The robots are taking over the blogosphere

Cyborg_Head_01-look right I read a chilling story by Wired Magazine’s Dan Roth last night about the future of online media, and I’m still trying to keep my breakfast down. It’s not pretty.

Roth’s story is about a company called Demand Media, which has introduced factory farming to the blogosphere. The company churns out 4,000 articles and videos every single day based on ideas spit out by a computer algorithm. The algorithm analyzes the keyword frequency from major search engines and the ad revenue that each of those keywords returns.

Its goal: to find the topics people search for most often that also provide the most pennies per click. The algorithm then spits out a series of keywords that are manipulated into a fortune cookie- style headline by  a pair of humans (at 8 cents a pop). That headline gets tossed out to Demand’s cadre of hungry freelance writers, who get paid $15 a post to generate a few hundred words of drivel. Demand runs the post through a plagiarism detector, pays $2.50 for it to be copyedited and (maybe) another buck for a fact checking, and then voila — instant content, delivered at a profit.

This is similar to a tactic that has long been used by sleazy SEO companies. They commission bogus, link-rich articles about a product or Web site, then post them online hoping to fool Google into thinking the particular product or site is more popular than it actually is. The problem here is that Demand Media is being used with increasing frequency by legitimate sites, like eHow, LiveStrong, and Cracked.

Want to crank out a video on that topic? No problem. You can make a cool $20 for that. Doesn’t have to be in focus or anything. According to Roth, YouTube loves Demand Media, because — unlike 90 percent of the videos people post — it produces videos that are easy to sell ads against.

Here’s an obnoxious YouTube video describing their services, which appropriately enough comes with an ad for cheap car insurance attached to it.

Here’s the really chilling bit. Per Roth:

Demand is already one of the largest suppliers of content to YouTube, where its 170,000 videos make up more than twice the content of CBS, the Associated Press, Al Jazeera English, Universal Music Group, CollegeHumor, and Soulja Boy combined. Demand also posts its material to its network of 45 B-list sites — ranging from eHow and Livestrong.com to the little-known doggy-photo site TheDailyPuppy.com — that manage to pull in more traffic than ESPN, NBC Universal, and Time Warner’s online properties (excluding AOL) put together.

The result: Reams and reams of crapola filling the Net. Even worse than it already is, if you can believe that. But hey, if that’s what the people want….

The brains behind this scheme? Former eUniverse/Intermix CEO Richard Rosenblatt. In 2005, Rosenblatt’s company paid $7.5 million in fines to then-New York AG Eliot Spitzer for distributing spyware. Intermix also happened to own MySpace at the time, which put social networks on the map when News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch bought it for $580 million.

(Later, former Intermix exec Brad Greenspan sued News Corp, saying MySpace was really worth $20 billion and that Murdoch had parked spies outside his house to sniff his WiFi network. No, I’m not making that up.)

Before the big cash out, the company made money via bottom-feeder content like low-rent dating sites, recycled ink jet cartridges, pet photos, and the “hilarious videos and cartoons” at BigFatBaby.com.

It seems little has changed. Demand Media is the MySpace of online content, but with less class. Its stuff is about as mindless as BigFatBaby and as insidious as spyware.

Surprisingly, if you Google “shameless sleazebag,” Rosenblatt’s name does not rise to the top of the search results. Maybe somebody should commission a $15 story on that keyword phrase.

Obviously, I have a vested interest in this story. If Demand Media’s methods become the way most Web sites generate content (and ad revenue), professional writers will effectively disappear from the Net. It will be just like when that meteor hit earth 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and leaving nothing but rodents.

But when publications are unable or unwilling to pay professionals to write stories or generate videos, we’ll end up with two kinds of content: the dreck that Demand Media is producing, or higher quality content that serves the aims of the people who can afford to pay for it — corporations, powerful individuals, governments, etc.  So it’s either amateur hour or propaganda. Take your pick. Not a very pleasant choice.

And when they figure out the snark algorithm, I’m history.

What do you think? Does the Net need professional content, or is it time for the old pros to crawl off into the tar pits? Post your thoughts below or email me: dan@dantynan.com.

This post originally appeared on InfoWorld’s Notes From the Field blog. It was not written by an algorithm.

Cyborg head found here.

9 Responses to “The robots are taking over the blogosphere”

  1. […] software algorithm that matches common search terms with profitable keywords, and then executed by an army of lowly human drones for $15 a piece. Videos are produced the same way (they pay […]

  2. on 14 Dec 2009 at 7:46 pm Tyrannosaurus Rex

    We’re in Heaven.

  3. on 14 Dec 2009 at 11:47 pm Andrew T.

    Great post. I could not agree more, and would not be surprised to see movement away from Google towards direct traffic to trusted sites. I feel myself already making this transition. The noise is getting louder and users have better ways to filter content, mainly Twitter. Buffett’s threat to turn his back on Google is a fascinating move, and such statements further threaten Google’s power, because at the very least, they give people ideas. Interesting stuff, will be curious to see how it plays out.

