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This article was published on February 2, 2011

You may not like it, but AOL’s ‘Content farm’ is the future of online media

You may not like it, but AOL’s ‘Content farm’ is the future of online media
Martin Bryant
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Martin Bryant


Martin Bryant is founder of Big Revolution, where he helps tech companies refine their proposition and positioning, and develops high-qualit Martin Bryant is founder of Big Revolution, where he helps tech companies refine their proposition and positioning, and develops high-quality, compelling content for them. He previously served in several roles at TNW, including Editor-in-Chief. He left the company in April 2016 for pastures new.

The leak of AOL’s plan to ramp up content production across its network of blogs and news sites via a method called “The AOL Way” stirred up a strong negative reaction yesterday. However, the fact is that it’s little more than an evolution of what’s been happening for years.

A brief recap: AOL is busy training up its staff in “The AOL Way” – a plan to increase the number of stories per month from 33,000 to 55,000 and average pageviews per story from 1,500 to 7,000. The way to do this? A highly organised approach that sees writers pumping out five-to-ten stories per day while emphasising factors like search engine optimisation, revenue potential and turnaround time alongside the actual quality of the articles themselves. Subjects to write about are largely determined by an automated process that works out what’s popular online right now.

Some commentators, including our own Courtney Boyd Myers, have asked if this signals AOL sacrificing quality journalism for pageviews. Others go as far as describing AOL as a “Content farm”, where staff are “ground down” by producing fast, low-quality pieces about whatever a trend-watching computer program tells them will be popular that day.

Turbo-charged audience research

It may sound like a dystopian nightmare of a future, with battery farm writers pumping out search engine friendly rubbish as fast as they can, but the fact is – this was inevitable.

For almost as long as we have had mass media, production companies have looked for ways to improve their audience share by producing content that the maximum number of people will find appealing. Look back to the “pulp fiction” of the 19th and 20th Centuries – that was populist content of little creative merit, mass-produced at low cost for an audience that craved stories of adventure and romance.

As time went on, increasingly sophisticated ways of researching what an audience wanted were developed. Television news began to be influenced by what studies said would be popular, and ratings systems like Nielsen (however flawed they may be) have been guiding decisions about what TV shows get made for decades.

The Internet has allowed for real-time feedback about what’s popular. If a blogger sees that her post today about, say, Angry Birds for the PC did particularly well, she may well be tempted to write something similar the next day. Having access to stats about your content’s performance is highly likely to influence what you write. Meanwhile, the potential audience to be gained from search engine traffic means that most smart web publishers have focused on improving the SEO of their websites for years.

Treating content as a commodity that can be mass-produced may leave a bad taste in some people’s mouths, but optimising production is a perfectly natural things that big corporations with plans for growth do – we really shouldn’t be surprised or outraged by it.

So, what AOL has planned isn’t some diabolically evil masterplan – it’s an inevitable, turbo-powered evolution of what’s happened in the media industry for many years. Even if you don’t like it, it’s still fascinating to see how AOL plans to use trend-watching computers, a complex, multi-layer management structure and a focus on speed and search engine optimisation to maximise its audience potential.

Quality will suffer, others will follow

As much as The AOL Way states that editorial quality is still important, AOL’s output will most probably suffer in this regard. Have you ever tried to writing ten blog posts in a day? It’s not easy, and can be mentally draining to combine speed, accuracy and audience appeal. If writers are doing this day-in, day-out, they’re likely to struggle to keep up the pace.

AOL’s plan for growth may sound frightening, but we wouldn’t be surprised if other big publishers went down the same route. I can image a few media executives have read The AOL Way with envy – as a way of optimising production, it’s hugely impressive.

It’s not the end of the world

Even if you fear for the future of your favourite AOL title, there’s room for positivity. The Internet is huge, with room for many business models and voices. If AOL drives away a high quality audience by prioritising quantity, other publishers will embrace that audience with open arms. Meanwhile, as ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick wrote yesterday, fast-paced, quickfire posting is how he got his break in the world of tech blogging. He sees ‘The AOL Way’ as an ideal training ground for the next generation of big-name bloggers.

So, don’t expect AOL to be the only mainstream publisher to be seduced into turning online content production into a battery farm, but it’s really not the end of the world – there’ll always be somewhere else to go for free range content if you don’t like it.