After much Internet angst regarding Google’s most recent search engine algorithm update called Panda (or in some places, the Farmer update) there seems to be some discussion around what exactly is a content mill and how content mills work.
What Do Content Mills Do?
Content mills, like many forms of new media, are not specifically defined. For example, no executive, owner, or publisher thinks that their website or organization is a content mill, no matter how many people disagree. Furthermore, some content mills are much more spammy than others. And, there are arguments to be made that some content mills provide at least some level of useful service in some areas.
Basically, a content mills is a website, or collection of websites, that generates an out-sized amount of webpages or online content for the sole purpose of generating a large amount of search engine referral traffic. Although content mills are blamed for a lot of webspam, the enabler of their behavior is actually the search engines themselves.
A search engine like Google, for example, returns a series of results for each search made by users of their search website. The order in which the results are displayed has a very high correlation with which websites receive the majority of traffic from that particular search. The order in which webpages are displayed is determined by a proprietary ranking algorithm that attempts to return the “best” results for a particular search.
A search engine ranking algorithm is based on two parts. The first part determines which webpage is the best fit for the search, and the second part determines which of those best fitting webpages is the best or most useful. Content mills work by attempting to be the best fit for as many searches as possible.
How Content Mills Work
For many web searches the content mills return no highly ranked pages. This is particularly true of shorter searches for which there are numerous quality results to compete against. However, with more specific searches there is little, or even no competition. Content mills take advantage of this by generating volumes of content in order to be the best match to a search, often because there are no other exact matches.
Check out a recent article about Citibank rewards credit cards.
Consider the number of ways a user can search for the same piece of information.
For example, someone might be interested in knowing what the income limits for Roth IRAs are this year. All of the following searches would be reasonable ways to search for that information:
- income limits for roth iras
- income limits for roth ira
- what is the income limit for roth iras
- what is the income limit for roth iras this year
- what is the income limit for roth ira 2011
- roth ira income limits 2011
- 2011 roth ira income limits
- roth ira income limitations
- maximum roth ira income 2011
Of course, there are many, many other ways to search for the same information.
A content mill works by generating a unique article for each and every one of those searches, no matter how redundant such content might be. The result is that when a user searches for income limits for roth iras the content mill’s article title matches that search exactly. Now, regardless of how highly ranked it is compared to other articles with the same information, it is nonetheless the best “fit” for that user’s search and therefore ranked high for that search. The result may be just a hundred visitors per month, but multiplied over thousands of articles for that one topic, that is a hundred thousand page views with which to generate earnings from advertisements.
Ironically, this is one of the ways to make writing for Demand Studios worth it for a professional freelance writer. By selecting several similar “assignments” you can write and re-write what is essentially the same article, thereby cranking out five or six articles in a very short period of time.
The reason this all works is because Google overweighs the title of a webpage in determining how well it matches a particular search. That means that even though an IRS article about Roth IRA income limits may be the best possible source of information on the subject, that article will have only one title. While that article may be the number one search result for a handful of searches that closely match that title, it will rank lower for all of the other ways someone could search for that information.
Ironically, this is where content mills are sometimes of benefit. If you want to know ANYTHING about IRAs, the best possible resource is Publication 590, which is the official IRS publication about IRAs. However, it is a long document filled with legal jargon, and if all you want is to know how much money you can earn before you are ineligible to make a Roth IRA contribution, you would actually probably prefer the shorter, focused, article the content mills churned out.
(BTW, for 2011 the maximum income limits for Roth IRA contributions are $179,000 for married filing jointly and $122,000 for single filers.)