Large-Scale Content-Creation Sites

Excellent recent articles in the New York Times, TechCrunch, and All Things D have brought some clarity and insight to the issues surrounding large-scale content-creation sites. Here’s an industry overview:

Assembly Line

Assembly Lines for Content

Who?

Demand Media’s eHow, Associated Content, New York Times’ About.com, Aol’s Seed.com, Yahoo! Answers, and Answers.com’s WikiAnswers (where I work).

What?

These sites create thousands of articles every day.

The articles generally meet the following criteria:

  • Users are searching for it
  • Advertisers are bidding on it
  • Long potential lifespan, aka “Evergreen” or “durable.” It won’t be “yesterday’s news” tomorrow.

How?

Demand Media has algorithms which sort through search logs and advertiser bids to find which articles will attract both users and advertisers. They then offer these writing jobs to their network of freelance writers and editors. Seed.com and Associated Content follow similar models. Wired magazine provided an excellent description of the process in The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Model (though “disposable” is inaccurate, and his estimates on Demand Media’s profitability through this model seemed to be off by an order of magnitude).

Yahoo! Answers and WikiAnswers let users post questions to volunteer communities. These sites do not filter based on advertiser value.

About.com is closer to Demand’s model, with a freelance staff of “experts.”

Market Size:

If Yahoo! Answers, eHow, WikiAnswers, and About.com were stand-alone sites, they would probably each rank among the 25 most visited sites in the US.

Many journalists have written that Demand Media is taking in over $200 million a year in this business, but that number is apparently highly misleading. Most of Demand Media’s revenue apparently comes from other, unrelated sources, such as their domain registrar.

The concerns:

Some of these sites are now considered content factories, that are using a freelance global workforce to create specific content according to specific standards.

Some online journalists have expressed concern that this will:

  • Decrease journalists’ pay, as they compete with content factories using a freelance global labor force
  • Push journalism towards boring and monetizable content
  • Fill search rankings with low quality content
  • Cause content to be too standardized, like fast food
  • Provide low quality content

The journalists’ fears are real. One prominent journalist first wrote positively about Demand Media:

“As long as search engines like Google continue to rank niche, topical content highly – and we see absolutely no reason why they wouldn’t – then Demand Media will continue to pump out thousands of articles a day …”

and then changed track and started throwing around imagery of demonic content farms infiltrating Google, powered by journalists who swallow their pride to work under sweatshop conditions.

Naturally, the first article received little notice, but the later tirades attracted quite an audience. Globalization and efficiency experts sounded like much better ideas when they were threatening other people’s professions.

Still, these sites are generally not playing a large role in the problems facing writers. Eric Schonfeld writes in Seed’s Goal Is To “Redefine Journalism For The Internet Age,” Its Reality Is Untangling Cat Hair.

“Seed is supposed to help by assigning the stories that “satisfy the world’s curiosity” (the Seed Creed) …

The closest assignments I could find that might require some actual reporting are “What it’s like working at Target” ($25) and “How to Untangle Matted Hair on a Cat” ($80), which asks for an interview with a pet groomer.

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that none of these are going to win a Pulitzer.  But maybe that’s not what Aol means by redefining journalism.”

These sites are not competing with most journalism. These sites will rarely appear in your search results when you’re looking for hard news. They will show up when you ask Google about untangling cat hair, and they’ll be competing with each other, not with most journalists.

Regarding standardized content, often quality standards are good. I’m glad that eHow articles will generally share a template and meet certain guidelines of how a How To article should be written. Perhaps eHow isn’t the place I go when I want to hear a fresh voice.

The biggest issue may be the last one. These sites produce both high and low quality content, and their long term success will be dependent on how much high quality content they can produce. Wikipedia did a great job creating quality content from a diverse group of volunteers, by focusing on standards. YouTube is a more diverse site, with plenty of great content and plenty of awful content. The search engines will continue to get better at highlighting the quality content. The large content sites will keep getting better at creating quality content. Meanwhile, the best journalists like Kara Swisher, Eric Schonfeld, and David Carr will continue covering these subjects and receiving traffic from their loyal readers and from search engines.

Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/ / CC BY 2.0