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Is the Content Farm Strategy Just Misunderstood?

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Demand Media CEO Richard Rosenblatt doesn’t understand much of the criticism geared toward his company, which Time Magazine columnist Dan Fletcher refers to as "the Web’s least understood and most vilified juggernaut." I attended a panel at SXSW this week in which Fletcher and Rosenblatt discussed Demand’s content strategy that has become the basis of so much controversy (Read here for more background).

Rosenblatt thinks it’s just a case of a new business model getting picked on because it’s not understood yet. He compared it to the early days of other successful companies like Amazon and Netflix.

Is Demand Media’s strategy just misunderstood? Share your thoughts.

Richard Rosenblatt.jpgDemand Media evidently gets more traffic than the digital properties of ESPN, Time, or Disney. They claim to have more videos on YouTube than anybody. This isn’t spammy content though. It’s content created based on what people are looking for, or what a combination of Demand’s algorithms and staff determine people are looking for based on extensive data analysis.

An audience member referred to a video she came across that was simply not the type of quality Demand Media wants its content to be known for. Rosenblatt acknowledges that there may be some of this out there, simply because the company began with a different model, but they are working to eliminate this, and only implement content that has gone through the company’s exhaustive editorial process.

One huge misconception that Rosenblatt went out of his way to clear up is that of Demand Media’s content being taken as news. He doesn’t see what Demand Media is doing as journalism. Journalism is news, and this isn’t news, he says. It’s stuff that makes you laugh, solves your problems, etc. "Only the journalists call us journalists."

A great deal of the criticism that has been aimed at Demand Media is based around the notion that the company is somehow taking advantage of Google’s algorithms, to get its content placed higher than other sources (isn’t this what SEO/SEM is all about anyway?). Rosenblatt basically made the point that if Google doesn’t think it’s good enough content to be there, then it won’t be there.  To change an algorithm to not give an answer just doesn’t make sense, he says.

"If people aren’t looking for it on search, we’re not there," he added. Demand properties like eHow often appear in search results for queries about how to do things. Well, that’s exactly the kind of content that appears on eHow, and the mantra of the industry has always been "content is king" right? Demand simply wants to wear that crown, and make money doing it.

"We are driven by an economic model," Rosenblatt said. The company is focused on "evergreen, longtail, commercial content." They’re focused on stuff they will make money from.

Rosenblatt says a lot of people think their content is auto-generated. "That’s just wrong," he says. One criticism that Rosenblatt does think is fair, is that some of the company’s content "could feel mechanical." In other words, some may lack creativity. "We need to learn, and we’re trying to," he says. A lack of creativity does not necessarily mean a lack of accuracy, though, and through Demand’s editorial process, there is a lot of fact checking going on. At least that is the impression Rosenblatt gave.

He says they have different models for different categories. With something especially important to the world, like health, he says they make sure professionals are writing the articles. With health, fact checking would also go to doctors.

Richard Rosenblatt and Dan Fletcher talk Demand Media's strategy at SXSW

If you are searching for information on Google about effects of chemotherapy, and you are met with an article written by an expert on the subject, with facts checked by doctors, is there really anything wrong with that? Would you rather get a Wikipedia entry? Remember, we’re not talking "news" here. We’re talking information, and in other cases entertainment.

Demand media does use some Google ads, as iEntry CEO and WebProNews publisher Rich Ord pointed out in an article a while back. He wrote:

The problem as I see it is that while Google is highly ranking the content of these mass production publishers it also has a financial incentive to do so. Almost all content farms use Google Adwords for their revenue. So while Google on the one hand encourages publishers to make content for their readers and not just for search ranking, it is in partnership with sites that do just that.

This should make publishers wonder about their business models. Should they spend thousands paying reporters and editors to create quality content for their users or should they simply create a content farm that pays little for bulk quantities of articles and videos but gets lots of Google love?

I guess if you can make content for the purpose of ranking in searches … but make it targeted, unique and not horrible, then you might find that Google well reward you quite well.

The issue of Google’s own practices with regards to this are really a separate issue from Demand Media’s practices. As far as Rosenblatt is concerned, they’re just producing the content that people want, and will find that through either search or discovery. And they’re making a killing doing it.

