AOL Learns From Demand Media For New ‘Way’


aol.jpgADOTAS – Are there any famous quotations about the disaster inherent in the engineers taking over the media? Can I pen the first?

The subheading under AOL’s updated editorial guidelines (leaked to and shared by Business Insider) includes the term “media engineering” — there’s actually a page on the “content generation process.” You might remember brainstorming and outlining from your primary school writing classes, but AOL’s approach is a little different.

Editor considerations (drawn out with bullet points) for topics to cover are traffic potential, revenue/profit, turnaround time and (last of all) editorial integrity. The mechanical process for identifying high-demand topics can be found on page 16.

Apparently journalists and editors at AOL are being trained — i.e., having it jammed down their throats — in the nightmarish and cynical 58-page AOL Way and they’re not happy about it. Someone was pissed off enough to leak it to Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson.

It’s a short-sighted strategy to boost story output from 33,000 a month 55,000. Average cost of content is set to drop from $97 in January to $84 in March while pageviews per story are expected to jump from 1,500 to 7,000 (I love this whole idea that cheaper content will get more views — kinda reminds me of the funky investment products of the last decade). Seventy percent of content is going to be video (versus 4% now). And oh yeah — everything is going run through the SEO Checker to ensure it’s optimized.

Wait a second… This all sounds really familiar… Oh my! AOL is applying the Demand Media strategy, validated by Wall Street, to its journalistic content. As TNW’s Courtney Boyd Myers puts it, “AOL’s money-mongering ways will be its journalistic demise.”

Even worse, AOL is going to mom’n’pop content farms out of business!

Then again, “The AOL Way” makes sense for AOL — most of its current content is junkfood, the equivalent to supermarket tabloids. AOL is something you glance at when you first jump on the web, and maybe you click on a viral video or a seemingly outlandish story about some celebrity.

(I’ve been known to do that, usually saying aloud, “Who the hell is that?” before clicking. Then again, I’d never view AOL if it wasn’t for AIM loading it every time I open it, and I only use AIM to communicate with remote employees.)

Political and business headlines? I may see the headline on AOL, but I will hit up a more reliable source for the story. (Yahoo Finance, on the other hand, is a pretty impressive aggregator.) It’s becoming even more common just to find out what friends are linking to and discussing on Facebook or Twitter. You can even skip skimming AOL for headlines.

Why would AOL try to become the Demand of newsy (not newsworthy) content? Well, same day Business Insider leaks the AOL Way, AOL reports that ad revenue dipped 30% year over year 4Q 2010 — $468.6 million in Q4 2009 slipped to $331.6 million in Q4 2010.

Display in particular dropped 14% year-over-year — AOL has emphasized that it’s been killing ad spots left and right for clarity purposes. The only way to make up for that lost revenue is to put out gobs of content at a lower pricepoint. The AOL Way proves that quality will take a seat way on the bus to the new fun pastime of SEO gaming (it should be an Olympic sport!).

But writing for search engines is back-asswords — it’s easy short-term revenue and, like MySpace forgoing AJAX for the pennies in revenue from multiple pages chock full of crap display ads, it won’t last.

For one thing, the young’ens are using social tools such as Facebook to sidestep all the junk found in a Google search. StumbleUpon is another great tool for social discovery. Then there’s Digg and Reddit for social recommendations. The kids get that companies like AOL and Demand are pushing out cheap content aimed to topple search results; they get that media companies (especially newsy outlets) are spraying out SEOed garbage.

So what happens when engineers — who only understand dollars and pageviews rather than quality — take over the media? The browsers flock to new content wells. You can quote me on that.


  1. They want 7,000 avg pageviews, not 1,700. You also mis-spelled ‘seventy.’ AOL must have touched a nerve, huh? :-) I would agree with your assessment of the riskiness of AOL’s ‘content farm’ strategy. That kind of ‘internet pollution’ has made it so that the marginal utility of vast tracts of the internet is actually DECREASING. Once a new form of searching takes hold (could be social, could be paywalls, could be curation, could be lots of things), the whole ecosystem of SEO-gaming is going to have a very, very rude awakening followed by an abrupt demise. But even before such a tectonic shift takes place, the more sophisticated internet users are finding new, more efficient means of searching that bypass all the fluff out there. Once those sophisticated eyeballs (and their higher personal incomes and B2B purchasing power) are no longer being algorithmically channeled to factory-made articles, watch CPMs on such SEO-gamed content plummet to essentially nothing, in favor of content that actually has some intrinsic value outside of its search engine ranking. But it’s not just AOL that has to watch out, it’s most of the internet.

  2. What a totally brilliant article!
    I have a second recommendation about AOL and its ilk: Never invest in a media company that’s “re-inventing” itself. If it calls itself “the NEW…” sell their stock short immediately. Just because they hit a home run in 1997 doesn’t mean they can even get a base hit in 2011, no matter how much money they throw at it.


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