Content farmers’ harvest proves hard to collect

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.