Associated Content: Hey, We Were Here First!

Demand Media and AOL’s Seed project have been getting lots of attention lately, in part because they’ve both become poster children (although Demand more so than Seed) for the idea of a digital “content factory” — a virtual sweatshop filled with people toiling at terminals for pennies a day, churning out stories about algorithmically determined topics. While Demand has been described as “fast food” content by TechCrunch, Seed got some press recently for a high-profile attempt at “crowdsourcing” content around SXSW by finding people to write about all 2,000 bands at the Austin conference.

Meanwhile, hardly anyone talks about Associated Content, which CEO Patrick Keane notes has been around longer and is arguably bigger than either of its newer competitors. And make no mistake, Associated Content has been subjected to many of the same criticisms as Demand Media and Seed about low-quality, mass-produced content. Slate writer Farhad Manjoo, for example, described it as “a wasteland of bad writing, uninformed commentary, and the sort of comically dull recitation of the news you’d get from a second grader.” However, he also admitted that the site got more visitors than many other mainstream media sites, including the Washington Post, primarily because its stories were “bulging with hot search terms.”

As Manjoo noted in his piece, one of the unusual things about Associated Content is that former Google (s goog) executive Tim Armstrong is an investor. Why is that unusual? Because Armstrong is also the current CEO of AOL (s aol), and as such has been pouring money into building Seed, thereby more or less duplicating the model that Associated Content has already built (and not doing all that well, according to reports about Armstrong criticizing the project). So I asked Keane whether this wasn’t a little, um…awkward. “You know — it kind of is,” he said with a laugh. “Tim is a friend and an investor in the company, so it has been interesting to see how they are thinking as far as Seed is concerned. With their scale and revenue base, they will definitely be a strong competitor.” (There have also been reports that AOL tried to buy Associated Content).

That said, however, Keane added that “I think Richard (Rosenblatt, CEO of Demand) would agree with me that it’s not an inconsequential task to build a platform for this kind of production of content, and Seed at the moment is more of a concept than an ongoing platform.” The Associated Content CEO (who also happens to be a former Googler) told me: “We haven’t seen much of them in the market, either on the advertising side or the content side.” He also noted that Seed seemed to be focused more on the journalism and news-driven side of the content business, including hiring “big-name, expensive journalists” like Saul Hansell of the New York Times (s nyt) , whereas Associated Content specializes in what he called “evergreen” content such as tips on how to diaper a baby.

In terms of size, Keane said that Associated Content — which has been around for about five years — has more than 350,000 contributors and over two million pieces of content (with north of 3,000 pieces produced every day), all of which generates about 30 million unique visits per month (Demand Media, meanwhile, uploaded its millionth piece of content last fall and reportedly has fewer contributors). “We are certainly the pioneers in this market,” Keane says. “But of course being first doesn’t mean you win, or that you succeed.”

And what about the accusations that Associated Content and its competitors are virtual sweatshops and digital content farms? “We’re not clubbing baby seals over here,” says Keane. “We’re not trying to exploit anyone, and we’re not putting a gun to people’s heads. We’re giving people an audience and giving them some exposure for their writing and we’re paying them a little bit of money along the way. You can call them factories or whatever you want, but we’re just giving people a voice.”

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Olivander