Demand Media May Be Bad for Social Media, but Not for Journalism

In the last month, there has been a lot of sturm und drang over Demand Media, its model of content production, and its proprietary algorithm for optimizing content. Most of what was said, however, missed the point. I believe Demand Media is more of a threat to social media communications than it is to journalism and journalistic standards because of the kind of content it provides and what it does by providing search optimized content for corporate sites and evergreen content for the news industry. First, some background.

Who are these Demand Media guys anyway?

Demand Media was founded in 2006 by former Intermix Media & MySpace CEO Richard Rosenblatt and Shawn Colo. The company started out by buying up domains, Web sites and other abandoned or neglected Internet properties. DM grew quietly and strategically, while working on its proprietary algorithms for search engine optimization (SEO).

In March 2008, Demand Media acquired Pluck, which in 2005 founded Blog Burst, “a syndication service that places blogs on top-tier online destinations.”

I met Dave Panos, Pluck’s CEO, and the Pluck Team back in the autumn of 2005 at the “BlogOn Social Media Summit.” At that time, Pluck had several consumer-oriented offerings, including a simple to use RSS reader. I found the Pluck guys to be really savvy about the inner workings of the Internet, and to have great respect for bloggers. They had BlogBurst in the works — a syndication service for blogs — out of a desire to get good content out in front of more readers through traditional media outlets. (Check out the BlogBurst News page to see the deals that BlogBurst made with various newspaper companies from ’06 to ’07.)

Demand Media’s acquisition of Pluck was a wise move. Demand had the Web properties for featuring content, and the proprietary algorithms to help get that content into search, while Pluck had the newspaper industry connections, the content, and knowledge of syndication.

Very, very smart business move for both companies.

It was all great fun until someone coined the term “content farm”….

ReadWriteWeb‘s Richard MacManus had been following the developments at Demand Media for several months, and on Dec. 13, posted “Content Farms: Why Media, Blogs & Google Should be Worried.”

In that post, MacManus explained that he’s been following the progress of so-called ‘content farms,’ and wrote an analysis of Demand in August 2009 — well before Wired.com’s overly verbose and barely informative article on Demand Media appeared in October. (The Wired article later inspired Jay Rosen to interview Rosenblatt.)

MacManus’ various posts on “content farms” (which you can find linked to in his recent post) are great reads, but a few of his posts lump together Demand Media with Answers.com (a more-or-less “crowdsourced” site similar to Yahoo Answers, only with fewer answers) and AOL’s new forays into niche content production (see Dorian Benkoil’s analysis of AOL for Poynter.) MacManus sees these efforts collectively as having a terrible, awful effect on content on the Web.

To compare the three, however, seems to me like comparing apples, oranges and bananas.

MacManus asserts that “content farms” with their strangely mystical algorithmics, are going to ruin search results for “quality” content. But well before search got clogged with results from Answers.com or eHow.com (a Demand Media property) or any number of other content sites, it got clogged with very little effort by splogs, link farms, poorly constructed aggregation sites, and other nasties that re-directed searchers to sites that were nothing more than huge lists of Google ads which, when clicked, led you to even more huge lists of Google ads.

Well before Demand Media’s sites came along, there were important discussions on “click fraud,” and then the internal linking practices of blog networks that caused Google to shake up its algorithm, leading to lower page rank for blog networks.

Spoofing search isn’t anything new. Creating mediocre content that could show up high in search isn’t anything new. Understanding how to place mediocre content in search according to the right keywords isn’t anything new. Lots of SEO experts do it daily for clients.

What appears new and troubling to some is Demand Media’s algorithm that simplifies and refines the rather inexact and laborious process of finding keywords for search. The intention of that algorithm is probably not to undermine the integrity of journalism nor is it to make bland, mediocre content ubiquitous in search.

The intention is simpler than that: Demand is optimizing content for clients who want to have better positions in search. This is what most businesses want for their blogs and Web sites.

So how did journalists begin to see Demand Media as the latest threat to journalism?

