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.


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:
Mint.com CEO Aaron Patzer and Digg.com Matt Williams: Who Is Your Favorite Fictional Executive?

Read More: Most Innovative Companies: Apple

Add New Comment


  • Per Lind

    Why is it that everyone keep insisting that Jimmy is the only founder of Wikipedia? What hogwash! Ask Larry Sanger, true founder of Citizendium, but then, I believe you will find no such poppycock on Wikiwhatever!

    Bad sport! :(

  • Jorge Rodriguez

    This is a very interesting topic, many bloggers and online content reviewers spend a lot of time and talent creating real contents to contribute with global discussions about many topics but this content farms just click the right button, hopefully technorati and other plattforms find a way to work with real people contributing to real conversations online. I run two blogs about marketing and market research and it very nice to see the participation, versions and comments of readers who have the opportunity to get value from conversations. Hopefully It does not become another marketing highway or a censorship tool to promote specific contents and topics to be consumed by large amounts of readers under the white flag of liberation as most american companies do.

  • David Zanzinger

    Well good for Google...I am a stock photographer who's images get pirated and featured on eHow as well as other content farms without any payment or links back to my work. In fact I found this group chasing an image to see how it is being used. There is no regard for © copyright anymore. Copyright infringement is listed in Wikipedia as theft. Any thoughts on how to correct this?


  • james

    I hate when I accidentally click on those crappy eHow websites. I have looked at 50 or more and every single post was total worthless crap. Even worse than worthless, since I had wasted my time clicking on the link. I'm glad to see some action finally on people who do nothing but game the system.

  • Rachel Signer

    Regarding content farms: I'm a freelance journalist (not full time, but "proper" enough), and I writes for high-quality blogs as well as content farms, due to the fact that I'm NOT "properly paid" by the high-quality sites so I need the (dismal) extra cash from the low-quality ones. But I don't think content farms are completely useless. They provide information to people who are less web-savvy than, say, Jimmy Wales, or any of the readers here. People who don't have great online research skills but want to find, for example, an article about the best dating sites, are benefited when their search terms bring up farm-generated content.

  • Christine Geraci

    I write for Demand Media and the amount you are paid depends on the types of articles you are authorized to write. The pay range is $3 to $80.

    I can't deny that I often end up having to write about topics that I have absolutely no interest in. But I do it because I need the money and the pay is reliable and consistent. All I can say is that I always do my very best even if my passion for the topic is nonexistent.

  • Bill Detroit

    @ Tom Kazanski -- I don't know about eHow, but examiner.com pays roughly a penny per view. Since an article earns money in perpetuity, it's a good source of income for a steady writer. As low as it may seem, if you are prolific (one decent article a day) it will not take long before the pennies start to add up.

    I'm pretty sure that their payout is better than most bloggers realize on their own.

  • Olivier Redmont

    I'll have to agree with Jimmy on this one and applaud Google for attempting to weed out demand media and these other pesky content farms. They are a nuisance to most and provide absolutely no added value. It's unfortunate that CultofMac got caught in the crossfire, but a small price to pay to have added protection from spam content. In the long run, Leander will hopefully see an uptick in traffic as a result.

  • Susanna Speier

    I suppose Demand "Winner" Media declined to participate in this because their, um, "Adonis DNA" deemed it irrelevant? Okay, in all fairness, the fact that Demand Media's full-time contributors get health insurance is truly remarkable. I'm sure the professional writers who've gone that route --foregone the higher quality, and more prestigious media outlets so they can get that basic benefit-- would agree.

    Jimmy Wales is one of a small handful of visionaries who, like Google Co-Founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, fight to protect the public's access to quality content. Wikipedia is one of those miraculous entities that shouldn't work, but ---for reasons no mathematician or statistician has been able to clearly articulate-- does.

    That's not to say Wikipedia is not peppered with biases, inconsistencies and mistakes. Responsible users, however, know that and can work around them. The real challenge, far as I can tell, is educating the general public on how to do this. Granted, not everyone has the time or the interest in fact checking what they read. Citations scrutiny, however, needs to become a more routine fixture of the general vernacular.

    Matt Cutts and his team (the Google techies who updated the algorithm) are protecting our access to what most of us still take for granted.

    Hopefully health care and

  • Jergen Kroger

    It's called Flex Shield and it is NOT comprehensive health insurance. Demand Media pays nothing for it. We full-time writers do NOT get "health insurance" in any way, shape or form. It's a joke and I don't know one writer who has signed up for it.

  • Jenn Prentice

    I think Jimmy's comment about quality content coming from passionate fans or paid journalists is spot on. I work for Experts Exchange, a website that has been called a content farm a few times in recent weeks. However, the definition of the term "content farms" on Wikipedia and Jimmy's take on quality content above, EE and many other sites being accused of producing spammy, SEO drive content are not content farms at all. I wrote a blog about the content farm debate a few weeks ago, and you can read it here if you're interested: http://bit.ly/eSItTF

  • Mike Summers

    I think this is a great thing for Google to be doing... It's so frustrating searching for something and having the first 20 hits coming up as a different version of the same crap website. I do think they need to be careful though in the changes they make and consider every person/business/website that they could be affecting. Like Leander said, "Google is the Internet, and the Internet is Google." Google has a social responsibility to be fair in what it does and consider all possible consequences of any changes they make. Obviously you can never please everyone, but they need to at least understand everyone who will be affected by the change and whether or not the change needs to be tweaked... I've never read CultofMac before but I'm glad to hear he got his site back up and running again and it looks like Google is doing what they can to minimize these types of incidents happening in the future.

  • loty moty

    eHow is the completely useless. I was really glad when google announced war on content spammers like Demand Media but the opposite seems to happen - I hope it's a bug in google's algorithm that will be fixed soon. Enough of the useless eHow spam already.

  • david sarokin

    I'm surprised at Jimmy Wales' comments on Demand Media and eHow. He really doesn't seem to be familiar with the generally good quality of the content they provide and the extensive quality control procedures they have in place. As a freelancer for Demand Media, I can vouch for the decency of both content quality and the pay that writers receive.

    Perhaps the fact that Demand Media's quality control guidelines don't permit writers to use Wikipedia as a resource (it's considered unreliable, even though it's a personal favorite of mine) had something to do with Jimmy's mini-diatribe.

    I hope he'll look into eHow in a bit more depth, and reconsider his stance.

    David Sarokin

  • Tom Kazanski

    How much do they pay you, David? It'd be interesting to learn the cost-per-word or the cost-per-article at Demand.

    Could you give us a little information here?

  • Jergen Kroger

    They pay from 3 dollars to 20 dollars an article. 20 dollar articles are "special projects," open to experts," or so they say. Most of the articles are $15.00 for a 350 to 400 word article.