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Laura Murray
Executive Director
The Internet Content Syndication Council
New York, NY 10012

May/June 2010 News

Mediaweek Covers ICSC 'Content Mill' Initiative

Recent coverage in Mediaweek detailing the concern of low quality content on the web.


Blogger Covering ICSC Initiative

Coverage from Mediaweek extended on CNET.



Dear Friends of the ICSC,

Here is the latest edition of the ICSC Journal, which looks at so-called "content mills" and their practice of flooding the Internet with articles - frequently from poorly-paid freelancers - that are specifically designed to score high on search.

Because some ICSC members feel this has potential to degrade the Internet experience for users and advertisers alike, a Content Quality Committee has been formed to explore whether this issue can be usefully addressed by the industry. In fact, our efforts have attracted the attention of MediaWeek, Adweek and some other trade publications.

We appreciate your interest, and will update you on the group's progress.

Tim Duncan, Executive Director, ICSC


Professionally-Produced Content vs. the Invasion of the Content Mills

Advertisers: it’s twelve o’clock. Do you know where your ads are running?

In the online world, there is evidence that the quality of the content in which ads appear have an impact on their effectiveness. According to the president of the Online Publisher’s Association (OPA), the results of a recent study confirm that:

"Well-lit, high quality content sites continue to offer advertisers the opportunity to raise awareness, create message association, drive purchase intent and generate brand favorability..."1

The study, Improving Ad Performance Online "found that advertising effectiveness scores on original content sites… were numerically higher than on the Web, portals or ad networks."2

Advertisers have always known that the quality of an ad environment matters. That’s why traditional media with perceived high quality such as the major TV networks and magazines like The New Yorker can command premium prices over their less well-regarded peers. The OPA study cited higher measures on metrics such as Aided Brand Awareness, Online Ad Awareness, Message Association and Purchase Intent for ads on its members’ sites [which offer original content] over those on portals and ad networks, as well as overall Web norms.

So content quality matters. But given the vastness of the Internet – 230 million destinations and counting – an advertiser needs to be in many places in order to generate significant ad exposure. How can the quality of the environment – a subjective judgment – be discerned on all of them?

Go to the Source
One useful way is to consider the source of the content. As a grand generalization, it can be said that quality and cost of production go hand in hand. In a word, "you get what you pay for."

At the low end of the scale is user-generated content which publishers can generally obtain for free – it’s a mainstay of Youtube, for example. This is not to say that it is without value – a recent Ad Age article3 noted that one of the most popular Youtube videos of all times is the baby video "Charlie bit my finger – again." However, advertisers have generally shied away from UGC, finding that in most cases the environment isn’t terribly appropriate for their ads. That’s why Youtube has had difficulty monetizing the majority of its video inventory.

At the other end of the scale is relatively expensive professionally-produced content. In video, Hulu provides a useful contrast to Youtube, as it successfully sells ads to major advertisers within its offering of full-length videos. Hulu’s main offerings are (repurposed) shows from three of the major TV networks costing $15,000 to $30,000 per minute to produce. In text, Thomson Reuters syndicates financial reporting to many websites, and charges them a license fee. Other content creators, such as Studio One Networks, syndicate content with an ad-supported model, paying for the cost of production by aggregating over multiple Web sites to pay for it.

Somewhere between these two poles – but congregating at the low end – lie content mills. They are attracting a lot of advertising, mainly from search engines such as Google. And Yahoo’s recently-announced purchase of Associated Content, a well-known content mill, has given the whole category new prominence. Given the importance of a quality environment, ad buyers may want to exercise caution in considering them.

What’s a Content Mill?
As defined by,4
A content mill or writers mill is a slang term used by freelance writers and given to a company, website or organization designed to provide cheap website content, usually at a significant profit to themselves, and usually by paying very low rates to writers.

By low rates, we are talking about $15 for an article of (at most) a few hundred words, or $20 for a video. One contributor paid on a royalty-based deal reported earning $4.74 after his article had been published for a month. Hard to to get high quality at those rates.

Content mills - Demand Media is a well-known example – specialize in quickie articles and how-to videos that are specifically designed to rank high on search engines. In other words, they are gaming the system. In an April article,5 the Web site SEO (Motto: Learn, Rank, Dominate) says that:

"This idea is nothing new. It's actually white-hat SEO strategy, and has been used for years.

  • Research keywords
  • Write content about those keywords
  • Publish content and attempt to rank that content in search engine results
  • Repeat"

As for quality, the same Web site cites an SEO expert who refers to the output as "empty filler content." Not surprising, given the semi-automated nature of the process. In a profile of Demand Media, Wired Magazine describes how it works:

"Nearly every freelancer scrambles to load their assignment queue with titles they can produce quickly and with the least amount of effort — because pay for individual stories is so lousy, only a high-speed, high-volume approach will work… The process is automatic, random, and endless." 6

"Profitable As Hell": Dark Satanic Mills?
Nonetheless, it is a successful business model, and it’s proliferating. According to Wired, Demand Media is one of Youtube’s largest suppliers, and its web of 45 "B-list cites" generate more Web traffic "than ESPN, NBC Universal, and Time Warner’s online properties (excluding AOL) put together."7

In fact, Wired suggests that the content-mill model may start to crowd out better-produced material:

"To appreciate the impact Demand is poised to have on the Web, imagine a classroom where one kid raises his hand after every question and screams out the answer. He may not be smart or even right, but he makes it difficult to hear anybody else."8

Since ad environment is so important, the moral for advertisers is: be careful what you buy. Quality is, after all, hard to measure (though there is a discipline - "IQ", or "Information Quality" – devoted to trying to measure it). Certainly the content from mills can’t be dismissed out of hand; simply because content is cheap and mass-produced does not automatically mean it’s without value. But in general, content that is crafted with care by adequately-paid professionals is going to provide a better advertising environment than one that has been produced off-the-cuff based on a search algorithm.

  1. "Location, Location, Location." Mediapost Research Brief. 7 May 2010.
  2. Ibid
  3. "Lower Expectations: Web Redefines 'Quality'." Ad Age. 10 February 2010.
  5. "Are Content Mills the future of Online Publishing?"
  6. "The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model." Wired. 19 October 2009.
  7. Ibid
  8. Ibid

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