AOL, HuffPo, and the crappification of everything

aol shitAOL’s purchase of Arianna’s International House of Huffcakes earlier this week is sticking in my gullet, and no amount of ratswill coffee will wash it down.  I think it’s because this deal is emblematic of everything that has gone wrong with the Internet over the last three years.

(Then again, maybe I’ve just turned into one of those cranky old farts who hates everything. What do you think?)

It’s not just about AOL – never more than a bad joke in even the best of times – or The Huffington Post. It’s bigger than that. It’s about how the Web, and especially Google, rewards mediocrity. It’s what I like to call The Crappification of Everything ™.

The Web has become like television, where if a show is both good and popular it’s almost a happy accident. Mostly we get reality TV that’s cheap to produce and painful to watch yet still manages to attract lots of eyeballs. World’s Biggest Losers, indeed.

When HuffPo launched in 2005, it was unlike anything most of us had seen before. Even if you hated Arianna’s politics, you had to admit she’d found a niche — an oddball mix of actual writers and celebutantes, blogging about whatever floated their boat that particular day. It was often terrible. But it was also fresh and new.

What is the Huffington Post today? As I noted in my last post, it’s become the Wal-Mart of Web news – you’ll find the pork rinds next to the shotgun pellets and behind the lawn chairs.

What happened? Money happened. Ad dollars started rolling in, but only to a point. Arianna & Co. quickly realized the only way to boost ad revenue was to dramatically increase the volume of posts appearing on the site, and the only way to do that was to hire newbies and have them crank out high-speed rehashes of everything everyone else was reporting, with an emphasis on Google-friendly photo slide shows and celebrity gossip. Sure, the celebutantes and reporters were still there, blogging away for free, but their voices were drowned out by the cacaphony.

Arianna was simply following the old dot com mantra of Get Big Quick. Become the big fish that the little fish are afraid of. And she’s hardly the only one.

When TechCrunch first appeared, it was one dyspeptic ex-lawyer giving his candid opinions on Silicon Valley startups. It was something we hadn’t seen before – an inside look at how deals are evaluated and made – and it attracted a lot of attention and advertising revenue, despite the ego, pomposity and bombast.

But again, how many blog posts can one man write in a day? To boost revenue, TechCrunch staffed up and became a tech news/rumor/inneuendo site. And though it is still the first place VCers go to spill the beans about upcoming deals (most likely to benefit themselves and/or harm others), it too became another place where you could read about what other people were reporting about without having to open a new browser tab.

Again, fill in the blank. Mashable isn’t any better. I can’t think of a blog from the 2005 to 2006 era that got big and yet maintained the quality that made it worth reading back then.

But try telling that to Google. Because these blogs developed a devoted audience early, they became Google gold. Looking for breaking news? Unless it’s from an established source like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, you probably won’t find the site where that story originally appeared. But you will find it in its reconstituted, just-add-water-and-stir form on one of these news aggregator sites. Because they’re the ones with the Google juice. They’re the ones that ride the top of Google News like Kelly Slater on the Banzai Pipeline.  And the bigger they become, the more juice they acquire.

Of course, advertising on the Web is still dirt cheap, relatively speaking. Nobody’s dining at Del Monico’s on what a banner ad brings in. The only make to make this model work was to create editorial sweatshops (or, like L’Arianna, get people to write simply for the “prestige” of appearing on HuffPo). Thus the emergence of word factories like, Demand Media, Associated Content, etc,  churning out just the worst dreck humanly imaginable for pennies a story. They too, soak up a lot of Google juice, just from sheer volume and SEO trickery.

I’m not the only person saying this. Jason Calacanis, founder of Mahalo and Weblogs Inc (bought by AOL back in 2005), says the same thing, and he should know because at one time he was one of those who was doing it. His money quote: “We are polluting the Internet.”

My prediction: By the end of this year, all of the big traffic blogs will be owned by corporate conglomerates. Like Coke and Pepsi, they won’t be competing on who tastes better or is more nutritious, they’ll be competing on who’s better at marketing crap – or, in this case, tweaking Google.

Google blogger Matt Cutts, who’s become the unofficial voice of the company now that creepy Uncle Eric has departed, wrote last month about trying to muscle out sites “with shallow or low quality content” from Google search results. Good luck with that, Matt. When every site on the Web is a content farm, what will be left to sort out?

Will we be able to stop Internet pollution? And if not, will the last real Web blog please turn in their pajamas? Post your thoughts on this below or email me:

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One Response to “AOL, HuffPo, and the crappification of everything”

  1. on 10 Feb 2011 at 8:53 pm Mystikiel

    Great article. All this would be moot if there was a good content aggregater out there that floated the cream to the top instead of the crap.

    Sites like Digg, or social media simply end up prioritising the lowest common denominator stuff to the top, and you end up with innumerable videos of kittens running into things.

    I end up going to a few good smaller blogs, and spend ages trawling through garbage elsewhere simply to read the occasional good article.