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Mahalo's Calacanis: Time To End The Content Farm Arms Race (searchengineland.com)
65 points by InfinityX0 on Feb 9, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 58 comments

You shouldn’t put your ads next to sub-par content. We will not make content unless we have an expert. Demand Media will make content if someone will take $10

I don't relish paying people for what are essentially search clicks that in an ideal world I would have outranked them for, but the alternative is not paying and getting no sale.

Case in point: I paid $100 for ads on eHow in January alone. (Of which something like $68 goes to Demand Media.) The content is less than compelling, but a) it is clearly, absurdly profitable for me as an advertiser and b) it is economical for DM to produce.



This is a fairly typical eHow page. At ~300 words, it cost on the order of $6~8 to write. In January alone, it generated about $1.30 in DM's cut of my $2 AdWords spend. It will do four times that or more in February. Count the other advertisers on the page and I would be astonished if it pulls in less than $20 ~ $25 of revenue this year. This model empirically scales to the freaking moon.

I also checked my stats for how much I'm subsidizing Mahalo. Turns out: not that much! ($20 in four years.) The reason appears to be that, at least as it relates to educational bingo cards, DM convincingly clobbers Mahalo on execution.

http://www.mahalo.com/christmas-bingo/ <-- Winces. 30 words of content and half of them are an inducement to click on ads!

Yeah, if I were Mahalo, I wouldn't want to compete against DM using DM's model either. They're just better at farming. I am skeptical that the new model will work except as PR cover for the old model: i.e. handcrafted pillar content provides enough plausible deniability to hope Google does not mass purge all thin mahalo.com/* pages from the Internet. The economics of $1,000+ a page pillar content makes sense if (and probably only if) the pillar content preserves thousands of cheaper pages.

So much the better for Mahalo if they can simultaneously get an effective competitor of those filler pages torched.

maybe he wants a truce because he's losing?

Yeah, text is what content farmers were growing last year. This year it's video. Apparently, youtube has gone unfarmed for far too long. The real answer to this question is that google doesn't have tech yet to defeat video farming.

If you really think about it what one SHOULD do is create a content futures exchange. An electronic exchange that uses APIs to shop a piece of content around and with a futures market you can sell the content for when it's needed, so you can buy christmas content in June at a discount. If it works for corn it can work for content. Also once the exchange is live you can start selling copies of your FREE "Content Farmers Almanac Ebook" all you need to do is enter your email address so the freshly farmed content can be delivered right to your door.

"I'd like 2 free range articles and 5 organic videos a week"

Good idea. You should make that.

My thoughts exactly. Not to mention that it is much more apparent that he is content farming rather than providing genuine value to visitors.

VIDEO is our answer.

We have been moving all of our content to a higher standard:

1. video 2. an EXPERT in the video with credentials 3. quality Q&A (with some paid folks answers questions... that we don't really promote)

best jason

ExpertVillage, developed the content farm video strategy, like 6 years ago... Almost exactly as you describe.

Guess who founded that: Byron Reese the brains behind Demand Media's entire content algo system. http://www.demandmedia.com/executive-leadership/byron-reese/

So unfortunately, this isn't some new idea Demand missed... it's one they've moved beyond.

AOL's recently leaked 'AOL Way' playbook for content-farming also targets "70%" of all created pages having video.

Great idea - hard to search, hard to cross-reference, almost entirely linear, slow to consume, much higher production costs. Yup. We need more of that.

I agree, but I fear we're not typical. (We're on this hyperliterate text-heavy HN site.) For many, reading and text-scanning is harder than watching/listening – hence the love of Qwiki, and the rush to video by all the content-farmers.

There are many issues for the content farmers, too:

* hard to search => less google juice * hard to cross-reference => less retention, harder to build link farms that aren't ferreted out quickly * slow to consume => higher bandwidth cost

Then again, I wouldn't exactly mind if content farmers went out of business :)

no offense, but video is slower to be consumed than reading - you can't easily copy video and paste it into an email/im/tweet with the same efficacy as text.

May I make a suggestion: transcripts. If you are going to provide video - provide a transcript of all the vids so they may be quoted. Make the transcripts hyper-links to the videos themselves.

So if people copy the text and send it - they send a link to the vid along with it.

I actually havent spent time on Mahalo, but just went over to look and I really like the how-to section at first glance.

One of the things that is an utter failure of Quora; they have a ton of top-notch people using it - yet they have done NOTHING to seek out and curate information from the experts such that it threads together.

