Yesterday TechCrunch’s Mike Arrington denounced the rise of SEO-mill-driven content — the sort of business Associated Content and Demand Media are in, and AOL is going into — as “the rise of fast food content.”
This gave me a good laugh, since, of course, most journalists have long (and mostly wrongly) viewed Arrington’s own output, and that of all blog-driven enterprises, as “fast food journalism.” Arrington, rightly, I think, sees himself more as a “mom-and-pop” operation producting “hand-crafted content,” and he’s bemoaning “the rise of cheap, disposable content on a mass scale, force fed to us by the portals and search engines.”
Trouble is, Arrington’s metaphor is off. The articles produced by the SEO-driven content mills aren’t like fast food at all. Fast food works because it tastes good, even if it’s bad for us: it satisfies our junk cravings for sugar and salt and fat. We eat it, and we want more. The online-content equivalent to junk food might be a gossip blog, or photos of Oscar Night dresses, or whatever other material you read compulsively, knowing that you’re not really expanding your mind.
The stuff that Demand Media and Associated Content produce isn’t “junk-food content” because it’s not designed for human appetites at all: it’s targeted at the Googlebot. It’s content created about certain topics that are known to produce a Google-ad payoff; the articles are then doctored up to maximize exposure in the search engine. individually they don’t make much money, but all they have to do is make a little more per page than they cost. Multiply that by some number with many zeros on the end and you’ve got a business.
These businesses aren’t preying on our addictive behaviors; they’re exploiting differentials and weaknesses in Google’s advertising-and-search ecosystem. As Farhad Manjoo pointed out recently in Slate, the actual articles produced by these enterprises tend to be of appallingly poor quality. McDonald’s food may not be good for you, but it’s consistent and, plainly, appealing to multitudes. But few sane readers would willingly choose to consume an SEO mill’s take on a topic over something that was written for human consumption.
That’s why I think Arrington’s off-base. The SEO arbitrageurs may make money manipulating the search-engine bots, but they can’t “force feed” their output to real people. Doc Searls’ idealism on this point is more persuasive than Arrington’s lament.