The Content Farm Model: How Crap Content Succeeds

By Deane Barker on December 16, 2009

This is a fantastic series of articles (links further down) from ReadWriteWeb.  In particular, it’s about Demand Media, a company that generates more content than perhaps anyone on the Web right now.  But in general, it’s about content farms (or “content mills”) – sites that pump out massive amounts of low-quality content to sell ad impressions.

As of May 2009, Demand Media claimed to have created more than 500,000 unique pieces of content – at a staggering rate of about 2,000 pieces of content per day!

They have a system that’s machine-guided but human-powered:

The system starts with an automated process, crunching data and running it through an algorithm to identify story ideas that have the best chance of success. The algorithm factors in audience type, ability to attract advertising and potential for traffic. For a written piece of content, human editors will then check the top story contenders. Potential titles are placed into a pool for writer selection. Once a writer picks up a story, it gets written up, goes through a fact checking and copy editing process (including a plagiarism check), and finally the editorial team approves the completed article. The article is eventually published and the writer gets paid.

This is a simplification of the Demand Studios process, which happens 4,000 times every day!

While the content is low-quality, it’s working well for them:

It’s easy to be cynical about Demand Media – it creates truckloads of content very cheaply, uses social websites like YouTube to make it viral, and gets tons of page views as a result. But… it works. Demand Media earns more than $200 million in annual revenues, according to BusinessWeek.

Whether we like it or not, success on the Web mostly comes from quantity and not quality.

Wired profiled the same company in October: The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model . The opening paragraph is depressing.

Christian Muñoz-Donoso is going to make this job pay, he’s got to move quickly. He has a list of 10 videos to shoot on this warm June morning, for which he’ll earn just $200. To get anything close to his usual rate, he’ll have to do it all in two hours. As he sets up his three video cameras on the rocky shore of a man-made lake in Huntington, Massachusetts, he thinks about the way things used to be. He once spent two weeks in a bird blind in his native Chile to capture striking footage of a rarely seen Andean condor. But those jobs are almost as endangered as that bird. Now he trades finesse for speed.

In the end, for all its mystical powers, Google gets gamed a lot, and it’s now getting pushed back to its fundamental reason for existence: how to you sift through the crap and generate quality search results?

Here are the articles in the series from ReadWriteWeb:

This makes me a little sad, I guess.  The reality is, you can succeed with crap content because search engine traffic is fickle.  You know what the top five posts on this blog were for the last month?

With the exception of that top one (and that one is aided by the holidays), none of these things are great examples of journalism.  But they got lodged in Google for various reasons, and they drive a ton of traffic.

Other posts, of which I’m very proud, get relatively nothing for traffic.  And this is because the vast majority of traffic comes from Google, not other blogs or referring sites.  The former is machine powered, the latter human powered.

But, you say, Google is human powered!  It has PageRank!  Okay, then why do content farms work so well?  Why does crap content get so much traffic?  (Yes, yes, I know – my examples are probably just because of the volume of searches – more people want to know about a Nerf Sniper Rifle than want to know about content management.  Fools.)

Michael Arrington sums my feelings up best in his post called – sadly — The End of Hand-Crafted Content:

So what really scares me? It’s the rise of fast food content that will surely, over time, destroy the mom and pop operations that hand craft their content today. It’s the rise of cheap, disposable content on a mass scale, force fed to us by the portals and search engines.

[…] These models create a race to the bottom situation, where anyone who spends time and effort on their content is pushed out of business.

I just died a little on the inside.

Next Steps —
What This Links To
What Links Here


  1. This is my biggest beef with SEO-driven content – that writing for the computers, and, in turn, for people who will only glance upon your site by chance and will probably never return – is the most profitable model of business.

    It’s also not the most genuine model of business. No relationship is being built, and no loyalty is being earned.

    I see it this way, and maybe this is a too-general, too-optimistic look at content: A site filled with original, well written content is something you never forget. You throw it into your RSS feed and you follow it forever, or you add a few notches to that company’s trust meter.

    But a site that’s driven by the cold hand of machinery? Those are easy to replace. And often are.

    Then again, maybe I’m just upset that my top post of all time is about a silly argument I had with Radio Shack. (Go ahead: Google “Radio Shack Sucks.”)

  2. “Crap Content” is a blog that has nothing but quotes from other articles and little original material. Sound familiar?

  3. “Crap Content” is a blog that has nothing but quotes from other articles and little original material. Sound familiar?

    You haven’t been reading this blog very long, have you?

  4. I always wonder why blogs respond to worthless slander from “Charleys”. Deane is this part of the “no moderation or open discussion” today. Comment with no URL, etc just like I am now…wow.

    BTW, this was a great post Charley. You just would not understand obviously. And I will not link because Deane know he can find me and I still spend hours in a weel trying some hybrid of Demand/Answers using some tools we have created. Fascinating really due to the scale.

    Deane, lunch and lets discuss this deep. Getting a sound grasp on more intricacies so you can do a follow-up ;)


    I think the question will be, what quality level will the mass production be able to achieve. There will be a limit, and sites that take a more authoritative view and give trust a boost within their content (like does) will win in the long run. I guess it’s the different between a mass produced car and a hand crafted car. Which will last longer and have less issues? I put my money on the hand crafted vehicle. I think the same is true with the large sites that rely on mass but have little quality behind each article. We recently saw this with QA sites and will soon see it with content farms that don’t live up to Google’s and the users standards.

  6. They make it to to the top of the search results but really who cares. I read pages from ehow and they generally suck. I didn’t even know they had ads. I don’t stick around long enough to look. If advertisers want to pay a few bucks to throw their ads on a crappy site who cares. Once those companies figure out that they aren’t getting any business they will spend their money else where. AOL is trying to do the same thing. That tells you how long this business will last and how fast they will fall.

Comments are closed. If you have something you really want to say, tweet @gadgetopia.