|An interesting discussion has been swirling lately kicked off by Michael Arrington’s The End of Hand Crafted Content. In it, he argues that web publishers are in a spiraling race to the bottom because companies like Demand Media (and even the new AOL) are pumping out low quality content that feeds on Google search queries and litters the Internet. Doc Searls makes a nice point on his blog that nothing of value is ever destroyed and that the purveyors of quality content– whether branded or not– will continue to do well as long as they are bringing that value forward.|
|There is no doubt in my mind that Doc is right– there is and will always be audiences that want to read quality content. But one issue not brought out in this discussion is the economic reasons *why* SEO mills are thriving and multiplying while sites devoted to longer form journalism are having a tough go of it.
Direct response marketing drives online spend. Unlike print or TV, where marketing is about presenting a brand to the right audience with proper content adjacency, the Internet is a “put $1 in to get $2 back” marketplace. Because you can measure every view of your advertisement, every click and every purchase coming from that click, marketers use Internet spend primarily as a pure ROI positive channel measured over a short period of time (a user session, maybe a day or a week, but not the months it takes to build brand momentum). In direct marketing, it’s not important where your message shows up – just how much you paid to get it there and how much it yielded. You do not pay more to be placed on high quality content unless people reading that content purchase your goods immediately at equally higher rates.
And guess what: they don’t. One of the dirty little secrets of online marketing is that the audiences that come to SEO Mill content tend to be the folks that click on ads more and buy directly after clicking more frequently. And marketers don’t have to pay a premium to get on such sites – they get on them through Google or other ad networks they are using to buy in bulk, en masse, at cheap rates with complete disregard for content adjacency.
The result is that sites that are spending more time/money to develop high quality content simply aren’t rewarded for it by the current economics of the Internet. Until brand building becomes a larger focus of online spend (and it will….), this will continue to be an issue: the variances in content quality do not mean variances in advertising rates. In fact, Arrington’s so called “Fast Food” content publishers are playing both sides of Google’s coin: they are writing quick cheap copy to garner audiences from trending search queries (easy traffic) and then monetizing those audiences using Google AdSense or similar tools which don’t care a whit about where their message is showing (revenue). In the short-term, it’s much more profitable to produce fast, surface-level content and become yourself a “link out” farm for the ads showing on your site. One of the ironies of web publishing right now is that those sites whose content is worse than the advertising showing on them will make more $$ per thousand visitors than the site that retains audiences because their content is so damn good.
But will it always be that way? I don’t think so. As brand building becomes a bigger part of Internet spend— as TV and print all converge through digital “on demand” transmission– price variation based on audience and content engagement will return. And at that point, the sites and people that have stuck to their guns and developed a core audience around their content (rather than all traffic coming from transitory link hoppers) will be financially rewarded for the real value they are providing.