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Talk to many displaced old media types and hear an earful about blogs: they lack standards, don't deliver quality content and they pay their writers far less than what they're worth.

But as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, it looks like bloggers may have a go at crying rivers. Thanks to the rise of companies like Demand Media, which specialize what some argue is large-scale 'content farming', bloggers are now leveling some of the same charges that have been leveled at them.

In a post entitled "The End of Hand Crafted Content", TechCrunch's Michael Arrington states that he's worried about the "rise of cheap, disposable content on a mass scale, force fed to us by the portals and search engines". This "fast food content", he says, is "cheap, crappy" and produced by "masses of sub-par journalists" with "little or no editorial oversight".

That sentiment is echoed elsewhere. Richard MacManus of ReadWriteWeb declares that "the bottom line is that the quality of content produced by these 'content farms' is dubious, which has an impact on both publishers and readers". And he wants Google to take action (good luck with that).

The arguments made, which one can easily sympathize with, are also slightly ironic. As well-known skeptic Loren Feldman points out in a vlog, many of the blogs bashing Demand Media and its ilk have themselves been called out for producing content of questionable 'quality' and employing loose 'editorial standards'. Feldman's most important point: most prominent blogs are guilty of pandering to Google. The problem? The Demand Medias of the world produce Googlebait on a much larger and more efficient scale than the vast majority of bloggers could ever hope to replicate.

You could debate this subject for hours on end but I'm not sure how worthwhile the mud-slinging is. That's because there's nothing inherently wrong with fast food content.

Yes, it's true that the content produced by companies like Demand Media is not going to win any awards and in some cases, it's not very good by any honest standard. So what? A Big Mac isn't the most nutritious meal, but reasonable people are not going to suggest that cities banish McDonald's restaurants to the side streets so that only the 'gourmet' restaurants can line the main strip.

There is a market for content of all types, just as there's a market for restaurants of all types. You might scarf down an occasional Big Mac at McDonald's, but that doesn't mean you'll never make reservations at the most expensive restaurant in town. And so it goes with content. If you're looking for information on how to change the oil in your car, you could probably do far worse than the eHow article on the matter.

A common undercurrent in all of the criticism of content farms is that the content isn't fit to be published. ReadWriteWeb's MacManus comes right out and says it: fast-food content "often...lacks knowledge of the topic at hand". This, in my opinion, is perhaps the most intriguing criticism since many well-known bloggers have no professional training as journalists, and were hardly world-renowned 'experts' in their fields when they started blogging. But that doesn't mean that they are incapable of producing content that has appeal to consumers. To the contrary, their passion and authenticity gives them the ability and freedom to offer different perspectives, even if they're not always 'correct'.

Frankly, I there's too much academic discussion of 'quality'. I'm the first to agree that quality content is king, and the Demand Media model isn't something I'd personally want to get involved with. But we're not talking about user-generated link farms or aggregated junk here. Love it or hate it, we are discussing original content. And there's no monopoly on who can create it. You don't need a Ph.D. in Journalism to write an article about changing oil, and there's nothing scummy about Demand Media's strategy of cherry-picking subjects with economic value. Monitor what topics people are searching for, evaluate their economic potential, and create original content to meet the demand if it makes money. You can call that 'content farming' and 'gaming the system', but I'd rather call it what it really is: 'market research' and 'common sense business'.

Obviously, not everyone wants to consume fast food content, and not every writer is going to be willing to cook up delicious content for nickels and dimes on the word. You'd think that would be obvious. Given the fretting in the blogosphere, however, I would suggest that some of the 'gourmet chefs' who are surprisingly worried about the new McDonald's down the block may not be so confident in their menus.

Photo credit: Radio Saigón via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 17 December, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2394 more posts from this author

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jonathon

interesting ... good, provocative post!

there's a bit of a contradiction there, since on the one hand there's complaints that content is no good, then on the other hand, complaints that it's going to threaten my own (high quality) content.

to extend the metaphor with food, would heston blumenthal be all that worried by a McDonalds opening down the street from his restaurant? course not, as everyone knows they're not in the same market. can you say the same of some content producers?

over 6 years ago

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jacob wright

Hmmm, but surely there's more to this than just "what people want to consume".  Newspapers could have sold bundles of papers by being lazy, inaccurate and downright dishonest in their reporting, but they (by and large) didn't because it was felt that some level of regulatory oversight was important for the larger social role that print media played in society.

