Content farms have been in the spotlight over the past year. They're companies that generate hundreds or thousands of new pieces of content on a daily basis. Much of their traffic comes from Google search, so the aim of content farms is to rake in the money with online advertising. Demand Media has been the most ambitious of these companies, but even the big portals are doing it nowadays. Yahoo! recently acquired Associated Content and AOL launched an initiative earlier this year disingeniously called Seed.
In our content farms coverage so far, we've focused mostly on textual content farms. But video may well be the next frontier. A startup called Howcast specializes in mass production of video content.
I spoke to Sanjay Raman, Chief Product Officer at Howcast, to find out what its strategy is and what he thinks of Demand Media and other competitors.
How Howcast Works
As the name suggests, Howcast is all about how-to videos. As with other 'content farm' companies, Howcast has identified a big opportunity to provide so-called "evergreen" informational content on the Web across hundreds of thousands of categories. The rationale being that people search, mostly on Google, for instructional content. How To Shuck an Oyster, How to Save Water in Your Garden, How to Avoid Dropped Calls on the iPhone 4, and so on.
Howcast is betting that how-to videos will have more relevance to searchers in the near future, than textual how-to articles. And given that YouTube is already the 2nd largest search engine in the world, behind only Google, that seems a solid business assumption.
Howcast launched in February 2008 and now has nearly 200,000 instructional videos. It streams 25 million videos each month on both its own web site and across a network that includes web portals like AOL and Yahoo, and online TV or video sites like Hulu and Dailymotion. Its biggest distribution platform though is YouTube, where it has over 150,000 channel subscribers. Raman said that around 80% of its videos are viewed offsite, with 20% being viewed on Howcast's web site.
It also has a strong mobile presence, which Raman said was key to Howcast's future growth. He noted that Howcast has had over 2 million app downloads across the iPhone, iPad, Android, and BlackBerry devices. The Howcast for iPad app alone has been installed by 150,000 iPad users (approximately 5% of global iPad users) and was for a time the number 2 free iPad app in Apple's App Store.
Raman noted that user engagement is very good on mobile - for example users watch videos on average twice a day and watch two videos per session. Perhaps for this reason, Raman said that the value of users on mobile is much higher than on other platforms.
The Quality Question
In my discussion with Sanjay Raman, Chief Product Officer at Howcast, the word "quality" came up a number of times.
Every time I talk to 'content farm' companies, they insist that the aim is to produce quality content. That's because the most common criticism of content farms is that they clog up search engines with poor quality content.
In Howcast's case, the content appears to be professionally produced. It outputs about 400 how-to videos each month, most of which flows through its Emerging Filmmakers Program. Raman said that the program attracts wanna-be filmmakers, who are looking for a place to prove their skills. Howcast pays between $50-$300 per video.
Raman told me that Howcast wants to keep the content bar high. He claimed that Howcast has a much higher ratio of subscribers per video than Demand Media. Howcast is "not necessarily playing the volume game," he added.
Comparison to Demand Media
Who is the top YouTube provider, measured by views? You guessed it, Demand Media. This is because it produces far more video content per month than Howcast (Demand competes directly with Howcast with its property eHow). While Sanjay Raman didn't have exact figures, he estimated that Demand Media produces about 10 times more videos every month than Howcast. However he implied that this resulted in lower quality videos.
"Demand Media takes tasks and makes them smaller than they need to be," said Raman.
He also claimed that Howcast's playbacks per video are higher than Demand Media's. Howcast averages 44-50,000 playbacks per video, he told me, whereas Demand is around 7,000 per video.
Despite Demand Media Threat, Howcast Well Positioned
Many questions about content farms seem to center around whether other companies can compete with Demand Media, which operates on a much larger scale than its competitors. Perhaps the only company capable of stopping Demand's relentless growth is Google, which is reportedly tweaking its algorithms to better account for quality over quantity.
Howcast is hoping that its focus on professional video-making, via its filmmakers program, will lead to high search results. That remains to be seen. One thing that Howcast definitely has going for it is its positioning in the mobile space, which is increasingly where video content is consumed.