Tell us what you think about it.

Is the Content Farm Strategy Just Misunderstood?
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  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/ethanstanislawski Ethan Stanislawski

    I think your right on to point out that this is a larger problem with Google’s strategy than Demand Media’s. The fact that Google’s algorithm could be so easily gamed for separate commercial purposes is actually very much not in line with the benefits of Google, and the fact that this covers SEM as well as SEO puts Google in an entirely compromised position. Considering how much of Google’s revenue comes from ads and how much Demand media plays into those ads, this would actually seriously threaten the entire backbone of search if more and more searchers and publishers caught on to this. No search marketer likes to point this out, however, because as Google goes, so do their jobs.

  • http://www.workingwebcopy.com Angela West

    “exhaustive editorial process.” AHHAHAHAHHAHAHAHHHAAHHA. Really?

    “An audience member referred to a video she came across that was simply not the type of quality Demand Media wants its content to be known for. Rosenblatt acknowledges that there may be some of this out there, simply because the company began with a different model, but they are working to eliminate this…” Same. They thrive on this, they aren’t going to try and eliminate it.

    Demand Media isn’t going anywhere, but they do consistently try to lure in writers with empty promises of reciprocal income (which does not exist unless you are willing to work at sub minimum wage). Cheap writers mean cheap content, and Google hasn’t penalized them yet because they are simply making too much money off of them.

    Demand and their ilk are just another reason to switch to Twitter search.

  • http://jumbocdinvestments.com/cd_rates_blog/ CD Rates Blog

    Frankly, I don’t see the problem. As far as I can tell, the content matches what is being searched for. Demand Media just spends more time analyzing non-competitive terms and works to rank for them.

    Isn’t this what many of the Article Directories do? Also Squidoo, Hubpages.

    Ad Arbitrage certainly isn’t new either. Paying for a less competitive ad to make money on a better paying targeted add isn’t wrong either.

    Seems to me Demand Media is just doing on a bigger scale what many do on a smaller scale.

    cd :O)

  • http://www.innovativepassiveincome.com Guest

    The eHow site is the buggiest site out there (check the eHow forums for proof) at least from a writers perspective.

    Demand Media treats their writers with disdain and in an unethical manner. They stole all the copyrighted material from eHow authors expecting to earn residual income and placed it on an “eHow UK” site based in Washington State in direct competition with the writers work in the eHow.com site. Then SEO work started ranking the UK clone version of the site higher then the .com version on many searches.

    After an online writer riot ensued eHow finally agreed to remove the copyrighted work from the Washington State based “eHow UK” site. They failed to do that however and instead put 303 redirects in place. These redirects seem to be adversely impacting the SERPs for many of the the writers’s articles.

    The promised “generous compensation” for the improper use of the articles amounted to a few cents to a few dollars at best while some writers lost hundreds of dollars compared to their monthly earnings before the eHow UK site started using their cloned articles to outrank their original articles.

    eHow has also been accused of sweeping” out the best of the residual income writers work and replacing it with content written for a flat fee. Some believe that their must touted secret formula is to use the residual income writers to discover good titles, write them and than create a lot of good backlinks. They than remove the residual writers article (that might earn over a $1000 a year for the writer) and replace it with a $15 flat rate clone.

    Also “exhaustive editorial review process” is a complete joke. Demand Studios articles on eHow often contain factually incorrect information and the editorial review process is the butt of many jokes by Demand Studios writers.

    eHow/Demand Media has seriously tarnished their reputation. Any article on the company, like this rosy one, is unbalanced without talking about the dark side of Demand Media’s business practices.

    • Chris Crum

      I have not experienced the editorial process first-hand, but Fletcher, the Time Columnist has, and as it was presented by not only Rosenblatt, but him as well, I think exhaustive is a pretty accurate description…they actually went through some stats related to Fletcher’s own work…I believe they said that only about 51% of his articles were approved at one point, though his rate had improved over time….they also said that there are different systems in place for different sites – some presumably more rigorous than others (like the health stuff for example).

