Should Google penalize sites that use paid content?

April 12, 2010 •

Here’s a quote from Aaron Wall’s recent post, ‘Paid Content: the New Paid Link’:

“If paid links that subverts [sic] search relevancy algorithms shouldn’t count on the web graph, then why should Google trust paid content that subverts search relevancy algorithms?”

Aaron is concerned specifically with the recent USA Today / Demand Media deal, which will see thousands of what he calls ‘backfill’ articles placed on the USA Today website. He urges Google to crack down on this approach before “…the search results start filling up with similar sounding misinformed content ranking for 1 then 3 then 8 of the top 10 search results”.

If you’ve read any of my previous rants, you’ll know I’m no fan of crap / filler content. But I still can’t say I agree with Aaron here. You see, unlike paid links, which (supposedly*) present a black and white case of ‘subverting search relevancy’, the paid content situation is a little less clear cut.

  • Is a site subverting search relevancy just because it uses paid content? I certainly hope not! Most sites contain paid content — whether the webmaster paid a copywriter, incentivized a guest-blogger or syndicated a paid journalist. Even if they just got their web designer to write the copy. For that matter, the design, itself, is a form of content, and just about every website uses paid design.
  • Or do they have to be using a content farm to be penalized? (And to be fair, content farms are the main target of Aaron’s post.) Trouble there is, how does Google decide what constitutes a ‘content farm’? Is a single copywriter a content farm? What if I write really quickly? What if I employ other copywriters? What if I outsource to other copywriters? What if I outsource to journalists? What if I outsource to would-be copywriters and journalists? Is a big web development company a content farm? They regularly outsource copy to people like myself (and probably you). If the job’s big, they ask me / you to call in other copywriters, or they engage numerous copywriters, directly, to get it done.
  • Or do you get penalized only if your quality is crap? I checked out a few of USA Today / Demand Media’s articles (here’s one), and they were… OK. Nothing earth-shattering (or link-worthy), but they definitely weren’t auto-generated, nor were they written by someone with absolutely no writing or English skills. They were mildly helpful (if a little boring and simplistic) ‘step-by-step’ articles. What’s more, they were no worse than the non-paid mildly helpful ‘step-by-step’ / ’10-things…’ articles found on competing media websites (like this USNews.com inhouse mashup, or this by an NBC columnist).

Ultimately, what USA Today is doing is no different from what other media sites (and non-media sites) are doing: they’re paying for content. Some of it may be crap, but some of the content on other sites is crap too (including their stories, however well written!).

Aaron asks:

“How will Google be able to filter out the Demand Media content without filtering out the rest of the media sites?”

My answer is that it shouldn’t even try. Google should be concerning itself with identifying relevance and quality, based, not on the source of the information, but on the information itself. And let’s face it; if Google does outlaw ‘content farm’ arrangements, those arrangements will simply go underground**, and Google will be forced to assess each case on its merits (relevance and quality).

I think Aaron’s over-reacted a little to the situation. If USA Today publishes crap articles:

  1. Readers will stop reading; and
  2. Google will figure out that the articles are crap, and — solid domain authority notwithstanding — will deal with them appropriately.

Anyway, I have to go and write some paid content for a client now. I hope Google’s not reading…

* Some paid links do, in fact, provide value to readers, and should not be devalued or lead to penalty. For example, I gladly link to a variety of products and services, and I only ever link to things that I believe in. My readers benefit, whether or not I make money when they click on these links (which I don’t).

** You may argue that Google successfully outlawed paid links, but people are still making money from links. The deals have just gone underground.

Feel free to comment...
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aaron wall wrote on April 12th, 2010

If your points 1 and 2 were true then I am afraid Mahalo would have stopped growing their search traffic long ago, especially as at its peak over 90% of their articles were 100% auto-generated pages. The point is, if you put garbage in a pretty container and arbitrage search most people will not be able to see it for what it is (how many people outside of the publishing industry understand auto-generated content or backfill content?), and most of the visitors will be one off visitors (so even if they don't come back there is still plenty of traffic to be had).

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Glenn (Owner) wrote on April 12th, 2010

G’day Aaron. Thanks for your comment. (Where’s your Gravatar?! :-) Mahalo’s search traffic growth definitely doesn’t disprove Point 1 (that people will stop reading). After all, a growing search audience may, as you say, consist mostly of one-time visitors. Point 2 (that Google will stop the rot) clearly didn’t eventuate during the lifetime of the Mahalo debacle, but I have no doubt it will eventuate the moment poor content becomes a problem *to Google*. If everyone did a ‘Mahalo’, and Google’s results became full of similar sounding misinformed content, that definitely wouldn’t do anything for Google’s ad revenue. Yes, I agree 100% that most people can’t tell auto-generated content or backfill content, even when it moons them. But that’s kinda irrelevant. The important thing is whether they find it useful. There’ll always be people who’ll take advantage of the system. No need for the rest of us to suffer as a result (as is somewhat the case with paid links). I think Google should focus on developing intelligence (e.g. social signals, browser history signals, semantic signals, or whatever) that accurately identifies original, quality content, rather than instituting clumsy, ill-fitting, temporal (and, most likely, ineffective) rules to retrospectively deal with ‘offenders’. Perhaps the good folk at Google feel the same way?

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aaron wall wrote on April 12th, 2010

Google likes to try to control public perceptions and make examples to show their wrath when it is smaller and weaker players, whereas they pretend that they know nothing but the benefit of the doubt (and that it is all algorithmic) when venture funded or corporate players do the same exact things (or far worse things). There isn't much difference between Demand Media's new model and Text Link Ads's model. Text Link Ads can't rank for their own brand name. That was done to sent a signal. Google tends to ignore garbage content wrapped in their ads though (either because it is venture funded & at scale, or because it is wrapped in their ads). But clearly as the "content" spreads it will be more harmful to the utility of search than paid links ever were.

