The Resurrection of Content Mills in the Post-Panda Era

Content mills haven't died post-Panda, they've just changed venuesSo we all celebrated the death of content mills like Demand Media with Google’s first Panda (a.k.a. Farmer’s, for Content Farms) update some time ago, right?

And the slop did seem to stop, or at least abate, for a while. (Although Demand Media rebounded nicely, but that’s another subject altogether).

You have to hand it to ‘em though, content mills are adaptable and have proven to be most adept at shape-shifting.

Hey there! Need content?

Enter the “content advocate” (or “outreach specialist”, “PR specialist”, and variations thereof), enthusiastically representing XYZ This is not to slam reputable PR firms – it just seems the new-fangled content mills have co-opted your good profession as their front. For that, I am truly sorry.

The new content mills have annoying tenacity and offer remarkably bland offerings for the content-starved publisher. They know that companies and publishers are challenged to create fresh, unique and useful content as Google says they should.

(As many in the industry have noted, it seems king Google itself may well have unwittingly inspired the rise of this new genre of content chum by its insistence on fresh, unique and useful content.)

Like their predecessors’, the new mills’ goods are grossly generic, vanilla filler serving no one – your readers, your customers, and certainly not you. Sound familiar?

Reader persona? Customer buying cycle? Relevancy? Timeliness? Added value? Nope. Just dumbed-down fluff that will most likely come back to bite you.

They also know that if they offer their cookie-cutter content at no (monetary) cost, they might sidle their way into forming a “partnership” with the famished content publisher or desperate website owner  – thereby securing a reliable channel for their endless stream of drivel.

The most recent unsolicited “outreach” email I’ve been spammed with is fairly representative of what I receive all too frequently as a content publisher. I’ve altered/redacted some of the copy to protect the guilty, but you’ll get the gist.

A typical content mill “outreach” email

Dear <blog editor> <CCO> <site owner>,

I’m writing to suggest a <sic> article topic for a third party editorial content submission to The <X> Blog.

I have 3 articles for you to choose from (written by professional copywriters who work in social media, SEO, and digital marketing):

1. The Advantages of using Video

An article exploring the advantages of using the video sharing app <X> and tips.

2. Social Media for Companies 

How to behave online to engage with your customers from a company point of view

3. The Value of Words 

Advice into content creation in terms of making it SEO friendly, and targeting your audience online.

These choices – and there are usually three equally bad ones – are then followed by the standard:

These are the three titles I have at the moment, but I can easily get something else written if these aren’t quite what you’re after. If you let me know which one you’re the most interested in, I can send it get it to you immediately!

<signature, “Content Advocate”, Sucky PR Firm. com>

Cool! Want a “content partnership”?

As I mentioned, some of these content crap peddlers are unbelievably tenacious.

Even after you’ve refused their generous offer, many will continue to hound you saying they want to form a “partnership” with you.

Why? Good link mojo with an authoritative site (what Penguin?), social proof, some misguided attempt to garner (now irrelevant) Page Rank…or to promise their grossly-underpaid clueless writers that they’ve “scored” a great venue for them…who knows.

But for the love of that black-and-white bear (and bird) – as well as your site’s integrity and ranking – don’t do it!

“Free” content that carries a more insidious threat

Anymore, you’re very much judged by the internet company you keep – and “partnering” with an unsolicited content provider is risky at best.

Who is behind this “third party editorial content”? I asked and received no answer. My educated guess is a content farm sub-contracting the new, hopeful and hungry writer for any opportunity to make their craft pay, no matter how skinny the paycheck.

Sure, you may get plenty of content, but judging from the topic titles alone, you will be selling your brand’s soul for banal, untargeted filler that will result in little to no reader interest or engagement at best.

And worse? Your decidedly low-quality content could also receive a Google slap via Panda, and if it links to bad company in the form of your content provider, you could also see yourself subject to the wrath of Penguin – either one or a knockout one-two punch most assuredly resulting in a ranking demotion to the oblivion of the SERPs netherworld.

Worse yet? You may well lose credibility and the trust of those clients and readers you worked so hard to win over in the first place.

So beware the new content mills in their PR/outreach guise.

You can dress up the messenger, but crap by any other name is still shit.


Photo Credit to Moyan Brenn via Flickr Creative Commons

6 thoughts on “The Resurrection of Content Mills in the Post-Panda Era”

  1. You’re describing two fundamentally different things.

    Content Mills were built to rank for thousands (sometimes up to hundreds of thousands) of long tail keywords, based purely off of the root domain’s authority/ranking ability. Because Google had dialed up the reliance on the trust/authority of the domain hosting content, trusted domains could mass produce junk content as long as the article could make 2x (or whatever multiple) of the low-non-expert-freelance-cost. Getting articles for $5? Order one for every keywords you determine to be worth $10 a year, take VC money to manage cashflow, and you’re on your way to an IPO.

    The stuff happening today aren’t “Content Mills” in that sense. Yes, they’re producing crappy content – but now it’s purely for backlinks. Post Penguin, “Guest Blogging” arose as the safe link type to save us all – and so of course it’s been beat to death. While they are cranking out content, it has a very different purpose than the Demand Media type Content Mills have/had.

    • Thanks for your insights into this phenomenon, Ian. Perhaps I got creatively loose with the term “content mills” but the intent of the content advocate was beyond the scope of this post. You’ve given me some inspiration for a follow-up regarding the purpose of crap content advocates! 🙂

  2. Good point, Ian. Since Laura and I tend to see “content mills” in the same unflattering light, I never pinged on the difference over time, either, but you’re absolutely correct.
    I’d also offer another perspective:
    While much of the content that the content mills of old offered was crappy stuff, there were also a number of very talented writers that chose to supplement their income by churning out quantities of content for the pittance the mills paid.
    By good fortune, we found a number of those writers, just about the time the niche took a tremendous hit, and were able to add several of them to our writing team. Several of them were retired teachers with master’s degrees, with excellent writing skills. So by no means was all the content generated via such mills garbage.
    Evolution is an interesting process, particularly when you’re experiencing it, rather than just reading about it. And it’s accelerating. Good times ahead, eh?

  3. I’ve done some work at those content mills or sites that provide writing to the people who provide you with your “third-party” submission. It very often is exactly that–the people claiming to author the material seldom have had anything to do with the actual writing. They usually go through another writing site and pay freelance authors.

    When you are evaluating the quality of these posts, consider this: Some of these companies pay the writer under one cent a word. So in order to make ten dollars an hour, you have to write 1,000 words and have them be at least sort of grammatically correct. At that speed of writing, most writers are lucky to check Wikipedia, much less provide any sort of real research, and to be honest, why should they when they’re likely making less than a fast food server.

    And that is what you’re putting on your site, and representing your company with. There are good sites out there, but if you want a decent post, find a company that pays the writers enough to actually do some research and pay them directly. Any other route is a near certain guarantee of getting poor material.

Comments are closed.