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“Hand-Crafted Content” vs. the Machine: Betting on the People

by Kristina Halvorson on December 14th, 2009

 I just finished reading Michael Arrington’s "The End of Hand-Crafted Content " (also published elsewhere as "AOL’s New Fast-Food-Content Strategy Means the End of Journalism You Actually Enjoy").

How. Depressing.

Since reading Wired‘s apocalyptic article,  "The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model," I’ve certainly spent plenty of time bitching about the lowering of our already low standards for web content.

Here’s a summary of how mass-produced content works: 

Pieces [(content to be created)] aren’t dreamed up by trained editors nor commissioned based on submitted questions. Instead they are assigned by an algorithm, which mines nearly a terabyte of search data, Internet traffic patterns, and keyword rates to determine what users want to know and how much advertisers will pay to appear next to the answers.

Then, the assignment is posted to a ginormous database; it’s accepted by a freelancer somewhere, who then throws something together as quickly as possible because he’s only getting paid, like, four dollars to create it. (Want to know what the best vodka in the world is? A random bartender from a random bar in Florida KNOWS THE ANSWER!) (Uh, you’ll have to sit through the ad first.)

So, in one fell swoop, Demand Media—and now AOL—are both flooding the search engines with awful, terrible content and gleefully commodifying the work of writers, videographers, editors, and other media professionals around the world.

I hate them. Oooooo, how I hate them.

But, you know what?

McDonald’s didn’t put La Belle Vie out of business.

Does McDonald’s make more money than La Belle Vie? Of course they do. They’re freakin’ McDonalds. But La Belle Vie is running a very fine, profitable business, thank you very much, turning out exquisite French food that makes me want to weep with joy. (Even their cocktail menu is extraordinary.) (No, I do NOT say that about every cocktail menu.)

You don’t have to eat at La Belle Vie to appreciate the metaphor. Not everybody wants McDonald’s, and nobody wants McDonald’s all the time. People go out of their way to find what will satisfy, even delight, their appetites. 

AOL and Demand Media (and dozens more competitors, I’m sure) are anathema to pretty much anyone who wants an even slightly obscure question answered online. But in the long run, I’m betting on people, not algorithms. Just because I clicked on your stupid video doesn’t mean I can’t use my back button.

p.s. Google, get on this.   


  • http://www.allaboutnortel.com Mark Evans


    I believe there will always be demand for quality content…or content anything for that matter. It may not be mass market demand but there will be enough demand to allow for viable business to exist.


  • ianalexander

    I have to say I am fascinated for the “next” iteration of how and why we deliver information to whom. A dotted-line commitment to fast and cheap content is a commitment to clicks—and clicks don’t create value. And if no value is created, no value can be captured.

  • jeffcram

    Nice post. The Super Size Me reference from TechCrunch fits in nicely here. You see what happened to Morgan Spurlock from his fast food diet. Feasting on cheap, shallow and manufactured content will make you just as ill. Businesses may profit, but the content consumer will suffer. And if Google doesn't help us out, we may not have much of a choice in what we “eat”.


  • Alanwordguy


    Nice insight on McContent, as it's obviously getting its day in the sun. Paul Kedrosky has some related thoughts on the subject after reading the same two articles (and shopping for a dishwasher).



  • Noreen Compton

    I appreciate your optimism, Kristina. I hope you are right. For one, freelance writing rates by sites such as Demand have really hard the market. And I hate to think that quality content is being pushed off the Internet. Remember the early days of the Internet when content was garbage? We have advanced far from that – let's not go back. Onward, content defenders!

  • http://tpwd.pt Tiago Pedras


    I think we're currently passing a kind of a “comeback” to pure, nice human values these days. More and more you see big brands trying to humanize themselves. Take NBC for instante!


  • danieleizans


    Totally with you here. That demand for the most exquisite cocktail list of Web contnet will continue to perpetuate itself, but I also believe that search engines are going to need to figure out a way to give us a Zagat list of sorts for contnet.

    Somewhere there has to be someone dreaming up a way to showcase the content out there that is truly thought out and sourced by subject matter experts.