  • http://braintraffic.com Kristina Halvorson

    I would like to know exactly what this “process” looks like. Saying your content is “quality” is a lot different than actually measuring audience feedback and content effectiveness.

    I also would have enjoyed hearing more discussion about their relationships with content creators. They pay these people well under market rates… and anyone, ANYONE can create content. No creativity required, but no real skills or expertise, either.

    Here’s a great post from Christine Anameier (Brain Traffic) about the impact Demand Media is having on our ability to obtain quality search results:
    http://blog.braintraffic.com/2010/02/sorting-through-the-digital-debris-2/

    Ultimately, while I may hate what Demand Media is building, I agree that this is Google’s problem to solve.

    • Chris Crum

      I would imagine that as with most models, there are flaws. It’s rare that anything is perfect, and again, he acknowledged that they do have stuff out there that isn’t the greatest (he attributes this mainly to the days before this model was adopted)…that’s not to say that less-than-stellar content can’t slip through the cracks.

      Rosenblatt says there are different models for different categories in terms of the editorial process. According to him, they make sure health articles for example, are written by “professionals” and fact-checked by doctors.

      He did explain the process to some extent: articles are sent to copy editors, then fact-checkers (in the case of medical – doctors). To be a copy editor, you must have three to five years of copy editing experience. If you’re doing health articles, the copy editors have had experience in that area, he says.

  • http://crunchydata.com Kimberly

    Yes, Demand Media is misunderstood in the sense that most people do not realize that Demand Media set eHow up as a bait-and-switch scheme to exploit its members. The scheme lured in a first wave of writers who were paid fairly well with residual earnings. They used those writers to proselytize to the next wave or two, who were not paid quite as well under eHow’s notorious secret algorithm.

    By the time the final (or nearly so) wave of member-writers joined in early August, 2009, after Time magazine touted the eHow model as a way for “any Joe Blow” to make money, eHow had pulled back the golden calf so far that few could find it.

    This grand bait-and-switch scheme allowed Demand Media to use writer-owned content to analyze what made it work–or not–and place their own prepaid content from Demand Studios against it in head-to-head competition for page views and ad dollars.

    EHow’s site incessantly urges their residual-earning writers to research SEO, apply SEO principles to their articles, and then to spend hours promoting those articles in social media and backlink-building campaigns.

    Demand Media, which hides not only its pay formula from residual-writers, but does not allow writers to see any article’s traffic analytics other than page view counts, then uses Google Analytics, and undoubtedly other inside data, to commission similar articles to those owned by writers that garner good views and ad clicks, and eHow promotes those prepaid articles above the writer-owned content for a business model that any Vegas casino would envy.

    This is why eHow no longer needs its residual-earning writers to write more articles. They have all the data they need now, so they maintain such a chronically buggy site that few can consistently publish anything new–except for prepaid writers. eHow is only keeping residual writers around a few more weeks or months to wear them down on the forums so these writers won’t 1. delete all their articles before eHow is ready to replace them with prepaid content and 2. publicize eHow’s unfair practices elsewhere.

    And if this practice of unfair competition against its trusting members during the worst economic times that most people in our country have seen wasn’t enough, Demand Media mirrored its eHow site in August, 2009, including all writer-owned content. They quietly launched the mirror site under the guise of claiming it was a “UK” site, though it was and is hosted on a server in Washington state, without paying a penny to writers. Instead, the non-earning (for writers) “UK” articles began rising inexplicably in search engines until many of the original, paying articles were buried.

    The “UK” site did not allow UK writers to join, nor did it have any articles purchased from UK writers for at least 7 months. This could lead one to conclude that the fake site was an attempt to artificially inflate Demand Media’s apparent Internet real estate, as do their nearly five-million (and growing) meaningless, monetized pages of nothing but comments separated from the articles to which they were once related. These comment pages now compete in search engines against real information in a no-win scenario for Internet searchers.

    After several months of outcry, eHow claimed that while they were legally entitled to mirror the site without permission or compensation, they would “remove all of the articles” from the psuedo UK site that were owned by writers. Except they never removed them as promised. They merely redirected them, and continue to keep writer-owned personal profiles up on the site against many writers express wishes.

