SEO mills: That’s not fast food, it’s bot fodder

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.

Post Revisions:

This post has not been revised since publication.


  1. Clay says:

    Great analogies, Scott. I agree with you. Doc Searls nailed it.

  2. Chris Boese says:

    Indeed, this kind of optimized “content” is only unsatisfying bot fodder.

    BUT! It is bot fodder that will appear higher in search results than a well-considered and exquisitely-written Atlantic Monthly or New Yorker essay on the same topic! It will appear more highly than content written by humans.

    Will the new holy grail go to the person who designs a reverse Turing Test, one able to discern the true human being?

    The bot fodder will jam up like a traffic jam the first several pages of search results and push down actual Mom and Pop writing so deep into results pagination that no one will ever find them unless they know the articles exist beforehand.

    OTOH, maybe that will lead to the downfall of Google and the re-emergence of the Lexis-Nexis universe of snooty search.

    Or, perhaps the web turns a corner, once the SEO-optimized content ecosystem “soils its own bed,” so to speak, as fully as spam has terrorized the email ecosystem, perhaps the very idea of an automated content analysis search-ranking ecosystem will be destroyed and collapse from within, taking us back to early 1994, the pre-spidered web, where the only roads and sign-posts that existed for larger navigation were useful utilities of carefully curated link portals.

    At the very least, it may mean that the idea of content created as a performance delivered for someone other than the person who actually reads it (a staged performance for Google bots vs. items intended to be read by humans) will go the way of the current print media industry, where content was created as a performance for advertisers while disregarding the ostensible real audience for the publications, you know, readers.

  3. Scott Rosenberg says:

    What a great outline of the situation, Chris — thanks for that!

    My view is that if the SEO-driven approach wrecks Google results badly enough, Google may be driven to fix itself. Whether that’s possible is something that I guess we’ll find out. It’s alwas a race between spammers and contributors of actual value. I’m hopeful that Google (and other search sites) will find enough real signal in the “mom and pop writing” to distinguish it from the bot-bait. If Google doesn’t solve the problem, I can’t see that leading to the return of “snooty search,” though. Lexis-Nexis was too painful an approach for anyone but the most heavily subsidized users — and the media businesses that subsidized that use are now withering too…

  4. AnnB says:

    “My view is that if the SEO-driven approach wrecks Google results badly enough, Google may be driven to fix itself. ”

    Part of the problem is that while Google search loses credibility as its results are increasingly jammed with spam, Google’s ad divisions profit.

    Demand Media and similar companies design their pages so people will click on the ads whereas at quality sites, readers prefer the content so have less incentive to click on the ads.

    These sites have high click through rates and generate lots of money for Google.

    It would also be interesting to know if Demand Media buys AdWords to drive traffic or if its search rankings are enough.

  5. Wow! You are all obviouly paying attention here. Let me just add that with unemployment quite high and well a educated workforce readily available, there is no real reason not to use well crafted content designed for humans that also happens to be bot-friendly. We may never “overwhlem” Google, but we can impact search results.

    Google – Are you paying attention here? Some of us (OK, I speak only for myself here) believe you let these things slide because they might impact your bottom line. Remember, if you stop delivering honest, relevent content in your search results, you also stop delivering clients for your adverstisers. I have come to your defense many times because you deliver what people search for. Don’t give Bing the opening they seek here…

  6. (Sorry about the misspells and the grammar, I was working on another project and could not resist responding).

  7. Bryan Veloso says:

    A lot are abusing Google’s weakness right now… Weakness = Money. If Google is not earning through these so-called “SEO Mills”, they have eliminated it long ago…


  1. [...] Content: that most formless, most beige, most indifferent of nouns. You’re comfortable with “content,” because what’s actually contained is irrelevant to you. You don’t wonder whether it’s writing, because you don’t intend to read it. You don’t care whether anyone else reads it, either. Words aren’t for reading; they’re for indexing, clicking on, optimizing. They fill that space under the banner and left of the text ads. They’re not even fast food, they’re bot fodder. [...]

  2. [...] quality stuff, link to it and pass it around, and let Google’s engineers do their jobs. As Scott Rosenberg points out, it’s not like people actually want to read empty, cynically produced search-bot fodder, [...]

  3. [...] recently acquired by Yahoo; it pays writers a pittance to crank out brief items that are — as I’ve written — crafted not to beguile human readers but to charm Google’s [...]

  4. [...] recently acquired by Yahoo; it pays writers a pittance to crank out brief items that are — as I’ve written — crafted not to beguile human readers but to charm Google’s [...]

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