GenuineVC David Beisel's Perspective on Digital Change

May 3, 2005

In Monday’s WSJ article “Web sites that exist only to sell advertising,” Lee Gomes complains how spam is clogging up search engine results pages and goes on to blame the major search engines themselves for the problem.

He writes,

“It’s new and improved spam: pseudo-useful pages that are usually just shells for ads… In many cases, a page might at first glance seem like a guide to your topic. But after a minute or two, it becomes evident that the information is virtually useless but is surrounded by an ocean of ads. In other cases, you find “referral services” — dozens of them — that promise to put you in touch with reputable contractors… A kind of schizophrenia exists at search-engine companies. Half their engineering staff is busy trying to keep useless pages out of search results; the other half is busy coming up with tools that make it easier for people to create and profit from the useless pages in the first place.”

John Battelle laments,

“He’s right, of course. We all have seen the crap that lards up results, pretending to be “services” of one sort or another. Is it spam? Well, it’s clearly affiliate- and AdSense-driven sludge. At best, it’s gray.”

Gomes stumbled across this phenomenon when he was researching the topic of roof repair, but you can find it in a myriad of spots. Take a search on Google for “Boston dentist” for example. Findadentist.com is at the top of this list. This site merely refers users to listings of dentists in the area and surrounds that “content” with a number of ads, including those from Google’s Adsense.

Is this really spam? Or is there true content here? What happens if Findadentist.com was to add user-generated dentist ratings? Articles on finding the right dentist? It already does have a quick summary on dental insurance vs. dental plans. When does a site cross the line from pure spam advertising to providing valuable content? John Battelle’s assessment is correct: it does feel a sludgy, but it’s very very gray. I don’t know the answer.

There are a number of small start-ups out there – some of which are looking for VC funding – which exploit this structural phenomenon. I think it’s going to take a while for the investors, search engines, and users to sort out what’s valuable content and what is spam. The question we should all ask is: is this site actually creating something of value for the consumer? Or is it merely playing a traffic game? Eventually, we’ll get there (perhaps with tagging or other social-influenced system), but it’s going to take some time.

  • http://www.heliumknowledge.com/hk/bio.asp?user_id=128 Greg Gibson

    As an entrepreneur in the online content space I have to say that it’s very tempting to generate “spider food” content, especially when your competition is doing it.

    Take for example Article Insider. The content is clearly spider food. They did $3MM in ad revenue last year, growing at about 600% per year. But now take a look at their Alexa traffic chart. They are clearly at the mercy of the google algorithm.

    I have to believe that Google and the rest will eventually solve the problem (see the upcoming Google TrustRank for example). That’s why I try to keep my site, Helium Knowledge closer to the white side of the gray area by not giving specific spider food directives to the contributor community.

    Eventually good, useful content will prevail. In the meantime the shysters will take off with the early, easy money (the same thing happened in e-commerce as I witnessed first hand).

    It’s especially frustrating to an online content entrepreneur when VCs expect to see the kind of traffic/revenue dynamics delivered by these “algorithm opportunists”.

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