A Sordid Tale of Webspam and Content Farming

There are an increasing number of jobs that are staggeringly valueless: what you’d call bullshit work in less polite circles. Not only the pointless administrative work that begs to be automated. But also the type of work where heroic amounts of mental ingenuity and effort are spent in achieving a result that delivers very little–if any–value to anyone, other than increasing someone’s bank account. For a myriad of examples, look at finance. Never did I think that I would voluntarily engage in such chicanery, but in creating my little niche site empire I did. There’s something undeniably addicting about it all. This essay is an overview of a mostly valueless industry that I spent an embarrassing amount of time being a part of. Let me explain a little bit about the cottage industry that is the building of niche sites. The type of ads claiming that “my aunt makes 7k dollars from home sitting in her underwear while sipping tea and eating crackers, and you can too!” are so ubiquitous now, that anyone with an ounce of critical thinking ability views the whole industry of “making money online” with a healthy dose of skepticism. The scammy offers behind those ad curtains are primarily ways for you to lose money, not make it. Despite the cynicism this type of lowest-denominator targeted crap engenders, there are many valid ways to make money online, while wearing any type of garment you might prefer. One of the very oldest methods to do so is the practice of building very focused, small websites that we’ll refer to as niche sites. If you’ve ever searched for something like “reclaimed wood tables” and arrived at reclaimedwoodtables.com, then you’ve seen a niche site. If you’re not familiar with the world of niche sites, the basic business plan can be boiled down to:

  1. Find Profitable Keyword Phrases
  2. Build Sites around said Keywords
  3. Rank Sites for said Keywords
  4. Monetize said Sites through Advertising

Building niche sites and slapping ads on them is a tried and true method of making some dollars (usually a very few). It doesn’t require much technical ability: if you can click the right buttons to set up a simple WordPress site and you can write passable English, you have the necessary skill set. The primary investment needed is time, not money or expertise. With such a low barrier to entry, I created some of these on a whim many years ago. The sites I created were on topics that were interesting to me, had small amounts of self-written content, and they never made more than a tiny pittance. That changed around a year ago when I had a quiet time in my consulting business. In a well-intentioned bid to spend some of my newfound additional free time more productively than playing video games, I decided to create a “few” more in order to increase the amount of my ever elusive passive income (a misleading and infuriating phrase to anyone who has spent the gobs of upfront time required for most of this “passive” income to be realized). And so I began down a path that would lead me to a mini obsession battling with Google and searching for needles in haystacks. The current state of building and ranking niche sites has changed a lot since I created a few of these sites almost 10 years ago. It’s now a decently sized cottage industry. There are many sites now that cater to would-be niche site builders, and will hold your hand through the process, guiding you every step of the way. Of course the end goal of most of them is to sell you a product—be it ebooks, courses, or software. I’ve been programming for much of my life, and like those who’ve spent a lot of time thinking in algorithms and business processes, I saw opportunities for automation everywhere. Why create just a “few” niche sites? Instead, I decided that I would create my own custom system to build legions of these sites! What started as a little diversion turned into something that sucked up huge amounts of my time. I was mining for gold! There were so many untapped niches available, I only needed to find them. Let’s take a look at the 4 basic steps of the niche site creation process:

Find Profitable Keywords

This is the most important step, and there are a number of things that decide whether a keyword will be profitable or not. It needs to have enough search volume—if a phrase only gets searched a couple dozen times a month, it’s unlikely to make much money. It also needs to be something advertisers are willing to pay for— advertisers will be falling over themselves to pay you money to send them a visitor who searched for “home loan refinance”. Not so much to send them users who are looking for chili recipes. The keyword also needs to be uncompetitive enough so that a small operator like myself or other niche site builders have a reasonable chance of ranking it with a minimal investment of time and effort. This criteria rules out almost everything with loan in it. There are many tools that exist to help you find these elusive keywords, but you can get by simply using google adwords for potential profitability, and manually checking for the amount of competition you have. Lets say you’ve found a few promising keyword phrases that you’d like to build sites for, now what?