Perhaps it had something to do with Mike Arrington and the term “fast food content.” In his Dec. 13 TechCrunch editorial post, “The End of Hand Crafted Content,” Arrington refers to what’s going on at DM and AOL as “fast food content”: “These models [of content creation] create a race to the bottom situation, where anyone who spends time and effort on their content is pushed out of business.

“We’re not there yet, but I see it coming. And just as old media is complaining about us, look for us to start complaining about the new jerks.”

Arrington then advocates for content creators to “figure out an even more disruptive way to win, or die. Or just give up on making money doing what you do.”

The “race to the bottom” comment is a bit of a reach on Arrington’s part. And Arrington’s supposition does not take into account corporate blogs, social media marketing communications, and content produced for a variety of social media campaigns — all forms of communication that may rely on content produced by freelancers. The world of “ghost blogging,” virtual assistants that specialize in managing corporate social media, and outsourced social media communications are all fields that are — for better or worse — growing as companies that want to be part of social media believe that they do not have the in-house resources to manage it.

Demand’s approach seems to have touched a nerve in Jeff Jarvis and a few others who, in their blog posts, do not take into consideration that they are dealing with marketing content, not a new platform that wants to disrupt journalism in the ways that TechCrunch, Huffington Post, and others have disrupted journalism.

Hey, fast food content, you’re screwing up my search results!

Paul Kedrosky has a problem. He’s searching for information about buying a new dishwasher and is really peeved that he keeps coming up against really bad generic content that’s telling him absolutely nothing. So, he posted “Dishwashers, and How Google Eats its Own Tail.” In it, Kedrosky says, “Content creators are simply using Google against itself, feeding its hungry crawlers the sort of thing that Google loves to consume, to the detriment of search results and utility.”

Kedrosky’s post reminded me of all those discussions of click fraud, splogs, and link farms: Find some popular keywords that lead to traffic and transactions, wrap some anodyne and regularly-changing content around the keywords so Google doesn’t kick you out of search results, and watch the dollars roll in as Google steers you life-support systems connected to wallets, i.e, idiot humans.

This is exactly what sploggers and the like did by using Google’s AdWords webmaster tool. This is, however, different from what Demand Media is doing, despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth that some in the journalism establishment are doing.

How the rush for a presence in social media and pageviews has lead to clogging search with cheap content

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked these past four years straddling the worlds of journalism innovation and social media marketing. Early on, I was introduced to the Cluetrain mantra — “markets are conversations” — and the ideas that social media tools could be used to facilitate direct communications between businesses and customers, increase customer service response times, and even spur on product improvement and innovation.

But over time, the ideas of Cluetrain would be seen, by some, as “purist” thinking, and say that’s simply not the way the business or marketing is done. That clients care about getting their customers information not conversation.

The purpose of that information isn’t just to educate clients, but also to yield pageviews — a particular statistic that is very powerful in marketing. This information, in many cases, is part of the company’s “marketing message” rearranged into forms that will grab hold of Google’s spiders and make them stick. Pageviews, a number one position in Google search results, and “going viral” are often the only measurable things that many corporations want from the Internet.

So, if social media communications is presented to corporations as something that is directly measurable, corporations can see social media as a means to their end, not as a means of creating better customer relations and direct conversation — two forms of communication that are not easily measured — but just as another broadcast medium for their marketing message.

So much for the notion of helping companies to communicate with customers.

With the current boom in social media brought on by the amazing growth of Facebook, Twitter, and the like — and with the continued proselytizing of social media evangelists — corporations have begun to shake in their boots worse than Ichabod Crane when the Headless Horseman cornered him. Many companies claim they “don’t have time” or “can’t afford” an in-house social media person, and are not interested in hire a social media strategist to help them develop and maintain a solid social media strategy. Many corporations want to keep a safe distance between themselves and the general populace of the Internet (who are perceived as still pretty lawless), yet they want the measurable SEO benefits that can come from regularly produced social media content.

