Millions of times a day, people turn to Google for information on how to do things. Until Google changed its formula recently, the top sites returned in searches were often dominated by so-called "content farms" geared mostly at serving up ads.
Think of Google like a well traveled interstate. It's how people get where they want to go on the Internet. You Google "tomatoes, mozzarella and basil" to get instructions on making a caprese salad. It's your way into the Web. And like a real highway, a whole industry has built up around the popular search engine — like fast food joints and hotels along Interstate 95.
"There is an entire industry that's sprung up around the idea of search engine optimization, of understanding how Google thinks, how Bing thinks, and reverse engineer[ing] how the search engines do their searches," says Daniel Roth, an editor with Fortune magazine.
What this means is that there are so many people asking Google questions, a slew of companies have shot up over the past couple of years to provide answers.
No Expiration Dates
How-to sites are very desirable to advertisers, for one simple reason: The content doesn't have an expiration date. It stays fresh.
"Advertisers don't necessarily want to be up against coverage of Japan, or coverage of the recession. If you sell carpet cleaner, and the how-to site is how to stop your dog from peeing on the rug, then that is a perfect article you want to be next to," Roth says.
An article on how to put on eye makeup is just as pertinent in six months as it is right now — so if the company creating the content really gets its formula right, its article on eye makeup should stay at the top of search results for a long time. That's great for advertisers. And that's why companies like Howcast are doing so well in this economy.
Howcast, which commissions how-to videos, is headquartered in an airy loft in downtown Manhattan. The company is prospering but has a real startup feel: crisp, white-washed office, but a little hip — like an Apple store. Supervising producer Tom Bender and I sit down together at one of the many screens. He pulls up a Google document.
"These are spreadsheets that show the process of going from search queries to titles," he says. The most popular searches in YouTube about dance are, according to Bender: "How to dance. Dougie Dance. Hip-hop dance. Wedding dance. Cupid shuffle."
How To Dance Or Put On Makeup
How much can Howcast make off the query, "How to dance the cupid shuffle"? To decide whether to commission a video, Bender gives it a score. He won't reveal all of the ingredients: Remember, this formula is Howcast's exclusive ticket to the top of your search results. But here are the main factors. Let's use "eye makeup."
"That query receives about 200,000 searches per month on YouTube," Bender says.
He looks at how many results come up for this search — it's not that much, by comparison — 5,000 to 6,000. So he feels his video can compete here.
Then there's a third factor, which is key: the cost per click associated with that query. The cost per click is how much advertisers are willing to spend to put an ad next to this particular topic — if your video shows up near the top of the YouTube results.
Howcast's winning formula has led the company to create entire video series on topics like "understanding the types of harmonicas, how to play a chromatic harmonica, how to play a diatonic harmonica, how to play blues harmonica, how to play harmonica solo," Bender says.
Churning Out Harmonica Videos
And right over our heads is the Howcast studio — where harmonica player Marcus Milius is sitting on a stool, in a sweaty suit and bowler cap, creating answers to these profitable questions.
"How many do you have left to do?" I ask the videographer.
"Nine," he replies.
"Do we really?!" Milius asks.
You could think of Milius as a well-dressed factory worker. The videographer has a list of more than 20 individual titles for videos that he checks off as Milius gets up to stretch his legs. There's no ambiguity.
"Pretty much they just gave me the list," Milius tells me, "and I'm creating content based upon these questions."
Howcast was co-founded by a former Google engineer, Jason Liebman, who felt that the how-to market was unfulfilled. Many people were searching for how to do something on YouTube and not getting quality results, he says.
That's what Howcast set out to do, and that's what landed Milius in the stool upstairs. More science than art, the videos are nonetheless well presented — like Howcast's office, clean and well-ordered, with that Apple store feng shui.
Gaming Google's Algorithm
But not all how-to content is like the Apple store. In fact, there is so much money to be made attracting advertisers to evergreen content, Fortune magazine's Daniel Roth says, that some companies have followed the formula to its logical conclusion — putting out sites that have more ads than content. Some people call them "content farms."
"Content farms pay people almost no money to turn out very mediocre content that can serve up very cheap ads. It's pure Google arbitrage," he says. "Google arbitrage" is an amazing way to think about this industry. Like speculators who make a killing exploiting simple supply-and-demand markets, some companies try to game Google's algorithm.
