Can So-Called “Content Farms” Maintain Quality and Reader Trust?

Suite101: Content Quality Critical for User Trust and Industry Growth

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Sometimes sites like Demand Studios, Yahoo’s Associated Content, AOL’s Seed.com, and Suite101 are called names like "content farms" or "content mills". You can call them whatever you like, but the fact of the matter is that they’re attracting a lot of writers and producing a lot of content, which is appearing in a lot of search results for better or worse. WebProNews had a conversation with Suite101 CEO Peter Berger (who has said Suite101 is not a content farm, by the way) about this industry, how people are interacting with content in different markets, search vs. social media, and more.

Do you find content from sites like these valuable? Share your thoughts.

"Search might never be flawless, but it is the superior angle to access the web’s best content for any question a consumer or information seeker has at a given point in time," Berger tells us.

Sites like Suite101, and those from the others mentioned are largely about "evergreen content" – content that doesn’t lose its usefulness over time. This content tends to cater more to search than to social media, because it often sets out to solve problems users are actively looking to solve, which isn’t necessarily going to be the kind of content they want all their friends to see. Still, social has its place for this kind of content in addition to the more share-friendly stuff. 

Peter Berger, CEO of Suitie 101 Talks about SEO , Quality, and the long tail"The ongoing development of social media is certainly one of the most significant developments we are seeing on the web right now: the social web is creating incremental opportunities beyond purely search- or destination-centric ways to navigate content," says Berger. "This varies of course by the individual content piece: while a story about the latest soccer match between Madrid and Barcelona may spread like wildfire socially, another, more timeless article on giving childbirth might prosper over longer time horizons as friends tell their friends about it when they need it. And a great manual on how to repair a punctured bicycle tire might never get any social attention, but will help a lot of people searching for immediate help."

Evergreen content is only as useful as its ability to be trusted, however. That means these sites have to consistently produce quality content that users can trust enough at least to click on and read before establishing a real opinion about it. 

Look at Wikipedia

"Wikipedia was probably the first content site that became a search-driven utility the general public is aware of: most web users today possess a concept of what they can and cannot do with Wikipedia definitions in their search results," explains Berger. "New content models like Suite101…and some of our competitors will soon have built a reach that will foster a similar kind of public brand building where users judge web sites purely based on how well and trustworthy past search results helped them achieve their goals."

"One does not have to go back to the debates around Wikipedia’s content creation model several years ago to predict that content quality will be decisive for our space to win the user trust needed to keep growing to large scale utility status," he says. "We think that the high-touch, editorial model of Suite101, enabling only high quality writers to publish content, is one of the key ingredients to success as our industry matures."

While sites like these (particularly Demand Media’s offerings) have seen a great deal of criticism over quality, it is for the reasons Berger is talking about that it is in these sites’ best interest to maintain a level of quality so people will not be afraid to click the results in search engines even if they do rank well. 

Regardless of how any of these sites are perceived (and there is a pretty broad spectrum of perception), they’re certainly attracting the interest of writers looking for money and experts (or those striving to be thought of as experts) looking to build their credibility and brand reputations. 

"Every week, several thousand people apply to become Suite101 writers," Berger tells us. "While we only accept a portion of applicants based on our non-negotiable quality standards, we do have many successful writers on our site who do not consider themselves ‘writers’. 

"We see it as Suite101’s mission to enable people – anyone who can write well and with deep understanding of a subject – to achieve their goals," he says. "These might be earning money, addressing large audiences, building up a personal professional brand, or simply enjoying creative freedom in a nurturing, peer-oriented environment."

Content Interaction in Different Markets

Suite101 has expanded into several foreign markets, and Berger had some interesting things to say on how people in these markets interact with the site’s content. "After launching versions of Suite101 in German, Spanish and French, with specialized teams and physical offices on the ground, we have learned a great deal about language- and market-specific differences," Berger tells us. "Social signals, for example, gain ground rapidly in all major markets as a factor influencing content usage, and non-English markets prove to be quite receptive."

"Case in point: our French and Spanish language sites receive a three times greater traffic share from Facebook pages than our English and German sites," he adds. "Third-party referral traffic, on the other hand, is particularly substantial for our German content."

"But so far we find that the similarities to our North American home market by far outweigh any differences," Berger notes. 


"The best option to monetize most online content is (and will be for some time) advertising," says Berger. "Advertisers today have sophisticated options to ensure their ads generate impact, which means that monetization varies strongly between subject areas, geographies and sites. At Suite101, we help writers who want to generate significant incomes understand how they can focus their articles on attractive niche opportunities."

