You’re probably familiar with phrase “content farm” – a website that produces text for search engine bots, not human readers – and the long-standing controversy surrounding them. In recent years, sites like The Huffington Post, Demand Media’s eHow and Yahoo!’s Associated Content have picked up the unsavory moniker. Wikipedia and wikiHow, with their enormous army of unpaid collaborative writers and editors, are kissing cousins.
These sites are not new, nor are the complaints about their business practices and credibility. But, as Greg Jarboe of SEO-PR pointed out during a recent MarketMotive webinar, what’s new is that Google’s recent Panda updates haven’t shut down all the content farms, like many had hoped and predicted. Instead, several farms, including those mentioned above, continue to flourish in the rankings, not only in text, but also on video results.
Why? Because people who are looking for this kind of information find it of value. Surprise! Or not.
Google fellow, Amit Singhal, and principal engineer, Matt Cutts, defined the February and April 2011 updates as ones which would “provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis, and so on.”
It’s clear that certain content farms have been rewarded by Google, mainly for delivering relevant content to their target audience. And, no matter how you feel about the legitimacy of these sites, they use several effective strategies your business should duplicate.
#1: Know your audience/customers
Welcome to Communication 101. Apparently the folks from eHow and the Huffington Post passed this one because they’re reaching their target audience consistently. They’ve got the rankings to prove it.
Honestly, this concept is as old as Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and Amazon.com lists nearly 6,000 matches for “audience” in its book section. However, businesses remain slow to put this into practice. The importance of knowing your target audience (a.k.a. your customers) and their information needs is a key aspect of any successful content marketing campaign. Don’t guess or make assumptions about your customers. If you haven’t yet defined your list of customer types (or buyer personas), compile them from data you already have or create them in some other way, such as surveys and focus groups.
#2: Know the keywords and what they mean to your audience
Yes, content farms are SEO masters – obviously. You can be, too, with a little effort. There are many free tools you can use to determine what the keywords and related terms are for your business or industry. Just google “keyword research” and you’ll get a number of viable options.
One thing that’s hard for communication professionals to swallow is when their pet industry phrases don’t mean the same thing to their customers and prospects. During Stoney deGeyter’s recent presentation to PRSA Cleveland, he used a great example of “used cars” vs. “pre-owned cars.” We all know what this is about. Car dealers didn’t like the connotation of the word “used,” so, at some point, they “crafted a message” about pre-owned cars and tried to “position” them as a more refined option for the budget-conscious. Well, in the mind of the searcher, the natural term is “used.” So, sometimes you have to get over yourself and ditch the creative catch-phrases in order to meet the information needs of your customer.
#3: Create content your customers can identify with right now
The content farms that survived Google Panda are really good at creating original stuff – just about every minute of the day. Two bits of good news: you don’t have to compete with their frequency and, chances are, the information your target audience is looking for isn’t trending that fast.
But, you do need to make sure your content is well-constructed (English 101), timely (Journalism 101) and written to address the issues your customers and prospects currently have. Engage them in your content right away. Let them know you understand where they’re coming from and how your product or service can help. This phrase, repeated ad nauseum in the content marketing arena, is apt: it’s not about you.
#4: Answer customers’ questions or take them where they need to go
Jarboe also discussed how many content farm articles and videos are responding to the how-to search, which is rapidly eclipsing the news search in popularity. Page rank with the new Panda updates indicates people are finding the answers they want, at least in some measure, from this content.
For business owners, this goes back to my first point – you have to know what your audience is asking for. But knowing is only half of it. Your content needs to either answer their questions on-page or steer them in the right direction with links to other related areas of your site. And, once you answer their questions, don’t forget to provide the call to action.
#5: Optimize each page for browsing
Web readers are so distracted. After all, there are so many interesting things to look at! Content farms and sites like YouTube do a great job of optimizing the browsing experience. Even if you don’t finish reading the article you initially discovered via search engine, the content farm provides you with a whole list of related content that might strike your fancy. Their goal – to keep the reader on site.
That should also be your goal. Make sure you give your customers as many options as possible when they visit. The longer they stay, the more likely they are to become conversions.