Old MacDonald Meets AOL

March 5, 2011

Prices for farmland here in the Midwest are soaring, says the New York City-based newspaper of record. Up as much as 23 percent year on year for the prime stuff.

And while I live in Illinois, a state that is corporate home to some of the world’s biggest multinational agribusiness operators in part because it is flatter than Manhattan and strategically located next to alot of corn and soybeans, I really wouldn’t know. Do people want to plant more… or is it those pesky commodity speculators?

The all purpose residential real estate barometer is Zillow, which thoughtfully sends a monthly email reminder that the market value of my home continues to drop lower – perilously close to the floor on which I boarded the escalator. And my assumption that all real estate was withering while waiting for the benevolent light of the finance gods to shine on America again was apparently wrong.

But a bubble in farmland?  Someone must smell money in growing stuff.

All of which I thought about as I read that AOL, formerly AOL Time Warner, formerly America Online, formerly the great pioneering walled garden of the internet – speculated with some of its dwindling cash – by buying a farm itself.

The commodity this farm grows is words (and to a lesser extent, images and videos).

The farm is known as the Huffington Post – which brands itself as The Internet’s Newspaper At Your Doorstep.  Its founders pocketed a quarter of a billion dollars in the transaction. Actually $315 million is the reported price tag

I am staggered at the price. So too are the Zillows of the media transaction sphere.

What interests me more than price, though, is the media model. The Huffington Post is essentially a Content Farm.

And apparently farms, these days, are making people who make money excited, even if they are not making money themselves.

A content farm works like this:

The SEO (that stands for Search Engine Optimization) gurus down on the farm figure out what people are searching for.  The editorial staff then finds content the farm can publish.  Remember, we are growing words here, not corn. And these words have to have value.

And how do they find said content?  One way is to have an article crowd-sourced, which is French (sorry Miss Block) for — offer people who write the opportunity to be published as their sole compensation, or if they are any good at attracting eyeballs, give them a few Yuans based on the number of eyeballs they attract. The more disreputable farms just steal words others have published.

And aggregating all of this crowd-sourced content, jamming into a format that is attractive, and offering it up as a legitimate information source is what this model is all about.

So the need of the SEO guru is met.  The content shows up high on search rankings, because, after all people are looking for content in these very specific content areas. They knew that or they wouldn’t have commissioned the article. People click. It doesn’t mean they get what they are looking for.  But they click.

Clicks are why someone perceived this AOL deal was worth a quarter of a billion dollars.

In the internet age, clicks are cash.  That is why domains are parked with stupid ads you reach when you misspell what you are looking for.

And if the world is looking for Lady Gaga, or whatever is trending at this second, content farms will fill that need.

The journalism schools are still sorting out what this means, and probably will forever. That is what they do.

The big discussion questions seem to revolve around:

  • Is perceived potential popularity (PPP) the most virtuous reason to commission a story?
  • Is a blogger a journalist?
  • How can a civilian trust what they read is legit? Does that ever really matter and to whom?
  • Will content farming discourage investigation and perspective?
  • Will this lead to the death of newspapers, printed and delivered on paper?

That clicks are King is no big revelation to me and shouldn’t be to you.

When you strip away the platitudes, Attracting, Building, and Maintaining an Audience is why mainstream commercial TV, Radio and Newspaper media exist. They derive income from advertisers who want to sell to their audience. Marketers can’t count the viewers or listeners or readers of the “traditional” mass media so easily.  That is why marketers and advertisers really looooove the internet.

Clicks just give a real-time measure of audience. A very powerful tool for those who need to show quick ROI for every dollar spent on marketing and advertising a product or an idea. Concrete metrics from computers, smart phones or other devices that communicate via the internet, reveal whether their commercial, or banner ad, or paid for blog, or advertorial, or SEO commissioned article was seen, and sometimes by whom.  Meanwhile, the farm itself hopes the newly attracted viewser will root around in the content for other stuff of interest. It is what some call (cringe) a win/win.

As for quality? I predict eventual proof (as with earthquake predictors, though, it is the when that is the rub) that enough virtual monkeys hitting keys at random on a computer over time will almost certainly produce the complete works of Shakespeare.


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