What if Google categorizes Patch.com as a 'content farm?'

Last Friday Google made a major announcement: Focus on improving search results has shifted from “pure webspam” to “content farms.” The latter are sites with shallow or low-quality content, websites that try to cheat their way into first page of search results. Google sees these sites as junk.

In theory, this all sounds good. Especially when one of the goals is to affect sites that copy others’ content and sites with low levels of original content. None of these “low quality” sites are named, but I can see smoke coming up from Santa Monica: Demand Media is not happy about this. The company is in the middle of the rumored IPO and Google is possibly going to lower the ranking of content farm sites such as eHow.com. I would be angry, especially when most of your anticipated business value relies on writing stories based on popular search queries, i.e. farming content. Timing of the Google announcement is hardly an accident.

As tempting as it is to gloat over Demand Media’s misfortune, the Google announcement might have severe consequences to all publishing. The company doesn’t identify the sites it considers to be “low quality.” One of the things Google will attack are sites and pages with “repeated spammy words—the sort of phrases you tend to see in junky, automated, self-promoting blog comments.”

If you have hired a social media or search engine specialist, this is one of the key tricks you will be taught. Go out to the Internet, spread your links to comments and remember to include popular keywords in title, lead and body text. But Google is trying to build a search engine that understands natural language and true relationships between sites, an algorithm that is not fooled by clever cross-linking or keywords.

As a journalist, you have to support that. Otherwise the whole Web will look like the joke LAweekly published few days ago: “So this SEO copywriter walks into a bar, grill, pub, public house, Irish bar, bartender, drinks, beer, wine, liquor.”

The big question is how will Google judge who is doing spammy, search-engine inspired headlines and who is doing real customer research with Google Analytics.

Let’s take Patch.com – not because it’s evil but because it’s probably one of the sites that could be impacted by Google’s dislike of content farming and shallow content. I am not saying Patch.com is doing either, but computers might think differently. Patch.com sites create a lot of content about wide variety of topics on their own neighborhood – something that an algorithm could think as trying to match the long-tail queries in your area. And Google emphasizes that there is no human judgment involved, just computers calculating the odds of junk content vs. not junk.

Should you be worried if you are doing data-driven content innovation on your site? Meaning that you get story ideas from following up what people search within your site, what keywords drive them to your site from Google and what does Google Zeitgeist tell you about the most popular searches during this time of the year.

I would not be too worried. Just keep on churning out good original content and pay less attention to eager SEO consultants. I hope Google is just transforming the whole publishing industry by making copies obsolete and helping people to find the original pieces of content.

Pekka Pekkala researches sustainable business models at USC Annenberg, is a partner at Fugu Media and a technology columnist. He used to be the head of development at Helsingin Sanomat, the largest Finnish newspaper.

Why the death of syndication is great news for hyperlocal and niche sites

Clay Shirky makes a wise prediction for 2011. It is called widespread disruptions for syndication:

Put simply, syndication makes little sense in a world with URLs. When news outlets were segmented by geography, having live human beings sitting around in ten thousand separate markets deciding which stories to pull off the wire was a service. Now it’s just a cost.

If you happen to run a hyperlocal or niche publication, this prediction is a good one. Internet is built on the idea of having just one copy of everything, accessible to everyone. If you produce those original pieces of content, no need to worry. If you’re in the business of aggregating others content, prepare for a rough ride.

The idea of one copy surfaced last winter along with Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. Internet pioneer Ted Nelson originally coined the term and Lanier summarizes it well:

Instead of copying digital media, we should effectively keep only one copy of each cultural expression.

Internet is the great antidote for the Gutenberg printing press: instead of enabling us to make copies cheaper and faster, it makes the whole idea of copying obsolete. Why copy if you can make a link to the original?

Anyone who has worked in an online newsroom knows the problem of copying. How much time we should spend following the other news outlets, copy their breaking stories with a punchier headline and a quickly written comment? And how much effort should be spent creating original content and our own breaking stories?

The idea of “do what you do best, link to the rest” is not new, Jeff Jarvis wrote about it already in 2007. But for some reason, linking seems to be really difficult for news organizations. The idea of having everything on your site comes from the old editorial culture. Newspaper is the complete package of yesterday’s events; TV newscast is today’s package of everything important. If you leave something out, people will probably change the channel or cancel the subscription. But in the Internet, there are no packages, channels or subscriptions. There is just one big mess of links.

When Ted Nelson was making the first designs for something like World Wide Web, it didn’t have copies but one giant, global file.

The whole of a user’s productivity accumulated in one big structure, sort of like a singular personal web page.

So the idea of Internet — and the technology behind it — is exactly the opposite to the idea of a traditional newspaper publishing. We are not creating our own publications or single ‘destination’ websites but building a giant, single web. Work against this principle and you’ll end up in trouble. This is why paywalls are failing on the Web, in mobile and will fail in most cases on iPad. Once you start blocking iPad users from your website to sell more apps, you are encouraging readers to make copies, not subscriptions.

But all this is great news for small publishers, such as hyperlocal news or niche sites. You can be a part of that single Web page of Internet news. Concentrate on the original content instead of copying; create the one copy only you or your organization can create. If you don’t believe me, listen to Gawker’s Nick Denton: scoop generates audience, which in turn generates advertising.

