November 2, 2010

When a minor earthquake struck central Oklahoma last month, the state’s media did a commendable job responding to the unexpected event. The Oklahoman reported the tremor almost immediately on one of its blogs, then followed up with more than a half-dozen thorough stories. Local TV stations posted quake videos, and the Web soon was awash with stories that included interviews with witnesses, geologists, and public officials.

But when I searched Google News for the words “Oklahoma Earthquake” two days after the tremor, the story listed at the top of the results page wasn’t from a traditional media outlet, but from Associated Content — a so-called “content farm” owned by Yahoo that allows free-lance writers to post articles about almost any subject.

As content farms become more numerous and prominent, they’ve touched off a debate about online professional standards, and whether the Web should be held to the same editorial values as traditional media.

The 396-word Associated Content earthquake story — written by a self-described stay-at-home mom in Southern California — contained no original reporting; its account of the earthquake was cribbed from the Oklahoman and other online sources. It contained more than a half-dozen grammatical errors and a factual mistake. (It said five people were killed when tornadoes struck Oklahoma earlier this year, but failed to note that officials later revised the tornadoes’ death toll to three.) After making a tenuous connection among the earthquake, the tornadoes, and this spring’s Midwest flooding, the story concluded, “In the end, natural disasters are all around us.”

So how did this article end up on top of the Google News page — ahead of better written, better researched stories? It’s largely because content farms like Associated Content are designed to attract the attention of automated search robots. The site uses a variety of search engine optimization techniques, such as repeating popular phrases in stories and tagging articles with specific keywords.

Associated Content free-lancers — who earn a base rate as low as $2 per article — can increase their payments by generating more page hits, and many are skilled at writing text that places their stories front-and-center on search engines such as Google and Bing, even if the stories have little journalistic or literary value. (According to one study, more than one-third of Google users click on the top result.)

“A lot of the content that’s coming out of the content farms appears as if it’s designed to get searched, but not necessarily designed with a purpose other than winning a search,” said Andrew Susman, the chairman of a media industry group called the Internet Content Syndication Council (ICSC). “It’s like a doughnut with an empty center.”

Susman isn’t an impartial observer. The ICSC represents a variety of content producers, syndicators, and website owners, including many mainstream news organizations whose articles compete with content farms for prominence on search engines. The group’s members include the Associated Press, CBS, and Reuters Media. (Sussman is CEO of Studio One Networks, which pairs advertising with editorial content and syndicates it across the Web.)

Frustrated that the content farms are attracting page views — and advertisers — to material it considers sub-standard, the ICSC is in the process of developing editorial guidelines for the Internet. Sites that adopt the voluntary guidelines would pledge that their content is fact-checked and vetted by “qualified editorial reviewers,” is updated and corrected as necessary, and discloses writers’ credentials.

“Most of the guidelines pertain to the things that most of the major publishers have always done,” Sussman said. Sites that agree to the standards could display an ICSC “seal of approval” that Sussman hopes readers and advertisers will begin to recognize as a signal of editorial quality. He also hopes search engines will give ICSC-certified sites more prominence, and owners of sites that publish syndicated content will be less eager to reprint articles from non-certified sources.

“Publishers have to understand that higher quality content is in their interest because it’s more valuable,” said ICSC member Steve Tippie of Tribune Media Services. “Short term you may be able to get cheaper content, but longer term your readers are going to be turned off.”

“Quality is often irrelevant”

The ICSC’s proposal is the latest volley in an ongoing rivalry between content farms and other media organizations. As noted in a recent Adweek article, most Web publishers “harbor a special vitriol” for content farms, which include not only Associated Content, but also AOL’s Seed.com, and a family of websites owned by Demand Media. The sites churn out literally thousands of articles, photos, and videos a day, paying free-lancers an average of about $20 for each one.

Relatively little of the content consists of hard news. More common is “evergreen” material such as how-to articles and videos (“How to cover up a pimple“), recaps of TV shows (“Dancing with the Stars results from week five favor Brandy and Maksim“), and opinion pieces (“Domino’s Pizza is not the best pizza and was not my favorite place to work“).

For advertisers seeking eyeballs, the sites are alluring. Associated Content attracts more than 17 million unique visitors a month, mostly through search engines; Yahoo acquired Associated Content earlier this year for a reported $100 million. Demand Media — which owns such sites as ehow.com and livestrong.com — claims an audience of 80 million; it filed for an initial public offering this summer.

Both are among the fastest growing sites on the Web, and they’re increasingly distributing their content to other websites, such as USAToday and Hearst Newspapers.

Associated Content — which calls itself “the people’s media company” — makes no apologies for its business model or lack of editorial oversight. “AC is a publishing platform; it’s people-driven, not editor-driven,” founder Luke Beatty told the Online Journalism Review in 2007. “While that may be scary to people in traditional media, it’s not scary at all to regular people.”

“We’re not a news site, we’re not a journalism site,” added Patrick Keane, who served as Associated Content’s CEO until the Yahoo acquisition. In an Econsultancy interview earlier this year, he said, “quality is often irrelevant to consumers. They’re wondering, was it useful? Did it satisfy my needs? If the user gets value, then that works for them.”

(Neither Associated Content nor Demand Media responded to questions for this article. Beatty referred me to a Yahoo corporate spokesman, who failed to make anybody available for an interview, despite repeated requests. Meanwhile, Demand Media spokeswoman Wadooah Wali said her company is unable to respond to media inquiries because of its pending IPO.)

Guidelines may have little effect

While the content farms have become accustomed to criticism (Jason Fry started a lively online debate when he compared content farm writers to Chinese factory workers), some observers say the sites have a legitimate place in modern media.

“There’s enough good stuff on Associated Content that they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand,” said Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. While Gillmor supports efforts to improve the quality of journalism both online and elsewhere (his forthcoming book on media literacy includes a lengthy chapter on accuracy, trust, and integrity), he said the ICSC’s proposed guidelines seek to apply “traditional media assumptions” to a part of the online marketplace where they may not belong.

In a telephone interview, Gillmor said a lot of content farm material — the how-to articles, fashion tips, celebrity gossip, and the like — “doesn’t require a great manifesto of principles.”

“Sometimes good enough is good enough,” he said.

Gillmor isn’t optimistic that the ICSC guidelines will have much impact, and even media scholars who’ve been more critical of content farms say the proposed standards are little more than a symbolic statement. Washington and Lee University Professor Edward Wasserman — who has called content farms “huge, cheap, tacky, and popular” — complimented the council for taking a stand, but questioned whether the guidelines would be effective.

“The existing ways the Internet measures success are such that there are overwhelmingly strong incentives to cut corners on quality,” Wasserman said in a phone interview. “People figure out how to game the system and draw hits without that upfront investment in quality.”

If anything derails the growth of content farms — or forces them to alter their business plans — it likely will be a shift in the market forces on the Web. Wasserman noted that Internet advertising strategies are becoming more sophisticated. He said that as companies increasingly target ads at specific audiences, they may be less drawn to sites with mediocre content, where users often scan the material, then quickly hit the “back” button on their browsers.

Likewise, Gillmor said Google and other search providers may face pressure to de-emphasize content farm listings if users start complaining that such sites aren’t delivering the credible information they’re seeking.

“The only people who are going to solve this, in the end, are going to be the people who do the reading,” Gillmor said.

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