    After continued member outcry, eHow admitted in a January video blog that writers had lost money in the “UK” scheme. They promised to “generously estimate” what writers had lost and compensate them for those losses in February, 2010. However, the micropayments they threw at most writers were so far below what writers estimate they lost–and are still losing–that some writers refused to accept the payments, and still assert that eHow owes them far more than was paid.

    Some writers estimate they lost a few thousand dollars in the scheme. That’s chump change in Richard Rosenblatt’s world, but it pays doctor bills and buys groceries in ours.

    So is Demand Media misunderstood? Yes, by those not paying attention to their unethical business practices toward “Joe Blow.” And yes, by those who lump them in with legitimate user-generated sites that offer a real opportunity for residual income, like InfoBarrel, HubPages, Examiner.com, and Suite101, to name a few.

    Every statement I have made here, and more, is supported by documented evidence, and more of us understand Demand Media every day. We hope it is only a matter of time until someone who can and will hold Demand Media accountable for their harmful actions catches on and says “no more” to such shady dealings.

    • Karras Bommer

      Kimberly, thank you for taking the time to share this information.

      Ten years ago I was a bright-eyed student told by my professor that the internet was MADE for a Writer. Instructors said it was all about writing and for an award-winning author like me there would be money to be made hand over foot.

      Then I discovered how easy it was for people to copy and paste then change the name. I found online markets that screamed SEO with instructions that a headline word should be used as often as possible, twenty, thirty times a paragraph.. the more a word is used the more a search engine recognizes it. Anyone want to call that writing?

      Final disillusionment was spending hours to research and write a quality 600-word article for which I was paid $4.

      I don’t know how the internet is changing literary fields or even writing itself, but the change is in progress as we write.

      Sad, very, very sad.

    • SS

      WHOA! This is such a detailed and SENSIBLE explanation of what went on that I am almost mad at myself for not seeing it earlier.

      I have always been known as an “eHow cheerleader” up until recently, but it is tough for me to trust them now.

      The reason that what you said resonates with me is that it the whole picture fits together quite well. You’ve done a great job of explaining what (may) have been going on all along.

      I would love for DM to give an honest answer. I WANT to trust them, I just can’t right now.

  • http://www.yumplr.com Laura MIller

    I have an account in ehow and add guides from time to time.

    It is an active community and the connections you can make are pretty good.

    I also like it because it is easy to make your articles rank high with a lil push.

    To expect to make money from eHow is… innocent. The wealth is in doing “carrot”-type of articles and lead the traffic to your own place, where you can expand, provide really good information and encourage people into your sales funnel.

    You don’t make money writing for eHow or the other revenue sharing websites, at least not me.

    I see them as source of traffic, play by the rules, give them what they want and take my share once they get to my place.

  • Guest

    Quality content? Don’t make me laugh. The majority of all the Demand Studios eHow ‘contributing members’ articles are written on the level of the average 8th grader. Because they are paid so little, they do little research at all. It should be called regurgitation. They read Wikopedia, change the words around, and get published.

    As far as the eHow ‘members’ or ‘users’ as they were known as until last week, it really appears Demand Studios is asking for garbage. There are a few really good, intelligent, passionate writers, and then there’s all the people they drew in with their publicized promises to ‘get rich quick’ by writing for eHow.

    I really don’t think it’s great quality control to have hundreds of eHow ‘articles’ on topics such as ‘How to Svck C@ck Like a Pro’, or ‘How to E@t a Woman Out No Holds Barred’, both of which ‘popped’ up during people’s recent article searches. Negative response to those articles, and the other hundreds like them were brought up in a recent thread on eHow and Demand’s definition of ‘obscene and vulgar’ in their own TOU. BTW, the thread was closed after the moderator essentially could not or would not provide ANY detail of what eHow and Demand Studios consider obscene or vulgar, and even though those articles were flagged many times by writers, those articles were simply unlinked from where they were, and are STILL on the site.
    Quality? hardly.

