Pay-for-blogging site raises questions

Is Associated Content a next-gen media site or an exploiter of search engines and AdSense? At least Google and Yahoo are on "board."

The controversy around a young Web site called Associated Content boils down to perspective.

Does it exist to game Google search results and generate revenue through Google's AdWords advertising service by displaying contextual ads next to the copy? Or is it a new kind of media site, chock-full of original articles written mostly by average folk about everything from presidential pardons and karaoke to smoker's guilt and ventriloquism?

Add to the mix at Associated Content two prominent board members--Tim Armstrong, head of advertising for Google in North America, and venture capitalist Eric Hippeau, a managing partner at SoftBank Capital, who also happens to serve on Yahoo's board of directors--and you have a little company that's drawing outsized and quite possibly unwanted attention.

But while there are plenty of questions about this start-up, no one seems to be able to say it's actually doing anything wrong.

"This kind of service is not entirely clear-cut," said Danny Sullivan, editor of the Search Engine Land blog. "It's not a case that they are bad or should be banned, but they are embroiled in this kind of a debate."

Denver-based Associated Content was formed in 2004 and received $5.4 million in funding from SoftBank. It bills itself as a "user-driven information portal" and content provider, licensing content to other online publishers. The articles are "optimized for discovery and revenue generation," according to a news release on the company Web site. In other words, they're designed to be easy to find on Google through various search optimization techniques used by many publishers, not just people accused of gaming search results.

The company asks bloggers to write on the subjects of their choosing and accepts text, video and audio. Contributors can be paid based on the quality of the article and keyword optimization.

In most ways, Associated Content's methods seem fitting for any typical Web site--do your best to get play on Google search results and make money off its advertising. In fact, Associated Content is hardly the only company churning out content to match with Google ads. The success of Google's AdSense program, which matches ads with content on Web sites, and the growth of blogging applications have led to the emergence of pay-for-blogging companies that help match willing writers with sites that want content.

"The only issue with Associated Content is they've got a Google executive on the board. Because the company is in this gray area it becomes an issue for them. What they are doing isn't wrong, but it is subject to debate."
--Danny Sullivan
Editor, Search Engine Land

What separates legitimate content marketplaces from so-called "Made for AdSense" companies that generate content purely for marketing purposes is the intent of the company and the quality of the articles, said Rand Fishkin, co-founder and chief executive of search marketing firm SEOmoz.

That gets closer to the heart of the controversy. The dividing line between people who don't have a problem with Associated Content and those who do seems to come down to one of the most hard-to-define aspects of a Web site: quality. And quality, as most people know, is terribly difficult to define. As the 20th-century U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said in declining to venture too far into a definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it."

The complaint is that much of the content coming out of some of these pay-for-blogging sites is lousy because it's designed more for ranking higher in search engines than to inform or educate readers. Associated Content was taken to task for that in an article headlined "Bottom Slurping for Google Juice," on the Clickz news site.

Search Engine Land's Sullivan followed up on his blog, suggesting that Associated Content could be contributing to the "pollution" of search engine results and "manipulating Google's rankings" by using, for instance, repetitive hyperlinks from the same word within an article to another page on the site.

"Some people just want to make money off AdSense and they just need content, so they'll effectively freelance stuff from authors. It gets into these gray areas," Sullivan said in a recent interview. "The only issue with Associated Content is they've got a Google executive on the board. Because the company is in this gray area it becomes an issue for them. What they are doing isn't wrong, but it is subject to debate."

"The key issue here is you've got someone directly involved in Google's revenue generation also involved in a company that is taking advantage of ways to generate revenue from Google," said Andy Beal, founder of Internet marketing consultancy and blog Marketing Pilgrim. "That's the conflict."

Armstrong was not available for an interview. However, Andy Hinton, associate general counsel and global ethics and compliance officer at Google, provided this statement: "Tim Armstrong's board membership with Associated Content was appropriately disclosed by Tim to Google's management, was reviewed by the company's management and potential conflicts of interest with his obligations to Google were addressed."

SoftBank's Hippeau said he was surprised that anyone would have a problem with Associated Content's content, business model or board composition.

"It's fresh, original, up-to-the moment content that people are looking for," he said. "We publish (contributors') content and figure out the best way for that content to reach people...It never occurred to us that it would be an issue."

Geoff Reiss, chief executive of Associated Content, defends the company's business model and having Armstrong on the board. In fact, Armstrong recruited him to the company. The two men worked together at Starwave, which developed ESPN.com and ABCNews.com, among other sites, and was eventually sold to Disney. Reiss also was a general manager at Spy Magazine.

"I probably wouldn't be working here if it weren't for Tim's involvement," Reiss said. "His presence suggests a certain level of comfort on the part of his employers. His association (with Associated Content) speaks for itself."

Reiss has big plans for Associated Content, which he said is tapping the creativity of millions of undiscovered potential writers on the Web. In addition to matching freelance content on all types of subjects with publishers with Web site space to fill, the company is also developing direct sponsorship and private label deals, he said.

Reiss dismissed complaints that the writing wasn't good. Why, he reasoned, can't a home contractor with no writing experience be paid to share his experience and knowledge by writing an article that gets syndicated? "If you write a really good article that 200 people want to read, you've created value," he said.

Content quality aside, the syndication aspect of Associated Content could be a problem because it creates the potential for multiple sites displaying the same content to search engines, a problem called "duplicate content," said Barry Schwartz, executive editor of the Search Engine Roundtable blog.

To solve that problem, Reiss said he will be encouraging freelancers to write about narrow subjects rather than broad topics that might get overexposure.

"I didn't come here at this point in my career to manage a cynical enterprise whose sole purpose is to exploit the intricacies of AdSense to make a few bucks. Nor could we create value for our shareholders by merely gaming AdSense," Reiss said. "I'm here to develop a next-generation media business. AdSense is clearly part of the mix, but not remotely close to what I want it to be or what the board brought me here to do."

Associated Content is doing what any smart online news organization should do--training people to write copy that grabs the attention of search engines, said Fishkin of SEOmoz.

After all, doesn't virtually every publication write content that sells ads, on the Web or in print? Isn't that the point?

"In order to become popular with users, they'll have to consistently offer good content," Fishkin said. "It's a self-correcting market."

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