The end of syndication is good news for journalists as well. When publishers start creating more original content instead of hastily made copies, the human element comes back to the process of journalism. The creator of the original content becomes more valuable, because it is still pretty difficult to make copies of people.

I might sound like a technophile, but the irony is that Google News is already helping original content to surface above copies. Google News algorithm knows who published the original story first. If your news site covers the same story and doesn’t include the link to the original story in the first paragraph, you can kiss Google News front-page goodbye.

And it was Google News algorithm that made us aware of the syndication craze. Who could have imagined there were 12,000 copies of the ‘Somali pirates’ story without Google telling it to us. Now Google is punishing us for making those copies. Who saw that one coming?

Pekka Pekkala researches sustainable business models at USC Annenberg, is a partner at Fugu Media> and a technology columnist. He used to be the head of development at Helsingin Sanomat, the largest Finnish newspaper.

The top 10 key lessons for hyperlocal journalism startups from ONA10

If you are dreaming about your own news site, you are not alone: hyperlocal sites are popping up everywhere. At ONA10 last week in Washington, D.C., veterans of the hyperlocal scene shared they experiences, both successes and failures. Here’s the top 10 of the recurring topics during the three-day conference.

1. Successful doesn’t mean beautiful

Take a look at the award-winning WestSeattleBlog.com. The design is pretty much out-of-the-box WordPress. Instead of fancy graphics, WSB has concentrated on more important things: great content and selling ads. As a result, the site is has provided income for Tracy Record and her husband for two years. Sometimes you don’t even need a site: DavidsonNews.net, a news site that claims it’s close to $100,000 revenue per year, started as an email newsletter.

2. Legal stuff isn’t rocket science

If you plan to do proper journalism on your news blog, you probably will piss someone off. Or somebody in your very informal blog network will, and you all get sued. Citizen Media Law Project offers advice how to protect yourself and what to do with nasty comments or copyright infringements, how to create a “Terms and Conditions” policy, and what to do with DMCA (for those not into the jargon yet, that’s the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notices.

3. There is no such thing as free content

Running a neighborhood website where ordinary citizens produce content sounds tempting, right? You just gently advise the amateurs and wait for the stories to come in. Wrong. Read J-Lab report New Voices: What Works and learn how much work it requires to keep the contributors active. Less than 1 in 10 of those you train will stick around to be regular contributors.

4. Follow the data

When your resources are scarce, it is good to know where to concentrate to attract readers. Web analytics, such as Google Analytics, help in this case. Founder Susan Mernit from Oakland Local said that they thought people would read normal feature-like news stories. It turned out that the really simple stories about a new coffee shop or the heavy, investigative pieces were the most read. So they stopped doing features.

5. Focus on money from day one

Michele McLellan, Knight Digital Media Center consultant, leadership blogger, said her research at Reynolds Journalism Institute as a fellow last year showed that those who think about revenue at the beginning usually succeed, even if the business model changes. Mike Orren, Pegasusnews.com publisher, reminded that advertisers don’t care how big you are if they don’t know you. It takes a long time to build a brand in advertising community and it matters, because ad buying decisions are not made rationally. If you have a three-year grant for your startup, you can’t focus on content the first two years and hope you figure out the money part in the third and last year.

6. Advertisers are buying your audience, not funding your stories

COO Ben Ilfeld from Sacramento Press reminded the future startups that you are not selling words or publication to the advertisers but the idea of being at the center of the community. That’s why you have to be everywhere in social media and get rid of the idea that your site is a publication. It’s only one way to reach and interact with your community/customers. Evan Smith, the Texas Tribune Editor-in-Chief, went even further, saying destination websites are dead.

7. Grants don’t come for free

Foundations are lot like other VC’s: they expect return on their investment. If they have a mission, make sure your mission matches it. Jim Cutie, COO of CT Mirror, explained that foundations are very much like any other investors: they expect you to have a strong business model, partnerships, management team and board from day one. And some expect you to be self-sustainable in three to five years.

8. Focus on multiple revenue models

Seeing the different journalism startup presentations at ONA10 made one thing very clear: being sustainable requires much more than selling ads. You can get some funding through crowd-funding platforms, such as Spot.us or through ad networks, like Sloan. DavidsonNews.net offers Design Services, Texas Tribune makes money on events. Steve Buttry, TBD.com Director of Community Engagement, has made a good list of revenue streams.

9. Technology should be fast and cheap

Mike Orren from Pegasus News nailed the platform discussion: If platform isn’t what you sell, don’t waste your time on building one. Use WordPress or Drupal. Let nerds take care of the code.

10. Stop whining and just do it

Rafat Ali, the paidContent.org founder, said journalists spend too much time talking about the 50 different available business models or complaining about the lack of micropayments instead of doing stuff. And the lack of big media access can be a blessing: Georgetown didn’t like the way sports blog Casual Hoya wrote about the team and got their press passes revoked. Blogger Andrew Geiger said that it was the best thing that could have happened. Now they don’t have to worry about pleasing anyone and the casualhoyas can write whatever they want – and readers like that.

Pekka Pekkala researches sustainable business models at USC Annenberg, is a partner at Fugu Media> and a technology columnist. He used to be the head of development at Helsingin Sanomat, the largest Finnish newspaper.