"With the launch of our Spanish site last year, we entered all Latin American advertising markets – all of which currently lag a few years behind the US or German markets, for example, in terms of maturity and general level of monetization," he says. "As e-commerce penetration and advertiser sophistication improve in those markets, Suite101 and its local writers will directly and increasingly benefit from the traffic reach we are creating today."

Currently, Suite101 is claiming 28 million unique visitors per month. 

Are sites like Suite101, Demand Studios, Associated Content, and Seed good for the content industry? Tell us what you think


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  • http://howtozed.blogspot.com Howtozed

    I do not understand the sentence “The best option to monetize most online content is (and will be for some time) advertising,”. How can we earn money by advertising? Please explain, otherwise the article is very useful.

    • Chris Crum

      In Suite101’s case, writers are paid a share of the revenue the site earns from ad sources including banner ads and Google AdSense ads. From the site’s FAQ page:

      “Depending on the ad, your article earns revenue when a reader clicks on an ad, when a reader views an ad, or when a reader performs some sort of action related to an ad (such as purchasing something). The rate that each ad pays is determined by the advertiser. Thus, we are unable to provide a definite figure of how much a writer will make per article.”

  • http://str82u.co Str82u

    Call them what you want, but content farm or mill is a cute description for this site too, right? And hundreds of others?

    Depending on the standpoint of the reader, a news site could be called news, but a the end of the day, how many new pages were created? How much of it is “evergreen content”? The same standpoint for a forum site, where interaction creates content, can be qualified the same; how many new pages were created? How much of it is “evergreen content”?

    Only the site owner or webmaster knows if reporting the news is a more important than a growing site. It’s neither good or bad having a content “farm” if the content is useful and purposeful; If the only objective is creating a monster site to catch as many searches as possible, it’s spam the same as it’s always been.

    • Chris Crum

      What if it does both?

  • http://lethbridgeseo.wordpress.com/2010/11/21/le Angela Lethbridge

    The problem here is, a filler site actually makes the owner money through advertising because if they can coax traffic to their site, the traffic becomes disappointed in the crappy content and instead clicks on an advertisement to go somewhere else that will give them the information they are looking for. In the process, the website owner makes a portion of the advertising revenue.

    In a sense, the system encourages the website owner to have low quality content because if the visitor is satisfied with the content, they will never feel the need to click on the advertising, and the website owner wouldn’t make any money.

    It stinks when you think of it that way. Just promotes a bunch of junk on the internet.

    Just my 2 cents worth.


    • Chris Crum

      Wouldn’t this be more about the AdSense system than the content sites’ system? You could make the same case for a blog showing AdSense ads.

  • Dennis

    I have a couple dozen content sites up and have them hooked to my adsense. I have many other domains setting parked for revenue. I see more revenue from my parked domain, than I do from the content sites. I have always thought that the content mills, using the same content for thousands of sites might kick up a red flag to Google and other search engines and in return ban sites.

  • http://www.webcopytoday.com Richard

    Those of us who are full-time commercial writers are affected in part by these sites and “writers.” The one unwavering stalwart of SEO is quality, relevant content. We see very little quality content coming out of these article mills and content farms.

    We even see a large percentage of the articles written by people who are in countries where the primary language is not English. The consequence of this is that there is a misuse of common colloquialisms and misuse of words and poor sentence structure. Will these things affect SEO? Maybe. At the very least, they reflect poorly on the site owner and that site’s credibility. We see the same thing with blog posts.

    We also get resumes from writers who claim that their entire experience is writing for these sites. My take is that volume does not equate to quality. Mr. Berger’s comment was more instructive than intended: “We do have many successful writers on our site who do not consider themselves ‘writers.’ If volume is the criteria for success, then so be it. My definition of a writer is quite different.

  • http://www.examiner.com/conservative-in-columbia/charles-reynolds Charles B Reynolds

    Content Farms such as Suite101, Associated Content and others do have quality issues. But so do even the big name ‘real’ news and information sites. And like traditional media, this new media will draw readers to quality. If someone likes my work on AC, they will come back. If not, they won’t. Just like they do with my local news content work. If they don’t like it, they won’t come back. If I search for something on the web and what comes back is Huffington Post or CNN or Examiner, or if it comes back from Suite101, eHow or ThirdAge, I know from past experience which sites give me what I want. Sometimes I’ll go to these sites just for the alternate view. In the first few sentences I know if I want to continue or not.

