Posts tagged ‘Free Lunch’

Article Farming - Food for Search Engine Optimization

While researching topics for the course that accompanies this blog I noticed a disturbing trend. I use Google Alerts fairly often to get practical applications of topics that I want to present. However, I noticed that I was coming across an abundance of low quality short article posts on various topics. Many of the them began with titles like the “Top 10 Reasons…” or “The Top 7 Ways…”, etc. Others were short how-to articles. Often the same article could be found on different web sites. Many were laden with spelling and grammatical errors. Most were replete with advertising. Eventually I began to see through the fog known as article marketing. I ran across ads for freelancers to write blog posts – by the hundreds. I found volume discounts offered to companies who purchase large numbers of articles written by bloggers. What is this strange market and from where did it come? For every good idea created on the Internet there is a market to exploit it, and that is fine. As an academic, the origins of this market seem to have come from a source surprisingly close to home.

Origins of article farming

I believe the origins of what I call “article farming” on the Internet, otherwise known as article marketing, has risen with the advent of Google’s PageRank and other determinants of SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). An anonymous author on Wikipedia suggests these origins go farther back. This author suggests that it has been common practice over the years for newspapers, magazines, etc., to accept “How To” articles from companies in exchange for acknowledgement of the company’s authorship. This provides free content for the newspaper and free advertising for the company - an arrangement that works out well for both parties. However, this would not entirely explain the watering down of content that is occurring on the Internet. In our non-Internet newspaper example, poor content would lead to lower sales of newspapers and thus would not be tolerated. There must be more, and I believe the explanation lies in search engine optimization. On the Internet, positioning in SERPs, or Search Engine Results Pages, can make or break a small business selling online. Participating in the market for articles is a way to achieve better positioning. To see, let’s look at the idea behind PageRank.

PageRank is an algorithm used by the search engine Google to rank websites in its search results. Craven explains the mathematics behind the algorithm*, but more interesting to me is the philosophy behind it. This is explained in amazing intuitive detail using laymen’s terms in Battelle (2005). Battelle tells the story how Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed the PageRank concept (named after Page) and the early Google search engine as part of a graduate school project at Stanford. Being in academia, they had a pretty good understanding of the concept behind publishing in academia. Professors gain recognition by publishing in leading peer-reviewed academic journals. The higher the journal ranks and the more citations from ranking journals that an article receives, the more important the publication. Page and Brin developed PageRank based on this concept. A site’s “peer review” was assumed through the quality of sites that find it worth linking to.

Page and Brin sought through PageRank to reduce the ability of spammers to rise to the top of search engines and to provide more relevant results. They built in the importance of backlinks into their search engine. E.g., let’s say that your site is Site A. A backlink is a link from another site (Say, Site B) that links to your website (Site A). A backlink would be the equivalent of a vote for your website. (Likewise, your vote for Site B through linking to it is its backlink.) In other words, the more websites that linked to a website, the more important that website must be. But they didn’t stop there. That concept would be easily manipulated – just get lots of folks to link to your website. Instead they built into PageRank a way to rank the backlinks such that higher ranked websites that link to a website have more weight than lower ranked websites that link to it. So a website’s position in Google’s search engine results depend, in part, on the quantity and the quality of sites that link to it. PageRank is also affected by sites a website links to, as well (so be wary who you link to, as well as, who links to you). So on the Internet, site relevance is, in part, determined by the number of votes a site receives through links to it, as well as, by the company it keeps through sites to which it links.

So how does PageRank lead to article farming? An author writes an article rich in keyword content and posts it in an article directory, a website that specifically hosts articles for dissemination. The article contains a resource box which contains such things as the article’s author, the author’s company, and a link to the author’s website. This creates a backlink to the author raising the author’s site’s PageRank. The article directory places relevant ads on the article giving it some advertising revenue while also increasing its content (which raises its position in SERPs). A company that uses the article places the article on their own site creating new content (which raises its position in SERPs), as well as, creating a backlink to the article directory further raising its PageRank. So it’s a win-win situation for all, right? Not so fast.

