Quality Standards for Online Content

So, the Internet Content Syndication Council is concerned about the allegedly abysmal quality of mass-produced articles flying out of the content mills.  They’re so disturbed by the practices and output of the mills that they’re working on a series of quality standards and have discussed the possibility of certifying “legitimate” content.

I can think of few sillier endeavors.

Money Talks

The ICSC thinks ad spends should go to the producers of rock-solid content.  That wouldn’t be a bad argument if they could convincingly demonstrate that an investment in top drawer material would yield a superior return on investment compared to buying space with the content mills.  If they could prove the link between “quality” content and higher profits, they wouldn’t even need to worry about the mills.  The market would dismiss them and they would wither away, as do all non-competitive business models.

Unfortunately, they don’t appear to be winning the argument.  As Mike Shields noted, the content mills are generating massive traffic numbers and they supply advertisers with highly-targeted eyeballs very efficiently.  Companies spend dough to make dough, not to support an organization’s interpretation of what constitutes proper writing.  When they see a positive ROI with the mills, they take their wallets to the mills.  It’s that simple.  Right now, they’re lining up at the mills.

Constantine von Hoffman noted that there are already sources of content that would undoubtedly meet any standards the Council might cook up.  We all know that The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, etc. are there for us.  Their content tends to rank well, too.  Oh, and they get good traffic.  Yet the money isn’t flowing in their direction–at least not enough of it to keep the big boys plump and happy.  Why do these quality sources with trained professional editors and acclaimed writers struggle while an army of cut-rate freelancers and the mills who pay them thrive?

Welcome to today’s economic realities.  You might think they’re ugly.  You might not like them.  They are real.  The mills are delivering bang for advertising bucks.  As long as they continue doing so, all of the quality credentialing in the world won’t make a difference.

Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe the big ROI lies far, far away from the mills.  If all of those people are putting their cash in the wrong spots, all the Council needs to do is to present those facts.  If they could conclusively demonstrate that spending with sites that carry a higher grade of content would increase profitability over the alternative, the alternative would be gone.  Poof.  No need to credential a single word.

A Problem with Standards

The Council’s initial proposals with respect to content quality don’t really do anything to change the character of the allegedly rotten mill pieces.  They quickly recognized that the subjective nature of writing quality made it impossible to set standards.

Instead, Ellie Behling notes:

The point of the guidelines is not to evaluate content itself — which would be a subjective task — but to develop procedures companies can use in creating or publishing content, said Tim Duncan, executive director of the ICSC.

More specifically, the four principles push for proper fact-checking, clearly stated dates of publication, timely corrections and updates, and clearly displayed credentials of the information sources, according to a release from the council.

Wow.  That’s really going to keep the ‘Net free of shitty content.  Factual content?  Dates?  Corrections?  Credentials?  Give me a break.

When someone writes the 9,278th content mill article about removing stains from your carpet, she can probably manage to maintain factual accuracy.  The mill can slap a date on the page.  She can write up a paragraph discussing her unquestionable qualification to address a common consumer issue.  If someone points out a mistake, I suppose corrections could follow.  That still won’t address common mill-related gripes like

  • Redundancy and lack of originality
  • A lack of writing talent
  • The fact that the article will play well with Google

The standards themselves are ridiculous because they fail to address the real problem ICSC members have with the mills–it’s stealing business, money and power from established industry veterans.  However, if they really went after mill content with the degree of transparency required to ‘fess up to that motivation, they’d be left with no alternative but to engage in obvious, untenable cries to credential or approve content on the basis of whether or not it’s something they like.

They may be trying to get to that point through the backdoor.  Matthew Ingram mentions that another proposed guideline is to ““ensure that all content submitted is vetted by established and qualified editorial reviewers.”  Whatever that means.  Established by whom?  When?  What qualifications?  Why?  What standards should these eminently qualified professionals use?  The questions are legion.

It Starts with a “G”

The Council is tilting at the wrong windmill in the first place.  The content mills exist and currently succeed because they understand something others don’t:  Search.  They know that money word starts with a “G”.

Google.

