If you’re a freelancer and you’re not familiar with Demand Media, then you haven’t checked the listings on JournalismJobs.com and MediaBistro for years. If you’re not a freelancer, you’ve seen lots of Demand Media’s products, although you probably haven’t realized it. Do a Google search on just about anything, and you’ll find them. Go ahead and search on “best way to wash a dog,” right now. See the results that come up from eHow.com (two of the first four listings)? That’s just one of the sites owned by Demand Media.
Demand Media, along with other companies like Suite 101, Associated Content and About.com, is a content farm, a new type of media company that bases its business model on search engine optimization (SEO). Most freelancers don’t like these companies and their business models. First of all, they pay a pittance, usually $15 to $20 per article. Many of the people who write for these sites are novice writers, not journalists, willing to take such low wages just to get published. Second, these companies don’t value good writing nor do they offer good service to the reader. The content farm’s chief aim is to mass-produce chunks of text designed to rank highly on Google. The higher an article ranks on Google, the more readers it drives to Demand Media sites, thus generating large numbers of page views, which means more advertising dollars. It doesn’t matter whether the information is accurate or useful, whether the article is written well, or even if it makes any sense whatsoever. What matters is that the article is stuffed with key words and that the writer uses other tricks that will get the article ranked highly in Google search results.
This is known as search engine optimization (SEO). It’s a trend that prickles the skin of good journalists everywhere who are under pressure from the bean counters to “optimize” their articles. “Building Web traffic through ‘search engine optimization’ has become a major part of a journalist’s job,” writes The Washington Post’s Rob Pegoraro in a recent column. It’s a symptom of the fact that most publications haven’t yet figured out how to make money by publishing quality editorial on the Web. It’s a desperate attempt to prop up their advertising revenues.
Many of my colleagues – both staff and freelance – are experiencing this to some degree. The good news, however, is that older, established publications – ones that existed before the Internet – are more discerning about it. They want high-quality editorial first, then they tweak it with SEO.
“My editors are very sensitive to anything that looks or feels like whoring out a story,” says one client. “Yet at the same time you want your work to be seen, so it’s yet another one of those fine lines. We aren’t putting EgyptKatyPerrySarahPalinViagra in the first line of every story (or in the keywords, which some even respectable publications do) but we did have a two-hour edit seminar from an outside firm on SEO tactics.”
On the other hand, a freelance colleague who experimented with Demand Media gave up after she tried to both write a good story AND adhere to the company’s editorial guidelines. “You’ve only got, like, 250 words, and here they are telling you what words to use,” and where, she says.
Demand Media’s recent initial public offering seemed to be a vote of confidence in the SEO-based business model. As of Feb. 7, the share price was $19, giving the company a market capitalization of around $1.6 billion. However, Demand Media has yet to turn a profit. For the first nine months of 2010, it lost $6.3 million, according to Folio.
Meanwhile, Google is taking aim at these companies. As content farms have emerged, they’ve flooded the Internet with crappy articles, which makes Google’s search service less useful. Consumers are not finding the information they want and need, and they are complaining. “We hear the feedback from the Web loud and clear: people are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content,” blogged Matt Cutts, Google search engineer, in January. The company plans to adjust its algorithm to try to strip out some of this drivel.
Think about this for a minute. The content farms use a business model that generates articles that people don’t like, even though these companies are targeting topics that people are interested in. It’s an SEO shell game of keywords that leaves readers dissatisfied and frustrated. It’s not making money. And it’s in Google’s crosshairs. Does this sound like a recipe for success?
I hope the next couple of years brings the failure of these farms and proves that to grow good content, you need to start with good ingredients.