Frowning at AOL's Robot-Edited News Service

Will be a search-engine magnet or a flop? Bloggers are leaning toward the latter

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"Aol," the quarter-century-old company formerly branded AOL and before that, America Online, is undertaking a more radical revamping than simply retooling its moniker. Just weeks after commentators debated whether massive layoffs would help the company chart a new course as it decouples from Time Warner, CEO Tim Armstrong sketched out plans for, a forthcoming site that will solicit news stories from freelancers based on the search-worthiness of their proposed content, as determined by an algorithm. Armstrong didn't reveal the plumbing of the system, prompting dubious bloggers to offer their own mostly unflattering predictions for what shape the site will take:

  • A Reverse Auction The New York Post's Holly Sanders Ware speculates that Aol will pit freelancers against one another directly to lower the overall cost of producing fresh conent: "Tim Armstrong's "secret sauce" for turning Aol into a content-creation machine may include a reverse-auction Web site…Under one scenario, freelancers -- professional and otherwise -- would compete against each other for the chance to write the story for an upfront payment; whoever submits the lowest bid gets the assignment."
  • Rotten Meat  Portfolio's media blogger Matt Haber dislikes the move, particularly because he thinks it "obviates editors." He compares Aol's plans for organizing Seed to the plethora of content assembled automatically by Google News algorithms, arguing that in both cases, human discernment is being undervalued:   "Journalists sometimes self-effacingly refer to their business as a 'sausage factory,' since we all eat it, but no one really wants to know what goes into making it. When it's compiled by algorithms and 'a series of filters,' you're not even getting sausage: You're getting scrapple, bits of pork and grizzle thrown together without concern for quality or flavor."
  • The Home Shopping Network  At Mediabistro, Drew Grant reads between Armstrong's lines to arrive at the conclusion that Aol's new news generation system will be rife with product-placement ads, as freelancers will be incentivized to name-drop in order to make their stories more appealing to advertisers: "While this all sounds like a new, inventive way to both produce news and give jobs back to writers, it comes at a cost: AOL sites' advertisers, who will have a large role in what is being placed on the pages they pay for. Not directly, AOL promises, by overseeing the content, but marketers will be able determine how much freelancers will get paid…So no, editorial on AOL's website won't be dictated by advertisers, though you might want to keep in mind the products sponsoring your site when writing freelance for the company, at least if you want to get paid."
  • A Pop-Up Ad  Fast Company's Kit Eaton thinks that Aol is following a doomed model for peddling content over the web: "A fully automatically-written news site (not too technologically distant, by the way) would also run the risk of being treated like those irritating pop-up ads we all click past--obviously artificial and supposedly tailored to your needs by a clever Google cookie in your browser, but actually just visual chaff we tend to winnow out of our Web-browsing experience." He also thinks that the plan backfires when it comes to inviting commentary from readers, who will be alienated by the "dehumanized" aspect of the site.
  • A Search Magnet Rory Maher analyzes the news of Aol's move for the subscription-based research service The Internet Analyst. He bucks against the larger trend of doubters, producing data to strengthen his point that search is the present and future of audience engagement. "Sure, journalists will cry foul at an editorial strategy that is driven in large part by what terms readers are searching for online.  But as content becomes more fragmented, search has become the most important driver of outside referral traffic for many sites.  AOL's new strategy will allow it to take better advantage of search as a traffic driver."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.