The mills kick ass on the search engines right now.  Thus, they get the eyeballs.  Thus, it makes sense to spend with them.  If people didn’t rely on search to find the kind of information supplied by mills and their writers, no one would want to partner with them.

Content mills succeed in search because (1)  they’ve figured out the long tail of search, (2) they’re creating content in response to expressed market desires (i.e. providing information for which people are already searching), (3) know how to build G-friendly sites, (4) capably exploit the limitations of Google’s search algorithm and (5) recognize that Google is interested in providing relevant search results, a goal that doesn’t necessarily line up with providing quality results.

Nonetheless, the Council is making content standards a priority instead of fighting Google.  When they do address the issue of search with respect to mills and the perceived deficiency in content quality, they do so very carefully.  Do you think they’re more comfortable griping about the mills than they are in actually confronting the core cause of mill popularity?

After all, as Frank Reed argues

In all honesty, unless the action comes from Google itself …there will be little that will be done. Consumers will have to ultimately judge what content they like or dislike and then advertisers can say whether or not they want to be linked to it.

And for that to happen, someone will need to show Google the err of its ways.  Here’s a hint:  The only persuasive arguments are the ones with dollar signs attached.

I’ve personally maintained that a change will, in time, come from Google.  That won’t happen because some insider Council dislikes crappy content, though.  It will come when actual users grow sick of search results that don’t measure up to their expectations and when Google starts losing numbers because of that dissatisfaction and/or the appearance of alternative means of information organization and acquisition.

Until then, all of the standards, credentials and concern about the allegedly lamentable state of Internet content won’t make much difference.

Note:  I’ve intentionally avoided discussing whether the Council’s initial assumption–that content mill articles carry the stench of inferiority–has any basis in reality.  That’s because (1) I’m not really interested in another discussion of quality, mills and the folks who write for them and (2)  it doesn’t really matter–even if the Council were right, their approach wouldn’t fix any problem. I’ve also intentionally avoided trying to portray the Council as a group of old-schoolers who just don’t “get it” or who are simply scurrying about, looking for a way to preserve their incomes.  While it would be convenient to run with that notion, I don’t think it’s quite fair.  Quite.

Comments

  1. Brilliant. Well-said.

    I have to confess though, when I first started reading your piece, I was furious. I was like “Come on, someone’s (read: Council) trying at least to get rid of that sh***y content and taking it off the Net for once and for all–so what’s your problem!?” Man, you pushed my buttons. Really, being honest.

    But then, as you went on to describe the real issue (which had already rung bells with me too when I was half-way through the post), I genuinely loved the piece. The G factor–absolutely!

    Great post. And I genuinely thank you for the share, and can only hope someone from the Council takes a peek at this. (Amen to that!)

    -BrownEyed
    BrownEyed´s last blog post ..A Tasty Treat

  2. Carson,

    Thanks for providing such a well-balanced response to this idea.

    But I will go out on a limb one step further than you’re willing to and say that The Content Syndication Council is right about one thing – much of what content mils produce is total crap. I should know – I write for one myself.

    But there’s also a lot of extremely good content on these sites too – helpful, timely, accurate articles that are just as “good” as anything in the New York Times. The authors of these pieces have just as much right to call themselves “professionals” as any other freelancers. In many cases they’re even starting to make a comparable amount of money for their work, and it’s a shame that such high-quality work is being lumped together with two dozen wishy-washy articles about how to make your own baby food.
    Eric´s last blog post ..Types of rehearsals

  3. Firstly, just want to say I agree with the poster above that all Mill writers shouldn’t be lumped together. There are a lot of talented people getting their first breaks at these places, as well as, of course, some garbage. It’s the editors at Mills who should be looking at themselves and their standards, quite frankly.

    Getting back to the article, what never ceases to amaze me is why companies continue to blow huge advertising budgets on Adwords campaigns to get readers to their sites when a far smaller investment in talent and time could see them dominate their related long tails and cut out the middlemen, which is after all essentially all sites displaying adsense are. These companies should be hoovering up the best in SEO writing talent, providing how to’s, tutorials etc targeting the long tails related to their products and services, and dominate the SERPS themselves. Sadly, their doesn’t seem to be a lot of creative thinking going on at these places vis a vis using the medium and harnessing the power of Search

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