Content Assembly Lines And SEO

In the early days of the automobile, cars were made one at a time.  Then Henry Ford came along and invented the assembly line.  Soon, dozens of cars could be assembled in the same time as a single hand-crafted automobile, which drove down costs and made cars widely available to consumers.

Ford famously said you could have any color Model T you wanted as long as it was black.  Still, the consumer was the winner.

Last week, Demand Media announced the pricing for its upcoming IPO weeks after a regulatory filing revealing its particular business practices and unique accounting methods resulted in a firestorm of mostly negative reporting.

Demand Media is the Ford of its time.  It has created an assembly line for content creation that, when combined with some clever algorithmic machinations and the right domain, result in some excellent SEO.  Demand Media's algorithms determine what all the hot or most promising long-tail searches are and then alert its assembly line of writers, videographers and editors about those keywords, who then crank out a few hundreds words of copy or three minutes of video for immediate publication.



While it has its own stable of domains that use the content produced in its assembly lines, it also makes that content (and a few other social media-oriented services) available to marketers and publishers to use on their own sites.  Because the content is stuffed with all the right keywords, the sites deploying it often end up ranked high for those topics and / or keywords.  

For its own sites, Demand Media says it has been able to drive down the cost of publishing so that the cheap advertising it runs against its assembly-line content nevertheless delivers a profit (though, as pointed out above, that profitability is widely disputed).  The company promise similar results for third-party sites. 

The best news is, you can have any sort of content you like (as long as it's black).   

Said differently, the content is usually more about the SEO it can generate and less about the subject it is supposed to illuminate.  The independent contractors who churn out the content are paid small amounts for what they produce, so they have an incentive to produce as many individual pieces of content as they can -- all with the express goal of getting each piece ranked as high in search results as possible.   

Several critics of the company and its business prospects have pointed out that Demand Media's business model is overly reliant on Google Search, AdSense and SEO manipulation.  Those interested in the quality of search result pages point out that the content is rarely authoritative, often of dubious quality, and usually results in an unsatisfying experience for searchers.   

In other words, the consumer is the loser.

For its part, the company points out the ends justify the means: nearly $200 million in revenue and, depending upon which accounting tricks you use, it has been profitable or almost profitable since the beginning.  Moreover, the company notes that legions of content producers earn real money for doing the kind of work they love to do.  

A big unknown is what Google will do with all this information.  Another content factory, Associated Content, which was bought by Yahoo last year, operates similarly, and there are several other up-and-coming content assembly lines. Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University, says Associated Content produces more than 10,000 new articles a month, while Demand Media has more than 8,000 writers who produce roughly ten times that number every month. 

If, in fact, the content these assembly lines churn out has limited or no value other than for SEO itself, it seems to run counter to Google's mantra of delivering the best results for the searcher's query.   

Unlike manufactured products that spring from an assembly line, good story-telling relies on hand-crafting.  Whether hard news, opinion, criticism, recipes, how-tos or pure infotainment, those who tell a story should actually care about it and bring to it a certain fidelity to truth.  It is these sorts of content producers who are able to reach out and truly engage an audience -- who actually earn that audience and keep them coming back for more.

As for the Demand Media IPO, I recommend you think carefully about that investment, especially because one never knows what Google might do with its search algorithm.

7 comments about "Content Assembly Lines And SEO".
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  1. Myron Rosmarin from Rosmarin Search Marketing, Inc., January 17, 2011 at 11:26 a.m.

    So happy to see this being written about. It's one of the more frustrating phenomenon of search marketing as of late. That sites who have *long* been considered experts in their chosen fields of content specialization are suddenly being displaced by lower quality content farms. It really calls into question the statement that "content is king" ... I think we always inferred that to mean that "good content is king" ... now, I'm not so sure. The pressure has to be put on Google and Bing. As long as these sites are thriving in SEO, their success will encourage more behavior just like it. Systems should succeed only when good behavior is rewarded. The road ahead looks bleak for searchers and the purveyors of credible and substantive information if content mills can crank out mediocrity and succeed. One last thing: I don't so much begrudge the content farm for doing something that is working for them. I hold Google and Bing accountable because they're allowing themselves to be so easily "gamed."

  2. Derek Gordon from Re:Imagine Group, January 17, 2011 at 11:28 a.m.

    @Myron, good point: I don't so much begrudge the content farm for doing something that is working for them. I hold Google and Bing accountable because they're allowing themselves to be so easily "gamed."

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 17, 2011 at 2:59 p.m.

    The companies said that the end justifies the means? Whose ends? Whose means? The real problems lay in that small businesses are lost in the SEA of SEO and they don't have the time or the funds to detect which company to hire to benefit their companies, let alone do it in-house like putting an ad together for the local paper. They don't even know where to find someone to do this chore for them or know if and what the assembly lines do or know what to monitor. They figure something is better than nothing on budgets a freelancer wouldn't touch.

  4. Manjunath D s from Abhaya Media, January 17, 2011 at 10:19 p.m.

    As rightly pointed out by the article, and by the comments, consumers are losers for having to get the substandard content. Consumers rightfully deserve quality information. Further, search companies should strive hard to differentiate contents in its quality, not merely on the SEO practices. Unfortunately, people overly rely on SEO and other manipulative tactics to get their site or content highly ranked. It is sad to see so many high quality content is not just available to many readers since those sites do not rank high on search engines. Thankfully, sites like StumbleUpon, DIgg, and Reddit, to name a few, have helped many people to discover good content to a certain extent.

    Moreover, sites with good content rely more on building loyal subscriber base than on search engines. It is not surprising to see that sites with good content will grow gradually over a period as it gather the strength in its follower base. In fact, these sites need not to worry on search engine ranking at all. They just focus on good content and social media marketing to reach out to people. When done properly, word of mouth will get more followers over a period.

  5. Cece Forrester from tbd, January 18, 2011 at 10:55 a.m.

    I have noticed such perfunctory and useless content coming up more and more in search results. That, and the promise of ringtones based on nonexistent audio, or books about phrases that don't constitute a subject for a book.

    Perhaps the silver lining here is that as all this proliferates, the general public is finally going to start to get that you can't believe everything you see online and that content differs in quality. (The problem with Wikipedia is that it's 99% trustworthy, so people overlook the potential problem.) Maybe they'll learn either to be more discriminating and dig deeper--or to value sources that can do so on their behalf, instead of taking such vetting for granted. It'll be interesting to watch one or more entrepreneurs lead the way in this area and build a brand for online content you can trust.

  6. Kevin Pike from Kevin Pike, January 19, 2011 at 12:33 p.m.

    Agreed @Mryon.

    I think search engines have got caught up with "social, real-time, and fresh content" craze it's starting to negatively effect rankings. When they leaned on authoritative content more than most current content they arguably had better top to bottom results.

  7. Kennerly Clay from Lincoln Financial Group, January 29, 2011 at 4:13 p.m.

    In spite of the "content farms," and sub-quality content -- filled with keywords but not a whole lot of meat -- high-quality information will prevail. Rankings are still determined by a rich combination of keyword placement, website optimization, and good old fashioned useful information. Which, in spite of all the other "noise" vying for top ranking, will get noticed by the search engines, which are increasingly smarter. They know what's valuable based on how many people stick around and actually read it, or keep going to it. As for those quickie content jobs, as a writer -- no thanks.

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