Since the advent of contextual web-based advertisements, like Google's AdSense, online content has undergone a massive shift. Creating content solely for the purpose of hanging a targeted ad next to an article (or, more recently, a video) has proved a successful formula for making a quick buck. At its worst, some of this content is essentially spam, and its purveyors always risk raising the algorithmic ire of the search engines, which typically results in its speedy suppression from search results.
While content spam is a long-standing annoyance for consumers and search engines alike, a powerful new content trend is emerging with the potential to expand vastly the amount of easily searchable information on even the most esoteric topics. It also has the potential to flood the Internet and submerge users beneath a sea of digital detritus.
At this very moment, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of articles and videos are being created on a scale never before seen in the media world. Algorithms generate specific topics, then keyword-stuffed articles are quickly written and, in some cases, short Web videos hastily produced. It's the shotgun marriage of Henry Ford and Johannes Gutenberg, consecrated by the Internet.
Much of this content isn't being generated in order to inform, inspire, or to entertain. Its raison d'être is simply to be found by the search bots and then served up to deliver ad clicks. The content is only a means to an end.
Some of the producers of this flood of content (derogatorily dubbed "content farms") have been the subject of much media chatter of late, most of it positing that scalable systems that can rapidly generate mass quantities of content are inherently "bad" because the output of such processes is inherently substandard. But this logic is flawed. The problem resides not in the content creation mechanisms themselves, but in how they are used. Too often these systems crank out bulk content that's merely adequate. It's the equivalent of those individually wrapped yellow squares in the dairy section. They may resemble cheese, but their nutritional value is questionable.
It doesn't have to work that way. For many of us in the online content business, the goal of generating a large amount of data-driven content with a strong lifetime value via efficient, scalable processes is core to our business models. Rapid, efficient content creation is not incompatible with creating high-quality content.
Yes, there has always been low-quality fare in print, on screens and online -- but for the most part, writers and media companies, even while striving to meet their monetary goals, still also strive to craft something good. The content itself has had intrinsic value. The question, therefore, is: What kind of car rolls off the assembly line?
Smart use of innovative research, production, editorial, and technology processes (as well as providing a lot of creative latitude for the people actually making the stuff), can result in data-driven content that is also engaging, entertaining, and high quality. People -- and advertisers -- recognize and value quality when they see it, and will reward it with their mouse clicks and with their ad dollars.
But you need to care about the quality of the end product when you're designing these new systems at the outset. Assembly lines can also be built to crank out the good stuff.