    Kimberly, above, gives an amazing breakdown of exactly what eHow, Demand Studios and Demand Media have done, are still doing, and are likely planning to do. She even gets it correct that the video blog promised ‘generous estimates’ of compensation, rather than what so many eHow people quote as saying ‘generous compensation’ promises.

    I’d like to see Demand Media’s response to Kimberly’s comments… because there isn’t one untrue thing said there.

    • Chris Crum

      I wouldn’t mind seeing that response myself.

  • http://yangyangli.info/ Yang Yang Li

    In a recent issue of time magazine, a author wrote about an experiment that he did with demand media. Demand Media has an extensive editorial process that is hard to pass. Not everyone can write for the company, 50% of applicants are rejected. To submit an article, you have to write a specified length with related content to carefully selected keywords. The author, working at top speed, could make $60 an hour. The content that is published is not crap. It is actually very useful. I don’t like how Demand media articles rank higher than mine! I’m jealous that I didn’t come up with something like that.

    • An ex DM “writer”

      I worked for Memand Media. I simply went to the real authority sites and cribbed their articles. i made derivitives. Every one at DM knows that. The public is stupid for reading eHow. One day DM will get slapped big time with a authors and experts class action suit and I will be long gone.

  • Adam

    These are my thoughts about this matter:
    Ehow.com is fine.I do not have anything against the content.But the fact is that they have started another site livestrong.com and using the same health keywords as that used in ehow.com.What can you say about this?I think it is time to just stop with the building of properties with the keywords in mind and build a solid community.

  • Shyam Kapur

    I like this post and also Angela’s comments in particular on why Twitter search is better now to find real opinions of real people. I’d go one step forward and use a smart tool like TipTop http://FeelTipTop.com to extract meaning out of the huge volume of data. I find TipTop quite good at distinguishing the more useful content from other content.

  • Johnny

    I think their content adds value. I see their pages a lot of time where nobody else bothered to put up any decent/great info.

    Could it be better info? Yes. Could it be worse? Yes.

    It’s kind of like an offering of a bit more than Cliff Notes, and honestly, quite often I don’t want any more in depth info on certain subjects. I just want the run-down, so to speak.

    The sites give me the info I want quick.

  • http://blogs.technotate.com Technotate

    It appears to me that Demand Media is simply exploiting a Google weakness. I am not overly familiar with the quality of Demand Media’s published content articles and YouTube video clips, however, so long as they offer something of genuine interest to humans what is the big deal? Obviously, Demand Media is doing something correct at the moment given each of us is interested enough to post a comment. Still, putting all of your ‘eggs’ in one Google basket is anything but a good idea. And, this is especially true given the search engine is apparently suffering from an identity crisis – in addition to fending off litigators around the globe. I tend to believe Google is losing favor with searchers around the globe and this seems to have spread to the legal world and now is translating to a growing popularity within courtroom settings – obviously not area where a company wants to see growth.

  • http://alrady.blogspot.com Alrady

    I really enjoyed your article and am doing my best to get it promoted on twitter and with some writeres on ehow.com. .My plate is full right now with home issues (literally) or I would promote even more.

    I thought your article hit some interesting points Thanks

  • http://www.siamese-dream.com Mark

    It seems that if the demand media practices are as nefarious as some claim, they would be an easy target for competition from web content producers that are truly passionate about accurate, helpful articles.

    If their articles lack credibility because their writers are underpaid, then that is the chink in their armor, no? Pay some people who are EXPERTS at their subjects and are EXPERTS at teaching that subject a decent amount, tweak those articles a LITTLE bit for SEO purposes, and you should have an ehow killer.

    just my two centavos

  • http://www.newsuperhuman.com Guest

    Content has become regurgitated, copied, commodified, keyword obsessed, spun crap. There is very little original news or content to be found. If you want to make money, which 99.9% of people do, then just steal other people’s content and spin it. It’s what everyone else is doing, so why not you?

  • Keith

    is overwhelming.

    Of Ethan and Angela that is.

    So you think because some people who aren’t as supremely clever as you want to know how to cook a turkey, or change a tyre, or log on to their online banking site, they should not be served content that tells them how to do it?

    Better still, line ‘em all up and shoot them, before they start making more dumb babies, right?!

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