The Now/ledge

A Guide to the 'Now' Revolution in News / by Alan Soon

Building AOL’s editorial production line (thank you Huffington Post)

AOL’s chief Tim Armstrong may not seem so crazy after all. The acquisition of Huffington Post, announced today, is clearly aimed at beefing up the company’s content pool in the wake of Demand Media’s (surprisingly) strong IPO last month.

To put it all in context, Demand Media is worth about $1.5 bn in market cap today — that’s $800 mil shy of AOL’s. Armstrong must have Demand on his threat radar.

AOL is pushing heavily into building its low-cost editorial factory. Leaked business plans show just how its editors are thinking: Is this story SEO-winning for in-demand terms? How can we modify it to include more terms? In all, AOL is aiming for search referrals to bring in 40 percent of its overall traffic — the largest single contributor.

So where does the HuffPo fit in all of this? For $315 mil, paid mostly in cash, AOL is getting more SEO friendly traffic from the popular blog site. By all counts, this is a smart deal. At 5x expected revenue, the HuffPo acquisition is almost cheap.

In the end, this is negative for online journalism. The deal once again proves the massive shift in the content industry to a bulk, low-cost production line led by SEO referrals. As a business, this makes sense. But for consumers, this takes you further from the news as reporters are incentivized to deliver on in-demand story trends on a daily basis. Say goodbye to enterprise, investigative or niche reporting.

Filed under: News, SEO

Google puts content farms in its sights (good luck to Demand Media’s IPO)

Demand Media’s expected IPO next week has run into a not so-unexpected problem — Google.

The Internet search engine is working on weeding out what it calls webspam — the junk that appears in search results, often courtesy of highly operational content farms like Demand Media.

Google is apparently concerned about a perception that the quality of its search results is worsening. The company’s problem with spam is also getting exploited by a small rival, Blekko, which promises better returns through user curation.

Google acknowledges that websites are trying to cheat their way up to higher position and that “people are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content.”

This spells trouble for Demand Media in its move toward an IPO. But none of this should be too surprising for investors. The company, in its preliminary prospectus, warned:

“Google may from time to time change its existing, or establish new, methodologies and metrics for valuing the quality of Internet traffic and delivering cost-per-click advertisements. Any changes in these methodologies, metrics and advertising technology platforms could decrease the amount of revenue that we generate from online advertisements.”

Content farms like AOL’s Seed and Yahoo’s Associated Content need to take a closer look at the business. It’s risky and it’s quickly evolving. Keep an eye on Quora. Why should anyone go to eHow when they can get better curated answers to their questions by a community that has a healthy dose of credibility?

Filed under: SEO,

Gaming Google — a bully’s guide to success

A story that appeared in the New York Times this weekend about an obnoxious and threatening e-retailer is nothing short of horrific. It tells of one consumer’s experience in dealing with a virtual bully — a eyeglasses retailer who used his negative reputation on the Web to game Google in sending him traffic.

Vitaly Borker, the founder and owner of DecorMyEyes.com, told the NYT in a surprisingly candid admission, “I’ve exploited this opportunity because it works. No matter where they post their negative comments, it helps my return on investment,” he said. “So I decided, why not use that negativity to my advantage?”

Google acted quickly by apparently tweaking its algorithm. It didn’t say exactly how or what it did, but it admitted that sentiment analysis is difficult.

As it turns out, Google has a world-class sentiment analysis system (Large-Scale Sentiment Analysis for News and Blogs). But if we demoted web pages that have negative comments against them, you might not be able to find information about many elected officials, not to mention a lot of important but controversial concepts. So far we have not found an effective way to significantly improve search using sentiment analysis. Of course, we will continue trying.

In the most straightforward, no bullshit statement from the otherwise enigmatic search giant, Google added:

We can’t say for sure that no one will ever find a loophole in our ranking algorithms in the future. We know that people will keep trying: attempts to game Google’s ranking, like the ones mentioned in the article, go on 24 hours a day, every single day. That’s why we cannot reveal the details of our solution—the underlying signals, data sources, and how we combined them to improve our rankings—beyond what we’ve already said.

So on to my favorite topic — the need to balance algos and human editors. Google is naturally cagey about its backend because it doesn’t want anyone to figure out how it works. Fair enough. But you can’t ignore the fact that any person of the right mind would have spotted what DecorMyEyes was doing and so take it lower in the results.

I’m also interested to see how sentiment analysis will affect content farms. As you’ll have seen from my previous posts, I’m not totally excited about how these companies are in effect also gaming Google with top-notch SEO while delivering low-quality content. I’d love to see an algo that’s smart enough to tell the difference. But until then, human search editors and community managers should get to keep their day jobs.

Filed under: SEO

Blekko scores one for human curation — and why content farms should worry

Human curation still matters. And that’s the bet that search engine startup Blekko is making.

It’s premise is simple — add a dose of “social” and what it calls “slash tags” and there you have it: a collection of hand-picked sites that focus on what people (not algorithms) look at.

The move takes aim at the rise in content farms such as Demand Media and Associated Content that focus on ways to game Google’s through clever SEO techniques. While this is a profitable, scalable way to create content (Demand is off to an IPO soon), users are led down the path of dodgy content whose source or credibility can’t be determined. Would you go to eHow.com for medical advice? (I kid you not — people do because that’s what Google serves up)

“I personally don’t like getting content aggregators like Demand Media in my results,” said Rich Skrenta, the CEO of Blekko. “They’re polluting the Web.”

Skrenta, the ex-founder of Topix, has raised $24 million in venture-capital funds. He’s also tapped famous angel investors like Marc Andreessen.

With a touch of social magic dust, Blekko has brought together in a private beta more than 3,000 collections of sites that can be found through slash tags.

It’s vertical search meets social. And score one for human curation. Sometimes there just some things that people do better.

Filed under: SEO, Social Media

SEO and the ‘uncomfortable paradox’ of content production

There was a fantastic article in the FT this week that highlighted the issues behind the obsession for SEO clicks. If you want to know what the marriage of content and search engine optimization spells, check out the article.

In a nutshell:

“The unintended consequence is that you get a lot of mediocre content getting a more prominent position than it should do,” says Shelby Bonnie, co-founder of Cnet, which now forms the heart of CBS’s online division. “The risk is that, as Google has become more and more dominant, people have made a business out of gaming its system.”

Filed under: SEO