I've been writing a lot about so-called 'content farms' in recent months - companies like Demand Media and Answers.com which create thousands of pieces of content per day and are making a big impact on the Web. Both of those two companies are now firmly inside the top 20 Web properties in the U.S., on a par with the likes of Apple and AOL.

Big media, blogs and Google are all beginning to take notice.

Chris Ahearn, President of Media at Thomson Reuters, recently published an article on how journalism can survive in the Internet age. TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington also riffs on this theme, mentioning AOL's "Toyota Strategy of building thousand of niche content sites via the work of cast-offs from old media" and quoting a Wired piece on Demand Media from October.

I started my analysis of Demand Media in this August post. I wrote then that Demand Media operates based on a simple formula for success on the Web: create a ton of niche, mostly uninspired content targeted to search engines, then make it viral through social software and make lots of money through ads. Demand Media has been heavily funded to carry out that mission, to the tune of $355 million. In short, it's a well-funded, well-oiled page view generating machine.

In November I explored more about how Demand Media produces 4,000 pieces of content a day, based on an interview I did with the founders in September. I followed up by asking: is ad-driven content crossing a line?

Low Quality, High Impact

The bottom line is that the quality of content produced by these 'content farms' is dubious, which has an impact on both publishers and readers.

Last week I analyzed the way wikiHow produces its content - its users do all of the writing and editing for free, via a Wikipedia-like platform. There was evidence that wikiHow's model is producing better content than its Demand Media counterpart for how-to articles, eHow. More worrying though is that Demand Media is producing thousands of these types of articles a day.

So is the Web becoming awash with low-quality content produced by content farms like Demand Media, Answers.com and now AOL? Yes it is.

From my analysis of Demand Media and similar sites, such content is very generic and lacks depth. While I wouldn't go as far as wikiHow founder Jack Herrick and say that it "lacks soul," it certainly lacks passion and often also lacks knowledge of the topic at hand. Arrington's analogy with fast food is apt - it is content produced quickly and made to order.

Can Quality Survive?

Given the impact that content farms are having right now, how can producers of 'quality' content survive?

Chris Ahearn from Thomson Reuters claims that journalism will "do more than survive the Internet Age, it will thrive." Ahearn notes that Reuters makes the "vast majority of its revenues" from subscription-based business models targeted to "vertical and niche markets." Plus Reuters, he says, provides "valuable services - not just content."

Ahearn also implies that syndication technologies, like Reuters' semantic analysis platform Open Calais, will lead to a new kind of "B2B content network" - where content creators and publishers can easily collaborate and make money together.

Google Needs to Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

In my view both writers and readers of content will need to work harder to get quality content. I know I'd rather read an article by The Economist on any given topic, than one generated by Demand Media. But we, as readers, need more help from Google and the other search engines.

Right now 'quantity' still rules on the Web, 'quality' is hard to find. Perhaps that's why Reuters is betting on the subscription model - it hopes that consumers will just subscribe to quality content, thereby removing the need to search for it. I think there's something to that, which if true implies that Google will become less relevant in the future. Should Google be worried about that? Yes; and they are.

I can only hope that Google and other search engines find betters ways to surface quality content, for its own sake as well as ours. Because right now Google is being infiltrated on a vast scale by content farms.

If you thought it was bad enough that many professional blogs pump out 30 posts a day, often regurgitations of press releases or quick write-ups of "news" such as Twitter being down for a few minutes (note the irony of that tweet), this new type of Google gaming is on a far bigger scale.

What Demand Media, Answers.com and AOL are doing is having a much greater impact on the quality and findability of content on the Web.

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Photo credit: ~Darin~

See also: How Google Can Combat Content Farms (follow-up to this post)