Writing for algorithms and occasionally people
Getting better quality content on the Web
When Google launched its AdSense program, it did two things: It created an infrastructure whereby the company could bring in billions of dollars in ad revenue, and it created an opportunity for thousands of small businesses to go into web publishing.
In that latter opportunity though, began a major problem. Rather than building a web publishing business around creating informative, quality content; thousands of get-rich-quick innovators decided to game the system. The predominant business model of web content, especially in the early days before Google started refining its algorithm, was to produce quick-and-dirty, marginally useful and usually poorly-written content pages stuffed with keywords and Google ads. The business model held that even if content was poor, the presence of ads would encourage people to click through to find something more relevant.
The large and growing community of freelance writers and production shops was of course appalled, since the aforementioned get-rich-quickers built their businesses around acquiring content at a penny a word or less, and the writing end of the business quickly went either offshore or to kitchen table amateurs looking for beer money. In most cases the beer was obviously consumed prior to writing.
The poor quality of web content quickly proliferated—because it was making money for the publishers. Pay for "writers" continued to decrease, because after all, the writing wasn't meant to be read by humans—it was meant to be read by a computer algorithm. And because the writers were writing for computers and not people, it could be done to a formula. Orders for articles called for specific keywords to be included to reach a certain penetration level, so that the algorithm would think that it was more relevant to the topic at hand. Never mind the fact that every sentence had to include the phrase "toenail fungus remedy" and it was painful to read, the fact was, if the article conformed to spec, it would land prominently on the Google search engine results page.
This business model did lead to thousands of small web publishing operations making money, and a handful of very large ones as well, all built around commoditized writing spun out on a regular basis for an algorithmic, non-human audience. But let's look at the trend and into the future for the next year. This business model simply isn't sustainable over the long run. A business model built on poor quality, when better quality is otherwise readily available, will not work for very long.
Google's last major update in April 2012 did close up some of the "Black Hat" SEO techniques that have for so long degraded the quality of the Web, and Google's Matt Cutts gives some great examples of some of the more laughable content pages they're trying, justifiably, to push down.
But even a cursory web search will still turn up a good number of webspam pages, useless content and even content pages that have been spun by computer programs, and at the same time, a lot of high-quality sites were downgraded. Part of the problem is that no matter how bright Google's engineers may be, and I have no doubt that they are, it's difficult to build an automated engine that can recognize good writing. This however, must remain Google's goal.
So if the business model of poor quality, keyword stuffed articles isn't sustainable, then what's next? One of two things will happen: The Web will devolve into a huge virtual pit of useless rubbish; or it will continue to evolve towards its intended purpose of being a receptacle of useful, easily sharable content. Hopefully, it will be the latter choice. Web publishers are beginning to realize that there are actually real humans out there who wish to read something useful, and the market (pushed to some extent by continuing refinements in the Google algorithm) will demand higher quality.
This is all part of the double-edged sword of the democratization of electronic publishing. It's a wonderful thing that anybody can be a publisher. But at the same time, it's not so wonderful—because anybody can be a publisher. For the Web to continue on a positive evolutionary path, we have to take a serious look at the business model of web publishing.
Very early on in the evolution of the Web, we took a wrong turn in assuming that everything had to be free, and the war cry, "Information wants to be free," took hold. In fact, information does not want to be free. Only bad information wants to be free. Good information wants to be paid for, whether it's through ads, subscriptions or micro-payments. Ad-based sites will always be with us, and this model in and of itself isn't a bad thing. It is after all, still the predominant business model of print publication. But calls for "citizen journalism", democratization and free-for-all open access aside, a little quality control never hurts. Web publishers that realize this will be the winners in the future.