What a Load of…Content

Google was getting worse. Complaints about its search results began to appear regularly online slightly over a year ago. In December 2009, venture capitalist Paul Kedrosky blogged about the difficulty of finding helpful dishwasher reviews online. He said the experience reminded him of the pre-Google era when search was “completely overwhelmed by spam and info-clutter.” Throughout 2010, power users continued to expressed concern that Google was no longer the wonder search engine that it had once been. Its results were clogged by the same domains: eHow, Suite101.com, wiseGEEK, Associated Content, Examiner.com—all offering short, oddly specific, and generally poorly written throwaway articles.

Welcome to the world of content farms. These companies employ hundreds of low-paid freelance writers to churn out low-quality content specifically geared toward specific search engine queries: “How to ignore eye floaters,” “How to sign in & out of MySpace.” Because these pages match search queries precisely, they rise to the top of Google results. Users click (the #1 result on the first page generally attracts 20–30% of clicks, with a steep dropoff thereafter) and the sites make advertising revenue based on the number of page views.

The debate over content farms, and Google’s resulting tweak to its algorithm, is a wake-up call for book publishers who may not have seen these sites as relevant to their business. “At O’Reilly, SEO is a priority,” says VP, Online Allen Noren. “It’s paramount that our site and product pages are the authoritative source for our content. If not, any content farm can hijack the identity and authority of our products, and we lose the ability to control our message and marketing.”

Content farms are producing a massive amount of content, and making a lot of money. For example, Associated Content says its 380,000 contributors produce 10,000 new articles every month. It was purchased by Yahoo! in 2010 for $100 million. Demand Media, which owns eHow, has 8,000 contributors writing 180,000 articles a month, and its January 2011 IPO was valued at $1.5 billion.

At the end of February, Google responded to the growing number of complaints by making a major change to its search algorithm. The change affected about 12% of its search queries. “This update is designed to reduce rankings for . . . sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful,” the company wrote on its blog. “At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites . . . with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis, and so on.” The Online Publishers Association, a nonprofit that represents legitimate online content providers (including NYTimes.com, WSJ.com, CNN.com, ConsumerReports.org, Disney.com, and other biggies), estimated that Google’s algorithm change shifted $1 bilion in annual revenue from content farms to real news organizations, and OPA’s member sites reported traffic increases between 5% and 50% the day after the change took place.

But news sites like these aren’t necessarily the ones who should be worried about content farms anyway. Actually, “it’s non-fiction book publishers that we really compete with,” wrote Suite101. com CEO Peter Berger last year in AdAge:

“In the past, consumers would buy a book to learn how to interpret a particular piece of music or when to plant specific bulbs. Now consumers can go online and find this information with no direct charge. The value we are offering is not the timely editorial ‘nose’ of a newspaper, but rather an identification of the search demand for content and writers and guidance to assure quality at scale.

So while being named a ‘competitor’ by news journalists is creating curiosity about our space, it is not a correct characterization. Our real competitors have to wake up to the seismic shifts we are seeing online and see that they are already at grave risk of becoming marginalized in the digital age. We’re still waiting for the McGraw-Hills, the Random Houses, HarperCollins’ and Simon & Schusters of the world to get active serving their traditional audiences online and entering the marketplace.”

How can publishers package some of the content they already have for the internet, make sure that it appears in search results, and pull in those pageviews? Some tips:

  • Use content farms to your advantage: Search them for queries that overlap with the content you publish to identify areas where people (and potential customers) are seeking more information. If you’re a cookbook publisher, for example, browsing eHow Food reveals that its #1 article is “Coconut Milk Health Benefits.” You can create web features based on these queries (and may even come up with new book ideas). You can also research trends in search with Google Insights.
  • Ask authors to write brief posts on time-dependent topics that could be outdated by the time a book is published, which will draw traffic to your site and attention to authors’ books.
  • Check out free web resources like FreeSEOReport.com, which provides you with a roadmap for optimizing your site and improving its search engine rankings.

If you are a book publisher who has tips about SEO, please let us know in the comments.