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Q&A: content farms and the news decline

September 1: A decline in quality news spanning the Web recently has prompted the Internet Content Syndication Council (ICSC), whose members include the Associated Press, Reuters and the Tribune Company, to take action through the creation of editorial guidelines.

The guidelines created by the ICSC are designed to aid media organizations in crafting and evaluating material before publishing it to the Web. Although the guidelines don’t specifically name the media-dubbed content farms as the culprit behind the decline of quality in content syndication, they are directed generally at mass content producers.

Content farms, which have received a lot of flack from the media in recent months, include Yahoo’s Associated Content, Aol’s Seed and Demand Media. These news organizations are known for producing a mass amount of content via low-paid freelancers. Typically, content is laden with SEO keywords and often comes out at the top of search engine results.

ICSC executive director Tim Duncan noted that generating a lot of content using search engine strategies is to be expected given the online media landscape. “The problem is the quality they’re putting out. If you have volume strategy as the Internet tends to dictate, that does not mean you can’t pay attention to the quality you’re putting out there,” he said.

Expressing similar sentiments on content farms is Shaun Conlin, editor in chief of Evergeek Media, a syndicate that sells reprints of articles by technology journalists. In an interview with inVocus, Conlin talks about his feelings on search engine-targeted content, where he believes Evergeek stands, the future of content farms and the role search engines play.

KMM: What are your thoughts on “content farms,” such as Demand Media, Associated Content and Aol’s Seed? Do you see them as a threat to your own distribution of news?

SC: At first blush, content farms are a definite threat to Evergeek Media’s distribution model – not because they offer a stupefying volume of instant content that we don’t match, but because some publishers or prospective clients are now blinded by the turn-key appeal of this. They don’t think long-tail anymore. Or some don’t, anyway. Instead, they’ll opt for quantity over quality, sacrificing credibility and reader loyalty in favor of random, short-term traffic from search engine results in the process. You can see the allure of mass content on the cheap, so it’s hard to disparage their decision.

However, with solid sales and marketing techniques, we can turn the short-term appeal of content farms to our advantage by highlighting some pretty obvious differences. For one, Evergeek Media provides consumer tech news stories and product reviews from actual journalists. And because we focus exclusively on the consumer tech sector, we’re able to provide a singular voice on the subject, even though we have several writers in the stable. Add to that a distinct editorial flourish and you’ve got content that provides clients with appreciable traffic increases, and repeat traffic from loyal readers. In turn, loyal readers are easier to quantify when seeking advertisers. It doesn’t take long for publishers to figure that out – if they haven’t already. So really, mere awareness is the bigger hurdle. In the end, content farms are just another competitor – with dissimilar appeal to boot.

KMM: Do you have any specific thoughts on the quality of the news being put out by these various organizations?

SC: I have many specific thoughts on the matter, but very few that are fit to print. I’ve followed the content farm phenomena since the beginning. It had the potential to be a valid, open, free, worldwide, Web-connected dialogue for and by the people. As it turns out, of course, it’s practically the opposite (other than Web-connected), motivated by SEO tricks and AdSense revenue.

KMM: What are your thoughts on publishers such as Gannett and Hearst newspapers teaming up with them?

SC: As mentioned, it’s pretty easy to see why even some of the big name publishers have gone with content farms. Considering many old school newspapers are hemorrhaging if not under bankruptcy protection (or bankrupt, for that matter), the short-term gains of a random traffic surge and the advertising revenue it generates for their collective resurgence as a “Web destination” is certainly a lifesaver. I was surprised to learn that Hearst went this route as well, because there are some solid forward-thinkers in that organization, with things like Skiff and digital newspapers subscriptions in a tablet looking like the future of genuine news media. That said, I can see Hearst and other publishers using the farmed content appropriately and to their advantage, as a loss-leader providing lots of suspect content to the masses for free, then petitioning those same masses for a subscription fee if they want the good old fashion quality stuff. Just a guess.

KMM: The Internet Content Syndication Council is reportedly working on a set of guidelines to address what the “group sees as a growing and dangerous trend on the Web – the rise of shoddy, poorly sourced and edited content,” reported MediaWeek. How do you feel about such guidelines? Do you think they could be beneficial?

SC: They’d be as beneficial as guidelines for world peace. And just as enforceable.

KMM: Any additional thoughts?

SC: Content farms are not actually what are wrong with the internet; they’re merely a symptom. What is changing, but needs to change yet more and yet faster, is search engine methodology. These days, saying “I read it on the Internet” is invariably received with rolling eyes, a suppressed chuckle if not a bit of throw-up in the mouth. But saying “I read it in the New England Journal of Medicine (on the Internet)” gives your thought/opinion instant cred, so too do search engines need to continue efforts to properly prioritize search results. Fortunately, the likes of Google, Yahoo!, Ask, etc. have made great inroads in weeding out dud information despite heavy keyword usage and suspiciously skewed “popularity.” But it’s an ongoing battle between bona fide content providers and quick-buck content farmers, with search engines acting as the referee and we, the hapless people as the spectators that just want relevant, mayhap informative results.

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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