For example, I go to the "startup advice" topic - and its a big pile of jumbled randoms.

I cant go and actually learn anything more than a snippet. (not to mention the ability to search/sort and view stuff. The UI/UX is HORRIBLE.

I think there is a contrast. If I need an answer and I need it now, then yes, transcripts are quicker. But, suppose I want to learn say, javascript, then a video lecture might be more useful. I wonder if they will do ads within the videos like youtube.


I am stunned. Calacanis was just brazenly lying about his belief in the quality of his articles and that it was just a few isolated articles that were thin. Now he claims he couldn't sleep as well at night before due to Mahalo's mounds of crap content. And apparently he's completely unrepentant about having to lie on behalf of his company, now taking a holier than thou stance against his competitors. Unbelievable. This is borderline sociopathic.

Borderline my ass, this is pretty textbook stuff.

Sociopathic? Not necessarily. He's just being pragmatic. A sociopath is somebody who lie when he is expected to tell the truth. There's no real world for somebody who does the opposite (tells the truth even if he would be expected to lie), but most people are just pragmatic - they tell the truth to their friends and co-workers, and lie if they happen to be a CEO putting out a press release.

No, CEOs are not expected to lie - that's very bad business, generally. They can selectively focus on aspects of the business that make them look good, and dodge questions they don't want to answer, but flat out lying as a CEO is wrong, and destroys your company's and your credibility.

I can't help but enjoy watching this guy operate. He's an odd combo of smart, aggressive, shameless, and transparent.

Seems to me he realized eHow is an unstoppable SEO machine and decided to positior, err, "pivot" against them.

He really belongs in politics, not tech.

I hate politics... I'm a writer and brand builder.

You are correct that our only option against ehow making hundreds of thousands of low-quality pages a month is to point out vocally that our higher-quality pages and videos are outranked in search engines.

This is a risky strategy because any time we screw up--and obviously that will happen--we will get attacked brutally.... and we should!

My instructions to my team is to make a page better than the top three in Google and bing. IF we don't beet them in the search rankings we will bang a drum until someone listens!!!

It is going to be fun to see if this works.

Jason Calacanis and Tim Ferris are the two most polarizing dudes here on HN as far as I can tell. But love 'em or hate 'em, they do both get lots of press.

It seems likely that "get lots of press" is dependent on "polarizing."

Personally I'd vote for Calacanis having more substance then Ferris.

"The 4 hour content farm", coming soon!

Heck, that's no stretch at all, 4HWW was all about outsourcing your research and production. Saying "now apply that to web page generation" is a one sentence book.

I just don't buy it. Aaron Wall called you out a while ago and if I recall correctly you denied and denied. This sudden change of heart doesn't read like a moral turn-around, it reads like surrender. You got out-competed by Demand, AOL, Associated Content and trying to re-frame the argument as 'we're all going to suffer if you don't cut back' is bullshit. If you really were turning around Mahalo and it wasn't going to be a content farm (whatever your definition of the term), all of this wouldn't matter. So arguing that everyone has to cut back would be silly, you should let them content farm and get banned by big bad google and you can take home all the prizes! But that's not what is really happening is it?

Spot on ohashi.

The moral litmus test for Jason's about-face would be if he felt so bad about the content mill pages on Mahalo that he deleted them from the web and tested the (alleged) "quality" content as a business model.

IMHO this just one more example of Jason trying to put a thin veneer of polish over a turd.

We never made spam, we always used humans, but we made pages that were "light" in my opinion. They also lacked an EXPERT.

We solved this by hiring 55 video editors in the last six months and we now add an expert to every page.

So, if you definition of a content farm was "light" content written by non-experts then we we're a content farm.

Guilty as charged, but I confessed my sins and I'm now on the side of the righteous! Aaron Wall is now my biggest fan... he tells his clients to model their sits around my sites.

Jason, I respect you, you've accomplished a lot and I can only hope to achieve as much success.

That being said, come on. You confessed and it's out of some altruistic epiphany?

Mahalo isn't competing for mindshare, it's competing for SEO share and you got beat. If you are switching to a high quality content producer, let the quality of your content speak for itself. Compete for consumer's mindshare as a destination for quality content. You've picked some battles I still respect like fighting against angels charging to be pitched. However, you don't have the same moral high ground on this one. You have no legitimacy as a crusader against content farms. Period. Stop it.

Create some awesome content and share it with us. Sites like this THRIVE on the high quality content. Or re-work your business model and SEO and compete again for that long tail xylophone playing monkies. Either way, stop treating us like idiots and be honest with us.

