Is a service affiliated with Google ad man Tim Armstrong helping to fuel Web bottom feeding? OK, maybe I'm blowing it a bit out of proportion, but here's the deal:
Associated Content, co-founded by Armstrong, is essentially a marketplace connecting aspiring writers (students, stay-at-home moms, etc.) with sites that pay them to write content. It's all about optimizing for search.
The "content producers" are taught to write keyword-heavy content, and they're paid according to the amount of traffic their creations will drive. Surprise, surprise -- Associated employs an algorithm that estimates the number of unique visitors that will be driven to that content in coming months, and pays writers upfront accordingly.
I spoke with Associated's Andrew Boer, who told me the firm's content producers are pumping out 2,000 "articles" each day, and there are around 200,000 in the site's library. "Partners," or companies/sites that pay for the rights-managed content, can buy pre-existing stuff or commission new works (the Medicis of affiliate marketing?).
Boer would only name two syndication partners, online retailer eBags, and NoParking.com, a company that offers content development services to its own clients, and appears to be subbing out work to Associated's writer pool. The company runs sites like Automobiles.com, which is apparently supposed to be an antidote to parked domains, those sites affiliate marketing types set up that include little to no content, but lots of ads served by ad networks like Google's AdSense.
"We will gladly assign our expert team of writers and editors to your site to write content that uses keyword analysis and well researched information that will keep your users coming back again and again," says NoParking.com's site. Hmmm....
Automobiles.com may have well optimized content, but after perusing the site, it's obvious it's been set up for the sheer purpose of driving traffic to the sponsored links residing there. Consider the "expert" writing on the "New Car Dealers" page:
New car dealers provide the public with new model cars for sale. New car dealers employ salespersons who work with potential car consumers and arrange financing of that car at a reasonable monthly payment and low percentage rate. New car dealers often accept trade-ins for their new cars to be used as part of a down payment.
It gets better. Here's what I found on the "Power Windows" page:
"HOW MUCH COULD IT POSSIBLY COST TO PUT THE AUTO DOWN AND AUTO UP SWITCH ON ALL FOUR OR TWO WINDOWS??!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! C'MON DOES THAT DAMN WINDOW SWITCH COST HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS OR WHAT ??? WHO IS THE MANUFACTURER OF THE SWITCH? CAN SOMEONE PLEASE HELP US UNDERSTAND THIS GREAT MYSTERY?
And let's just pretend that someone calls us back and says the switch costs and extra $500 each... Hahaha Ok so imagine it is too expensive to add this feature to all two windows!! LOL or in the case of the four door sedan or truck, all four windows."
I have no idea whether Associated Content people wrote that copy, but it's an example of the garbage cluttering the Web, driven by affiliate marketing programs and ad networks catering to small site owners.
"We don't really want to become [a service]...for bottom feeding people who want to promote their domains," Boer told me.
Some of the articles I checked out on the Associated Content site could be considered valuable content, but the fact that it's written with search optimization in mind can really degrade the caliber of the writing. Reading keyword phrases over and over, for instance, can be tedious ("New car dealers....New car dealers....New car dealers"). Also, an automated system (articles submitted don't go through a human editorial filter) can't detect incomplete sentences such as, "Xenical, a medication that may help you lose weight by decreasing your body's absorption of fat."
Why would big names in online advertising (Google's VP Advertising and Interactive Advertising Bureau founder Rich LeFurgy) be on the board of "The People's Media Company," as Associated calls itself? Well, the marketing connection is obvious. At least at this point, the content appears to be created with the simple goal of adding Google juice to commercial sites.
The company has introduced a "performance bonus" to pay producers extra cash if their content ends up driving more traffic than originally predicted. According to Boer, content producers get paid an average of $5-7 per article, if the article is purchased.
I guess you get what you pay for.
UPDATE: I want to make clear that the two Automobiles.com examples (New Car Dealers and Power Windows content) were not found on the Associated Content site, and when Boer called me regarding this post earlier this afternoon, he assured me they were not written by Associated producers. Apparently, all Associated Content, when syndicated on other sites will be marked as such.
The reason the Automobiles.com examples were included is because the owner of that site, which provides "content development" services is a client of Associated Content. My goal with this post is to lament the general notion that the Web seems to be turning into one big "Special Advertising Section."
As noted above, Boer, and assumedly others running Associated, do not want to contribute to low grade sites created solely to drive traffic to sponsored links. The thing is, when people are tutored to create "keyword-dense" content, as he told me Associated writers are, there's a good chance it will be purchased with the primary goal of driving search traffic, with a lesser goal of providing value to the reader or consumer. I'm just not sure the Web or its denizens really benefit from content pumped out for the sake of pumping out content.
The day my ClickZ editors tell me to make sure my articles are loaded with keyword phrases is the day the writing suffers, and with it our readers and the state of the Web. Truly valuable content is valuable because of its substance, and that's content that attracts readers and advertisers naturally.
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Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.
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