On the Web, content is an enabler.
One craze a few years ago was the content farm. However, as Andrew Wallenstein wrote in 2013 for Variety, “The future of the so-called 'content farm' looks bleak as its search-centric biz crumbles.”
Wallenstein focuses on Demand Media who, when it went public in 2011, saw its market capitalization soar to more than $2 billion, “sending the then-5-year-old firm’s value briefly past that of the New York Times Co. Compare those heights with where Demand finds itself today, having plummeted to roughly a quarter of its peak value. Revenues for the most recent quarter were down year-over-year for the first time since that IPO.”
Demand Media is a “content farm.” It rose to fame and fortune by identifying popular searches and creating cheap content and domain names to match these searches. You know when you search for “3-D blu ray players” and the first link is from 3dblurayplayers.com and you click on it and find nothing but ads for 3-D blu ray players? Demand Media make money off you clicking on those ads. You know when you want to learn how to do something and you end up on a badly written "how to" page that’s next to useless? Chances are a Demand Media content mule wrote it. It was an extremely profitable business model for a while because it gamed the search engines.
But Google was watching. It didn’t like the content farms because it knew that people hate search spam as much as email spam. It started heavily penalizing these spam websites, causing their rankings to tank and their business models to crumble. Within a short period, traffic to Demand sites had dropped by 40 percent, and the stock began to dive.
To stop the traffic plunge, Demand shifted strategy and focused on trying to improve the quality of their content. Ironically, this had a negative effect on revenue, because as Wallenstein writes, "it decreased ad click-through, since people were reading the articles instead of the ads." That’s interesting, isn’t it? When Demand improved the quality of its content, less people were clicking on the ads.
This is a real catch 22 situation for those who hope to make their money purely through content. The better the content is, the lower the click rate for the ads. People only begin to notice the ads when they are dissatisfied, when they no longer want to read on. It’s a classic rock and a hard place dilemma for publishers. Not enough people want to pay for quality content and if you want to make enough money through ads you have to dumb down the content and make the page irritating. In fact, the more irritating and low quality the page is, the quicker people will click away, with hopefully enough clicking on the ads (even if it is by accident). Of course, if you follow this strategy you poison the value of the brand in the long term. People visit your website, find crap, click away and say never again.
So, what’s the solution? For starters, we must accept that the traditional publishing and advertising model does not work well on the Web. (Unless you want to spam people, that is.) Content is not an end on the Web. Content is an enabler. You make money off what content enables people to do. You make the content free and you make your living off what people do with your content.