I think Mahalo has refocused appropriately, and I am pleasantly surprised to see that. But I think this is no longer a sustainable business model.

If you need to spend as much on content generation as I'm seeing cited here, your time to break even is quite a while on a per-article basis.

"Your time to break even is quite a while on a per-article basis" - and that's the crux of the matter entirely.

As per this WSJ article http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2010/08/12/where-did-demand-medi...

if demand media is allowed to amortize out their costs over years (under the assumption every piece of "How to bathe your gerbil" will keep bringing in revenue for the next half-decade) they become strikingly profitable, especially for a company that writes words on the Internet. If not, they're hemorrhaging cash.

Given Google's recently renewed focus on providing quality search results, I'd take the under on all of these companies, mahalo included.

All I can say is that I haven't had a mahalo page pollute my search results for months. Keep up the good work google!

Add pws=0 to your queries. You probably have stopped seeing them, but it's based on your click behavior.

I'm not sure this "We spent SIX MILLION DOLLARS on our how to bathe a Zebra page!" nonsense is really going to work.

The problem here is that folks want to know stuff that has very little -- but measurable -- value in terms of advertising dollars. You are not going to make Champagne pages for folks with beer budgets. Doesn't make sense.

More honestly, this is an issue of making Google look bad. It's the Deadly Sin of web content.

So gee. I don't know, maybe Google should worry about making itself look better? If that means de-listing E-how, then so be it.

Instead of focusing on the beginning of this arms race, the filling in of trivial content, we should be focusing on the end of the race: a net full of cool, informative, and deep articles about just about every subject imaginable. That's a noble goal -- but in my opinion you have to crawl before you can walk. Shutting these guys down isn't going to do much except stifle innovation.

All content generators -- bloggers, e-mags, content farms, micro-sites and the rest of them -- need from Google is a fair, level playing field. One rule for everybody. After that is accomplished, then I would expect people who make content would start making crappy content, Google would raise the bar, and this back-and-forth will continue for a while.

Sounds all pretty normal to me. For every page that ranks highly that ticks somebody off, somewhere out there, some kid has a hamster who is just tickled pink there is a set of instructions on how to wash it.

I think the real thing that's going on here is that lots of money is getting involved so the players are starting to posture, both to the investors, the search engines, and the competition. Wonder what they imagine their various end-games are. Love to be a fly on the wall in some of those board meetings.

"a net full of cool, informative, and deep articles about just about every subject imaginable. That's a noble goal -- but in my opinion you have to crawl before you can walk. Shutting these guys down isn't going to do much except stifle innovation."

The Internet is a net full of cool, informative, and deep articles about just about every subject imaginable. The content farms are not where you find them, and they're getting in the way of the quality results.

The fact that eHow shows up, at all, in Google listings, is a failure of Google on an epic scale. There are always better sources for any given topic than eHow (or Mahalo, except maybe on cooking a turkey).

Killing content farms by blacklisting them from Google would not stifle innovation, it would allow the the quality content to rise to the top, as it should. The best content on any given niche subject is usually found on a tiny niche site run by someone that loves their subject. Google punishes tiny niche sites, comparatively speaking, despite the fact that they are better for niche subjects. And, it rewards big-ass content farms like eHow, despite the fact that 99.9% of their content is literally worthless.

Google is not fair today--that's the problem!

ehow is an 11 year old domain name and they create millions of pages. They will out rank anyone due to:

a) domain age b) flooding the index with dozens of pages around a niche topic (as opposed to one good one).

google does NOT rank for quality... it ranks for signs of quality such as domain age, inbound links, etc.

until google can tell that there 100+ spam articles on a niche topic are not as good as on lifehacker or Mahalo or /. page we're screwed.

I mean, in order to win you need to buy and old domain and flood the index. what if everyone does this?!?!

This eHow page was written by a human being and convincingly answers a (trivial) question:


This Mahalo page was written by a sloppy computer program and is a shotgun blast of random gronk schlorped on a page in the hopes of making it appear to answer a question that nobody, even at Mahalo, really thought about:


If Google is bonusing up the owner of the former page to the detriment of the owner of the latter page, they're doing the Internet a favor. My only knock on them is that their response to the latter page didn't involve blowtorches.

Jason is right, your oddly skewed example isn't a counter to jason's point. Google doesn't rank based on quality, but a proxy that is gamable and is heavily gamed. I'm skeptical that they can ever effectively solve this problem.

