How Google search gave rise to content farms: new story in Maisonneuve

What does the all-powerful Google search, and it algorithm, have in common with online content farms and machine-driven content? And what could it all mean for journalism and journalists? Read Age of the Algorithm, by Ira Basen, in this month’s Maisonneuve magazine.

In it, Basen tells the story of becoming a Demand Media freelancer. “You have to submit your resume and a writing sample of at least three hundred words — preferably a published article,” he writes. “What you don’t need to do is pitch any story ideas. The algorithm has already taken care of that.”

Here’s his description of picking his first story:

“After my application was accepted, I eagerly scrolled through pages of possible stories. I quickly realized I was probably not the most suitable candidate for this job. Many of the how-to topics involved technology, construction, and home and appliance repair—not my strong suits. I bypassed “How to Build a Portable Cattle Stanchion,” “How to Build a Motorized Bicycle Weed Eater” and “How to Fix the Pressure Valve on a Two Gallon Compression Sprayer.” All of these would require a lot more work than my $15 paycheque could justify. I thought “What Causes Pimples in your Nose?” was best left to someone with a background in dermatology. I foolishly passed on “What Are the Advantages of Horizontal Fly Men’s Underwear?” because I didn’t know what a horizontal fly was. Moments later it occurred to me that I could probably speculate on that topic as well as the next guy, but by the time I returned to the index, the topic had already been claimed by another enthusiastic freelancer.

“Finally, I came across “How Do I Register a Canadian Business Name?” Bingo! I had registered a business name earlier that year. There was nothing complicated about it. You just go to your provincial government website, fill out a form online, pay some money and you’re all set. As an added bonus, I could suggest you visit the Canada Revenue Agency website to pick up a tax number while you were at it. The topic was listed under a category called “Short Answer,” which meant the editors were looking for only seventy-five to two hundred words. I thought starting small was probably a good strategy. The bad news was that my story, once approved by the Demand Media editorial team, would pay me just $5.”

For the rest, check out the article, or buy the magazine.