Build Sites around said Keyword

You’ll want a domain for each of your keyword phrases. Ideally you want it to closely match the term you are building it for, e.g. blueboatshoes.com for “blue boat shoes”. These are called exact match domains (EMD for short) and were all the rage for a long period of time. Google has sense vastly reduced the importance of domain name as a ranking factor, but they still have some value. So, you’ve got your domain, now to build the site itself. You can use whatever you want to build a niche site, but WordPress is far and away the most popular choice here. So you click your various buttons until you have your WordPress site set up on your proud new niche site domain. Now you need to put some “content” on it. An aside on content. You may have heard the term “content marketing”—it’s hot now. It basically means creating content (blog posts, videos, infographics, hieroglyphics) and using said content to get customers. I like what Patrick Mackenzie has to say about content:

“Content” suggests that something is mass-produced in a factory-like setting… the written equivalent of pink slime, like TechCrunch or ValleyWag

Here I mean content in an even more derogatory way. TechCrunch and Valleyway posts will appear as Pulitzer Prize worthy pieces of beauty compared to what we will be putting up on our niche sites. We’re going to want at least a few unique pieces of this pink slime content on our site, usually around 3 articles of approximately 500 words. You can write these yourself, which I did for a short time. By a short time I mean a short time– writing 500 word articles on such things as sphygmomanometers and the history of boat shoes isn’t my favorite thing to do. After writing a few of these pieces of word slime on the most ridiculously niche of niche keywords, I was done. This is also the most time consuming part of the process, so the writing need to be offloaded somehow as soon as possible. To do this, I started to outsource all of the writing. This was the most frustrating part of the process for me, because it’s the only part in the entire niche site endeavor that you have to deal with other actual human beings. Due to the low amount of money each individual niche site makes on average, you cannot afford to pay very much to your writers. I used a popular outsourcing site and had to wade through large numbers of applicants to find those that could write with passable English, and at a price that would allow me to remain profitable. I had around 10 writers working off and on for my niche site empire when it was in full swing, including some really hard-working folks who put in a lot of effort to make interesting articles on topics such as copper farmhouse sinks, bless them. Paying them and sending them more work became one of the most enjoyable parts for me.

Rank the Sites

After the niche sites are built and have some tasty pink slime content on them, they need to be ranked. The site won’t make a penny if no one ever visits it. It needs to be shown near the top of the search engine results when searchers look for the targetted keyword. Ranking websites is a constant battle against the search engines. It’s akin to being a lawyer arguing a case in a court with constantly changing laws. You argue for your website to be higher in the search results than your competition. Google is the judge and frequently changes the rules and laws. The case is continually decided by Google’s algorithsm, and a ranking verdict is handed out. The goal of the search engines is to show results that best match the searcher’s intention, so that the searcher keeps using that search engine. If a searcher types “plumbers in Las Vegas”, they probably want a list of plumbers in Las Vegas. They probably don’t want to be directed to our plumbersinlasvegas.com website that contains generic information on plumbers and Las Vegas. Google wants to send them where they want to go (or to their own ads). WE want them directed to our fine website so that they can click on OUR ads for plumbers listed on our website. You can see the cross purposes we’re at here. The methods of ranking websites can be roughly divided into two camps: White Hat SEO, and Black Hat SEO. White hat SEO is the attempt to follow all of the rules that Google lays out; to play nice, with all your cards laid out on the table. White Hat methods are more time consuming and require actual human beings to do the work. Black Hat SEO consists of ranking websites by any means necessary—the more automatable, the better. If a website is genuinely high quality and wants to enjoy long term success, White Hat methods are the only way to go, period. Google has a lot of smart people on their payroll, and eventually they find and algorithmically punish websites gaming the intent of the system. You might see the problem here with ranking our niche sites this way—they are not genuinely high quality, and we don’t want to build up their quality over time. We’re left with Black Hat methods to rank our niche websites. O Black Hat SEO methods, Let me count the ways…actually let’s not. The number of Black Hat Methods that lay slain and scattered over the years is legion, what works today is unlikely to work in the future. However, as long as there is money to be made in being higher in the search engine results, new methods will continue to be developed. And make no mistake, there’s a lot of money to be made. What I used was a method that still works as of now: a private link network.

Getting links to the niche sites

One of the largest ranking factors for a website is the number and quality of links to it. If an article or essay is really good, it will naturally attract links. The pink slime content on niche sites doesn’t really fit this category, so links need to garnered in a more unnatural way. Enter the Private link network. Links are not created equal; a link from a brand new site has zero impact, yet a link from the New York Times is a huge boon. Since it’s unlikely that the New York Times will link to our site about vinyl privacy fences, we need to own and control our own high quality sites. Enter the next piece of the puzzle: expired domains.

