Why 'Fast Food Content' Won't Lard Up the Internet

Contrary to Michael Arrington's claims, bloggers say automated content isn't a quality killer

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Bloggers gagged at AOL's plan to automatically assign content to freelancers based on the popularity of search keywords. TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington joined the bashers on Sunday, calling the model "fast food content," lumping AOL alongside Demand Media--a company that pumps out thousands of movies and articles to game search keywords every day. Arrington's dire prediction is that the success of these sites' strategies could eventually clog the Internet with the digital equivalent of fast food--machine-made, low-quality stuff. As he puts it:

What really scares me? It’s the rise of fast food content that will surely, over time, destroy the mom and pop operations that hand craft their content today. It’s the rise of cheap, disposable content on a mass scale, force fed to us by the portals and search engines.

While many bloggers agreed that floods of automated content are on the way, many argued that it wouldn't ruin Web publishing at all. Some even defended the surge of low-grade content.

  • It's Okay, We'll Get More Descriptive Menus Futurist entrepreneur Ross Dawson doesn't dispute Arrington's contention that the Internet is already rife with enough spam, but he thinks that it is only a temporary problem with a simple solution:
What is required, and what will inevitably happen, is the rise of effective content reputation systems, that allow you to assess the likely quality of articles before you read them or even find them...

This doesn’t mean that there won’t still be an infinite amount of crap content, and among it a wealth of extremely valuable content. However we will far more easily distinguish between them, making the business models for creating crap content more marginal, and increasing the value and rewards for quality content.
  • Automated Content is Robot Food Tech blogger Scott Rosenberg disagrees with Arrington's analogy, calling it out for being incomplete. According to him, automated content isn't fast food; its not even edible, and thus real people won't bite:
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….

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
  • We Still Have Nice Restaurants Kristina Halvorson of Brain Traffic agrees that fast food is content likely to be an economic winner, but as in real life, it can't hope to extinguish luxury businesses: "Does McDonald’s make more money than La Belle Vie? Of course they do. They’re freakin’ McDonalds. But La Belle Vie is running a very fine, profitable business, thank you very much, turning out exquisite French food that makes me want to weep with joy…You don’t have to eat at La Belle Vie to appreciate the metaphor."   Famed tech and business writer Doc Searls is of the same mind, noting that Arrington didn't really consider the real world precedent when crafting his argument:  
Just as an aside, I’ve been hand-crafting (actually just typing) my 'content' for about twenty years now, and I haven’t been destroyed by a damn thing. I kinda don’t think [Fast food content] is going to shut down serious writers (no matter where and how they write) any more than McDonald’s killed the market for serious chefs…

Nothing with real real value is dead, so long as it can be found on the Web and there are links to it. Humans are the ones with hands. Not intermediaries.
  • Automated Content Isn't All Bad  Rich Ord of Web Pro News agrees with Arrington that content optimized for search engines is on the rise, but is more interested in pondering why. His theory is Google subtly encourages "content assembly lines" because they enable more targeted advertising:
The answer could be that for thousands of long tail searches, Demand Media's content is quality enough. The vast majority of Google searches on any given day include a search term that will get less than a hundred searches a day. What content farms such as Demand Media do is provide articles and videos that are optimized for these rarely searched terms. The content is often mediocre, but it is unique and it has a title tag and other keywords that match these targeted searches…

I guess if you can make content for the purpose of ranking in searches ... but make it targeted, unique and not horrible, then you might find that Google well reward you quite well.
  • Automated Content Feeds a Need NextWeb blogger Martin Bryant also trusts audience discernment, even when it leads to the popularization of "low-quality" content. He further contends that sometimes a fast-food meal is satisfying precisely because it is so quick and dirty:
Even if you think I’m full of nothing but blind optimism here, there’s an audiences  that ‘quality’ content producers need to bear in mind too. Sometimes content farms with their hyper-targeted approach provide exactly what an audience needs. Even if it’s cheap and rushed, an article telling you 'How to make a breakfast nook out of a church pew' (for example) answers a specific question – one that people most quality outlets wouldn’t bother to answer in isolation.

Sometimes it’s the ‘low-quality’ content that fulfills an audience’s need. In that case, is it really low quality?
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