieve higher rankings.

As it turned out, the farmer update was simply the first part of a year-long roll out of algorithm changes that Google has introduced throughout 2011 (known collectively at Panda), all intended to keep the search engine ahead of sites such as Facebook and the Twitter.  The search algorithm itself is one of Google’s most closely guarded secrets, and is thought to contain over a1,000 tests that can be applied to sites that it ranks.  At least 200 are thought to be applied to every search.

And Google were by no means the only organization that was beginning to cast a critical eye on content farms.  The Internet Content Syndication Council has been around since 2007 and includes such bastions of journalism as The Associated Press (US) Thompson Reuters and the Tribune Co.  It issued a press release saying: “an issue that is causing concern among its members: the rising tide of poorly produced informational content, specifically designed to score high on search”.

There was disquiet at the other end of the industry too., started by Patrick O’Doare, a Demand Studio freelancer provided both a critical focus on the company, and a forum where others who worked for them but felt ill-treated could make common cause.  It is precisely the sort of initiative that on one or two occasions has allowed freelances to take control back of a negotiating situation in which publishers assumed that they held all the power.

That is not to say, of course, that a case cannot be made for content farms.  There are serious and successful journalists such as Julian Marszalek who argues that the crumbs of cash that can be made from content farms are a useful to generate income while you might otherwise be idle.  And, for anyone who has ever tried to do something as esoteric as change the brake light on a 15 year old Volvo estate (to take just one example), there are few things more useful than the answers to be found on sites such as Demand’s eHow.

Whatever one thinks of such operations, however, as the year end approaches, it is clear that they are no longer having it their own way.  Where once they appeared to be a column of tanks, inexorably pushing their way across cyberspace, they now look as though they will have to scrabble to hold their current position, just like everyone else.

As I write, Demand Media’s shares are trading at $7.90 each, having been as low as $5.24.  Not Stalingrad by a long chalk – but surely evidence that Google’s Marshall February is not to be dismissed lightly.


Written by Tim Dawson

December 5th, 2011 at 9:17 am

James ‘pay nowt’ Brown: saviour or saboteur?

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Sabotage Times, James Brown’s latest venture aims to be an online showcase for new writing talent.  Aspiring journalists give their material to the site for nothing, and, so the plan goes, gain attention and lustre from being published by the founder of Loaded and former editor of GQ.  The 200 or so contributors only receive payment if their material is syndicated elsewhere.

The site’s content is the mens’ mags staples of television, film, music, football, celebrity, travel and lifestyle.  By virtue of being on the web, the content is generally more immediate, but slighter than much of its printed kin.

Brown, whose Jack magazine lasted just two years and who has since been undertaking media consultancy,  launched the venture with £30,000 of his own money.  He runs it with a deputy, Matt Weiner, formerly of FourFourTwo, and has no office.  There a couple of big name backers, but Brown has, to date, declined to name them.

The idea came to Brown when he realised that there was a wealth of writing talent pouring its efforts into blogs and Twitter feeds who risked going unnoticed.  By pulling them together, and publishing some of his old running mates like Irvine Welsh, as well as his own musings, Brown reasoned that he could create a destination website.  Today the site claims around 85,000 unique visitors a month.

Whether the deal works for contributors is harder to fathom.  Brown says that more than 140 articles have now been syndicated.  One or two Sabotage Times writers have been spotted and snapped up by established media – one for example is now working for Heat.

Lucy Sweet – one of Sabotage Times top-six contributors – is a respected journalist based in Glasgow.  After 15 years of successful freelancing, she was hit by the downturn in print, and care duties for a young child.  She found Sabotage Times via Twitter, liked their ‘fresh and anarchic attitude’, and sent them a link to her blog.

“I wrote them a piece for Sabotage Times about my secret grubby love of cheap celeb magazines,” she says. “I got tons of comments and tweets about it, from Sabotage Times readers to magazine editors and established journalists. Even Jonathan Ross read it and liked it.”

Sweet generally initiates ideas and is given free rein to write what she wants.   “If there’s something topical they want to run James or his deputy Matt will commission me – usually at the last minute. I’ve written reviews of the Apprentice and the X-Factor well into the night. But the response is always so immediate that I’ve become addicted to the attention! James and Matt are very supportive and I’ve (virtually) been introduced to a bunch of really funny, clever, up and coming writers like Russ Litten, Olivia Darling and Jo Fuertes-Knight. It’s been a very positive experience.”

Sweet has had nothing syndicated from the site, but has been approached by several editors as a result of her work on the site.  She wrote a column for the Guardian, covering for Ian Jack while he was on holiday, and has also had a commission from Glamour and one from a travel magazine about a five star hotel in Barbados. 

For Brown’s business to work, of course, he will need to syndicate a great deal more.  Only time will tell whether Sabotage Times is the next Loaded – or another Jack.

Written by Tim Dawson

January 6th, 2011 at 8:01 am

Happy is the content farm hand

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This interview with US writer Will Stape, on the BBC College of Journalism site, suggests that that the pay-per-click writing lifestyle has much going for it.  The only proviso is that you don’t mind covering the laund-o-mat and Star Trek beats.  And living in New Jersey.

Written by Tim Dawson

September 24th, 2010 at 9:04 am

Posted in Content Farms