Here's how you know a content farm when you see one. Search Google for "how to change a tire," Roth says, and there is "a six-point explanation of how to change a tire, and point three is something like, 'Get out of the car. Try to find your jack.' "
Sasha Maggio writes for multiple websites that pay her from $1 to $15 per article.
"You can tell that whoever was writing it was trying to finish it as quickly as possible in order to get the tiny amounts of money they're making for doing these stories."
Sasha Maggio, who lives in Fairfax, Va., writes articles for some of these so-called content farms. After searching for work for months, she decided to go back to school to get her master's degree in psychology. She supports herself by freelance writing.
Cranking Out Articles For $8 A Piece
"I look at it like, $8 is $8," Maggio says, logging in to what she calls her "work desk."
"I'll give them $8 worth of work. The more I can cram in the better, on a payday," she says.
On her screen, she sees a list of topics that are automatically generated based on how popular they are in search engines.
She reads off a bunch: "How to inflate tennis balls, history of the NBA championship ring, guide to dating mature women ..."
"How to date a Japanese girl?" I interrupt.
"These are not ones that I pick up, though!" Maggio says, laughing. "I don't create these topics, I just go into the content pool and I find them — how to buy martial arts training mats, five tae kwon do tips ..."
Break Studios, which runs a bunch of sites like MadeMan, Break and Holy Taco, is the company that pays Maggio $8 an article. But she also works for Demand Media, which owns eHow and a number of other sites. Demand Media pays on a sliding scale based on the estimated difficulty of the topic, and it usually pays her $15 an article. She also writes for Examiner.com, which pays $1 an article, plus revenue traffic.
"My best day I wrote 10 [articles] in about 75 minutes," Maggio says. "So you gotta figure, I made 80 bucks in 75 minutes — that's more than I made when I was working full time!"
Google's algorithm change -- aimed at reducing low-quality sites in its search rankings -- had a dramatic effect, according to a study by Sistrix, a German search analytics company. Below, a sampling of so-called "content farm" sites and the loss of their visibility on Google as a result of the algorithm change.
The Sistrix Visibility Index takes into account the number of keyword positions lost, specific ranking position and estimated click-through rate from those results.
To keep it straight, Maggio has a notebook open on her desk, with a different colored pen assigned to each of her employers.
Today, she starts with eHow: "So, I have sales-closing tips; tips for a passive-aggressive boss; the effects of a tsunami on oil storage tanks. Some of them you have to look up, some of them aren't too bad, but all of them require a reference. So, you gotta do some kind of research."
Because eHow requires a reference — not all of Maggio's employers do — Google might consider it a higher-quality site and rank it high in search results.
Google Changes Its Formula
"We use a lot of different factors," says Matt Cutts, one of Google's lead engineers. "In fact, we have more than 200 different signals that we use in our rankings."
Cutts is in charge of the algorithm that Google uses to generate search results. He and his team of engineers decided recently that they don't like the glut of sites that show up every time you search how to do something.
So, more than a month ago, Google made possibly the most visible change it has ever made to its search results — an operation it nicknamed "Panda" but that many others called "Farmer." Cutts says this "relatively large change" to the algorithm affected about 12 percent of queries on Google.
The change revealed what sites Google thinks you want to read — and what sites it thinks are content farms. "Does an article have spelling or stylistic or factual errors? How well is it edited? Does the article have an excessive number of ads, maybe, that might interfere with the primary content?" Cutts explains.
Though Cutts is cagey when it comes to naming names, other people have. EHow was spared — but Examiner was not, according to one study. The site that pays Maggio $1 an article is almost 80 percent less visible than it was before Google made the change.
And Google continues to tweak its algorithm, implicitly if not explicitly targeting content farms. After another update last week, eHow's visibility did drop — though by how much is in dispute.
Social Networks As Search Engine?
Fortune's Daniel Roth wonders, what if people just start searching the Web without Google? That kind of messes up the game for all of the players.
Roth says your social network might be the next search engine. And it's difficult to game a system that consists of recommendations from your friends.
"When they suggest a story, I'm way more likely to click on it, because it's already been vetted," he says. "So, I spend less time on aggregation sites, and I spend more time looking to see what my friends are aggregating for me. And how do you win in that game? I think you win in that game by writing stories that people really want to read."
If people stop using Google for search — and travel the Internet by a new path, like Facebook or Twitter — then the game starts all over again.