What is a Content Farm?
Sometimes called a content mill, a content farm is a website (and business model) that generates high volumes of web content for the purpose of gaining revenue through search engine optimization (SEO). Content farms typically produce or collect articles, primarily on a topics that are popular among search engine users. However, content farms may also produce or include infographics, videos and other types of content.
The primary critique of content farms and mills is that they produce low-quality or mediocre content that clutter the web and, most importantly, search engine results pages (SERPs) with spammy content. These results in a lower quality of user experience (UX) for search engine users, particularly if low-quality content farm articles rank at the top of search engine results.
How content farms work
Publishers of content farms and mills use their understanding of SEO to produce revenue-generating articles. These articles are designed to rank highly for target keywords, which then produces more traffic and visitors to the articles — and the potential for revenue-generating advertising clicks or impressions.
Here’s an overview of how a content farm operates:
- Identify target keywords. Using various keyword tools, but especially Google Adwords’ Keyword Tool and Google Trends, content farms identify high-value keywords that either generate a great deal of search queries or higher advertising rates.
- Generate keyword-driven content. Content farms then employ freelance and contract writers to create content around specific target keywords. These writers are usually paid per article, with a minimum word count, or per word. Some content farms and article directories may also give writers a share of the revenue generated through ads on that article’s web page. [Note: some content mills also use sphinning programs that generate very low-quality copies of original articles.]
- Optimize website posts. The articles are then posted on the website and optimized for search engines. This is done through the use of on-page meta-tags and keyword usage. In addition to on-page optimization, websites may also use off-site optimization (such as link-building and social promotions) to ensure higher search engine rankings for the article. Some content websites also accept and invite submissions from writers who may want to build up their reputation or build links to their own websites.
- Advertisement placements. The template used for each article will typically include automated advertising placement on various parts of the page, including the header and sidebars. The primary advertising placement channel used by many content farms is Google Adsense, which runs contextual ads on each page. These contextual ads analyzes each article’s content and then automatically shows ads that relate to the content on the page, when possible. Google’s display ads may also place “remarketing” ads that are relevant to the individual visitor, rather than the page’s content.
- Advertising revenue. Some of the ads show on these article pages are paid on a CPM (cost per thousand) basis, which means that the advertising rate is based on one thousand pageviews of the ad. However, most of the ads shown are typically CPC (cost per click), which means that the publisher is only paid if a visitor clicks on the ad.
Google crackdown on content farms
As note above, the lower quality of the content produced by content farms has led to frequent complaints, aimed mostly at Google for allowing these content farm-generated articles to rank so highly on search engine results.
Google responded in 2010 by promising to do more to address these complaints about content farm articles. In February 2012, Google rolled out an update to their Panda algorithm that resulted in much lower rankings for many content farms. However, not all content farms seem to have been affected. While sites like Mahalo.com took a nosedive in search results, other websites like eHow.com seems to have survived.
How exactly does Google determine which content farm articles should be penalized or left untouched? That is subject to speculation among SEO practitioners. But assuming that user experience (UX) is Google’s top priority, Google has several tools at its disposal, such as the following:
- Bounce rate. A high bounce rate is sometimes an indication of low-quality.
- Over-optimization. Websites that rely highly on SEO tactics, rather than content quality, to rank higher have been targeted by Google for penalties. These over-optimization tactics include over use of keyword-anchored links.
- Trend alignment. If articles tend to match certain keyword popularity trends, that may be an indication of content farm materials
- Content analyzer. Having pushed the continuing development of translation software, Google has developed advanced algorithms able to “read” content and make a determination of its quality.
The bottom line is that Google has access to all the data that content mills and farms may use — and much more. Publishers of content farms have expressed a great deal of frustration and anger at Google’s moves.
However, many SEO practitioners and search engine users have applauded Google’s moves, as having improved search engine results. For legitimate website owners and authors committed to generating high-quality content, the penalization of these content farms have opened up space at the top search results.
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