Why The Web Needs Content Farms
Posted by Eric Ward on February 16, 2011 to
By now you've read the New York Times article The Dirty Little Secrets of Search. It's certainly a cautionary tale to every link builder and SEO firm that if JCPenny can be taken down, anyone can. I hear FORBES is next. So please put down the pitchforks and douse the torches. I'm not going to add to the already deep sea of articles and commentary about why content farms are bad for the web.
Why? Because content farms are good for the web.
I don't mean good as in you should be using them as part of your linking strategy. Not at all. Link building via content farming is a bad strategy. What I mean by "good" is content farms ultimately help the engines figure what can't be trusted.
As a staunch white hatter and ethical linker, over the course of 15+ years I have seen so many schemes designed to siphon search traffic that I've lost count. Keeping your linking tactics merit-based is the only truly ethical way to the top, and why we created Link Insight. You may think you can cheat and win, and you might even succeed for a while, but why risk it, especially if you have content that can earn great links without cheating.
Content farming isn't new. It's as old as the MiningCo.com (remember them?). Back then there were no evil connotations to content farming. Even some of the early article databases had good content. They filled a need back then. Most have worsened over the years, and it's true that some content farms are in fact schemes, but others are not. Have a look at this growing list of content farms, and some of the domains included might surprise you.
So might the names NOT included. Wikipedia is my favorite site on all the web, but tell me how Wikipedia is not a content farm? The only reason is because they don't have ads on pages. If ads appeared on every page of Wikipedia tomorrow would they lose all those #1 rankings? I hope not. The content hasn't lost its usefulness to me.
Down from Wikipedia you have eHow and Mahalo. Both are defending themselves as not content farms. I wonder if they removed every income generating piece of code form their "farms" would they no longer be farms? But that makes no sense, because the content itself hasn't changed. If it was useful with ads, is it useful without them? Does a page of content become less valuable to the reader simply because the author is trying to monetize it? And what about people who have expertise in a very specific field who have written hundreds of articles about a very specific subject and nothing else? Aren't they content farmers too?
Since 1994 I've written over 200 link building articles and my site ranks #1 or 2 for the term link building articles. Here's the current Google search result. I never thought of myself as a content farmer, but am I? I don't monetize my pages, but my content brings me business. Should the rule of content farming be "stick to one crop", the way I've stuck to one subject?
Content farms come in all shapes and sizes, about all topics, produced by writers all levels of expertise. The web itself is a content farm, being cultivated by millions of people. The reason this has all exploded to the front page is because an organized effort by a famous brand to attract search traffic was exposed. The answer is not to throw the good apples out with the bad apples. The goal is as it has always been. To use signals to identify the most credible sources of information. Could it be that the content farm advantage right now is simply that individual pages are being rewarded on the entirety of their domain link graph signal, rather than at the individual page level?
I pose all these questions because they are so hard to answer. However, in the bigger scheme of things, content farms serve a necessary purpose in the web content ecosystem, especially for search engines. Search engines will evolve and identify content signals which will succeed or fail based on their ability to satisfy the searcher's needs. If, over time, content farm articles can only earn links and references and tweets and likes from other content farm articles or authors, what signals does that send to the search engine? Plenty, if they are looking.
While I understand the reactions I've read, I think it's a bit insulting to the search engines. The engines will adapt. They always have, and always will. This is where content farms actually help search engines do their job. All we see is the search result page. What we don't see is the activity going on behind the scenes to determine if the results you see now should continue to be the results you see a week or a month from now. Search results are fluid, based on hundreds of signals.
And speaking of fluid, let me close with one last analogy. You can't plug a dam until it leaks. Then you plug it, and if you are smart, you look for ways to learn why it leaked, then you wait for the next leak, which always comes. This leak was just a bit bigger and noisier, but if we can all calm down for a moment, isn't this the exact type of feedback loop that helps search algorithms continue to improve?
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