AOL's dumb plan to mimic the universe's worst news site.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Dec. 1 2009 5:15 PM

AOL's Latest Dumb Business Plan

Write stories based on search terms, mimic universe's worst news site.

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Alleged Tiger Woods mistress pictures of Rachel Uchitel might have spawned the TMZ Tiger quote of having to get a "Kobe Special" from Zales. Now that Gloria Allred joined the fray, will it hurt or help Tiger Woods?

The post repeats news originally broken by TMZ, the National Enquirer, People, and several blogs. More important, it uses the phrase "Tiger Woods mistress pictures" at least eight times. Tiger Woods mistress pictures, not coincidentally, was one of the fastest-surging search queries on Monday, according to Google Trends. And Associated Content cleaned up—for much of the day, its story was the first Google result for that query.

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To be sure, it's possible that AOL will deliver more-polished stories than the ones now found on AC. I wouldn't be too confident, though. AOL plans to mimic some of the worst features of Associated Content. First, it will pay writers only a small amount up front—less than $100 or so—and instead give them bonuses based on the traffic their posts generate. This will encourage writers to mimic AC's Tiger Woods story, spending little time crafting prose or doing original research and instead packing the story with search terms meant to spirit the link to the top of search rankings. In addition, just like Associated Content, AOL will allow advertisers to take part in the process of creating content. As the WSJ reports, "if its algorithms show consumers are searching for information about the Zhu Zhu Pets robotic hamster, a retailer could pay AOL to sponsor an article about where to find the hot toy."

Will this plan do wonders for AOL's bottom line? It very well might, at least in the short run. If AOL can replicate the success of Associated Content across its network of sites, it will surely see huge gains in traffic and renewed interest from advertisers. But this plan hinges on something that can't be guaranteed for long—a weakness in search engines. By any measure, stories like those found on AC don't deserve top billing in search results. If you search for "Tiger Woods mistress pictures," you should get pictures of Tiger Woods' alleged mistress, not a story that repeats that phrase a dozen times. Google and other search engines constantly battle search engine spam, and over time they're sure to steer people away from sites that rely on such trickery to get visitors. Then what? Associated Content gets 90 percent of its traffic from search engines. Once Google and co. wise up to AC's schemes, its business model is toast.

There is another model for producing news that people want to read: Hire a team of professionals to cover a beat, and pay them for excellent results. As it happens, AOL knows a thing or two about that technique. It already owns the celeb-news outfit TMZ and the gadget blog Engadget, two of the best news sites online. Both excel at covering subjects that people are looking for—their posts always rank highly on search engines.

TMZ, for one, has owned the Tiger Woods story. The gossip site has repeatedly broken news about the car accident and its aftermath—including the "Kobe Special" tidbit that Associated Content grabbed for its "story." (Another sign that Google is broken: As of Tuesday afternoon, a search for "tmz kobe special" lists the Associated Content item above TMZ's original post.) These are the kind of scoops that readers can't resist and that can't be generated by an army of traffic-hungry, search-term-repeating pseudo-journalists.

TMZ realized early on that it couldn't publish enough Tiger Woods items. But the site also reports on stuff that people don't know they want to read about. TMZ didn't get the scoop about Michael Jackson's death, Chris Brown's domestic abuse, or Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade because it saw that people were searching for those topics. Instead, its staffers are constantly developing sources that blanket the entertainment industry, an effort that generates enormous returns—and wins a loyal readership that keeps coming back for more. There are no shortcuts to that kind of reporting and no algorithms that can tell you what makes for a good story. That's the difference between producing content and producing journalism.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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