This has lead to an avalanche of “virtual assistants,” “ghost bloggers,” “ghost tweeters” and so forth, ready and willing to take over and provide specific and targeted content. This kind of content, however, does not always go though any sort of editorial process, including basic copy editing. It is usually produced, vetted and edited by the same person who is creating it.

Enter Demand Media’s content production model, which takes pieces produced by, in some cases, freelance journalists, runs it through its algorithm to “optimize it,” then sends it off for copy editing and publication.

So, who are Demand Media’s clients?

Demand provides content to sites like the satirical Cracked.com and eHow.com, a general information site. The content on eHow is often very basic and broad on a variety of topics from medical conditions to how to fix appliances and the like.

Demand Media also provides content to corporate blogs and social media efforts. Demand functions like a broker or middleman for corporate owned sites that want to “engage” in various forms of social media for promotional purposes.

Demand hires people that at one time might have called themselves “pro bloggers.” Then, they have the work eyeballed by some copy editors — a step that might not have happened with a professional blogger, who usually did his/her own copy editing. Thus, the content that Demand Media has produced for its clients is a shade more vetted than it might be if produced by a solo pro blogger.

As Demand’s site states, they have standards, and the work done by its content producers meets a standard high enough for corporate sites. Here’s a quick breakdown of how their content is produced.

So, are the folks at Demand Media really spearheading a new paradigm that will further disrupt journalism on the Web? Not necessarily, as there does not seem to be an intention on Demand’s part to speak truth to power nor to create a media empire based on citizen-driven content.

In fact, Kara Swisher of All Things Digital spoke with Demand CEO Rosenblatt, who issued a manifesto in defense of Demand Media. Swisher notes that “Demand Media content is simply the basic how-to, guide-of service journalism that really has nothing to do with the investigative work that media giants are finding it harder to fund.”

Demand found a niche and client base that wants the benefits of social media and would rather outsource content production to a company that will make sure the content is vetted and picked up in search. Companies that desire to be part of social media — without the social — are going to do this anyway, and what Demand offers is something with a little more polish than what a freelance professional blogger or virtual assistant might provide.

Production of SEO optimized content is not just a matter of “gaming” Google; It plays to the notion of tweaking the purpose of social media for marketing. In this, Demand is also neutral. Demand’s intention is not to trick consumers of corporate social media efforts into believing someone’s there to listen to them. Rather, Demand’s intent is driven by the social media plan of the corporation that commissions the content.

For newspapers, Demand’s edited, optimized content could be beneficial. As newspapers continue to downsize, many will not be able to afford freelancers for the supplemental publications that have been helping some newspapers to stay afloat. If a newspaper receives edited, optimized evergreen content at reasonable cost it will not need to end supplemental publications.

Demand’s content could end up affecting newspaper chains and others that provide syndicated content if it competes with them. Still, this is not a wholesale assault on journalistic integrity inasmuch as it is a change in who provides evergreen content. If Demand is adhering to basic journalistic standards, it could be considered more or less on par with newspapers that provide syndicated evergreen content.

Other businesses that might be adversely affected by Demand’s search optimized content are ones that choose to do their social media in-house, that will not have the benefit of Demand’s algorithm. Then again, Demand may become a clearinghouse for corporations to submit their in-house produced content for copy editing and optimizing. Some of those corporations might even be newspapers, where a stateside copy editing and optimizing service could be a better alternative to outsourcing to Bangalore, as was suggested a few years ago.

If Demand Media is guilty of anything, it’s of calling itself a “social media company.” More appropriately, Demand is a social media content production company. Content production is only a portion of the social media landscape. Social media is, essentially, about the “social” and there doesn’t seem to be much social in Demand’s work. Some might consider this just a matter of semantics. I do not.

CORRECTION: This article originally suggested that Jay Rosen’s interview with Demand Media CEO Richard Rosenblatt occurred as a result of Michael Arrington’s TechCrunch post. Rosen’s interview was, in fact, the result of the October story in Wired.com. The reference to his interview in this story was moved to make that clearer.

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