Content farms are to online media what tabloids are to print. Neither journalism nor advertising, they are a trashy and addictive product, sussing out what we really want in order to give us something we don't really need—and, in so doing, telling us something important about ourselves.
They work like this: An algorithm divines what people are searching for on the Internet, and what advertisers might pay to reach them. Content farms mostly ignore breaking news and other too-competitive searches, optimizing their content to fill the cracks neglected by retailers, newspapers, and other sites. They then spit out assignments to writers working for pennies a word, who churn out thousands of pieces of search-optimized infotainment on how to get a burger for $1 or how to make your own cat food or how to clip your toenails (watch out for the toe!) or hotels in North Dakota with hot tubs.
Few of us admit to reading this stuff, much less liking it. Even the search engines it is created for resist it: Last month Google announced a change to its algorithm, designed to banish farmed content down into the nether regions of its search results. Still, content farms do get traffic. And their model seems compelling: They take what people are searching for and translate it into articles people are—or might be—curious enough to click on. The results speak to what we want to know, but aren't being told. As it turns out, our concerns are mostly petty, self-centered, or mundane.
To get an analysis of what content farms are farming, we crunched the numbers—and you can too. The following graph gives 30 of the most popular tags used by one of the biggest content farms. In the box below, type in any word or phrase to see its popularity and related tags. Click on the results to go to the articles tagged with the word or phrase.
A few words about our widget. First, it doesn't account for every content farm on the Web. In the past few years, companies like Demand Media have churned out more than 1 million stories or posts or bites or whatever you want to call them. So we focused on one year and one site: Yahoo!'s Associated Content in 2010. Slate's Chris Wilson and Angela Tchou constructed a bot that logged every tag—a word or phrase attached to every article, then picked up by search engines. The system collected data on more than 220,000 stories with more than 1 million tags.
With all that data compiled, we got to analyzing it ourselves. We expected to find a lot of articles catering to our one-track minds: Queries looking for pornography make up about a quarter of all Internet searches, after all. (Jeez Louise, guys!) Yet the tag sex comes in at No. 201 in popularity, followed by sex tape (812), sexual (976), and sexy (1,014). Why so low? First, a content farm is obviously not the best place for a provider of adult content to advertise. Second, a content farm is obviously not the best place for a searcher of adult content to stay.
Rather, the top tags prove reassuringly banal: money (which appears 6,204 times in the tags), movie, show, school, family, students, business, game, years, and film. We want to know about our kids, our schoolwork, our travel, and our careers. We want to know about jobs, and what industries are growing.
Adding up and recombining the tags, one gets a better sense of what content farms are giving us. We want to know about news, but not just any news. Actual news sites—like Slateand the Huffington Post and Yahoo! News itself—have the real, newsy news covered. Publications are also increasingly savvy about performing some search-engine optimization of their own, making it harder for the farms to compete and pushing down their ad prices. Thus the big stories of 2010, like the Haiti earthquake and the midterm elections, do not make up much of the Associated Content canon. Likewise, celebrity sites have celebrities down pat—so not as many stories about Britney Spears and Lady Gaga as you would expect.