Content Farms: What Are They -- And Why Won't They Just Go Away?
For some time now, there's been a lot of conversation about content farms, which many believe are making Google's Web search results less relevant. The discussion is becoming so mainstream that The Washington Post even featured two articles (here and here) about content farms and Google in this past Sunday's paper.
What Are Content Farms?
If you're new to the conversation, content farms are essentially Web sites that produce a large degree of content, typically with the sole purpose of attaining search rankings. These sites and articles often provide less than the most-relevant information or results for a particular topic, outranking some very valuable and informative sites. Many content farms also essentially steal content from other sites.
Why Do Content Farms Exist?
Not unlike parked domains, most content farms exist with one main goal: to generate ad revenue. If you're familiar with Google AdSense, Google's platform for placing Google AdWords ads on content owners' Web sites, you know that contextual ads require some keywords to know which types of ads to serve. If a page is about "preventing cavities," for instance, AdSense might serve ads for toothpastes that advertise on a similar term.
Google AdSense advertisers generate revenue for every click on the ads on their sites. According to BusinessWeek, one company widely considered a content farm, DemandMedia, reported in its recent IPO that 28% of its revenue comes from Google. But Google isn't the only ad platform game in town. According to Business Insider, Yahoo reportedly paid $100 million last May for Associated Content, a company producing lots of "low-cost content." Not a bad deal for Associated Content's founders.
So, bottom line, content farms generate easy revenue.
Why Are Content Farms a Problem?
As I mentioned at the outset, content farms are widely considered by many to have little informational value compared to other sites available, but content farms often outrank these sites. It also makes it more difficult for legitimate SEO consultants to bypass the content farm junk to get a company's legitimate, valuable content ranked.
Content farms are actually a problem for search engine, too. Make no mistake about it -- Google has to be concerned about the prominence of Facebook and Twitter for spreading news and content quickly. I believe that's why Google and Bing have both taken steps to incorporate more social media into their ranking factors. And why wouldn't we turn to Facebook and Twitter for answers? It's just human nature to trust answers and recommendations from our friends over generic search results.
Google's New Algorithm Addresses Content Farms -- Or Does It?
This past weekend, Matt Cutts at Google announced on his personal blog that Google did, indeed, release an algorithm update to address spam issues. But unfortunately, the algorithm update hasn't done much, in my opinion.
As an example, you can perform a search on almost any phrase with "how to" in front of the phrase and the eHow.com site will likely rank highly in the top ten results. eHow.com is a DemandMedia site.
Take it a step further and see if that same text exists in other places - in other words, has the content been duplicated? Isn't Google supposed to recognize duplicate content?
In my sample search, I searched for "how to roast pumpkin seeds." Sure enough, eHow.com came up as the third result. After visiting the eHow.com page, I copied the first paragraph and did an exact match search for that content. That same content showed up for at least two other pages on eHow.com, and further, the EXACT SAME content appeared on sites like Yahoo Answers, Shine from Yahoo, Ask.com, GrowingResults.com, and many more. In all, I found 189 results in Google with the exact same first paragraph, word for word, as the eHow.com article.
Seems like the new algorithm still has a ways to go to defeat spam.
Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game
Let's face it. You can't blame content farms for what they're doing. They're just beating Google at its own game. Instead, searchers have to continue to demand valuable search results. How can they do that? Don't use a search engine that gives you spammy results. Search market share drops and so does revenue, as there will be less searchers to click on ads. Google makes a higher percentage per click on its search ads than AdSense ads, so I expect that Google search ads will likely always be a top, if not the top, priority for Google.
Content Farms Aren't Going Away Any Time Soon
Tackling the content farm issue poses a few problems.
First, how does a machine-based algorithm actually identify valuable content versus a content farm? And just because a piece of content isn't as high-quality as other pages on the same subject, should it be potentially banned from the search index altogether because it may be a content farm?
Second, and I always like to remember this, Google has a delicate balance to maintain. As a public company, it must continue to drive ad revenue to appease shareholders, and AdSense revenue from content farms is no doubt a significant contributor to its ad revenues. However, with Facebook and Twitter developing ad platforms and more searchers turning to these social media sites to get answers to their questions, Google also has to balance the threat of losing searchers to other platforms with more relevant results.
Content farms aren't going away any time soon -- but there's still hope that Google can adequately address the issue. The latest algorithm update, however, just didn't cut it.