By Jodi Harris published June 10, 2011

Should Content Marketers Buy Into Content Farms?

For anyone who has worked as a professional journalist, it’s certainly easy to look at the digital landscape and see the signs of a Rapture of sorts. We are seeing plenty of heated battles over intellectual property and content ownership. Magazines and newspapers have crumbled as quickly as if they were hit with massive earthquakes. Blogs, Facebook, and a pestilent little Tweeting bird are eating the newspaper’s lunch, breaking the day’s news much faster and more efficiently than any well-researched and fact-checked publication could hope to do.

And then there’s one of the newest scapegoats in journalism’s predicted end of days: the content farm. Both revered for its profitable, prolific capabilities and reviled for marginalizing the role of the well-trained writing pro, these low-cost, mass-produced article creation engines are making a real impact on the business of content marketing.

So, what exactly is a content farm?

Though companies categorized as content farms can vary widely in their practices, procedures, and technological protocols, they can be loosely defined by their main similarities: They use a proprietary algorithm to determine the most popular topics web users want information on, and then pay armies of freelancers a low wage to produce massive amounts of content on those chosen topics.

Of course, serving web users’ thirst for information is the standard basis for any content business model. And, as publishing is indeed a business as much as it is a public service, the main goal is to generate revenue by serving ads against the content produced. Though the function is the same as in any other publishing venture, it’s the form that distinguishes factory content farming from organic editorial.

Demand
The more frequently a search is performed on a given topic, the more attractive it is to the content farm algorithm. If you are marketing a product for a niche audience, the content farm will probably not be generating many relevant articles for you. Likewise, if your products belong to an unusual, highly detailed or emerging product category that consumers aren’t aware of (for example, you’re a miniature horse breeder, or have developed a first-of-its-kind technology application), your content offerings may be slim.

Competition
The number of articles that already exists on a given topic will affect whether the content farm algorithm selects it for assignment. So while an article about house training your puppy may get lots of search traffic, it would likely get lost among the hundreds of other articles on the subject, making it less attractive to the algorithm. Of course, a hot, trendy topic could game the system and override the competition factor: “How to mix the perfect cocktail” may be a bit too generic to merit much coverage interest, but you can bet “How to mix a Tiger Blood Cocktail” is keyword gold these days.

The ad market for topic keywords
Speaking of keywords, the final factor in getting a topic through the farm algorithm is whether keyword-targeted ads can be served against it, and whether the cost-per-click (CPC) threshold allows for the article to be attractive to advertisers. Both demand and competition play a role here, as well.

So, who’s tending the fields?

Now that you have an idea of how content farms work, you should know who tends the fields, and some details on the process. From a content marketing perspective, this is both where the benefits and detriments of the process lie.

As with their algorithms, all content farms have their own specific model for sourcing work and labor. As a general rule, contributors are recruited to the company’s site and vetted to make sure they meet the site’s criteria for each distinctive task in the editorial process. For example, a writer might be approved to create keyword-friendly headlines but not to write articles. Editors might have earned privileges to copyedit articles, or they may be restricted to the proofreading process. Keep in mind that this process is mainly to determine contributors’ technical skill level and proficiency, not their insight, creative ability or expertise on any subject matter.

Content farms can generate dozens of articles and videos in record time, helping to meet content marketing needs at tremendous scale and efficiency. But they aren’t a good option for meeting every marketer’s content needs for every project. Here are some of the biggest considerations, both positive and negative.

Pros:

  • Content is always fresh and plentiful. There’s never a lack of new articles that can suit any topic relevant to your consumers. Need more content on a topic? It scales effortlessly.
  • The sheer numbers of contributors these farms put to work means topics are no sooner generated than they are ready for consumption. And it’s this ability to produce quickly that allows aggregated publications like the Huffington Post (which became an official part of the farm system when it was purchased by AOL in February 2011) to scoop even the most well connected and respected journalistic institutions.
  • Right off the bat, content is SEO friendly, keyword optimized, and ready to serve against your message.

Cons:

  • When content is generated in such rapid-fire fashion, there’s little room for rigorous fact checking and accurate sourcing — all big red flags for content marketers. And because many writers are not well trained in these journalistic arts, incidences of plagiarism and copyright infringement are likely.
  • When was the last time you looked at a how-to article and thought, ‘This advice is so generic, I could have written it?’ Content farm writers can write on any topic, no matter how much or how little their experience is with it. And if writers aren’t experts on your topics and they are writing so much so fast, how likely is it that they will have done adequate research to make sure they have all the details correct?
  • In order to make more money, writers create many brief articles, rather than more in-depth pieces that take longer to write. With such brief articles, you run the risk that there’s more ad than article in each piece, which defeats the whole purpose of content marketing.

Should you buy the harvest or grow your own?

Even if articles created on a farm aren’t inaccurate, shallow or generic, quality and context are still key considerations when choosing the right placement for your meticulously created brand persona. And content farm businesses are a new enough construct that they are still refining their algorithms and ability to deliver the level of customization and quality that comes easily to any professional copywriter or journalist that you can hire to surround your brand message.

But is it really fair to vilify these intrepid content engines for doing what all entrepreneurs aspire to: filling an unmet need innovatively, efficiently and effectively? Regardless of how sacred you consider journalistic skill and integrity to be, content farms can be a helpful tool to reach out to the masses with news, information and advice.

Before turning over your precious brand to the content co-op, consider your answers to these questions:

How much content do you need, and how quickly do you need it?
The greater your content requirements, the more viable the content farm option becomes. And if you are on a tight timeline to launch, there’s no better way to ramp up and amp up.

What’s your threshold for accuracy, reliability, depth, and originality?
No one wants their brand to be associated with low-quality or erroneous information. But there are plenty of farm-based sites that create informative, humorous, cleverly written and engaging articles, and not every content marketing effort needs to involve Shakespearean prose or rigorous scientific investigational methods. These sites can drive tremendous reader interest, and sometimes that’s all you need. Consider the overall context of the farmed content site, the scope of your project, and what it aims to achieve when deciding if this content environment works for you.

How “hot” is your topic right now?
When a subject is relatively new or part of a trending topic — cloud computing, for example — people are now trained to “Google it” to get a better understanding. Content farms excel at putting this kind of search traffic to good use, making them a great option for this type of material.

How important is brand voice and customization?
If you are looking for your message to be surrounded by articles that align with your point of view, tone or style, it may be best to be more selective about your media buys. Just because your brand identity involves a specific perspective on a topic doesn’t mean that perspective will be shared in farmed content. You get what you get, and if you don’t like what a writer says on the topic, you don’t get any say or much recourse.

How authoritative does your content need to be?
If you are looking for high volume traffic and an association with handy, user-friendly or anecdotal advice, you can rely on farmed content to reach your goals. But if your brand message is at all elite, definitively authoritative or highly regulated in any way, I advise that you avoid the content farm and its lowest-common-denominator algorithmic process.

What are your thoughts? Have you had any experiences with content farms? If so, please share them with us.

Author: Jodi Harris

Jodi Harris is the director of editorial content and curation at Content Marketing Institute. As a content strategy consultant, Jodi helps businesses evaluate their content needs and resources; build infrastructure and operations; and create compelling stories to be delivered across multiple media channels and platforms. Follow Jodi on Twitter at @Joderama.

Other posts by Jodi Harris

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