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Who coined the term “content farm”?

In the last 12 months, the phrase “content farm” has become the standard way to describe some web sites—this despite it being a negative phrase. Who coined the term “content farm,” and is it fair?

Yesterday Google engineer Matt Cutts wrote on the Google Blog:

“We’ve been exploring different algorithms to detect content farms, which are sites with shallow or low-quality content.”

This is a fight, and Cutts’ choice of terminology is important.

Content farms are websites that create massive amounts of text and video content designed to lure search engine traffic. Content farms have made a lot of news lately as Yahoo! bought Associated Content, AOL bought Huffington Post, and Demand Media went public. You know you’re a thing when somebody starts a Tumblr parody about you.

The description “content farm” won out over the harder-to-say “content mill” to become the preferred term for these sites. A year ago, almost nobody was using this phrase at all, and today it’s appearing regularly in the media.

I went looking for the earliest example I could find of “content farm.” Daniel Roth’s groundbreaking Wired article “The Answer Factory,” published in October 2009, doesn’t use the phrase. The New York Times didn’t start using the term until 2010, and Google News shows no references in a news article until 2010. The very earliest I could find was an article by Richard MacManus in Read Write Web, published December 9, 2009. MacManus was ahead of the curve in using this term, but as far as I know he’s never taken credit for coining it. No one has!

The Wikipedia page for “content farm” includes no etymology, but it does include a very long and precise definition:

“A content farm is a company a company that employs large numbers of often freelance writers to generate large amounts of textual content which is specifically designed to satisfy algorithms for maximal retrieval by automated search engines. Their main goal is to generate advertising revenue.”

By that standard, Demand Media, Associated Content, and some AOL brands, including Huffington Post, are content farms. How do they feel about this? They hate it!

  • “The way Google defines a content farm, we are not a content farm,” said Demand Media CEO Richard Rosenblatt in a recent Wall Street Journal interview.
  • “I don’t believe what we’re doing is negative and I think ‘content farm’ is a negative term,” said AOL CEO Tim Armstrong at a conference last year.
  • Contributors also hate the term. Stephen C. Rose, a writer for Associated Content (also called the Yahoo! Contributor Network), writes: “A.C. isn’t a farm. It is made up of individuals who use it for different reasons. I use it because it is the best way I can organize material I have written over more than 15 years online.”

The term “content farm” carries the implication that content (writing and video) is a commodity generated by cheap labor, rather than an art that requires skill and talent. Is it fair to define an industry—a legal business and one that sees itself as performing a positive service—with a negative term?

Yes, it is fair. It’s incumbent on a new industry to come up with a term for itself, and content farms, out of a desire to keep a low profile and perhaps a dose of shame, totally failed to do so. A new term could still arise, but now that Google engineers are using the term “content farm,” the name is basically decided.

Seldom has a technology segment so badly bungled the process of coining a name for itself. There’s irony here: Content farm sites are supposed to be about writing, yet they’ve failed to maintain a grip on their own language.

* * * *

Here’s a screen grab showing how Demand Media describes itself:

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Copywriting, Language, News & Journalism

4 comments

  1. David says:

    I found it used in an abstract of a June 30, 1996 article. It appears to be using language from the article, which is behind an archive paywall, although I suppose it may have been written much later. You can pay $3.95 to read the full text of the original article if you really want to find out. It’s by Matthew McAllester, staff writer for New York Newsday.

    The abstract says, “Prodigy has abandoned all plans to keep a closed world and is morphing from a stodgy family-oriented service to a hip World Wide Web-based content farm.”

    Source: http://bit.ly/f1Derm

  2. David says:

    Here’s another early one. From the Village Voice in 1997:

    “Web zines never die, they just get very sleepy. Rather than nod of, the creators of Urban Desires — the Alley’s oldest, launched in October 1994 — are planning an evolution, christening the venture a “content farm” and selling off its archives for a profit.

    http://bit.ly/eocbpz (print)
    http://bit.ly/frQgkA (web)

  3. Daryl Lang says:

    Wow, 1996! It’s like a word that died and then came back to life!

  4. David says:

    For what it’s worth, a good search tool for this kind of thing is the Google Search Timeline view. It goes much further back than Google Insights, and includes results from Google Books, so you can even get results from hundreds of years ago.

    That’s how I found these. Here’s the Timeline View of a search for terms “content farm” and “web”:

    http://bit.ly/fWt1zl

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