AOL’s content strategy – mass production

AOL has been very impressive with its new emphasis on content. New sites like Asylum and Lemondrop have produced cool content in their respective niches. It also doesn’t hurt to have them linked up from AOL’s high-traffic flagship site.

The Wall Street Journal, however, is reporting that AOL will also get into mass-produced content (sometimes referred to as garbage content).

AOL is putting the finishing touches on a high-tech system for mass-producing news articles, entertainment and other online content, the linchpin of Chief Executive Tim Armstrong’s strategy for reviving the struggling 25-year-old Internet company after Time Warner spins it off next month.

Mr. Armstrong’s goal is to make AOL, which has been losing visitors and revenue, a magnet for both advertisers and consumers by turning it into the top creator of digital content. He hopes to do so in part by turning some media and marketing conventions on their ear, and potentially blurring the lines between journalism and advertising.

“Content is the one area on the Web that hasn’t seen the full potential. Hopefully, we will spark a revolution of people doing content at a different scale,” says Mr. Armstrong, a former advertising executive at Google.

AOL is betting it can reinvent itself with a numbers-driven approach to developing content, based on what Web-search and other data tell it is most likely to attract audiences and sponsors.

As pointed out this the article, this strategy mimics the approach taken by companies like Demand Media and Associated Content. Wired has a long profile covering Demand Media’s strategy, which uses an algorithm to pick narrow content subjects that could generate significant revenue from sources like Google Adwords.

Thousands of other filmmakers and writers around the country are operating with the same loose standards, racing to produce the 4,000 videos and articles that Demand Media publishes every day. The company’s ambitions are so enormous as to be almost surreal: to predict any question anyone might ask and generate an answer that will show up at the top of Google’s search results. To get there, Demand is using an army of Muñoz-Donosos to feverishly crank out articles and videos. They shoot slapdash instructional videos with titles like “How To Draw a Greek Helmet” and “Dog Whistle Training Techniques.” They write guides about lunch meat safety and nonprofit administration. They pump out an endless stream of bulleted lists and tutorials about the most esoteric of subjects.

In one sense the strategy is brilliant. There’s obviously some demand for content in each of these areas, and companies like Demand are meeting the demand (what’s in a name?) and profiting nicely from it.

On the other hand, much of the content is crap, and the crap from these big companies who get massive love from Google will often rank higher than similar content produced by others. This raises another question – will quality ever matter in search results? The criteria used by the search engines, which heavily rate factors like incoming links, are easily manipulated by content factories like Demand Media.

Manipulating Google results is obviously a big business these days, and companies like Demand Media and AOL are just doing it on a much larger scale. But we’re getting to the point where content is turning into a commodity, and Google is feeding the beast. In the long run, it will be interesting to see if Google adjusts its secret sauce, or whether the content factories will litter the web and the search engine with second-rate content.

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