During the last few weeks, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong has unveiled a series of plans to save the long-suffering company from its lurch into irrelevance. First, massive layoffs—Armstrong plans to let go of 2,500 employees, a third of the firm's staff. The company is also getting a new "brand identity." The new AOL logo renders the company's name as if it were a pronounceable word—it is now Aol., with the period. Armstrong is apparently undaunted by the fact that this new word sounds like a-hole without the h.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal this week, Armstrong revealed his latest scheme to return AOL to its former glory: turn the company into the Web's premier destination for "content." Of course, that sounds like what a lot of Web companies—from Yahoo to YouTube—are trying to do, but Armstrong believes he's hit on a more efficient and accurate way to produce stuff that people are interested in. The new AOL will peer into the world's most revealing repository of human desire, our search keywords. And then the company will generate exactly what it thinks we want.
Here's how the plan will work: At the center of AOL's nearly fully automated content assembly line will sit a vast number-crunching operation that will tap into data from search engines and other sites to predict the stories, videos, and photos that people are most likely to click on at any given instant. As I write this on Tuesday, AOL might identify Tiger Woods' rumored mistresses as a hot topic, or perhaps Solange Magnano, the former Miss Argentina who died of complications arising from cosmetic surgery on her butt.
Next, AOL editors will try to satisfy our desires by putting out a call for entries on Seed.com, a not-yet-extant site where freelancers can submit content. Submissions will be automatically scanned for plagiarism, obscenities, and grammar errors and then quickly edited and fact-checked by a human being. And voilà—a matter of minutes after a beauty queen has died or a golfer hits a tree, AOL hopes, it will have blog posts, stories, essays, photos, and videos at the ready.
This might not immediately sound like a bad idea. Old-school journalists are skeptical of producing news by the numbers—under the high-minded assumption that reporters should focus on what's important regardless of whether people are interested in it—but most news organizations today look at Nielsen ratings, Web traffic, and search trends as part of their day-to-day operations. Some sites go even further. The Huffington Post monitors real-time click data to sharpen its headlines and story placement. Meanwhile, writers at Gawker (and at least one New York Times staffer) get bonuses for writing posts that garner a lot of traffic.
The trouble with AOL's plan, then, isn't that it's based on data-mining. Instead, it's what the company will likely do with search data—publish quick, vapid posts that do little to advance any hot story and instead feed readers a collection of factoids gathered from other places. How do we know this will happen? Because AOL's model is strikingly similar to that of Demand Media and Associated Content, two start-ups that also use search data and user contributions to build Web content. Indeed, AOL's Armstrong—who was an advertising executive at Google until earlier this year—is reportedly an investor in Associated Content, whose CEO is also a former Googler.
Associated Content stands as a cautionary tale for anyone looking to do news by the numbers. It is a wasteland of bad writing, uninformed commentary, and the sort of comically dull recitation of the news you'd get from a second grader. Oh, and here's one more interesting thing about Associated Content—because its stories are bulging with hot search terms, it gets more visitors than just about every news site online, including washingtonpost.com.
For a sense of how bad this sort of thing can get, check out the story that Associated Content published on Monday about the Tiger Woods saga. The piece, written by a frequent Associated Content contributor, carries a headline that reads like a spam e-mail subject line, packed with every possible search term related to the Woods story: "TMZ Tiger 'Kobe Special' Quote Made Before Tiger Woods Mistress Pictures Included Gloria Allred." The lead sounds like a bad translation:
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