I think wikipedia could kill this whole circus if they started a 'casualpedia' spinoff/superset that allowed people to contribute content beyond strictly encyclopaedic articles - and still without the advertising.

In fact, maybe that's what they wanted all those donations for...

Technically, you'd have to call it Wikicasual. It's the "pedia" you're proposing taking out, not the "wiki". :-)

I can see it now... "A business announcement from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales: We have acquired Wookiepedia."

He does actually own Wookiepedia, but in his private capacity as a businessman (occasionally the source of some conflict-of-interest controversy): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikia

And then one day someone will come along who pays his farmers $2000 per page and claim that Mahalo is polluting the web with their lousy $1000pp content.

The issue boils down to the fact that the search landscape is fundamentally a representative democracy. Google has a huge amount of power but if people become dissatisfied with the results, Google will be out the door quicker than you can say "altavista".

And here is Jason's problem: if people clicking the Google search results are satisfied with ehow, then ehow they shall get. Urging people to demand better content is a fool's errand.

"Help, I was trying to salt the soup and it got oversalted! The best solution is to ask everyone else to stop salting it, too!"

Well... Yes. If the soup is shared by two billion people, and a few of them are dropping tens of thousands of tons of salt a day, I think one can be forgiven for asking them to quit. Nor do I see anything wrong with one of them realizing what they're doing, stopping, and asking other people to stop too.

Right around the time when Google has stated it's going to clamp down on it, too!

So? What's your point? I mean, Calcanis was clear that he felt that this was the best business decision. Does the fact that he's doing it to make more money make it any less a good thing?

Boy am I in trouble over this one. :-)

Honestly, Jason, this is the only time I've found myself agreeing with you. Mahalo was a low SNR, spam-driven, visually abhorrent, search-result-polluting pile of useless self-referential scraped-off-wikipedia bullshit that I wanted to burn to the ground so badly that I wrote code to excise it from search results before its inchoate content managed to scream dimly from somewhere below two folds worth of weight loss ads, "help me."

I'll give you a good slow clap.

Thanks pal.

Frankly, I think we got caught up in the races with content farms like Demand Media too much. You can't create thousands of articles a day and expect quality--it's impossible!!!

So, we move to dozens to maybe 200 pages a day... but we do it with quality and hope for the best.

The good news is we broken even last year and have a ton of money in the bank. We are going to ramp up our burn and try to make a LOT of high-quality videos.

You can see them here: http://www.youtube.com/mahalocallofduty http://www.youtube.com/mahalopiano http://www.youtube.com/mahalodotcom http://www.youtube.com/mahalomath http://www.youtube.com/mahalocooking

These videos are getting better and better... I'd say most are 6-9 out of 10. Every month we should add a half point to our average. That means by the summer we should only publish stuff that's an "eight or better."

We are going to build a wide, commercial version of the Kahn Academy.

We are going to build a wide, commercial version of the Kahn Academy.

This is a terrific idea, and I wish you all the best in doing it well. You've got the drive, money, and PR skill to make it a reality. Go for it.

Keyboard kill for you. "Tell us how you really feel!"

like (for the words as written..)

Jason, I think you finally see the points made by those who were originally Mahalo active members..I know I made the point several times..:)

Google has basically solved the question of how to determine what is most "relevant" based on inbound and outbound links, etc. What Google (or Bing, or any other competitor) has to figure out now is how to source the best "authority" per search. This is almost the holy grail of search - find me the best, most relevant item to the arbitrary, nebulous concept I'm poorly phrasing. There are a ton of amateurish suggestions I could make, but I'm not in any position or power to suggest anything.

I do think that given what the article points out, Aol's purchase of the HuffPo seems more ill-advised. If Google is able to determine that the large majority of the content on HuffPo is rehash of another site, kiss that investment goodbye. I've always been on a mission to get as close to the source of things as I can. I'm all for relevant analysis, but summarizing an article word for word is tough to accept.

I don't really think you can complain about the top search being lower quality when up until recently complete junk from Mahalo was doing the same thing. I think the demand media model will be more profitable than this one unless Mahalo is betting on a collection of quality articles to help support a collection of average articles. I am a fan of the nicer layout they have now, just don't see how an article with video for the long tail of search terms that cost hundreds to make will ever be profitable.

And it comes with a soundtrack: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntgYJ9iz47c

Well, let's be fair - "I can change" is the only reasonable response - the alternative is that Google gives them the death penalty.

I suppose the first step is admitting you have a problem. This could just be rhetoric, but I certainly hope it isn't.

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