The first article, “My Summer on the Content Farm,” is from Jessanne Collins over at The Awl; the second, “In Demand,” comes from Nicholas Spangler at the Columbia Journalism Review. They both summarize the repulsion that the death-of-journalism crowd feel over content farming.
I don’t intend to reprise that theme here. Rather, I want to elaborate a little on a suggestion made by Eric Harvey at Marathonpacks. Harvey notes that content farming is essentially an outgrowth of something everyone reading this no doubt uses on a near-daily basis: search engines. He singles out Google, but Google is just the best at the game. Content farming relies on the basic function of every search engine out there — the collection and collation of data about information on the Web.
For our purposes, there are two kinds of data that matter: data about pages, and data about searches. The first concern of a search engine is data about pages, but data about searches drives a close second. Data about pages comes in first only because that’s what the search engine is offering: it uses the data it’s collected about pages to present the links that users came for in the first place. But it’s the way Google has collected data about searches that sets it apart from other search engines, because clever use of that data allows Google to better guess what pages its users want to see.
Content farming reverses that process. Now the data about searches takes priority, since content farmers are first and foremost interested in getting you to their pages, thus racking up page views for their paid advertising. They do that by exploiting the search engine’s need for data about pages. In essence, they’re taking data about searches and converting it into pages; the search engine then collects data about those pages and makes it available for searches. And since the page was created specifically to meet the criteria set by the search, its rank on a search page is almost guaranteed to be high.
No doubt the entire process borders on exploitation. But, frankly, I’m not convinced that a company that builds content around the themes like “Hair Styles for Women Over 50 With Glasses” does much to divert potential readers away from the Journals, Heralds and Times of the world. If anything, they should serve as further impetus for news organizations to bet less on “lifestyle” content, and focus more on providing the sort of article that content farms eschew — which was, after all, what news organizations used to specialize in. Maybe content farms pose a threat to some writers in the blogosophere, but even that seems rather doubtful. If you’re not already working for a content farm, how likely were you to show up high on the list of results for a search with those keywords in the first place?
But the rise of content farming does, I think, suggest the future role of search engines, and perhaps of the internet itself. The fact of the matter is that content farms are deliberately playing the search engine game better than the rest of us, and will continue to do so because their sole concern is making sure that their content is optimized for search. Anyone who isn’t building their content around SEO and nothing else is bound to lose that game. Content farms have claimed search.
And while not a lot of attention has been given to this point, that means the fate of search engines like Google may ultimately be tied to content farming. Search engines will continue to be incidentally useful for finding non-farmed content, but it’s reasonable to expect search and farm to develop an increasingly symbiotic relationship. In other words, because they utilize the same data sets in different ways, content farms and search engines will tend to serve one another more and more exclusively. Barring some decisive shift in the media, market logic dictates that result.
What the death-of-journalism crowd really laments is the fact that there’s a real audience for farmed content. People want the sort of answers farms provide, else the economic logic famrs profit from would not exist. In a way, AskJeeves was simply ahead of its time. Had there been content farms to cater to its algorithm, it might have claimed the Google crown.
But if search engines are turning into a kind of content farm co-op, what happens to the world wide web? Presumably, it will grow to more closely resemble something like the original premise of AskJeeves. If search engines end up being more useful for searching for articles that explain how to make papier mache or unsubscribe from facebook, rather than for finding out about current events, then people who are more interested in current events will want a new way to get to the information that matters to them.
Just in case someone missed it: that’s a real opportunity for innovation on the web.
It also represents the possibility for further bifurcation of the internet. Under the combined force of search and farm, what we now recognize as the world wide web is changing from a place that generates and disseminates unexpected content, to a place that tells you exactly what you want to know, and little more. If a different kind of service can unify those sites that still present what we didn’t know to ask for, it will, in effect, create a second web, functionally independent from the first (or Web 2.0, or Web 3.0). To some degree, we already see that happening with the closed garden portions of the e-reader and smartphone markets. And I’ve suggested other ways of handling that transition to a dual web. But the innovation that will determine the direction of these changes has yet to be made.