(Kelsey Kirchmann) Everyone has seen the malformed beasts produced by content farming. Those weird, slinking articles titled “How to Fix a Lawnmower” or “Top Ten Summer Camp Themed Movies” that have little or no valuable content, but will take an unsuspecting netizen to a page filled with pop-up and sidebar ads if he chooses to “read more…” Some people spend hours stuck in the vortex of content farming and come away from the Internet no wiser or at least without an answer to their original query. Welcome to the weird world of content farming.
Most of us have been exposed to content farming when we are performing a routine query on a search engine. We search things like “How to Make Smores” or “LSAT HELP”, and we receive ranked search results by our preferred search engine. Some of the links in the search engine results are helpful and from reputable sources. Others would make our sixth grade English teachers cringe with republished content or a hodgepodge of words and pictures that are merely designed to suck the uniformed netizen into a rabbit hole of farmed content.
Content farms are often dressed up as legitimate websites or come from reputable sourced with broad name recognition. Some content farmers include Associated Content, e-How, wikihow, Cracked, Demand Media, CNN, AOL Seed and Patch, and Yahoo! Answers. These content farmers hire content farm workers for the hard labor.
Content farm workers are actual people who once dreamed of writing the great American novel or winning the Pulitzer for an article on populist revolutions in the Middle East, but are forced by circumstance (the economy, the decline of print media, really bad dates) to produce low quality content for even lower quality salary.
Content farms use computer algorithms which track trending search terms to produce a list of topics that will generate the most page views. Content farmers then work on impossible thirty-minute deadlines to produce bologna content on these computer-generated topics.
The quality of farmed content is not important; the content is merely a backsplash for the ads on the page. The central purpose of content farming is to garner ad revenue through page views. Read this horror story from a former content farmer for AOL and you will understand that the above summary of content farming is far from melodrama.
As a casual netizen, I first truly began to understand the alien concept of content farming a few days ago after reading an opinion piece in the New York Times. This blog post by Virginia Heffernan documented Google’s war on content farming with a new algorithm named Panda. Panda works to send farmed content to the bottom of Google’s page ranking system, making farmed content less valuable to content farms. Being at the bottom of the page ranking system does not equate to a high number of page views or ad revenue.
Google has just released Panda 2.2, the revised second edition of the Panda algorithm created to fight farmed content. Since Panda’s February 2011 launch, Google has been refining this algorithm and quietly releasing updated versions. According to this legal brief, Google Panda has been increasingly effective at weeding out worthless farmed content with eHow and Wikihow being the hardest hit of the content farms.
But Google Panda does not mean cybercitizens and their computers can sleep soundly. There is a new frontier, wild and lawless, that content farmers are beginning to exploit: e-books. A recent article in Salon titled “Spamazon” talks about the farmed content that is beginning to infiltrate the Amazon marketplace for Kindle books. Content farmers buy the rights to popular books or book titles then rearrange the words or completely change the content. Content farmers sell their product for a fraction of the cost of a legitimate e-book. Cybercitizens are then tricked into buying a low-cost, garbage imitation of Alice in Wonderland or The Yogurt Diet for Dummies. It is becoming increasingly difficult to sort the cheap imitators from legitimate e-literature. So Panda may be protecting your Google searches, but Panda cannot protect your Kindle.
I’m not sure if cheap imitations or get rich quick schemes are human nature or a law of the universe, but for now content farming will continue until the entire global community of cybercitizens fully understands the way content is generated and presented on the internet. We should all arm ourselves with knowledge and be our own Pandas. As long as we can recognize farmed content and steer ourselves back to the more reputable sources of online information, we can be responsible and empowered netizens.