If we want online content to duplicate the authority and significance that print media held in the 20th century, don't we at some level have to hold it to the same standards?

I'd love to see some kind of watermarking on online content to allow us to differentiate the responsible and conscientious writers/brands from the "fast food".  So you can allow people to operate on the fringes if they so choose, but also permit consumers to have some knowledge about the trustworthiness of what they're reading.

In other words you can have the NYT and the National Enquirer but you need to differentiate between them...

over 6 years ago

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Peter Berger

Jacob, I love your idea of watermarking content, there is a lot of potential in it. I agree with Patricio that if you are looking for an article on how to change the oil in your car, it's useful to find an article that does explain just that competently enough. Better to have that article than no information at all! But it's ultimately the expertly written content, reviewed and edited by professionals that people want to read if there is a choice of content. It's what the best search engines will thus want to serve their readers. Effective watermarking might be just the way to enable them to do so - and quality sites and authors with a track record for delivering that quality will benefit.

over 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

If "watermarking" means some sort of rating system for content, who does the watermarking? What are the criteria?

Such a system would inherently seem to appeal to authority. But just because something is written by a particular person or brand doesn't necessarily mean that the content is accurate. You can't simply trust something based on the source. After all, no individual is an expert on everything, and in many cases, the 'professional' journalists know little more than how to write. They're not domain experts.

Case in point: how many 'professional' financial news outlets sounded a warning before the financial collapse? Not many. How many individuals and outlets outside of the mainstream were talking about the problems building in the global economy for years before the collapse? Quite a few.

In my opinion, most consumers are capable of doing their own due diligence and deciding for themselves what's trustworthy and worth listening to. Anything else is an inferior shortcut.

over 6 years ago

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Peter Berger

Hi Patricio, I agree that it will not be easy to build a useful system, but if the goal isn't infallibility, I think it's entirely possible to do so. What search engine experts call "domain trust" (ranking content based on the algorithmically determined trustworthiness of other content on a given domain) is already a proxy to watermarking - just based on the environment a content author publishes in, not the person itself. As the web keeps growing, more qualitative layers will be required to identify the quality nuggets. I'd be very surprised if the top search engines aren't using infancy-stage versions of such layers already. You don't have to be a domain expert yourself to write a great article - but you have to know the limits of your expertise, talk to the domain experts and understand the subject well enough for your article. Good writers do the research and make their limits and open questions transparent in their articles. If I can identify writers who do this reliably, I would always want to see what they have to say about what is currently on my mind. And if a writer or site doesn't follow solid writing practice including accuracy, well, their watermarks should reflect that.

over 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Peter,

I think we're on the same page - sort of.

However 'domain trust' is overrated. TIME magazine would certainly be considered trustworthy by any reasonable standard, yet it named Ben Bernanke person of the year and actually claimed that Bernanke had helped the world avoid a major financial disaster. Funny, since he really helped create the 2008 crisis and has helped lay the groundwork for a bigger mess.

Obviously, this isn't the place for a discussion on fiscal policy, but I use this example to highlight the fact that reasonable, educated people are often given good reason to question the trustworthiness of content that on the surface looks like it was produced in the most trustworthy of environments.

over 6 years ago

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Peter Berger

Haha, I must admit it's one of my favorite subjects... common sense and good housekeeping are still not on the world financial agenda.

You probably touch the limits of machine "intelligence" here... With anything we call machine logic today it will be impossible to identify unpopular, highly disputed truths as truth and thus "quality". The good news of course: good journalism will never go out of business, and trivial, easy-to-replicate journalism will become less lucrative

over 6 years ago

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jacob wright

Well to me a watermark can take many forms - ebay feedback ratings are a form of watermark, and the size and formality of newspaper brands are another one.  Newspapers are held to account, not by "authority" Patricio, but because if they lie, you know who they are and can sue them, at significant financial and reputational cost to them and their owners.

