Are search engines benign? Lee Gomes, of the Wall Street Journal, doesn’t think so. He recently dove into the booming online business of ginning up “original content,” and he reports on his experience in his column today.
“Understanding what’s happening,” he writes, “requires a lesson in modern Web economics”:
If there is a topic in the news, people will be searching on it. If you can get those searchers to land on a seemingly authoritative page you’ve set up, you can make money from their arrival. Via ads, for instance. Then, to get your site ranked high in search engines, it’s best to have “original content” about whatever the subject of your site happens to be. The content needs to include all the keywords that people might search for. But it can’t be just an outright copy of what’s on some other site; you get penalized for that by search engines.
Writers are being solicited to churn out such content at dirt cheap rates. Gomes, for instance, signed up on the web to write fifty 500-word articles for $100 (that’s total, not per piece). Most of the writing, apparently, gets done in India and Eastern Europe, and much of it consists of mashing up, and distorting, work plagiarized from other, legitimate sites. Depending on the types of products or ads they’re selling, the site operators instruct the writers to slant the stories to their needs. Medical topics are particular favorites – and particularly subject to fakery and twisting.
“My beef,” Gomes concludes, “is with the search engines and the economics of the modern Web”:
Google, for example, says its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The way that’s written, one thinks perhaps of a satellite orbiting high above the earth, capturing all its information but interfering with nothing. In fact, search engines are more like a TV camera crew let loose in the middle of a crowd of rowdy fans after a game. Seeing the camera, everyone acts boorishly and jostles to get in front. The act of observing something changes it. Which is what search engines are causing to happen to much of the world’s “information.” Legitimate information … risks being crowded out by junky, spammy imitations. Nothing very useful about that.”
Search engines didn’t invent charlatanism. They’re just turning it into a modern global industry, complete with cheap offshore labor.