If you have ever wished there was a governing body for promoting quality content  in the world of Internet content syndication, look no further than the Internet Content Syndication Council. The New York–based ICSC is proposing guidelines to regulate content farms. But can that be done?

Last week, the Council released proposed guidelines for content syndication for its members to review.

The guidelines are in an effort to improve web content quality, strengthen the utility of the Internet and combat the rise of poorly written, sourced and edited content, often produced with only search engines in mind. Such content is often the product of content farms or mills, which produces SEO-rich, worthless content written by underpaid freelancers, and their increased presence online has fueled a campaign against them.

What is a Content Farm?

A content farm is a site that publishes cheap content for the purpose of populating user-contributed or paid sites. Because the content is usually published only to dump content into search engines, the content not only degrades other well-written and researched articles, it also pushes them out of the search results pages.

What makes content farming a lucrative business is that it provides a low-cost solution for publishing while averaging higher advertising revenue in return. Like sweatshops, content mills can generate poor quality content for relatively little cost and make lots of money as a result. After all, content is content, right?

That’s what Demand Media would like you to believe. Demand Media is a a US$ 200 million a year content farm, which produces 4,000 articles a day by paying freelance writers to churn out articles at bargain rates. Content is assigned and published based on what people are searching for and how much ads those search terms are worth. Other prominent content farms include Associated Content, which Yahoo! recently acquired, and AOL’s Seed.com.

As you might imagine, content mills like these infuriate established web publishers, who have struggled to produce high-quality content while employing well-paid journalists. Though times may be tough, many web publishers are not willing to risk the integrity of their content nor their institutional reputations, farming out content in an effort to save money. Not only do content farm publishers hurt the publishing industry, those who agree to write for content farms do little to advance journalism in the digital age. 

ICSC and the Future of Content

The ICSC says content farms threaten the integrity of the web, lessening the value for its average users. The group -- comprised of business leaders in content creation, publishing and advertising, representing companies from the Associated Press, Mochila, Google, Brightcove, Turner Broadcasting Systems and Nielsen, among others -- works to preserve the utility of the Internet for users and advertisers alike.

The guidelines proposed by the ICSC target informational content and not content created for entertainment or editorial purposes. For example, the guidelines encourage the use formal editorial processes for articles produced by staff writers or freelancers; the use of date stamps; and that the details of writers' credentials should be featured alongside their work.

Are Content Farms the Future?

While publishers may be threatened by the pervasiveness of content farms, some say that this just a new reality to be faced, which begs the question: Are content farms the future of web publishing and online media? Depending who you ask, you may receive different answers.

Yahoo! Media Vice President Jimmy Pitaro, in a recent Forbes.com interview says that journalistic integrity is not being threatened by content farms.(Forbes.com also acquired a content farm called True/Slant, acknowledging that it would be used as a "blog farm.") In fact, content farms, in his view, are out to uphold key journalistic principles, not destroy them. He says:

We’re out there hiring top talent. First off, the algorithm and the automated approach are one component of how we’re identifying topics and programming sites. We’re sitting on all of this [audience] data where our users are telling us specifically what they want and we need to take all of it into consideration as we program both video and text on our site. The way I look at it is we need to be feeding our users both what they want and what they need. If you cover both then I think users will be kept well informed.

The Pursuit of a Private Search Engine

However, it’s not just how content is produced, it’s also the ways in which they push content out, that has groups like the ICSC concerned.

Gabriel Weinberg, creator of upstart search engine Duck Duck Go (DDG), discovered that sites like Demand Media were buying up domains for legitimate businesses and redirecting them to their own content. Some of these sites are full of ads and have very little content, but nonetheless show up prominently in major search engine searches.

Weinberg created DDG to be a private search engine that doesn't build a user profile for you, store your IP address, or collect any other information that could link a particular search to you. Weinberg is also working on new "social search engine" called Blekko, which allows users to search within clusters of sites that their friends have marked as trusted content.

While creating barriers to farmed content searches is one approach, most would agree that like any competitive industry, rules and regulations are needed. The ISCS’ proposed guidelines are a good start to initiating a dialogue.

Yet, as the online publishing industry confronts a future of paid or metered models for accessing quality content, content farms threaten to make other content available at no cost. Fortunately, online newspapers and magazines, especially those catering to local audiences, are able to provide something that content farms never will -- genuine perspectives. The ICSC just hopes that it’s enough.