Taking on Content Farms: Google’s War on Nonsense

Virginia Heffernan, who is fast becoming one of our favorite New York Times contributors, published a nice piece over the weekend about Google’s ongoing battle with those who try and bend Google’s algorithm to their own ends.  Titled “Google’s War on Nonsense,” the article discusses the strategies that content farms — large “news” sites that use content Google Logostuffed with targeted keywords and sensational headlines to lure Internet browsers into clicking on cleverly placed ads — use to game Google’s ranking system.

The appearance of content farms is typically schizophrenic, with strangely cobbled together sentences that include everything from celebrity gossip to “personal” confessions to product plugs.  Although the content on these sites is seemingly vacuous, it is actually written by real people.  These writers are under intense pressure to crank out endless articles, sometimes as many as ten in a single shift, during grueling 70-hour work weeks that offer no reward than a mediocre salary of $35,000 to $45,000.  Their job is simply to cram as many keywords that were trending up on Google searches, using the highest volume keywords for titles and headlines.

The websites creating this low-cost, high volume content don’t really care if anybody finds the content that they produce engaging.  There aim is to get visitors onto their page and then hope that they will click on an ad or watch a video, which produces ad revenue for the site, once they realize how worthless the actual content is.

The good news is that through tweaks to its algorithm, most notably the updated Panda 2.2 algorithm that it rolled out last Tuesday, Google has been able to filter out a lot of content farming sites, allowing users to find what they are looking for without having to sift through mountains of chaff.

Excerpted from the article:

Oliver Miller, a journalist with an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence who once believed he’d write the Great American Novel, told me AOL paid him about $28,000 for writing 300,000 words about television, all based on fragments of shows he’d never seen, filed in half-hour intervals, on a graveyard shift that ran from 11 p.m. to 7 or 8 in the morning.

Mr. Miller’s job, as he made clear in an article last week in The Faster Times, an online newspaper, was to cram together words that someone’s research had suggested might be in demand on Google, position these strings as titles and headlines, embellish them with other inoffensive words and make the whole confection vaguely resemble an article. AOL would put “Rick Fox mustache” in a headline, betting that some number of people would put “Rick Fox mustache” into Google, and retrieve Mr. Miller’s article. Readers coming to AOL, expecting information, might discover a subliterate wasteland. But before bouncing out, they might watch a video clip with ads on it. Their visits would also register as page views, which AOL could then sell to advertisers.

So that’s how you really commodify writing: you pay little or nothing to writers, and make readers pay a lot — in the form of their “eyeballs.” But readers get zero back, no useful content. That’s the logic of the content farm. An eyeball for nothing.

(via NYT)

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