content strategy

Compelling Content: Irresistibly Shareable vs. Content Farms

Does it pay to produce content that values craft, careful research, and proper grammar? Do people want content so irresistibly compelling that it must be shared? Two pieces this week out of the “New York Times” shed some light on this issue.

The first, titled “Plentiful Content, So Cheap,” says that content farms like Demand Media are capitalizing upon a near-loophole-like situation of content creation by low-paid writers. Demand Media discovers “needs” by parsing popular search requests and publishes 20,000 articles each week. Writers are paid $15-$20 for each article, and editors about $3.50 each for proofing and vetting. The texts are produced to rank them high in the world of SEO.

The articles produced on one content farm,, show a definite flaw in this type of content strategy. A search on that site for clogged drain reveals articles titled “How to Clean a Clogged Drain Pipe,” “How to Open Clogged Drains,” “How to Open a Clogged Drain Full of Water,” and “How to Clear a Clogged Drain Easily,” among others. This reveals a strategy of “more is better.” An overabundance of similar/duplicative content will lead to confusion and, ultimately, a poor user experience.

Christine Anameier wrote about the end product of content farms on the Brain Traffic blog in a post titled “Sorting through the digital debris.”  She sums the situation up well:

If the whole idea behind the site is “We know all sorts of stuff about everything,” beware. (Except for Wikipedia, which has enough critical mass to make its own rules much the way Amazon does.)…The content farms have learned to game the system, and dubious content is clogging up the works.”

The second “New York Times” article, titled “Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome,” points out a different kind of content phenomenon. University of Pennsylvania researchers have been poring over the email-to-a-friend data from the “Times” itself, and have uncovered some interesting trends. Long-ish articles are popular (a surprise, there) as are articles about science (a surprise, too). Positive articles outnumber the negative ones. It appears that senders are not just trying to impress their friends with their acumen, but rather “seeking emotional communion,” according to one of the researchers, Dr. Jonah Berger.

The difference is between the content featured in the two articles is not How-To guides versus canonical works, but rather a matter of intent. Quality versus quantity. Spartan, functional content has been around for ages. Lots of it. So has the top-notch, compelling content. The new ingredient is the manipulation and overloading of the system in order to have content of a lesser quality supersede the real thing where it matters most: in search results.

What became apparent to me immediately was that these are two very different kinds of content. The stories topping the shared-with-a-friend lists in the “Times” are examples of content that affects people on a different level.

Content must be created and presented in a way that will meet goals and objectives, rather than simply filling quotas, bloating site content holdings, and search engine placements. A content farm might teach you four ways of how to remove that wookie from your shower drain, but it will not inspire and fill you with awe, let alone meet a true need.

(image: “Field with farm equipment in the distance” via Flickr / Library of Congress (no known copyright restrictions))