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Glenn (Owner) wrote on April 13th, 2010

Yeah, it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if Google played favorites that way. (And yeah, I’ve read many of your posts on that subject, and you provide some pretty compelling evidence.) However, TextLinkAds is still a long way from Demand Media. Their paid links can afford to be far less relevant and useful, because readers can still get value from the page, even if the links on the page are crap. TextLinkAds are a support act for the page, at best. Demand Media’s product, on the other hand, is the headline act. for the page And from what I’ve seen, their content is at least superficially interesting to the reader, if simplistic. It may, in fact, be very appealing to its readers, *because* it’s so simple. I performed a readability test on the Demand Media article cited above (http://traveltips.usatoday.com/plan-first-road-trip-1958.html) and also on an article written by USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2010-04-12-kelley12_CV_N.htm -- I tried to pick one that would most likely attract the same readers). Results: Flesch Reading Ease (higher is easier to read) — Demand Media article 70.1 — USA Today article 61.5 Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (approx school grade: lower is easier to read) — Demand Media article 7.8 — USA Today article 8.4 As you can see, although the USA Today article is slightly more complex, they’re pretty close. (I don’t know the average reading age of USA Today’s audience, but I suspect it’s quite low, as it is with nearly all US media audiences.) Note that I have no doubt that USA Today’s main aim is *not* to cater to that particular reading audience. They wouldn’t do it if there were no SEO benefits. But if (as it appears to me) they are actually satisfying their audience as well — even if only incidentally — I can’t see any reason why they should be penalized. It’s no different from their main news motivation, after all. They don’t deliver news out of the goodness of their hearts, they deliver it to make money. They invest enough in their news content to make it as good as their audience demands / requires, and not a penny more! Same goes here. And of course, I'm not saying I'd write the sort of stuff Demand Media is delivering. It simply doesn't pay enough! (And it's sooooooo boring to write.)

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Paul Cunningham wrote on April 13th, 2010

I write for some sites that are 100% paid content. The entire point of which is to drive traffic to a site that builds awareness of the need for a commercial product, and ideally converts the visitor to a trial of the product (which puts them into that sales funnel to convert them to a paid customer). The two differences that might exist between that site and Demand/eHow might be: - quality (hopefully I'm writing at a sufficient level of quality to avoid that "crap filler content" label) - focus (its a niche site, not a mega-portal like eHow etc) So does it even matter? Quality will rise and fall on editorial process and the pay rates they can offer their writers. Focus could be solved by starting tens of thousands of niche sites instead of several broader portals, but the logistics of that would probably lower the quality rather than improve it. Bottom line is this content has its place. I often end up on these sites looking for a quick bite of info such as the directions for cooking a particular cut of meat on my BBQ. I don't go there for detailed advice on complex stuff like SEO or WordPress security though.

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Bailey wrote on April 13th, 2010

As someone who writes for Demand, I can tell you that the writers being picked to write for the USA Today articles are not the general writers -people were hand picked for those positions, and the articles pay quite a bit better than the normal $2-15 articles. It is also sometimes *incredibly* boring to write until you find a niche of article topics or formats you enjoy, and while the article quality is not always stellar, it's not horrible, either. For me, it's practice writing. It's also my job. I have published over 600 articles for Demand as of the beginning of the month (most of them not anything I am terribly interested in with regards to the topic, and the quality of which is not always superb, admittedly). I'm also paying my way through college by writing for Demand. So many people are losing their cool over DS working with USA Today, and people have said extremely rude things about DS, about the writers and about the partnership. I can't understand that attitude. If you don't like it, fine -there seem to be some legitimate reasons for that. Most of what I've heard, however, centers on some sort of disdain for the people who work for Demand, which is intolerable as someone who writes for them and frankly gets a lot out of it. I don't just write for Demand. I also write for Suite101, I blog and I am the publisher of a small literary journal. None of those things pay as much or as fast as Demand -plus, I know what people are searching for based on what shows up in the article pool, which helps me focus content on my blog and in my long-term earning articles on other websites with higher standards, like Suite101. Most of the writers I know on Demand are in a similar position. We write other things, but Demand pays fast. It may not be the best pay, and we are certainly not writing the Next Great American Novel. It's content people are looking for in a format people read and use, and there's nothing wrong with providing that.

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Rob McGuire wrote on April 13th, 2010

Personally, I'm against the penalties for paid content. If the owner of a website chooses to pay for content through whatever means, how is that a bad thing? If Google decides to drop the hammer on paid content, then what becomes of the copywriters? My other concern with penalizing paid content is how something like that would be implemented. How would content be measured to determine if it's paid for or not? I think Google and site visitors themselves do a good enough job now sifting the wheat from the chaff. I don't see a reason to make things harder than they have to be.

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Noel Franklyn wrote on March 11th, 2012

Hey there, I think your website might be having browser compatibility issues. When I look at your website in Firefox, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other then that, great blog! Thanks!

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Glenn (Owner) wrote on March 12th, 2012

Hi Noel. Yeah, you're right, I'm afraid. Quite a few browser issues. Don't get me started on the company that did it! That's one of the big reasons we offer design and development inhouse these days... Now if only I could find the time to fix my own site! ;-)

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My thoughts on 'sausage-factory' copywriting wrote on April 13th, 2015

[…] Yet still I’ve publicly disagreed with Aaron Wall and asserted that sites using sausage-factory copywriting should…. […]

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