Google fail, content farms and point in time business models

By January 4, 2010Content, Google, Search

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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  • I’m not sure that holds true anymore. I agree it is a challenge and one I think that if framed properly then it probably wouldn’t be hard to get users comfortable with entering long queries. I would approach it as a status update rather than a “search query” to shift the mental pattern of the users.

    Indeed, you could argue that this type of search should begin as an application within FB and/or TW and then migrate to become standard on the web site.

  • Hi Nic, happy new year.

    One point you don't mention here is that typically content farms monetise via exactly one source: Google Adsense. So Google profits directly by sending you to a content farm. The question is can Google afford not to send you to a content farm? And even if they can why should they? What are you going to do, use a different search engine?

    As someone who has worked in web search for almost a decade, the challenge for Goog here is that measuring revenue and resulting drop is immediate. Measuring shift in user preference is very difficult and gradual.

    How do you think Yahoo lost to Google? It wasn't a big bang, it was 1% of user preference at a time. But no one at Yahoo! could pull the hand break because that would have meant immediate and measurable drop in revenue.

  • Hi Ed, good to hear from you. Thanks for bringing out the Google dilemma – I tried to hint at it but obviously didn't do a great job. I hadn't thought of the Yahoo! parallel though; very interesting.

  • I think there is a large disruption coming that isn't related to social search to Google. I've been following the idea of using various analysis techniques to divine the user's intent when searching and broadly I think there is far too little information from behavioural analysis to make a reasonable determination.

    Instead a more direct and I think more effective method is to ask the person directly. Put a large friendly box asking say “Where do you want to go” in case of a travel site or “What do you want” for product search which encourages users to enter queries such as “I want to go to Scotland for a fun weekend” or “I want a green washing machine for less than £400”. Both queries are very explicit out the intent of the searcher something otherwise difficult to ascertain with current keyword or form based search.

    The disruption to Google (& content farms) is that this makes niche or vertical search much more attractive to users and it is harder to create the content that ranks well to these very explicit queries. It will be interesting to see where this goes but I don't think content farms are something to get to worried about rather there is a strong possibility that Google will need to return focus to its search results in order to stave off vertical search services that offer better and more effective service.

  • Hi Simon – Query expansion is an interesting idea, and something we experimented with via a small investment back in 2000 when I was at Reuters. We were way too early then, but my takeaway back then was that it is very hard (too hard) to get users to expand their queries. Outside of a small number of verticals (e.g. travel) it ends up being counterintuitive and off-putting.

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  • Nice post nic. Have found myself re-visiting it 3 times: 3 topics in 1! Not wishing to be a pedant but aren't all business models point in time, just just windows are longer than others?

  • Thanks Paul. I guess my point is that for some businesses the end of their 'point in time' is imminent.

  • The 'point in time' business model is one I thought about some time ago when you wrote about the demise of Encarta. At the time my thought was that if someone had told Microsoft that the shelf life for their product was 'imminent' they would still have gone ahead and released it (albeit with a few modifications). In most high streets we see shops popping up to flog what seems to be a container load of jumpers then shutting down just as quickly as they came up.

    I think we'll see more corporations doing 'point in time' business on the web and mobile because those technologies (plus software) lend themselves to leveraging existing platforms very well for relatively little costs. Corporations are the new rock stars. Coordinate the build. Put your name to it. Put it out. Count the cash (or not). Rinse. Repeat!

    @Paul; I agree with Nic that in this context the model is built on a particularly time capped outlook.

  • Hi Joe – there is a great point lurking in your comment, i.e. my problem with point in time products is that it is hard to build a sustainable business around them of the sort that a VC might invest in and hope to IPO or sell to a large corporate. They can be great for a large corporation to temporarily boost sales or for an individual or small group of founders to make some money for a couple of years.

  • I found this article fascinating, and eye opening. However, I have noticed that in the past that when the search results start becoming a little stale, or there is too much gaming of the results, they normally add some features and tweak the results to make it usable again.
    My point is that if you are noticing a trend, you can be sure the people at the centre of Google are also noticing it, and likely working around it…. In other words I´m agreeing with you that “someone will come up with a way of fixing the problem”. Ah. Blind faith in the internet self repairing? How naive !

  • We are a bit late to comment on this topic (and we warn that this comment indeed is a shameless plug for our Company).
    We believe that an overwhelmingly algorithmic solution, such as Google, and which becomes successful, will inevitably fall ‘prey’ to the content farms simply because of the inherent economics of search engines. Therefore we are taking a much more people centric approach.
    Please read our blog entry on this topic:

  • Thanks for the comment. Your post makes a good point that I hadn’t thought of – it is in Google’s interest to push sites which monetise via Adsense to the top of the organic rankings, and hence they are conflicted – and maybe unlikely to heavily penalise content farms in terms of the search position