The market for articles – or keyword rich content

This is a classic example of supply and demand in a very competitive market with very low barriers to entry and exit. As I see it, two closely tied markets have developed which could be seen as part of the infamous “circular flow” diagram. First, there is the market for articles and second, there is the market for resources to produce the articles.

The supply for the market for articles is produced by freelance bloggers building a name for themselves, companies trying to get their websites noticed by search engines by providing “advice”, stay-at-home workers earning a little money on the side, etc. The main barrier to entry is knowing how to market yourself online and the reputations of established bloggers. Often these articles are supplied to the market via article intermediaries, otherwise known as article directories. The main requirement for the articles is that they be rich in popular keywords or search terms.

The demand for the market for articles are time or expertise strapped companies looking for new keyword rich content to produce a steady flow of traffic to the site. SERPs change often, so fresh content helps a company maintain, as well as, raise their positions in online search results. Companies will seek articles from article directories or hire writers to create content.

In researching this article, I came across advertisements requesting authors’ services and selling authors’ services. The market price for keyword rich content is relatively low. In many cases, articles are provided for “free” as authors build reputations for themselves or their sites. The going rate for services seems to be anywhere from $10 to $50 per article, and of course, this depends on the length of the article and experience of the author. If an author is really good he/she may break out of the article farming mold. Some sites offer volume discounts to companies purchasing articles. 1-5 articles may be $45 per article, but 8-10 may be $35. Small companies hoping to build page rank need lots of articles at low cost. They can get these articles for “free” from article directories if they are willing to accept the advertising terms. The article directory is getting advertising revenue which increases with the number of articles they support and their ranking in SERPs.

The way I see it, this market produces more articles, less pay per article, and lower quality work per article. The market is being flooded with blog/article posts. One website boasts “We are looking for expert Freelance Bloggers who can write on any given topics with little research.” A major health magazine advertises “magazine for work-at-home writers / bloggers – anybody interested in writing about health, even casually, with no experience required.”

As I write this article, I am aware that my opportunity costs rise with each article per week that I put together. To write more for industry, I would demand higher pay per article – which is why I would never make it in the business. Serious writers will likely move on to other writing venues rather than continuing to participate in this market. The market does provide a good opportunity for less experienced writers with lower opportunity costs. As such, the market appears to be quite oversupplied leading to low priced, low quality articles providing content largely to fool search engines into thinking the site has more relevance than it actually does – article farming.

So in the end, this is likely a win-win situation for many of the parties involved. The potential loser is the consumer searching for information who will increasingly find low quality information available for free on the Internet. In this case I remind the consumer, you often get what you pay for, and this free lunch may leave you a little hungry.

*If you would like to play with the PageRank algorithm, try Google’s PageRank Calculator from WebWorkshop. To calculate your website’s PageRank, try this PageRank Calculator.

Articles Cited and Further Reading

Article Marketing, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Article_marketing

“Google’s PageRank Explained and how to make the most of it”, Phil Craven, Webworkshop.net, http://www.webworkshop.net/pagerank.html

“The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine”, Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, 1998, http://infolab.stanford.edu/~backrub/google.html

Batelle, John. The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, Penguin Books Ltd. 2005.

Common Article Directories:

http://www.articledashboard.com/

http://www.articledirectory.com/

http://www.articlegold.com/

http://www.goarticles.com/

Examples of Authors for Hire Sites:

http://www.freelancers-wanted.com/

http://www.ifreelance.com/

Tips for Authors for Hire

11 Skills That A Freelance Blogger Should Have,Raj Dash, March 9, 2008 http://performancing.com/freelance-blogging/11-skills-freelance-blogger-should-really-have

“Problogging Tips: Get Smart, Leverage Your Research”, Raj Dash, March 6, 2008 http://performancing.com/problogging-tips-get-smart-leverage-your-research

“Freelance Blogging for Side Income: My Top 10 Tips”, Skellie, Feb. 26, 2008, AnyWired.com, http://www.anywired.com/freelance-blogging-for-side-income-my-top-10-tips/59/

Where is the Free Lunch on the Internet?

