Has G’s Success Sewn the Seeds of Its Overthrow?

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about what I’ve inelegantly called the rise of “crap content.” I like better RWW’s “content farms” and TechCrunch’s “fast food content” to describe the new “content factories” (i.e., Demand Media and AOL). The following is from an AOL editor’s email via Business Insider:

The email, from an editor at AOL site RentedSpaces.com, encourages writers to produce 300-500 word stories fast in a style that’s “colorful, concise, [and] opinionated.” But he doesn’t want them to go too far.

“We’re not Gawker, so be friendly and authoritative.”

He tells them stories don’t have to be based on original reporting. He writes, “All we want to know for a pitch is: what’s the story, who broke it (AP, NYT, BW, Bloomberg,etc.), and how you will advance the story if you are following someone else’s reporting,” reads the email.

When writers file their copy, they’re expected to “Include 140 characters for a Tweet or Facebook update.”

AOL wants its editors to write in a way that will help Google will find their stories — that they’re “search engine optimized.” For example, the RentedSpaces editor tells his staffers to “make sure the first few words and first graf contain the critical keywords.”

Now VC Fred Wilson has written a post riffing of these ideas. It’s very consistent with some thoughts I’ve recently been having. He talks about how social networks may become increasingly relied upon as search results potentially turn into what I would contend is the online equivalent of cable TV: a wasteland of content.

We now can’t imagine the digital world without Google at its (epi)center, but a time will surely come when Google isn’t. Is that day 5, 10, 20 or 30 years from now?

I don’t know the timing, but I do know that Google’s importance and centrality to the online ecosystem and the corresponding greater and greater focus on SEO has spawned the following model and emphasis:

  • Low paid freelancers (or unpaid UGC bloggers) write short stories off press releases or original reporting somewhere else (often borderline plagarism)
  • Those “content” pages are optimized for search results primarily to drive page views (for display ad CPMs). The ad is the reason for the content, which is necessary to permit indexing
  • Quality is banished in favor of speed and quantity

Much of the “quality” content from traditional media — granted there is much crap coming from traditional media too — that was indexed in search results is giving way to the crap because the business models that supported quality content creation (writers, editors) are being undermined by the Internet.

In the future quality exists, and indeed becomes more important, but it becomes potentially harder to find. In this not-so-hypothetical future search remains important. But because of increasing noise in search results (or the return of noise), trust and potentially greater efficiency, people turn to word of mouth on social sites with increasing frequency.

It’s a highly plausible theory.


6 Responses to “Has G’s Success Sewn the Seeds of Its Overthrow?”

  1. Perry Says:

    I’m equally intrigued with the problem and its ramifications, Greg. Yet it feels to me like we’re all giving more credit than is due the “possibility of social search”, and the converse proclamation that Google will not be able to rapidly/smartly evolve it’s algorithms and it’s approach to search results to deal with the problems.

    It all feels a bit too much like “romantic musings” to me. No one has more talent, money, or acute need to iterate/discover/buy the solution than Google.

    Related, I also feel that we’re assuming that the traceability of the social graph protects it from being contaminated. If we stopped and thought about how it (too) will get perverted by spam and seo once the dollars flow in that direction.

    I am convinced that social will become a critical part of the evolution of search, but all we’re doing is casting a light on a problem that I’d bet Google deeply understands and is feverishly working to solve.

  2. Greg Sterling Says:

    Agree that Google will evolve and is trying to deal with social media in various ways. Yet its results and interface are increasingly a mess.

    Google has shown tremendous flexibility in mobile — to support your thesis. I just can’t help that if there aren’t some radical changes in the interface and presentation of results it will be less and less useful.

    We’ll see.

  3. John Furrier Says:

    The big problem is the pageview incentive. It’s a speed and volume game and qualiity suffers and the user experience is more like shit than fast food.

  4. earlpearl Says:

    We have had spam sites that live off of ppc, affiliates, etc. for some time. I learned some SEO techniques from some of them.
    Now it appears more substitive sites (ie AOL) are moving to that model. OMG…the great big once uber powerful AOL is now becoming the biggest spam content deliverer on the web. Is that their business model? Oi. What a shame.

    If it gets overwhelming…maybe Google’s response is to better identify quality authoritative sites…and give the links from those sites dramatically more and more weight. They already have a lot of weight…but maybe they’ll increase the weight.

    This issue has been going on for a while (a while in web time not a while in real time)

    Google and others will have to evolve to create some distance between “quality” and spam. We will see how it works out.

    Over the years a lot of the “changes” in google’s algo’s have been to fight the impacts of spam.

    We will see what they do going forward.

  5. Greg Sterling Says:


    Agree that Google has had success fighting spam in the past, but this is a different kind of spam, harder to detect by machine.

  6. Malcolm Lewis Says:

    Agree the next iteration of search, at least for commercial searches, will absolutely incorporate the notion of trusted filters (eg your various personal/professional social graphs). Does Google know that? I’m sure. Will they nail it? I’m not so sure. They don’t have a great track record in social so far. And they have baggage, which is another disadvantage. It’ll be fun to watch.

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