Unholy union of SEO trickeration clears antitrust scrutiny

FTC approves purchase of online tabloid Huffington Post by content farm AOL


Just when Google thought it was getting a handle on ridding its searches of low-quality content created by content farms, aggregators and SEO-riggers, the marriage of two masters of those dark arts was approved by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC on Tuesday said it will not oppose the proposed $315 million acquisition of online tabloid The Huffington Post by content farm AOL (NYSE: AOL).

(Also see: 'AOL Way' revealed: Screw quality, grind down staff)

The acquisition was announced, for some bizarre reason, immediately after the Super Bowl. Investor reaction generally has been negative. Through Tuesday's market close, AOL shares are down more than 5 percent since the deal.

Part of the bad reaction may have to do with the $315 million price tag. It also could signal an uneasiness on the part of Wall Street with the business models of publishers whose primary goal is to crank out low-cost, search-engine-friendly content. (The key here is "crank" -- content farms are pursuing a volume strategy, which almost always necessitates a race to the bottom in terms of content quality.) That business model, of course, is to game search engines -- particularly Google -- in a way that makes the publisher's content float to the top of search results, no matter how how crappy it is.

What might rightly bothers investors about this is that Google can -- and recently has -- change its algorithms to make SEO tricks less effective. And SEO tricks are The Huffington Post's specialty (along with massive content aggregation, Charlie Sheen and celebrity nip slips).

Now founder Arianna Huffington has the FTC's blessing to try to work her magic on the AOL farm, which itself is being transformed with a cynical eye toward search engines -- more volume, quicker turnaround and "just good enough" (if that) content.

Chris Nerney writes about the business side of technology market strategies and trends, legal issues, leadership changes, mergers, venture capital, IPOs and technology stocks. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisNerney.

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