With anonymous online content you don't have that option.

What concerns me is that despite the rhetoric of letting everyone have their say, if you lose the trusted sources of content you leave the world more open to smearing and manipulation - the authority that trusted sources have is necessary for the freedom of information.

For example, imagine that in 50 years time the flat, social vision of content has become a reality and everyone gets their info via real-time search and cares not a fig for the source (yes, I'm exaggerating to make a point).  it is discovered that mobile phones cause cancer.  At this point every mobile phone manufacturer in the world simply floods the infosphere with spurious opinion and research to the contrary.  Consumers are left none the wiser.

Would we be aware that cigarettes are carcinogenic today without authoritative news sources?  I doubt it....

As for the financial journalists, you would be more convincing had you adhered more to the journalistic standard of fact-checking. Nouriel Roubini, Robert Shiller, Nicholas Taleb and Jim Rogers (among many others) predicted the credit crunch and either wrote to that effect or were quoted and featured in mainstream print journals of one sort or another.  It is true that a consensus didn't exist, but it's in the nature of financial crises that a consensus cannot exist before they actually happen.

Secondly even were this not the case, it is not the job of a journalist to be an oracle.  The job of a journalist is to report the truth.

Personally I believe that the history of every medium that has ever existed begins with an open, amateur ecosystem (pamphleteers, ham radio, usenet) giving way to an increasingly professionalised and consolidated one.  So perhaps there's no need to deliberately create such watermarks of trust, perhaps a functionally equivalent system will emerge on it's own.  But I think we would certainly all suffer without such formal or informal signs of trustworthiness. 

over 6 years ago

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Maggie

Peter kind of nailed it- research.  I've been trying to convince my busniess partner to outsource our web marketing (caffeine is something I drink.  I don't want to deal with new algorithms).  I found a company (3Prime (www.3-prime.com)), and I REALLY want to use them, but she wants tons and tons and tons of reviews, says we can just set up our own blog to advertise.  i tried to tell her that there's a big difference between true internet marketing, tried to explain SEO and other advertising strategies.  She asserts that honest recommendations from our clients will be the best advertising.  I tried to tell her that, as awful as it sounds, testimonials are not always believed, that the integrity of the blog is good but not that same as directing people toward our site...

So, it all really makes me wonder about the concept of integrity and the internet.  Blogs, reviews...journalism...I'll be honest, I'm here looking on the blogs.  I found a site that I liked, and I'm shopping it around the forums because I trust the responses I'll get here more than review sites, where I have to wonder it someone's been paid to praise.

over 6 years ago

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Patrick Clarkson, offical at new york post

There is no substitute for quality. There is nothing so magnetic and compelling as content that matters to the consumer and delivers an on-going value proposition.

http://www.topnflnews.com/

over 6 years ago

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Stuart

I'm not sure about your analogy. People eat food to get full. Poor quality food will still fill you up.

People read content to find information. Poorly written, unedited and badly researched content will NOT give them the information they are looking for - particularly if it is just written to attract traffic rather than to inform or entertain.

Fast food is for people in a hurry. If people need content or information in a hurry they need QUALITY content as it is a real skill to write a lot in a few words. Anyone can drone on and on about a subject. That's what separates good writers from bad - good writers follow the less is more principle and get their point across succinctly; bad writers write search engine fodder.

over 6 years ago

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chinese wholesalers

You might scarf down an occasional Big Mac at McDonald's, but that doesn't mean you'll never make reservations at the most expensive restaurant in tow

over 6 years ago

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m65

wow once again a great article from patricio. i really like your work. 

over 6 years ago

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runescape items

I agree that it will not be easy to build a useful system, but if the goal isn't infallibility, I think it's entirely possible to do so.

over 6 years ago

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de4

od is for people in a hurry. If people need content or information in a hurry they need QUALITY content as it is a real skill to write a lot in a few words. Anyone can drone on and on about a subject. That's what separates good writers from bad - goo

over 6 years ago

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