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.

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 29 2014 10:00 PM “Everything Must Change in Italy” An interview with Italian Prime Minster Matteo Renzi.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 29 2014 1:52 PM Do Not Fear California’s New Affirmative Consent Law
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 29 2014 12:01 PM This Is Your MOM’s Mars
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.