Monday, December 07, 2009

The "new" AOL is trying to become a pay-to-play content company

Last week the Wall Street Journal broke a story about AOL and CEO Tim Armstrong's new strategy to create a content company that is more attuned to what people are searching for and what advertisers want to promote. The plan is to create a network of freelancers that will write copy based on popular searches. Much of the freelancers' compensation will be based on how many times the content is clicked on, and advertisers will pay to be associated with certain types of content much like they do for Google's AdSense--where Armstrong used to work. Supposedly this copy will be better aligned with both searchers' and advertisers needs.

One big question for AOL is how much this will blur the traditional "church and state" roles of journalism and advertising. Are these search results going to be portrayed as "organic" results? If so, the fact that they are in essence being manipulated by AOL without proper disclosure may be a bit sketchy. Others may ask, "Does THAT even matter any more?"

The blogosphere has been less than kind to AOL since the story broke. The TechDirt blog paraphrases the strategy as "filling the Internet with crap."

Tom Foremski, at the Silicon Valley Watcher says AOL is being "clueless" again and that it will result in bland and beige content. He asks, "Why not just repurpose press releases and existing advertorials?"

I tend to agree. Searchers will be able to tell the difference between good content and bad. I don't think this is about creating more appealing content and better search results. This is really a business model strategy that reduces most of the internal content and editorial cost structure that AOL would incur and grafts those costs to a fragmented network of very low cost freelance producers.

I like the last paragraph of Slate's article on AOL's plan. Columnist Farhad Manjoo compares AOL's strategy to journalism by journalists, i.e., original content that people want to read:

"TMZ realized early on that it couldn't publish enough Tiger Woods items. But the site also reports on stuff that people don't know they want to read about. TMZ didn't get the scoop about Michael Jackson's death, Chris Brown's domestic abuse, or Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade because it saw that people were searching for those topics. Instead, its staffers are constantly developing sources that blanket the entertainment industry, an effort that generates enormous returns—and wins a loyal readership that keeps coming back for more. There are no shortcuts to that kind of reporting and no algorithms that can tell you what makes for a good story. That's the difference between producing content and producing journalism."

Whole article at
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