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AOL And The Cheezburger Network: Turning Content Into An Amsterdam Hooker

As a dude who thinks obsessively about content and its effect on readership, a really unfortunate synapse fired in my brain tonight. I was wandering through my daily reads, and came across a great behind-the-scenes look at The Cheezburger Network courtesy of The New York Times blog (specifically Andrew Ross Sorkin’s DealBook blog). In the event you don’t recognize their brand name, it the folks behind the ‘I Can Has Cheezburger?’ site that’s slap full of cat pictures crowd-sourced with clever sayings. You know, you’ve seen them endlessly in forwarded emails and Twitter streams – and they’re complete crap. And by the way, they make millions on advertising, licensing and t-shirts and drew 16M unique visitors in May according to the Quantcast numbers published in the Times. Are you kidding me? And here’s where it get weird…

It’s now clear to me their strategy is exactly the same as David Eun’s strategy at AOL: create whackloads of content to hang advertising on. In fact, AOL’s proudly telling anyone who’ll listen they’re planning on being the largest hirer of journalists across the globe. And for what? To continue to churn out half-ass content they can sell ads around. AOL is even rolling-up some of their 80 properties together to create super-networks that have sexier advertiser names like AOL Entertainment and AOL Life. As a voracious consumer of content (both in web and print), shoot me now.

While I would never actually consume AOL content (call me a snob if you want), what effect does this dreck have on the world at-large? What if the average consumer is trying to figure out a child’s ear infection at 3 a.m., and the first three pages of search results are all bought-and-paid-for AOL links? And what if the advice contained is a dramatic oversimplification because the author used to cover the Detroit automakers? The most accurate information might well be contained on page six of the search results, but who’s going to ever see it? It’s content overload taken to a completely logical conclusion.

I can hear all the optimists in the crowd: “Dave, these are professional writers and they have standards – they’ll produce great content no matter what.” Really? When you have to crank out six articles a day sweatshop style, how much primary research and deep thinking can world realistically expect? Little to none is the answer, and if you want real-life evidence of this phenomenon check out this Craigslist ad. The job boards are also rife with “opportunities” to write 800-word articles for $10. Really setting-up the industry for the next Bob Woodward, eh?

I guess the good news is journalists are used to getting paid nothing (I still recall the lifestyle pain of my first magazine job at $16,500), so creating content custom-made for advertising opportunities should earn them a couple more bucks ­– if the publishers choose to share the wealth to any degree. Plus there just ain’t many other kids hiring…

So get ready for your content to be CPM-inducing, keyword-loaded and completely vanilla. The best of the blogosphere, including guys like Hugh MacLeod, will always exist outside this aberration of a system but my fear is it gets increasingly harder for the average web surfer to find them. It also ratchets up the every-man importance of sites like Regator, who hand curate content. If search is your only window into content, then it’s caveat emptor times 20.

My job is making TechDrawl sharp and thought provoking, but all of us need to vote with our clicks and web traffic. And make it a point to promote great content providers via email, Twitter, Digg, et al. Remember: friends don’t let friends (or family members) use AOL.

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0 # Feb0zdou1 2010-06-15 13:49
This has concerned me too, Dave. All you have to do is look at AOL's SEED Network with its tutorials on how to write a sentence with correct grammar to see they are paying $10 to help literacy as much as anything else. If you check out their "technology" network, would you be likely visit these sites for technology content? http://www.seed.com/aol-network/I certainly wouldn't!

It is scarey the power AOL has to dominate the first pages of search with this cattle-call strategy. This is a great argument for curated content like Regator's and for additional filter systems for news with a clear editorial slant life Huffington Post or Drudge Report.

On the other hand, this onslaught of vanilla content from AOL may help traditional newspapers sell online subscriptions so consumers can at least know the editorial slant. The NY Times is offering an online subscription keeping much of its print format for ~$4.50 a week and I am thinking now it may be successful after all.
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0 # Feb0zdou1 2010-06-15 13:54
Actually, I rather like "I Can Has Cheeseburger" because LOLCats are just so stupid. I think Letterman started it with his "kitties" nonsense. I prefer this one for LOLDogs, however: http://ihasahotdog.com/
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