Content farms, a thing of the past.

The world of content marketing is complex, creative, and challenging to execute successfully. A successful content marketing campaign needs to increase your company’s revenue, not just provide great information to your audience. Creating a strategy that brings quality and value to your users and a higher ROI to your business is no easy task. For what not to do, let’s learn a thing or two from one of the biggest blotches on the web: content farms.

The Rise and Fall of Content Farms

Back in 2006, a clever venture called Demand Media hit the content scene with a vengeance, growing rapidly and ultimately going public in 2011. Demand had a hybrid model that at the time seemed genius: Combining large-scale domain registration generated purely to rank for high-volume or profitable search queries, combined with a massive volume (up to 4,000 pieces a day) of low-quality content. All those eHow tutorials that never answered your questions? Those are Demand Media’s. And every time you linked to a URL like just to find a string of ads — you can thank Demand for those, too.

For a while, Demand (and some of its fellow content farms) saw huge traffic — and profits — from their bait-and-switch efforts. They did get some flack for the questionable quality of their offerings, but then-CEO Richard Rosenblatt defended this tactic by saying that “quality is based on relevance.” Eventually, however, Google disagreed, releasing its Panda algorithm update. Panda sharply reduced rankings for content farms, because it took into account a range of quality-related signals, such as thin content, keyword-stuffed content, and excessive advertising on a page. This diminished overall traffic to Demand Media by 40% in a matter of weeks, but not all of their sites fared equally. Sites like Demand’s Answerbag were actually down more than 80%, whereas more popular destinations like eHow suffered only a 29% hit.

Their solution? What content marketers have always embraced: a commitment to quality. Paying freelancers next to nothing to produce their content showed, and both Google and readers were getting fed up. They gambled that the solution was to simply write better content. Sounds intuitive, right?

Why Great Content Can’t Save Content Farms

Andrew Wallenstein, Variety’s digital editor-in-chief, chronicled Demand Media’s journey. As they turned to more high-quality content, he noted something shocking: This new focus “decreased ad click-through, since people were reading the articles instead of the ads.”

In other words, when you give readers value, they’re much less likely to click away from your site. What this means is simple: Businesses based on ad revenue in the online space may want to rethink their strategy.

Without Ads, How Can Great Content Be Monetized?

Thanks to the epic rise and fall of companies like Demand Media, marketers have access to a better understanding of content monetization. Fooling folks into accessing your site and failing to provide anything of value is a horrendous long-term strategy. Google is in the business of showcasing great content and giving their users what they want to see. If Google continually sent users to low-quality sites littered with spam, searchers would turn to alternatives that give listings of value. So Google wisely continues to weed out weaker offerings.

Yet as we’ve learned, stellar content by itself isn’t a profitable solution either. In order to make money off the content you create, it must accurately market your business and services. This is a slippery slope, however, as users have become averse to hard sells and blatant marketing. As advertising pioneer Leo Burnett put it:

There is no such things as a ‘hard sell’ and ‘soft sell.’ There is only ‘smart sell’ and ‘stupid sell.’

Your content cannot simply espouse your greatness, it must give users something of value AND convert those users into leads.

Learning from the Mistakes of Others

Thanks to the very public decline of companies like Demand Media, today’s content marketers can avoid some traps if they’re willing to see the truth about what works and what doesn’t. The end goal these days should really not be about making money off the content itself, but the action it entices readers to take. And by all means, stand by the quality of what you produce, or all you’ll really have is a pile of spam, coupled with a dark and eerie silence.

Image by mjranum-stock

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