Content farms: What do they say about what we care about?

Commentary about business and finance.
March 25 2011 6:23 PM

Content Yawn

What content farms tell us about what we're interested in.

(Continued from Page 1)

No, the news we want to know about—the underserved need—lies in part in film and television and entertainment. We want to know what is on, or what happened last night, or who went home, and it seems we need the content farms to tell us. The first proper noun that comes up in the widget is Idol, as in American. Dancing With the Stars comes in the top 100. The first company? Facebook. The first person? Sandra Bullock. Obama, for the record, ranks below American Idol contestant Lee DeWyze, Michael Jackson, and olive oil.

Then, we want to know about ourselves—specifically, our bodies. We want to know about scores of individual diseases and conditions, from discolored nails to distended bowels. We want to know about the health benefits of dozens of acts (retirement, breastfeeding, sex) and individual foods (bison, quinoa, sardines, cherries). We seem to want more speculative and stranger content than the medical sites are giving us.

Consider the tagged word cause or causes. It virtually always comes as part of a phrase: what caused a couple to break up, what caused your car to stall out in an intersection. But look at the most common words that go along with it: First, there is cause of weight gain. Some of the theories you see in the searches are: Prozac, MSG, exercise, sodium, IBS, diet soda, cereal bars, sugared sodas, antidepressants, and milk. Overeating and underexercising comes up less often than one would hope.

Then, we want to know the cause of: cancer, pain, and acne, followed by depression and hair loss. The list of ailments goes on: bad breath, baldness, death, disease, hair thinning, health, heartburn, hives, injury, cancer again, infertility, night sweats, poverty, vitamin, tinnitus, smoking, hiccups, migraine headaches, autism, back pain, blindness, dandruff, excessive thirst, hair loss again, loss, night sweats, and tinnitus again.

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More than that, we want to know about our weight—how to control it, contain it, use herbs or foods or exercise to bring it down. The most commonly tagged individual food is fish (good for your diet, good for your brain). The word diet is tagged more than 1,000 times, and weight loss nearly 1,200; healthy,1,460, and eat, more than 1,500. The site provides thousands of articles about how to lose it.

Running through the tags and the articles, dozens of other strange optimizations arise. Associated Content has a corner on birthday searches, for instance. More than one article is tagged with any of the following: happy july 14th, happy july 17th, happy july 18th, happy july 19th, and so on. Unemployment comes up far less often than foreclosure does, though jobs come up far more often than both.

So what more do we know about the content farm from running through the database? It exists in the spaces that other sites neglect—answering the mundane questions we ask the Internet about our families, our friends, our bodies. It caters to our baser search instincts. What is the overall picture of us, painted by the content farm? We are, it seems, avid TV watchers who adore sports, pets, and our families, worry about our jobs, and suffer from hypochondria. But maybe none of us needed a content farm to tell us that.

Annie Lowrey is a contributing editor for New York magazine. She can be reached at annie.lowrey@gmail.com.

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