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You may not have heard of a “content farm,” but if you’ve ever searched for popular keywords on the Web, you’ve seen articles “grown” on one. What you don’t know is that the Internet’s de facto masters have declared war on content farming. The question you must ask yourself is whether contributors to the network of networks that is the Web should be left alone to do as they will … or if search overlords like Google should save you from yourself by ignoring this “farmed” content.

Tom Krazit, writing for CNET, reports that Google recently introduced a tool for its Chrome browser that lets users screen out results from content farms. Data collected from users’ flagging of such “poorly written and sometimes nonsensical” material uploaded “for really no other reason than to appear within search results and draw traffic from Google” would (or could) be used to create a virtual blacklist. This hasn’t happened yet, but Google is looking at ways to rank its search results by analyzing which sites and what material users have condemned as content-farmed.

What is the harm of content-farming, really? Technology and news analyst Mathew Ingram likens the content farm to a virtual “sweatshop,” in which “digital sharecroppers” toil away for the enrichment of the intergalactic media masters who ultimately own and run the sites. Aggregators – websites that collect and archive material that serves as search engine fishing nets – thus profit largely because people are willing to volunteer their effort.

[Little of the content uploaded to aggregators], which drives a lot of traffic and comments and other valuable forms of engagement, is paid for. Writers do it because they have an idea they want to pitch, or (in too many cases) because they are self-important and like to hear themselves talk. In other words, the same reasons people write blogs …

Every one of the contributors to those “sweatshops,” after all, is an individual poster, sometimes writing to keywords for marketing purposes, but sometimes writing simply because he or she wishes to contribute content to the larger whole. There are ways to make money at it, too. “All of these writers [can conceivably] find ways of monetizing what they do,” Ingram writes. “[T]hey get paid for other related services, or they write books or get paid to speak/consult and so on.” Combine the possible profit motive with the natural desire of Internet contributors to see their work “published,” and you’ve got a powerful motivation to keep farming content regardless of public reception to it. The reasons are as varied as the individuals behind the keyboards.

“While it’s easy to poke some fun at [the quality of some content-farmed] articles,” writes Matt Law, “it’s worth remembering that there’s a person behind every one of them.” Many of those contributors, remember, write for nothing or close to nothing, simply for the gratification of seeing their name on a virtually published article.

The recent merger of the “news” site The Huffington Post with media giant America Online has created fears of a “tsunami” of insipid entertainment articles passed off like news. Those in charge at AOL are alleged to be “eagerly embracing the ‘content farm’ approach pioneered by Demand Media – generate cheap content based on three major considerations: whether it can get page views, whether it can generate sufficient revenue, and whether it can be produced quickly.”

The public should perhaps be more concerned about Arianna Huffington holding sway over a media giant’s production, selection and presentation of the news … but let’s look at Demand Media. The site, whose name seems to be synonymous with content farming – where you read one term, the other is never far behind – is, according to the Wall Street Journal, “one the most popular Web destinations in the country.” The company, “which churns out thousands of online stories and videos a day,” uses “a stable of about 13,000 vetted freelancers and its copy editors to assemble how-to articles or online videos about a topic that it believes will prove popular with Web users and advertisers.”

The site is, then, the very definition of a “content farm.” Its articles get hits and those hits translate to advertiser interest. Advertiser interest equals money, and as the site’s articles get results, the cycle continues. Large volumes of content are created that produce large volumes of revenue for all concerned – most directly, for the content farm.

Demand Media’s CEO considers that label insulting. The Journal quotes him as saying, “The way Google defines a content farm, we are not a content farm.” The dominant search engine is now directly threatening Demand Media and companies like it, after all; if those companies cannot get Google search results because they’ve been blacklisted – fairly or unfairly – their value is directly affected. This simple fact has caused some to wonder if Demand Media’s initial public offering came none too soon.

Jason Calicanis, who according to the New York Observer “runs one of the Web’s biggest content farms,” claims Google’s crackdown will harm the entire industry. He warns that the greatest offense one can commit against Google is that of making Google “look stupid.” He warns of terrible reprisals.

What if those reprisals harm those who’ve done no wrong – except in the eyes of Google’s search algorithms? Digital journalist Pekka Pekkala writes eloquently of the unintended consequences of Google’s crackdown, saying, “As tempting as it is to gloat over Demand Media’s misfortune, the Google announcement might have severe consequences to all publishing. … The big question is how will Google judge who is doing spammy, search-engine inspired headlines and who is doing real customer research with Google Analytics.”

Gatekeeping is increasingly necessary in a society overloaded, overflowing and thoroughly saturated with information. Filtering search results of “lower quality” could benefit the user in the same way that publishers will remain relevant to electronic publishing – by screening the useless, the incompetent and the irrelevant. We must, however, ask ourselves who the gatekeepers will be … and whether we can trust them.

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