By Allan Maurer
RESEARCH TRIANGLE, NC – AOL’s recent acquisition of top Internet news sites such as TechCrunch and The Huffington Post, while simultaneously producing search engine key word fodder cranked out on a factory-like basis, could give it an almost schizophrenic public face.
Content is king again, but just what sort of content?
We asked Bob Butler, a North Carolina Research Triangle area serial entrepreneur who now publishes a curated original content site, Bestthinking.com, for his take on what is going on.
“Currently there is an unprecedented push to put smart phones, tablets, netbooks and the like in everyone’s hands,” he said. “Except for AOL CEO Tim Armstrong and a couple others, few have really thought through what comes next. It’s like rushing to give billions of thirsty people drinking cups without much thought about where you will get the water, or in this case the content for all these devices.”
Cooked, canned, and marketed “journalism” is what several of the largest Web content providers, such as Associated Content, recently acquired by Yahoo, Demand Media, which launched a successful IPO, The Examiner, and AOL’s Seed content operation, are offering up online in an attempt to maximize profits with machine-like efficiency these days. Some are even turning to copy literally turned out by machine algorithms with little or no human intervention.
We suspect they will fail in the end. Real content, whether by Huffington Post or TechCrunch bloggers, YouTube video shows, and even lone commentators, is usually distinctive enough to be the proverbial wheat separated from the chaff. That doesn’t mean I expect the chaff to go away.
Writing by algorithm
Now I can see how a certain type of routine story can be handled by a smart software program. Sports news stories, for instance, have always been results and statistics oriented. Those elements are not particularly hard to supply via an algorithm. StatSheet, a Research Triangle, NC-based firm landed major media coverage when it introduced a bot to do just that. (StatSheet is one of the 50 innovative startups presenting at the upcoming Southeast Venture Conference in Atlanta March 2-3.
At least one other firm is attempting to automate the writing of a wide range of news stories.
That’s one kind of machine journalism.
But another kind combines technology and real human beings to create what I think of as corporate machine journalism.I hesitate to call many of their content providers writers. Not a few posts in English sound as if they’re written by people who speak English as a second language or use Google translate to write. Others are more SEO babble than real text, while still others are so illiterate as to strain your ability to figure out what they’re trying to say.
Some of those writing for the content mills are writers, looking to garner experience, exposure, or just try out a way of making some extra cash. There is a Catch 22 in professional writing: you have to publish before you can publish. Editors want to see what you have already written before they will hire you to write for them. That all too frequently means working for no pay or little pay until you acquire the necessary chops to move up the publishing ladders – online or off.
Also, working for the content mills can give a writer insight into the nitty-gritty of web writing: using content management systems, massaging and uploading art, the fundamentals of writing search engine friendly content, writing headlines that work, and so on. You have to learn somewhere.
A gruesome experience
I tried some of these content mills myself, to see what sort of interfaces they were using and how much time it takes, and so on. Tell you what, writing for those content farms can be a gruesome way to make a few pennies, although some people found niches where they managed to make decent money. Even those folks usually had to post a great many more items than a traditional journalist-or even a harried Web writer – is usually expected to turn out. They are also forced into an awkward style, writing for key word content rather than clarity.
After it was widely reported that Ariana Huffington will make $100 million from the Huff Post sale to AOL, some of the site’s writers complained about her rising to multi-millionaire status on the backs of their copy-which most contributors provide free. I can see how some of the Huff Post’s professional writers make out otherwise: journalist, novelist and movie director Nora Ephron, for instance, turns her contributions into book collections. Others report landing book deals or other paying assignments.
The content mills do not really even offer those side benefits, at least not for very many of their thousands of contributors.
Butler, who, like others who operate sites focused on original content, has to think about these matters, says, “Content sites like Squidoo, Associated Content, Mahalo and BrightHub all started out trying to offer quality durable content, but ultimately succumbed to producing little more than the search-bait content fostered by a strictly ad revenue model. For the past 3 years it’s been a race to the bottom, culminating in content sweatshops, such as those in the Philippines, becoming major content suppliers.”
Search engines grow smarter
As the search engines refine their algorithms to spot and ignore such blather, it will wither on the Internet vine as surely leaves falling from trees in the fall. I already see less of the rotting content farm fodder in my search results. Google has already said it heard from users complaining about too much subpar content farm copy showing up in search results and refined its algorithm to spot it better. That’s an ongoing process I suspect will grow increasingly sophisticated.
Already, Google says that adding at least two original sentences to content from sources such as Business Wire or PR Newswire will give them extra weight with Google’s web crawlers.
Butler suggests, “Up to now, search engine companies have been conflicted about search-bait content, wanting to give their customers the best possible search results, but also getting the lion’s share of the ad revenue from search-bait sites. But with the economy improving, search engines can now absorb some reduction in ad revenue growth to refocus on their core business, helping people find quality results from searches.”
He adds, “Google, Bing and a whole new generation of human-assisted search engines, such as Blekko, have been steadily increasing the importance of site ranking in search algorithms. If a site gets tagged as being a search-bait content site, a low site ranking will drive SEO results down for the count. These sites are facing a downward spiral of decreasing SEO-driven traffic diminishing ad revenue for authors causing lower quality content that further decreases SEO-driven traffic.”
But Butler is optimistic.
“Somewhere between the $20 per article on Demand Media and the $1,000 it costs the New York Times to produce an article is a sustainable business model for online content. The key will be developing a new value proposition for the authors other than dribbles of shared ad revenue or beer-money-sized payments per article,” he says.
To email TJS Editor Allan Maurer: Allan at TechJournalSouth dot com.