  4. on 15 Dec 2009 at 2:10 pm Geoff Haselhurst

    Great article – and also depressing as we see the effects of the mass production of crap on the internet – similar to evolution of TV.
    I think you really just have to accept that most people are not very discerning in their tastes!

    Having said that – you will still find on the internet many genuine expert sites and articles by individuals.
    We have such a site (philosophy / science) that gets around 500,000 page views each week and only has 700 web pages that we have built slowly over 5 years.

    And there is an advantage in having less pages with better quality that get more page views and thus inbound links – over time these pages will do better than the crap in google.

    Basically market economics selects for short term profit and over production / over consumption. This will always cause humanity problems unless it is regulated wisely.

    Thanks for your article – good on you.

    Geoff Haselhurst
    http://www.spaceandmotion.com/
    Great article – and also depressing as we see the effects of the mass production of crap on the internet – similar to evolution of TV.
    I think you really just have to accept that most people are not very discerning in their tastes!

    Having said that – you will still find on the internet many genuine expert sites and articles by individuals.
    We have such a site (philosophy / science) that gets around 500,000 page views each week and only has 700 web pages that we have built slowly over 5 years.

    And there is an advantage in having less pages with better quality that get more page views and thus inbound links – over time these pages will do better than the crap in google.

    Basically market economics selects for short term profit and over production / over consumption. This will always cause humanity problems unless it is regulated wisely.

    Thanks for your article – good on you.

    Geoff Haselhurst
    http://www.spaceandmotion.com/
    http://www.spaceandmotion.com/society/politics-economics-truth-utopia.htm

  5. on 16 Dec 2009 at 1:56 am brent

    I thought about outsourcing this blog comment but changed my mind after realizing it’d most likely consist of sarah conner and/or R2D2 content (and would probably be loaded with misspellings)………

    next time, i promise.

  6. on 30 Dec 2009 at 8:16 am Steve G

    I’m always kind of sad when I read these articles.. The first thing that runs through my mind is, where have you been the last 5 years?? Its not like this is anything new, they’ve simply grouped it under on larger company name rather than doing it piecemeal all over the place.. Cheap content has been available in large amounts for at least 5 years, probably longer.. I know right now I can get generic articles written off shore for $5/400 words and get them all day long.. At $15 I suspect the content is marginally better than the $5and is likely written by a WAHM..

    The secret is that this isn’t content that people want.. Its content that search engines want, which drives people to the junk, who then click on the ads hoping to find something better.. Which leads them to more junk with more ads etc etc etc.. There will always be a place for well written professional material.. Its just that now writers are going to have to learn to be marketers as well so that they can promote themselves and their material more effectively.. Or they can learn to say, you want fries with that?.

  7. on 30 Dec 2009 at 8:24 am dan tynan

    thanks for the thoughtful response. my response to that is, yes, true — but it’s gotten much much worse over the last year, and the sites that are employing these tactics are much more mainstream. it’s not just splogs any more, it’s sites that used to pay writers a decent living wage to produce content. now those same writers are blogging for peanuts, and even that work is going away.

    do writers need to be better marketers? absolutely. I, for one, totally suck at marketing. but all that means is that the successful writers will be those who are the best marketers, not the best writers. so it all ends up the same — crap content everywhere, and yes, I would like fries with that.

    to summarize: 2009 sucked. I hope 2010 will be better. but I don’t see my profession getting better again, ever.

  8. on 03 Jan 2010 at 11:14 am Damien Anderson

    Oh, Spam used to be transparent! Google are forever building more complexities into how they rank websites to try and combat content that delivers a poor user experience, filtering based and a touted 200 + quality factors.

    Sadly, I believe that long as they (Google) are the defacto source of ‘knowledge navigation’ there will be individuals who are intent on taking advantage of that and producing content en mass to game the system.

  9. on 07 Jan 2010 at 9:28 am Disa Johnson

    I definitely think there is room to self promote, for those who are the best quality writers. There will always be interest in good writing. Not interest in terms of a paycheck. Interest in terms of carving your personal audience. Musicians have experienced this prior to writers. In the sixties, the pay scale for musicians was the same as in the nineties. What changed? The money was worth a whole lot less than a quarter what it was worth in the sixties.

    When the news orgs lay off the journalists, I overheard someone say they should be executed, not laid off. All the journalists run to the Web and produce a blog, directly competing with the news orgs physical products. Now, of course, they’re embracing the Web out of necessity even when they’d been warned for years. They didn’t see the online dollars adding up to much. Then came Huffington Post (with no physical paper).

    What it means is that easy bucks have always landed in the pockets of the sleaziest individuals. The divide between rich and poor is characterized by hilarity when they act badly. All we can do is gawk, it seems, which pays for the stories jammed out by bots. The Web has always consisted of poor quality content after about a year. There were flames from the super passionate, to today’s commercial junk. That’s all there is. Google will suffer cardiovascular disease from its junk food diet, riddled with cholesterol producing toxins.

    At least it’s fun to watch. Sorry about the revenue. It’s all such a sham.