I begin working on this post with the image of a waiter dressed up as a pirate playing a snappy little tune on his guitar touting “freecreditreport.com… I should have seen it coming at me like…” Fantastic commercial, but what does “free” really mean?* During the first week or so of my economics classes I usually get around to writing the acronym TANSTAAFL on the board. TANSTAAFL means “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” That is when occasionally someone points to all the “freebies” on the Internet. So what does it mean to be “free” on the Internet? Is that any different from “free” in the non-Internet world? When is something really “free”? And why do I keep putting the word “free” in quotation marks? Economic principles hold even on the Internet and this post will explain a few reasons why.

What Does It Mean to Be Free?

Type in the word “free” into the “free” Google search engine and you’ll get an estimate of 4.5 million sites. Who gets the top honors? FREE –Federal Resources for Education Excellence (http://free.ed.gov/) FREE is a site that “makes it easier to find teaching and learning resources from the federal government” with “More than 1,500 federally supported teaching and learning resources are included from dozens of federal agencies”. Who pays for this “free” service? The taxpayer.

Next is TheFreeSite.com (http://thefreesite.com), a site dedicated to listing “all the top free products, services and offers available on the Web.” This is actually a great resource, and I’ll recommend it to my students. Who pays? The site itself seems to be supported by revenue from Google’s AdSense. There are also some hand-coded links to other “free” sites like the Freebiedirectory.com, which may be paid advertising.

A little further down the page is the Free Software Foundation http://www.fsf.org/licensing/essays/free-sw.html. According to the Free Software Foundation, free software has the characteristics found on http://www.fsf.org/licensing/essays/free-sw.html. Essentially, they suggest that free software gives you, the user, the right to use, adapt, redistribute, and improve the software. They assert that the purpose of free software is to enhance learning and knowledge in the area, and that using it constitutes a “political and ethical choice asserting the right to learn and share what we learn” (http://www.fsf.org/about/what-is-free-software). If there is any case where the developer has the right to revoke the software, then it isn’t truly free software (as is the case with nearly all of the free resources that I may recommend). Since real resources go into its production, it must be funded in some way. Often funding is initially by the developer who later accepts donations for his/her time, and then may even begin charging for the final, stable version of the product. Funding could be indirect through the universities or corporations employing the services of those experimenting at your risk (note the warnings when you download betas) and profiting from the knowledge learned or shared. Unfortunately, most software distributed on the web isn’t truly free.

So what does “free” mean? First, the economics explanation. Something that is free is available in unlimited quantities. In other words, supply exceeds demand which produces a price equal to zero. Is this saying that information and goods offered for “free” on the Internet are essentially worthless? No. Read on… Resources have value, so anytime these resources are used in the production of a good, whether offered for “free” or not, an opportunity cost is incurred. For example, I am offering this explanation at some cost to myself (i.e., my time that could be spent doing something else – perhaps earning income selling web design); however, as an academic, part of my job is to impart knowledge on the waiting world, so my compensation is my salary. I could attempt to put this information under a password allowing only paying members to read it, but there is plenty of competition willing to provide the information for “free” or, perhaps, this information really is worthless.

What is “Free” on the Internet?

So in what other ways is the concept “free” used on the Internet? I will discuss these briefly so as to leave something to talk about later! (This is by no means an exhaustive list.)

(1) “Free” but with strings attached – e.g., product “bundling” or “tying”. You agree to sign up for something (maybe a trial period) or it accompanies the purchase of another good (free paper with purchase of printer ink) or it requires the subsequent purchase of a tied product (a “free” printer that uses only a specific kind of ink cartridge). Or perhaps you are giving up personal information, such as your e-mail address or phone number.

(2) “Free” as in information sharing - Perhaps you simply agree to a link back to the copyright holder for use of information. This raises page rank – perhaps necessary for higher advertising revenue - or increases the goodwill (reputation) of the writer. Or perhaps this information is shared alongside non-free services or products. I find this to be the case on FreeLunch.com – a self-proclaimed “free” resource for economic data. The actual “free” service here is being a central place to find both “free” data (that can also be accessed directly freely from its original source) and plenty of non-free services and products. It is essentially a form of advertising.

