Google fail, content farms and point in time business models

By January 4, 2010 13 Comments

image Back in December John Battelle posted that Google is failing more and Paul Kedrosky wrote about Dishwashers, and how Google eats its own tail – both posts about how Google doesn’t return the results we want any more.

There are a couple of steps to this argument.  I’ll take content farms first.  The highly successful Demand Media is the poster child of this industry which automatically creates content that lists well on Google and then makes Adword bucks from the traffic that comes there way (which they share with Google).  The problem is that although the content is good enough and changes often enough to get listed by Google, it isn’t actually very good.  Kedrosky describes it like this:

keyword-driven content — material created to be consumed like info-krill by Google’s algorithms. Find some popular keywords that lead to traffic and transactions, wrap some anodyne and regularly-changing content around the keywords so Google doesn’t kick you out of search results, and watch the dollars roll in as Google steers you life-support systems connected to wallets, i.e, idiot humans.

Google has become a snake that too readily consumes its own keyword tail. Identify some words that show up in profitable searches — from appliances, to mesothelioma suits, to kayak lessons — churn out content cheaply and regularly, and you’re done. On the web, no-one knows you’re a content-grinder.

The result, however, is awful. Pages and pages of Google results that are just, for practical purposes, advertisements in the loose guise of articles, original or re-purposed

Battelle also notes the poor quality of the content in content farms, but thinks the bigger picture is that we are asking increasingly complicated questions of search engines and therefore asking them to do a job they were not set up for – the second step to the argument.  That rings true for me, but I would be interested to see some data.  Certainly the average number of words per query is rising and one would suspect that more words indicates a more complex query.

This brings me to my final point, which is that if the consumer experience is getting worse, because of content farms, changing requirements, or some other reason, then someone will come up with a way of fixing the problem.  She might be at Google, or it might be Mark Zuckerberg, or it could be someone we haven’t heard of yet, but if there is demand, someone will fill it.  Battelle puts it like this:

Audiences always route around that which they don’t want, and when something better comes along as a navigational interface, we’ll pick it up, and quick. If Google doesn’t figure this out, someone else will, and the cycle will repeat.

I can’t see content farms being something that audiences consciously route to, making them a point in time solution which works in the current Google context.  There is nothing inherently wrong with point of time business models, as the ‘point’ in time can be rather drawn out and the businesses behind them can always add new product lines to stay fresh and keep growing, but they are always going to be weaker than businesses with no obvious end in sight.  With hindsight AOL was a point in time company that has struggled for the best part of a decade to find something new to make it exciting again.

Interestingly Battelle thinks that we will see a new UI paradigm which will help us get what we want more quickly solving search and content farm related issues.  He has this as #4 in his predictions for 2010.

Happy New Year to you all 🙂

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