Content Farms and Teachable Moments

I’ve noticed a lot of posts lately about how the quality of Google’s search is declining. This is mainly due to content farms that churn out mediocre to low quality articles about every imaginable topic. They do this in the hopes that people will find their pages through Google and click on the ads there.

These content farms are things you have seen in search results before. They are sites like eHow, eZine Articles, HubPages, and Yahoo Answers among many others. And they are annoying as hell. I can’t remember ever finding a useful post on Yahoo Answers. Luckily, it seems that Google is finally trying to do something about it.

For some things, Google is great. I can type “Aljazeera” in and quickly find their English page without knowing the URL. For articles where I can’t remember who wrote them or where I read them, I can type a few keywords that I remember and retrieve them. But if I am doing any shopping I’m not going to Google. There is far too much spam and bias. I’ll go to Amazon or directly to a site. If I am looking for a somewhat credible answer to a not simply factual (Wikipedia) sort of question, I’m not likely going to search Google. Or if I do, I am often disappointed.

This was part of what I was trying to get at in my information landscape post earlier this month. Google is not magic and can’t do everything. It often fails us, and we lower our standards for it because we believe that it’s magic. It seems like these posts about lower quality search results could be used as teachable moments for students.

I observed another librarian teaching and she talked to students about sites like these. She pointed out things like the “belly fat” ads and how the content is normally pretty terrible. It seemed to work very well. Can we use this problem with search to help students become more discerning information consumers? Does anyone else talk about this?

Andy Burkhardt


  1. So funny you mention this, Andy — this year I’ve been talking to students in our English 1 one-shots about content farms, too. The students I’ve encountered have never heard the term before, but they immediately get it when we start looking closely at the site. I’m not teaching our 3-credit course this semester but I’m considering adding an assignment for next semester that focuses specifically on content farms.

  2. Maura, that is what I noticed too when my colleague was talking about them. She never actually used the term, but students seemed to recognize them. I think students have a vague understanding, but once you make explicit what is implicit it shifts their entire perspective. “Oh this isn’t just another website. It’s a content farm that’s trying to sell me stuff.” Hopefully students look more carefully at websites when they understand that.

    I’m glad to hear that you talk about them as well and that it’s useful.

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