Developing Great Content Down on the Content Farm – by @gregjarboe #sesny

As you are used from State of Search, being the best conference coverage website out there, we are covering SES New York. We have bloggers reporting, but we’ve also decided to take a different angle this year. We have asked a few speakers to describe their own presentation. Because after all, what better coverage than from the source itself? In this post Greg Jarboe explains what his talk at SES was all about.

Over the past five years, Google has redefined “great content” three times. Five years ago, Google defined “great content” as a useful, information-rich site, and pages that clearly and accurately describe your content. In May 2007, Google’s move to universal search redefined “great content” to include videos, images, news, maps, and books. In December 2009, Google’s introduction of realtime search redefined “great content” to include blog posts and live updates on sites like Twitter and FriendFeed. And in February 2011, “a big algorithmic improvement” to Google’s ranking redefined “great content” again.

According to Google, the Panda (aka “Farmer”) update noticeably impacts 11.8% of its queries. The update was designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites — sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or are just not very useful. It was also designed to provide better rankings for high-quality sites — sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.

Many Google critics were surprised that some so-called “content farms” like Demand Media survived the “Farmer” update in relatively good shape.

What’s a content farm? According to Wikipedia, “the term content farm is used to describe a company that employs large numbers of often freelance writers to generate large amounts of textual content which is specifically designed to satisfy algorithms for maximal retrieval by automated search engines. Their main goal is to generate advertising revenue through attracting reader page views.”

So, who exactly is harmed by developing how-to articles tailored to Google searches?

Mark Glaser, the host of MediaShift on PBS, convened a group of people last year to discuss content farms, how they are changing journalism, bringing down pay rates for writers, and possibly polluting Google searches with poor quality content. Some panel members believed Demand Media was simply fulfilling a need, while others believed there were possibly dangerous repercussions from the proliferation of these low-cost articles across the web.

If you ask me, today’s critics of content farms are like the old critics of “yellow journalism.” In the 1880s, Joseph Pulitzer cut the price of the New York World to a penny, hired Nelly Bly, and added bolder headlines, more prominent illustrations, sports pages, women’s sections, advice columns, and comic strips. One comic strip featured a street urchin in a yellow shirt, and a hostile critic coined the term “yellow journalism” as a damning label for this kind of high-voltage newspaper.

Today, most newspapers have adopted bold headlines, prominent illustrations, sports pages, women’s sections, advice columns, and comic strips — and would love it if their “text reporters, photographers, videographers, graphic artists, producers or journalists” won a Pulitzer Prize this year.

So, who exactly is harmed by developing how-to articles or videos tailored to Google searches?

Search reverses the communications model taught in most journalism schools. That traditional model was created by Harold Lasswell in 1948. It starts with the content creator and asks, “Who says what in which channel to whom with what effect?” But search engines seem to use a model that starts with the consumer and asks, “Who seeks what in which channel from whom with what effect?” It’s no wonder that some journalists feel this can have “possibly dangerous repercussions.”

For example, Google users are searching for the phrase, how to bunny hop on a BMX bike. YouTube users are searching for the phrase, how to bunny hop on a BMX bike. And Bing users are also searching for the phrase, how to bunny hop on a BMX bike. But most journalists don’t want to write an article on that topic.

This explains why Demand Media videos rank high in Google search results for the phrase, how to bunny hop on a BMX bike. Demand Media videos also rank high in YouTube search results for the phrase, how to bunny hop on a BMX bike. And Demand Media videos rank high in Bing search results for the phrase, how to bunny hop on a BMX bike.

It’s not hard to discover how Demand Media achieved these high rankings. The company’s eHow channel on YouTube put the phrase, How to Bunny Hop on a BMX bike, in a video’s title. eHow also put most of these keywords in the video’s description and tags.

What was the result? At last count, 149,041 out of 631,381 views for this video were referrals from YouTube searches.

This explains why page views on Demand Media’s owned and operated sites were up 20% from 2009 to 2010. Demand Media’s RPM (revenue per thousand page views) was also up 26% year over year. And Demand Media’s content and media revenue increased 42% from 2009 to 2010.

This also explains why eHow’s search rankings improved from 317,320 to 324,021 keywords after the “Farmer” update.

So, is Demand Media a “content farm” as many have cliamed, or is it an “evergreen content library,” as the company has said in its recent earnings release?

Greg Jarboe is the president of SEO-PR, author of YouTube and Video Marketing: An Hour a Day, a faculty member at the Rutgers Center for Management Development and Market Motive, as well as a correspondent for Search Engine Watch.

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This post was written by an author who is not a regular contributor to State of Digital. See all the other regular State of Digital authors here. Opinions expressed in the article are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of State of Digital.