With Bright Hub cutting back, Demand Media's share price diving and Google strangling the very concept, is time up for the content farm?

Words, Words Everywhere

In all technologies, things evolve, move on and are replaced. The big tower desktop computer, the 56K modem, RAM defragmentating tools, even Google's own services are regularly retired, entire companies go the way of the dodo as technology marches relentlessly forward.

As the Web exploded around advertising income, an entire industry sprang up to fill it with generic advice, tips and search-friendly content that would generate clicks and ad revenue. But, is the day of the content farm over, now that pretty much everything has been written? A recent email from Bright Hub to its army of freelancers suggests the once-booming world of content farming may also be about to run its course. Bright Hub tells its writers that,

The last few months have been particularly challenging. Like many companies we are facing the reality of a changed economy, while simultaneously working to increase visitors in a post-Panda world. This combination of market forces has required us to make some hard decisions about our business model moving forward, including the elimination of some internal staff positions as well as our ‘Shared Success’ writer program. Therefore, our current writer and editor roles have ended, effective immediately, and your last payment for revenue-sharing will be on December 15."

Content Continues

While the likes of Demand Media (down from a US$ 25 share price in the spring to US$ 8 now, and with growing losses on its balance sheet) and Associated Content (sold to Yahoo! last year, became Yahoo! Voices, which looks neat, but guess that's not working out too well -- Yahoo doesn't mention it in any of its financials) soldier on, Bright Hub is reducing the amount of content it sources and looks like it's adopting a less-is-more approach.

Now, content farms weren't necessarily a bad thing. Writers and editors who worked hard could earn a decent income, advertising revenue was generated and web users could find some practical advice. The boom in content in this format was fine for a rapidly evolving entity like the Internet -- but it was never going to last forever.

Now, this might only be a blip for Bright Hub, which continues to operate under its new strategy. However, it could just be that all the advice we'll ever need has been written between the many content farms. Web users have all found out how to replace that errant doodad, learning about the delights of apple-doll making and so on.

However, there is now so much content and so much specialized information on the general web (and with Google's changes to its search ranking algorithms [aka Panda] back in February, with periodic updates since, having a dramatic effect) there is now little to differentiate content farms from any other source.

Off the Shelf

But, content farms would always have a limited shelf life and once all the interesting topics have been covered, what else is there left to do? There is only an ever-decreasing circle of quality and content as worse writers cover the least popular topics (just many people search for "woodlice in 18th Century medicine?") Also, with Google still tweaking its Panda program, the noose may tighten on content farms, scrapers and low-quality sites further.

And, naturally, people still go to news sites for the latest stories, specialist sites for their music, hobby, TV or movie information -- only the lost or confused might stumble across a content farm in their quest for some answer. And now, if their time is over, these sites will continue to slowly decline, to be replaced by something else.

If we are entering a semantic era with voice technology, perhaps the next big thing will see users talking to their phone/tablet or computer for help or advice. Then, some cloud-based system could produce a specific response to their question based on real-time heuristics with appropriate voice, video or text response from a wide range of sources.

It is hard to imagine a single source like Google or a single entity like Bright Hub providing the one right answer to the endless simple ("how do I update my phone") or complex questions ("how do I disable an unmarked police car armed only with a banana") that people might ask. So, as the bow wave of technology pushes on, it looks like the content farm is likely to be consigned to one of the many small diminishing islands left in its wake.