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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

The Search Engine Backlash Against 'Content Mills'

Some new search engines are seeking to rise above the tide of ad-driven media content.

  • July 26, 2010

Gabriel Weinberg, creator of upstart search engine Duck Duck Go (DDG), says that some time ago users requested that he remove from results from eHow.com. The site is owned by Demand Media, a $200 million a year “content farm” that produces 4,000 articles a day by playing freelance writers to churn out articles at bargain basement rates, based on what people are searching for and how much ads those search terms are worth.

Knowing little about the site and the discussions swirling around the quality (or lack thereof) of its content, Weinberg wasn’t moved to act on those requests until he discovered evidence that Demand Media, which owns eHow.com, was buying up domains for legitimate businesses and redirecting them to their own content.

“It pushed me over the edge,” says Weinberg.

One example Weinberg discovered concerned the website for the Bank of Elgin, a small bank in Elgin, Nebraska, which has been in operation since 1935. Inexplicably, whoever set up the bank’s original website made it available at BankofElgin.net, and didn’t buy the more obvious BankofElgin.com.

While it’s not clear who actually owns BankofElgin.com (because that domain is registered under a proxy) Demand Media is certainly benefiting from this oversight. As Weinberg outlined in a recent blog post, visitors to BankofElgin.com are redirected to http://www.ehow.com/apply-card-credit-online/, and are greeted with this message, followed by content from eHow on banking:

Hi There! bankofelgin.com isn’t available, but you’re still in a good place – ehow.com. We think we might have what you’re looking for.

Weinberg says that most of the crawling his automated web spiders do on the web is conducted solely to keep spam out of the search results he delivers.

“I had noticed over time the increasing frequency of made-for-adsense (MFA) results in Google. These are the pages (often worse than ehow.com) that essentially are full of ads and have very little content, but nevertheless appear in search results a lot (at least on the major search engines),” Weinberg said via email.

The content he’s blocking includes everything from “Made-for-Adsense” sites that offer no content at all to sites that offer only, in Weinberg’s judgment, low-quality content designed specifically to rank highly in Google’s search index.

“Usually the stuff I’m blocking is pretty straightforward, i.e. not really on the line. The few that have been somewhat on the line are usually big sites, and I’ve asked users or they have been driven by user reports followed by my subsequent investigation,” says Weinberg.

Weinberg’s approach is mirrored by forthcoming “social search engine” Blekko, which allows users to easily search within clusters of sites that their friends have marked as trusted content.

In some sense, Blekko’s approach is more democratic–if any content is good enough for your friends, it’s probably good enough for you too.

Follow Christopher Mims on Twitter, or contact him via email.

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