Tonight I went to a social event organized via group texts . I don’t like those events because of last time, but this time I went because I knew at least one person and I set myself on “socialize” mode to meet new people. In general, I never know how to present myself. It’s complicated and I am quite reluctant to talk about my activity in detail, because “computer engineering” sounds a bit mechanical and almost hostile to most people. I haven’t found how to introduce the human dimension yet in my description. And I hate wasting time trying to explain how much it’s interesting when I already get the look “oh, computing….” I still have to think about that, but I always end up saying “I build websites”.
Building ad driven websites
Fortunately, tonight I was glad and surprised to meet someone for who computing is not an alien activity. I was able to talk naturally about the web and science fiction – nice. I discovered an activity of the web I was not fully aware of : building ad driven websites.
That person told me he started a company that built simple content websites on subjects that attracted the most expensive ads. The principle is simple. They check google/ISP stats, and extract the keywords that are typed for which an associated ad is profitable and for which there is not much content on the web. Then they create a simple content website that documents the topic related to the keyword and gain revenue from the ads put on the website. For example, a website about toothbrushes attracts less expensive ads than a website about swimming pools, so they prefer creating a website about swimming pools. That is the basis. They had already built around 50 websites of this kind. They create the content themselves by researching content in books or online. And they attract traffic because they are almost the only ones covering the topic. The cost and maintenance of this are pretty minimal because they don’t have to update the content very often, it’s a static website. In 17 hours they are capable of bringing their website nb 1 in Google, and that is their goal when they start a website.
Now, there were interesting things to know about the inside processes. I quite enjoyed investigating asking all sorts of questions. First, they sometimes invent content like false testimony “this product changed my life”. Second, they get their stats from the ISP because one of them works for an ISP, and the ISP has all the data about users data traffic (!). It seemed like a suspicious activity to me on some level, not all clean, but in the end they don’t sell any product, just information (fortunately), and the content is real, so their activity is not harmful.
Google ads microcosmos
I found interesting to discover that such activity exists because it revolves around Google’s ad system and referencing. Of course much of any activity on the web revolves around that system too now, but Google’s system actually became the motivation to create content, there is actually a microcosmos organizing itself around Google. What they do is equivalent to writing Wikipedia articles, or just blogs, but the whole idea is profit driven because of the Google ad system, and that was a little disturbing for me.
Since Google is not the only “node” system existing on the web, Facebook is also becoming another node, imagine that the content on the web is no longer created for the sake of sharing information, but rather for the sake of profit generated by ads. Imagine a content created like ads, to seduce, attract and please the audience and comply with algorithms rather than to inform. Make it look official, with the right URL and it becomes very believable and widely taken for the truth. It’s already the case.
On the bright side, it motivates people to create content and document the web. On the dark side, the quality of the content is not controlled and attention is focused on the presentation and the “likeability” of the page. The more people approve the content by “liking”, “following”, “subscribing”, the more the content is trusted and even more approved. What if it’s not true? The more a page is consulted and linked to, the more it drives traffic, but it’s not an indicator that the page is still relevant right now. Maybe another content exists but we don’t know because it’s too recent or it didn’t promote itself. “Likeability” doesn’t guarantee that there is no better content elsewhere. Such content created for profit means also that some topics will never be documented because the profit they generate is minimal. Will we find only profitable topics on the web?
My point is that the ad system brings pages that don’t necessarily have the right information on top of the stack. There is no anti-referencing way to say “this page is not relevant”, unless a new page is created with the right content and replaces the other one by redirecting the traffic. But that is not very efficient, new content on the web doesn’t get spotted quickly without some self promotion efforts.
Also, creating such content still requires technical skills, and the point made by the person I met was that people passionate about a subject don’t necessarily create their own content because they don’t have the skills. They don’t have writing, technical, now marketing skills to share their content. Fortunately, there are blogging platforms that ease the technical part, and the web is still an open space where new websites can burgeon freely. The problem I fear is when information is hold by a main website and its information is taken for the truth because there are no other website confirming or denying that information. As long as the web stays a democratic place, this should not happen. But, as the content evolves to match marketing, “likeability” and other not content related criteria, there is a risk that the content trims real information.
For example, I would like to know when a product is bad. In a marketing driven website, I will never know this. This is not an information that is documented, companies will do anything to keep that private. Yet that is a very relevant information. Unless that information is conveyed by a person that already has some online influence (cf. Jeff Jarvis and Dell), there is little chance that I have an impact by just saying “this service really sucks, this is a scam”. If I don’t have an online influence, this information will not come on top of the stack quickly. Also, if this is a one time thing I want to say, I will not open a blog just to say it, and my facebook status or twitter status don’t have any impact without influence too. Finally, a website that is trying to promote the product will probably moderate my message. And I don’t know where to put my message to get it really across and warn everyone. Ideally, I would like to find that information on the official product page, but… businesses are not suicidal.
So despite the apparent freedom and authenticity on the web, the web is also a profit driven place, and therefore we can always doubt the content of a website. Was it produced to please and gain revenue from ads? Or was is produced to inform? What’s the motivation? Should I trust it? Is it complete? In a web that is driven by ad systems and audience, can content that doesn’t have any potential ad or audience still exist as pure information, still be relevant, authentic and findable?