Demand Media, Search, and Social Networks

by Dave on February 16, 2010

What do the three have in common? Their fates are intertwined.

As I’m catching up on my reading after the holidays, I finally picked up the October issue of Wired. Which, by the way I sincerely recommend.  Near the end was an excellent article on Demand MediaDemand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, Demand’s model is to plaster the internet with keyword rich content – at the lowest price possible, and make money off the associated advertising. It quickly dawned on me that this low price, low quality model is going to clog up internet search with junk content, making it difficult or impossible for good content to shine through.

As I read the article, I progressed through the five stages of grief:

Denial – They aren’t really doing it.
Anger – What are they, evil?
Bargaining – Someone like Google will stop them
Depression – There’s no way to stop them, internet search is doomed
Acceptance – well, that’s the rest of this post:

Google and its kin are a victim of their own model. Google, the 500 pound search gorilla, has a simple goal – provide good search results. Its model, the closely guarded algorithm, has a fatal flaw – it can’t subjectively evaluate the “goodness” of content. The algorithm can objectively evaluate the evidence of quality, but the evidence can be manipulated or the model overwhelmed by a massive amount of low-quality content.

The cat and mouse game of understanding where and how the algorithm gathers evidence and developing content that legitimately or illegitimately exploits the algorithm has been going on for years. The folks at Demand Media and several other purveyors of web content have realized out that the algorithm isn’t effective at evaluating variation in the quality of content – if the content is properly formatted, originally hosted and contains the appropriate keywords, then is treated as legitimate, which by the rules, it is. While it may be legitimate content, it doesn’t make it quality content, and therein lies Google’s dilemma. The content is indexed, but the results aren’t optimal. Unhappy end user.

Google can use new forms of evidence to determine the value of content – like social media tagging and tweaking the value of inbound links, but links and tags will only touch on a small percentage of content available on the internet, leaving the vast a majority of content immune to further qualification. Demand and its brethren have found this void and are quickly filling it with content.

I think Demand’s approach is unstoppable. They will play by Google’s rules until they destroy (or irreparably damage) Google’s model. The “traditional” search engine model of ranking will have to be supplanted. And I think I know how. The one thing these content creation machines can’t overwhelm is the Crowd. People can and do subjectively evaluate content. They comment on it and share it. Think of it as Social Data (or metadata). This data will be invaluable to search outlets. The market leaders are already rushing to build and capture social metadata. The race is on, and everyone should be watching to see who’s in the early lead – the first mover advantage will be almost insurmountable.

It should be an interesting ride.

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