Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Blog-for-pay websites create storm of controversy

"Does it exist to game Google search results and generate revenue through Google's AdWords advertising service by displaying contextual ads next to the copy? Or is it a new kind of media site, chock-full of original articles written mostly by average folk about everything from presidential pardons and karaoke to smoker's guilt and ventriloquism?

Add to the mix at Associated Content two prominent board members--Tim Armstrong, head of advertising for Google in North America, and venture capitalist Eric Hippeau, a managing partner at SoftBank Capital, who also happens to serve on Yahoo's board of directors--and you have a little company that's drawing outsized and quite possibly unwanted attention.

But while there are plenty of questions about this start-up, no one seems to be able to say it's actually doing anything wrong.

"This kind of service is not entirely clear-cut," said Danny Sullivan, editor of the Search Engine Land blog. "It's not a case that they are bad or should be banned, but they are embroiled in this kind of a debate."

Denver-based Associated Content was formed in 2004 and received $5.4 million in funding from SoftBank. It bills itself as a "user-driven information portal" and content provider, licensing content to other online publishers. The articles are "optimized for discovery and revenue generation," according to a news release on the company Web site. In other words, they're designed to be easy to find on Google through various search optimization techniques used by many publishers, not just people accused of gaming search results.

The company asks bloggers to write on the subjects of their choosing and accepts text, video and audio. Contributors can be paid based on the quality of the article and keyword optimization.

In most ways, Associated Content's methods seem fitting for any typical Web site--do your best to get play on Google search results and make money off its advertising. In fact, Associated Content is hardly the only company churning out content to match with Google ads. The success of Google's AdSense program, which matches ads with content on Web sites, and the growth of blogging applications have led to the emergence of pay-for-blogging companies that help match willing writers with sites that want content.

What separates legitimate content marketplaces from so-called "Made for AdSense" companies that generate content purely for marketing purposes is the intent of the company and the quality of the articles, said Rand Fishkin, co-founder and chief executive of search marketing firm SEOmoz.

That gets closer to the heart of the controversy. The dividing line between people who don't have a problem with Associated Content and those who do seems to come down to one of the most hard-to-define aspects of a Web site: quality. And quality, as most people know, is terribly difficult to define. As the 20th-century U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said in declining to venture too far into a definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it."

Well, since quality seems to be the bone of contention here, I decided to go up to Associated Content's website and have a look. I'm afraid I wasn't too impressed with either the topics or the writing quality.

Let's examine some of their "showcase" headlines:

Funniest Fortune Cookies Ever

The Awesomeness of Baseball

Should Parents Let Kids Sip Beer?

John's Relevance in American Culture
(an article about the significance of the name "John" in American Culture)

I'm afraid I don't find any of these topics worthy of my reading time or a valuable use of the so-called author's time either. I'm not even sure what Google Ad Sense ads would be triggered by these inane topics.

There were at least two other headlines that had some potential:

DIY iPod Skins in Photoshop

As a technology person, I was interested enough to open this article. I was a little disappointed that the author was really talking about designing stickers for your iPod, not a software "skin" that changes the look of the iPod interface. But, he did mention the use of an overlay using the blend mode "Color Burn" in Photoshop. I have spent thousands of hours in Photoshop but had never used the Color Burn blend mode. I am going to try it out because I want to create a line of tote bags that feature my photography for sale up at Cafe Press and they provide downloadable templates to fit the base stock that will be used for the final product. Like the template example in the iPod skins article, I need to see the lines of the template through the image as I am sizing it. I'll give Associated Content at least 2 stars for this piece.

Does Internet Chatting Affect R Grammar?

This article would have been interesting if it had included an interview of an English professor expounding on the observed effects of internet chat "shorthand" in other communication formats. As it was, it was only a couple of paragraphs of internet chat gooblety-gook that you had to struggle to read followed by a couple of dictionary paragraphs about the definition of jargon. Then a couple of paragraphs giving the author's opinion about what it all means.

I was a bit surprised by one of his assumptions:

"A large motivation for the evolution and creation of what is referred to as "Netspeak" was to defeat IRC parsers that go through large amounts of logged IRC text searching for keywords. Everyone from the FBI to other hackers were constantly trying to monitor them, steal their secrets, or whatever hidden agenda they had. Introducing symbols, random capitalizations, and numbers into words was viewed as a way to defeat these individuals."

Quite honestly, I thought keyboard shortcuts were derived to ease the burden of people who were less than stellar typers!

I checked the author's education and he claims only "educated guesses". At least he's honest. Of course he's falling into the trap I used to discuss with my Creative Writing students. He is writing an opinion piece about a topic in which he has no particular expertise. If he had produced a quick reference list of online acronymns and their meaning, it probably would have been fine. But, his headline promises more - an analysis of the effect of extensive use of these chat shortcuts on English grammar as a whole. This promise requires at least some expert quotes.

Many academicians refuse to allow students to cite Wikipedia because it is user-produced content. But, many articles in Wikipedia are heavily annotated with extensive bibliographies. Associated Content makes Wikipedia look like the Encylopedia Britannica!
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