(3) “Free” as a carrot on a stick – e.g., product “crimping”. Some “free” software is distributed freely, but is actually “proprietary” software meaning that it is subject to limitations and you usually have none of the rights listed above by the Free Software Foundation. Certain features are turned off or not included unless you upgrade. This is called “crimping” the product. The idea is to provide just enough of a carrot on a stick to lead you to buy the whole product. An example is the NetObjects Fusion Essentials software. While you can build a decent simple site, you are enticed to want more, and the NetObjects Fusion 11 has it. For more examples of this, see http://www.venchar.com/2003/12/product_crimpin.html.

(4) “Free” to build a network – Goods or services that require network effects for success. For example, ebay.com, MySpace.com, CraigsList.com. For the network to reach what is known as a “critical mass”, the level where membership takes off, “free” membership may be critical (excuse the pun). A new fun rising network is called “Twitter” (at Twitter.com. See news story at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kj6OGsfSG0&eurl=http://sfist.com/2008/06/30/would_you_pay_to_use_twitter.php). In many cases, building the network is essential to increase advertising revenues or increase the financial value of the network.

(5) “Free” as in the case of a “public good”– it is prohibitively expensive to collect fees from all individuals who receive and use the information or to exclude all individuals who do not pay. Examples include research findings, news reports, or weather reports. These sites are often paid through advertising or tax revenue.

(6) “Free” for the public interest – as in the case of net neutrality (see http://www.savetheinternet.com/). “Freedom of connection, with any application, to any party, is the fundamental social basis of the Internet, and, now, the society based on it.” (Read http://dig.csail.mit.edu/breadcrumbs/node/144 and http://dig.csail.mit.edu/2006/06/neutralnet.html by Daniel Weitzner. The term “free” here means equal access. “Free” is through legislation, but the cost is still born by users who pay to access it (ultimately, the consumer). In this case, legislation is limiting market power that might otherwise develop.

(7) “Free” for malicious purposes – as in the case of downloaded viruses or annoying adware (whether in the fine print or not) attached to items downloaded for “free” from the Internet. Your pursuit of the ability to avoid paying could lead to a much higher cost later.

With all this said, I am encouraging my students to build websites, and as a rule of thumb, I am using as many “free” resources as I can. I used a “free” site building software called NetObjects Fusion Essentials to build my own course website – even though I actually own NOF 10. I used a “free” blog on Blogger.com to build this blog. I used the “free” Google Analytics to record your visit to either site. And I am using my “free” server space at my university to host my campus website.

Is There Such Thing as a Free Lunch?

As an economist, I am still bound to my conviction that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”. I am very skeptical whenever I even see or hear the word “free”. Read the fine print. Ask yourself, how is it that they can offer it for free? Post any truly free lunches in the comment section here – that is, something produced and consumed without using any valuable resources and with no strings attached. It must have value and yet it must not be scarce – i.e., it can’t be the case that some individuals will scoop it up and try to resell it for a price or provide it for some economic advantage of their own.

Perhaps the most useful “free” lunch I found on the Internet while researching this article can be found at www.freerice.com. Help this organization donate rice to hungry people for each word you get correct. Build your English vocabulary while helping to end world hunger. The site and donations are advertising supported.

Other Readings:
“Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business”, Chris Anderson, Wired.com, http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/magazine/16-03/ff_free?currentPage=all, posted 2/25/08.

“TANSTAAFL: In Search of the Free Lunch and No-Cost/Low-Cost Full-Text Archives”, Mary Ellen Bates, Searcher; Jun2000, Vol. 8 Issue 6, p 55-59.

*freecreditreport.com obtains a “free” credit report while offering a trial period for credit monitoring service. By law, everyone can receive a free credit report without signing up for any other products once per year. For more information on this topic, including the federal law suit against Consumerinfo.com regarding deceptive marketing practices, see http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/freereports/index.html.