Medium and Quora aren’t the rebirth of content farms — they’re more like curation engines

It’s become almost conventional wisdom by now that the rise of social-media tools and networks like Twitter and Facebook (s fb) have killed blogging, but you wouldn’t know it by the number of blog-like services that have sprung up recently, including Medium (from former Twitter CEO Evan Williams) and the new blog features launched by the question-and-answer community Quora. In a recent blog post about at this phenomenon, Hunter Walk of YouTube argues that these platforms are “the rebirth of content farms” — but it’s probably more instructive to see them as curation engines.
Content farms appeared on the scene several years ago, as publishers tried to figure out how to drive search traffic to their websites, since Google had become one of the top traffic sources in the industry. As SEO or search-engine optimization became a crucial part of the business, some took this principle to its logical conclusion and started creating content specifically to attract Google and profit from advertising keywords (Note: We’re going to be talking about alternative methods of monetization for content at our paidContent Live conference in April).

Content farms had an explicitly financial motive

One of the most prominent players was Demand Media (s dmnd), which owned eHow, an early attempt at SEO for content. The model was simple: pay a large stable of freelance writers very small amounts of money (often as little as $2 per article) to create or aggregate “service oriented” content around specific ad-heavy topics. This version of the business was more or less killed by Google via updates to its search algorithm, which pushed low-quality content further down in search results.
Walk argues that Medium and Quora’s new blogging platform (which converted what were message boards into individual blogs) as well as the blog network Svbtle and LinkedIn’s Influencer program share many of the same features as early content farms. Among other things, he says they offer:

  • Article-based construction: In other words, a blog-style layout and format with multiple, dated posts written by an individual author
  • Cross-promotion: Visitors come to one blog post and are shown others by the same author or different authors to try and entice them to stay
  • Easy to use publishing tools: Medium and some other players offer lightweight content-creation features that make it easy to write and publish

For me at least, the main difference between what Medium and Svbtle and Quora seem to be doing and what “content farms” did is the lack of an obvious financial motive. True content farms were designed to maximize the search traffic so that they could generate advertising revenue (at one point, 30 percent of Demand Media’s revenue came from Google ads). But Svbtle and Medium, for example, don’t have advertising of any kind — although of course it’s possible that they could decide to turn on ads at some later date, once their traffic numbers justify it.

The rise of content farms for good?

Even Walk says that he sees these new platforms as “content farms for good,” meaning they are mostly focused on curation of quality content, which is why I think it’s better to think of them as curation engines rather than farms — or perhaps as “artisanal” content producers, to use a popular term. Both Svbtle and Medium are clearly putting a lot of emphasis on selecting quality contributors, since both are invitation-only, and LinkedIn seems to take this approach as well (Quora is much more open, in part because it converted its existing message boards).
LinkedIn clearly has an interest in driving traffic to its site with its Influencer content, in the hope that readers of those articles might decide to stick around or visit more often, and make use of the other things that actually produce revenue for the company. But in that sense, its program is more like what some call “content marketing,” which uses content that isn’t directly monetized as a way of promoting a brand or an advertiser’s main business.
In the end, all these platforms seem to be designed to appeal to writers who may have thoughts to contribute, but don’t necessarily want to maintain their own blog. Making that easy, and curating the results so that they are of high quality, may ultimately be a way around Google’s content-farm algorithms, but in the end it doesn’t really matter if higher-quality content is what gets produced. In that sense at least, Google’s efforts seem to be working.
Images courtesy of Flickr user D. Miller and Shutterstock / Gl0ck