    I'm just hoping that we get our Zagat survey before users get burned out, bloated and tired of McContent.

  • devinmeister

    You're right Kristina.

    There's a rapid shifting and sifting of content coming. The restaurant analogy is great. Top quality won't be affected. Like the mom-n-pops diners of the 50's ceeded ground to (and became) franchises, simple sites not committed to quality won't be later.

    Slide 73 in Mr. Godin's What Is Now e-book http://bit.ly/8Q12tY by Merlin Mann is on point. Our trick will be to help viewers find the content that really satisfies. And enable them push away from the table when they're done.

  • http://doriantaylor.com/ Dorian Taylor

    Money quote: “Uh, you'll have to sit through the ad first.”

    I believe the Googobouros was mentioned elsewhere (Kedrosky?). So there has bloomed an entire parasitic ecosystem that capitalizes directly on an intellectual bait and switch.

    If I understand the idea correctly, it is to identify by computer which content is likely to generate significant ad payouts, then crowdsource, Mechanical-Turk style, whatever content suffices. It is then published on an already shady domain-squatting infrastructure that has been accruing for over a decade for just such a purpose. The money is earned on the spread between the ad revenue and the payout to “authors”.

    So the result is, people are profligately polluting the Internet by selling ads for things (almost) nobody wants to buy against content nobody wants to read written by people barely motivated to write. I don't even need to put on my pointy Internet-Serious-Business Haruspex hat and julienne a hamster to tell you that this will end in tears.

    On a somewhat creepier and slightly more specific note, if this really takes hold, it's kinda-sorta the beginning of the end of ad-supported content. Everywhere. Consider the following:

    There is significant evidence to suggest that we're fragmenting our attention in a seriously unhealthy way in an effort to stay on top of things (Cf. Linda Stone). Attention is an inelastic resource—there is only so much of it per person and per (social) network. If the standard of ad-supported content reduces to that which unabashedly exists only to lure ad clicks—with concomitant quality—then that is quickly all that will be left.

    What remains, then? Content minted for the purpose of being read for its own sake. How to monetize that? I don't know! But I'm happy to set on that problem for a modest fee.

  • http://braintraffic.com Kristina Halvorson

    Oh, Ian. You're always so very quotable!

  • http://braintraffic.com Kristina Halvorson

    You know, I think if Google can't get a handle on this, what we'll see is even more of the I'll-just-ask-my-friend approach to search. Twitter, anyone?

  • http://braintraffic.com Kristina Halvorson

    Oh, Noreen, I totally feel your pain. I started out as a freelancer (not that long ago, really) and would just go insane when I found out other freelancers in town were charging half of going rates–or less! Regardless, chin up. Hone your craft, stay true to your standards. Companies that get it will pay.

  • http://braintraffic.com Kristina Halvorson

    Remember when Yahoo! was basically human-powered?

    Those were the days.

  • jeffcram

    what you're saying is Facebook may be good for something beyond digital farming? ;-)


  • christine weeks

    What is you don't see the ads? The Readability experiment by ARC90 filters out web clutter making content more readable.


  • christine weeks

    Sorry. Pre-coffee commenting yields typos.

    What if you don't see the ads?

  • http://www.terella.no RennyBA

    It's like the old say (or singing by B. Marley): “You can fool some people sometimes. But you can't fool all the people all the time!”

    Of course content rules and in the long run, content and quality. In that way I would also say; Less is more… as quality is not always a matter of quantity.

    Btw: Looking forward to meet up with you in Oslo, Norway in Feb and listen to your presentation at the Norwegian Computer Society's conference “Software 2010

  • markinsonmarshal

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  • markinsonmarshal

    It's really nice post. I agree that people is always trying to have rich content with quality information. And I found it here. Count me in the list of your regular readers.
    Business Process Management

  • http://blog.braintraffic.com/2010/02/sorting-through-the-digital-debris-2/ Sorting through the digital debris « Brain Traffic Blog

    [...] content farms have learned to game the system, and dubious content is clogging up the works. If you do internet [...]

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