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Hey Jimmy Wales, What Do You Think of Content Farms?

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and CultofMac.com editor Leander Kahney discuss Google, content farms, and Demand Media (plus a personal account of how the tweaked algorithm almost ruined Kahney's business) in our latest edition of The Cold Call.

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Welcome to another edition of Cold Call, where we zing a question to our favorite CEOs, entrepreneurs, VCs, and tech evangelists to see how they answer—and how you'd respond. Joining us today are Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and veteran Apple reporter Leander Kahney, editor of CultofMac.com.

Last week, major upgrades to Google's search algorithm affected roughly 12% of all queries. The algorithm tweaks were aimed at one target: "content farms," generally lesser quality, high volume, content-producing websites that have begun to overwhelm top search results through SEO tricks and keyword redundancy. You've probably come across some of the more notorious content farms, from AOL's Seed to Yahoo's Contributor Network to Demand Media's eHow.com.

Since rolling out the upgrades, have Google's search results improved? We turned to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and CultofMac.com editor Leander Kahney for their thoughts on the subject. (Google, busy this week at TED, was unable to participate. Demand Media declined to contribute a Cold Call response on the grounds that they do not consider themselves a content farm.)

What do you think of Google's new "content farm" algorithm? How have the changes impacted your business? What are the pros and cons of Google's system?


Jimmy Wales

I haven't seen the numbers yet for Wikipedia, but I doubt it's affecting Wikipedia at all—almost nothing does. For Wikia, it's been a net-positive. I think we're not seeing a lot of impact partly because we don't have content in areas that SEO-spam-optimizer types go after.

When people are writing thousands of articles about the Muppets or thousands of entries for Lostpedia, those aren't the super-high value keywords that are inundated by all this crap content. In one example on Wikia, "Total Drama World Tour," we've had visits increase by 45%. Again, those keywords aren't exactly "How Do I Refinance My Mortgage," which is where all the crap is.

I find it completely bizarre that Demand Media might not have been affected by the changes. eHow.com is the poster child for cranking out a very high quantity of really crappy content. They pay people nothing to write about things they don't care about—and the results really show.

I think good quality content comes from either really passionate fans, or from paying proper journalists a proper salary to write. But paying people a very low amount of money to write about stuff they don't care about—that doesn't work.

Content farms just don't care about quality. You don't have to question how it's produced—you just need to look at the content itself: Lots of keywords and buzzwords are repeated. You know it when you see it because if you're reading it, you think, Honestly, I could've written this myself because: One, I don't know anything about the subject, and, two, I don't care about it.

Draw two axes. One axis represents how much you're paying the person to write, and the other is how much the person cares about the subject. On one side, you have proper journalists being paid proper wages. You have the people who are really passionate writers—your typical Wikipedia and Wikia contributors. And there's also all the individual websites where someone is, say, super crazy about The Beatles, and they've just written tons and tons about the subject. That's how you get great content.

Where I think you really fail is in the other corner of the axes, where you're paying very little, and the people you're paying don't actually care about what they're writing about. All they care about is having the right keywords to get traffic from the search engines. Whether the information is actually informative, accurate, entertaining, or interesting is really secondary.

As for pros and cons of the algorithm changes, I think the pros are that Google is being pro-active about editorial quality. They're realizing they're starting to return lots of websites that are just nonsense—very low-quality stuff—or websites that are just scraping content. It's great when Google kicks that stuff out. Obviously, a lot of people who are negatively impacted won't have that particular view.

Lastly, I think this is all absolutely healthy for the search market. I think Bing is really important. Bing is getting better—I use Bing. Actually, I have it set as my default homepage to see those beautiful pictures everyday.

However, I use Google more than Bing because, in my opinion, Google is still better. But I think it's important that Google does have this competition—just so they don't get lazy.


Leander Kahney

On Monday morning I woke up to find my website had been effectively delisted from the Internet by Google.

My website—CultofMac.com, an Apple fanboy site—was collateral damage in Google's war on content farms. Last Thursday, Google changed its Page Rank algorithm to demote sites with empty content. Somehow my site got caught up in it too. I read about it in The Guardian lying in bed, and I nearly flipped inside out. I've spent the last two years working my tail off to build up CultofMac.com, a startup with one full-time staffer (me) and a small but talented pool of contributors. It's a scrappy, shoestring operation. We've made every mistake in the book, but I'd hoped to make a living off the site this year. Things were looking good—until this.

Traffic was way down. I thought it had just been a quiet weekend. Now I knew why. We were no longer on the Google News homepage, which had been a reliable source of about a third of our daily traffic. A search for keywords that usually put us near the top of Google's results returned zip. Worse, searching for particular stories we'd published put us well below the bottom-feeder scraper blogs that regularly steal our content.

This was a major disaster. Google is the Internet and the Internet is Google. Facebook and Twitter are coming up, and we have a ton of regular readers, but Google is still central to the web ecosystem. For a digital publisher like us, getting love from Google is essential to survival. We were dead in the water.

I threw up a freak-out post on the blog and wrote to everyone I knew in the media, hoping to get some press. Then I started tweeting my tale of woe. One tweet included a joke about collaring @mattcutts at South By Southwest (SXSW). Matt Cutts is Google's head of spam and someone in a position to save the day.

All day I heard nothing. I researched what to do. Google's a big company, but it's a black box. There's no numbers to call, no friendly help desk to make things right. Shady SEO blogs advised posting on Google's webmaster forums in the hope that someone at Google sees it. Seemed like a crapshoot.

Then in the evening I got a tweet from Cutts. "The appropriate people at the Googleplex have heard that report, I'm sure," he said. "Feel free to snag me at SXSW if you see me though."

It made my day, but SXSW is still weeks away. What about our traffic in the meantime? But the following day, things were miraculously back to normal. There we were on Google News' homepage—right near the top. Traffic was through the roof. Top referrer? Google, of course.

What happened? I have no idea. I tweeted Cutts but haven't heard back. The shady SEO blogs say this is normal. In the past when Google has made major changes to its algorithm, the settings are tweaked over subsequent days. Sites that are buried initially can slowly rise again. The blogs advised patience. If you're deserving, you'll soon be back in the top results.

That's great I suppose, but the experience has made me gun-shy. Did Cutts fix things just for us, or has Google tightened its algorithms and now things are working properly?

I'm hoping it's not just us. I'm a big fan of Google. Things had got spammy lately, but in general, Google does a great job. Sometimes we publish a post and it's immediately on Google's index. That's pretty remarkable.

Initial reports suggested that a lot of legit websites like ours got whacked, while Demand Media, one of the biggest content farms, actually benefited from the changes meant to demote it.

Let's hope Google has fixed that. Whack the content farms—as promised—and promote sites like ours. Fingers crossed.


Agree with Jimmy or Leander? What do you think of content farms? Has Google fixed the problem? Leave your answer in the comments below, or reply via twitter with the hashtag #coldcall. We'll highlight the best in our next edition.

Read more Cold Calls:
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