    And to call these people NOT writers is an insult as well as the typical nose stuck in the clouds attitude from traditional journalist who can’t compete. If someone writes, then they are writers. The only difference is between good or bad writers. Some people thought Hemingway was not a good writer. Others think e. e. cummings was a bad writer. Only time will tell. But if Bruce Upbin or K Richard Douglas cannot compete with these writers, perhaps they should search for new lines of business. Because if these other writers get paid for their work, they are indeed commercial, freelance writers.

    Just my opinion. Take it for what it is worth.

    • Chris Crum

      I agree with much of what you said. You see varying degrees of quality from some of the top news sites on the web, and often opinions vary on quality.

    • http://www.acmewriting.com Richard

      You apparently misunderstood my comments. Our businesses see seven figure revenues. We don’t try to compete on any level with these article mills. We have writers who are affected by them, but we are in far different markets in the greater scheme of things.

  • http://www.freneticmemetics.com Dan MageGuest

    I started writing for Associated Content in 2007. I was given a small up-front payment for my second submission to them. Since then I have published nearly 60 articles. When submitting a query to a “real publisher,” I can refer to this content for samples of my work. Reason.com published an article, and paid me reasonably well for it eventually, on the basis of such a query, and “blogged” another piece on AC with related content (no pay, but over 700 page views in one day as a result).

    I’m irritated by yahoo’s recent acquisition of AC, which now shows up as the “Yahoo Contributor Network” or something like that, and makes it sound cheaper and more “farm” like in some ways. However, AC, and similar site like Helium, where I’ve also published a few provide an invaluable opportunity to unknown writers to test the waters, refine their skills, and see what sells. They also provide a forum for political views that falls outside of the mainstreams media’s “box”.

    This is the free market at its best, and also (some would say) at its worst. People who produce content online do so for wages that would be illegal in real time. However, “professional writers” are chosen by publishers whose exclusion of new writers and unconventional viewpoints is a given (with a few notable exceptions) and the new marketplace of “content production” gives a chance to people who might otherwise give up in despair. Sure, a lot of garbage gets published, but no one is forced to read it. No page views = no pay for the writer (after the tiny initial payment, when there is any). I get a small payment every month now, whether I write or not, solely on the basis of page views, and everything helps.

    All persons with something to sell deserve access to the marketplace.

    -Dan Mage

    • Chris Crum

      These sites do create an opportunity for a lot of unknown, but talented writers to find new audiences, even if talent levels do vary.

  • http://www.ferdinando-menconi.it/ Ferdinando Menconi

    For most run of the mill keywords, you see lots of these content mills ranking in the top, usurping the positions of traditional authoritative sites. Many of these content mills employ non native English writers who churn out pathetic content. Sadly they appear to rank well. It appears that quantity seems to rank over quality these days. Search engines don’t seem inclined to value quality content anymore these days.

  • http://www.newyorkvacation.info Noo Yawka

    I’ve published a handful of things on various content farms, as well as my blogs, big league websites, books and articles. I have a few pages on Suite101 (I wonder if they got their name from George Orwell, in which case the name is ominous). My conclusion: content farms may continue to survive and make some money, but they’ll never take off and soar.

    The problem is quality. Too much of the information which is available on the internet is written by ‘internet experts’ — people who do a quick five minute Google search, then write articles as if they are world-class experts. Once in a while there are articles which contain real information on article farms. But too much of it is sheer crap. After a few bad misinformation experiences, readers turn off the content farms.

    Plus, there are so many PLR articles on the net which compete with the content farms that the content farms, acceptable as information sources as they sometimes are, get painted with the same brush. In other words, people do information searches and they wind up either on content farms or on PLR article sites. They get bad information or empty information calories. They stop looking for information on content farms and PLR sites, and turn to recognized experts, like university sites, blah blah blah.

    Ask yourself: when was the last time you purposely set out to get information and the FIRST thing you did was to go to a content farm? Never happened to me.

  • http://www.greensboro-nc.com/news Guest

    I am syndicating news now will find out. It definatily makes your site relavent.

  • Farley

    Content farms are a flash in the pan. They produce content of such low quality that they actually hurt the websites on which they appear. You can fool me once into clicking onto a content farm site, you’ll never fool me twice.
    Publications get the quality of readers they deserve. If you publish obvious drivel, you end up withh an audience of drooling idiots, and advertisers will shun you, because your readers are their shoplifters.

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