This Sunday past, Richard MacManus published an article on ReadWriteWeb.com entitled, “Content Farms: Why Media, Blogs & Google Should Be Worried.”
MacManus believes that Google et al. should be worried because ranking algorithms use in-bound links as an indicator of authority but, due to the rise of “content farms” such as Demand Media and Answers.com, which can effectively generate links to their own content at scale, the number of in-bound links may indicate little more than the ability for an organization to generate in-bound links.
A conversation that I had with two SEO jedi back in October at the MarketingProfs Digital Marketing Mixer caused a similar thought to haunt the darkened corridors of my tortured mind. That is, it became clear to this novice that building links is, in part, merely a question of resources and effort. If, like the one jedi claimed, you have “guys in India” who can help by Digg-ing content and taking care of directory submissions, you’re gonna rank. If not, good luck.
Thought #1: If link-building is primarily a question of effort, then search results in Google primarily reflect this effort, rather than some quasi-meritocratic invisible hand.
In other words, the problem with this aspect of the link economy is that, in effect, people can print their own money. Now I ask you, how many “real world” economies could survive that kind of devaluation of its currency?
Still curious about the link economy, I hit the Googles and discovered a raging conversation about the value of links being waged from the content producer side. This dispute started with an article by Arnon Mishkin on “The Fallacy of the Link Economy” in which he argued, in effect, that links ARE content so that link aggregators should be paying the sources for these links.
Links to news stories, for instance, function as content for a simple reason: ingrained reading habits. As Mishkin reminds us, most people consume news by scanning the headlines and then jumping straight to the content that really interests them (sports, music, cooking, etc.)
Following this reasoning, the aggregators are offering people the content they want – in this case, headlines – but these aggregators, and not the headline creators, reap the rewards (potential PPC ad revenue, for example).
Jeff Jarvis took issue with Mishkin on a number of fronts, including his math, and used the disagreement to re-emphasize one of his imperatives of the link economy: “The recipient of links is the party responsible for monetizing the audience they bring.”
To Mishkin’s point, however, if the link is itself the content drawing people to the aggregator, and it undeniably is, then this allows the aggregator to “monetize the audience” which in all likelihood never make it to the link recipient’s site.
In response to this claim, Jarvis argues on the one hand that aggregators make a lot less than you think (an argument which actually reinforces Mishkin’s), and on the other hand that aggregators make the recipients more money than the latter fear (an argument supported by Mishkin, as Jarvis rightly points out, when he suggests that content producers unite and create their own aggregators).
All of which should serve to remind us that nothing has value in and of itself; value is always relative and in most cases must be created.
Yes, the aggregators use links as content. No, they did not create this content themselves nor did they necessarily create the value adhering to a particular link, which generally originates with the brand equity of the source, The New York Times, for example.
Nevertheless, it’s important to recall that the value garnered by the aggregator does not arise from the content per se but from the service (aggregation and curation) provided by the aggregator. Likewise, the value accrued by the content creator of record does not inhere in the content either, but depends entirely on what they are able to do with it (and placing ads next to it seems to be the main, lame idea).
Thought #2: You may need content to make money in this economy, but you don’t make money from content; you always make money from something else.
What’s your “something else”?