Expired Domains

The best way to explain what I did in this step, is that I searched for corpses that were still fresh and relatively unmutilated, then I re-animated them, gave them new outfits, and sent them out to do my nefarious bidding. Only instead of corpses I was looking for old websites that their owners had let die. I was looking for sites that had many existing high quality links to them, and did not have spammy links to them. Sorting through the corpses was fascinating yet morbid, they included many political websites of failed candidates, websites of now defunct bands, websites failed businesses, and many websites championing forgotten causes. On the basis of these broken dreams was my private network built. After I purchased a fair number of domains that met my criteria, it was time to marshall them forth. I started to put content on them. This content was even lower than the pink slime of the niche sites. The criteria for the content on these private network sites was that it should be of a minimum length, and contain certain words that would act as hyperlinks to the niche sites. Lending some of their hard-won prestige to my little darling websites telling you about the marvels of corrugated PVC sheets. Now, to be quite honest, this content could have and should have been written by a computer, but I liked paying my writers and had delusions of long term viability for this private network, so an actual human writer churned out all of these as well. I created each of these zombie sites anew as a news or blog site, loosely related to what the site was in a previous life. My instructions to writers for these posts were monuments to absurdity. As I mentioned, each post had to contain certain words, placed strategically throughout the article. These words often had nothing to do with each other. My hardworking writers were often given instructions that were something like this: Write a 1000 word post that has something to do with Vietnam, and contains the following words and phrases: “advanced pain management, jump house rentals, view site, rapid weight loss, vinyl fence companies, click here, roth 401k advice, outdoor restaurant signs”. The results were often nonsensical, occasionally hilarious. No matter though, I had sufficient quantity and quality of links to rank quite a number of niche sites.

Hiding from Google

Google frowns on this type of behavior, and is constantly penalizing the networks and sites that they catch doing this type of disingenuous linking. A lot of work goes into avoiding the gaze of Google’s algorithms. The primary way this is done is by ensuring there is little to tie these private network sites together. They must have varying themes, avoid using the same accounts for third party analytics services, and be hosted on multiple geographically diverse servers.

Monetize the Sites

There is really only one option to make decent money from this type of niche of site, and that’s Google’s Adsense. Here, the niche site operator’s greatest adversary is also their greatest benefactor. There are competitors that will also partner with you to serve contextual ads, but none come close to approaching the ease of integration + high revenue that Adsense provides. What do you do? It’s very difficult…you sign up for Google Adsense and stick the ad snippets on your niche sites and then…there is no then. You’re done. You get paid based on the amount of times visitors click on the ads on your sites, and what advertisers are willing to pay for each particular click. Being for all intents and purposes, the only game in town, Google wields a lot of power in monetization as well as ranking. Everyone who’s ever made any nontrivial amount of money from Adsense fears a ban. Inevitably, just as I was starting to make nontrivial amounts from my growing portfolio of niche sites, the hammer dropped.

Adsense Ban

Getting banned from Adsense is akin to a scene from a Kefka novel, or for a more current comparison, it’s like asking what the NSA is doing. The first sign that something is wrong is an email out of the blue from Google telling you that your account has been disabled, and they are very sorry and thank you for your understanding, but they won’t tell you why. The best you can hope for is a list of possible reasons that may include the reason that your account was closed. Here’s the full list. You can appeal this ban, but the chances of a successful appeal are miniscule. Although I was already intimately familiar with the rules, I went through them again and failed to find any that I had broken. Defending yourself against unknown accusations is a difficult thing to do. Nevertheless, I scoured my server logs for any possible reasons and settled on a few suspicious visitors as a possible culprit for the ban. With little hope for this appeal I sent it off and got the response I expected: “After thoroughly reviewing your account data and taking your feedback into consideration, our specialists have confirmed that we’re unable to reinstate your AdSense account.” Oh, and we still can’t tell you why. Truthfully, this is only a minor setback if you are a larger operator. Most have multiple Adsense accounts and are able to get new ones on demand for any new legal entities they create. It does dissuade the smaller operators because after a ban, you are not allowed to create another Adsense account in your name—ever. This didn’t stop me, but was another sign reminding me that this was probably not a business worth continuing.

Automating the Process

I had zero desire to do all of this work manually, and I embarked on building a system to automate parts of the process as soon as I decided to build more than a few of these sites. The software I created found profitable keywords for me, found and researched expired domains that were worth resurrecting into my private network, launched new websites on the appropriate servers with one click, and more. At the end I was spending much more time building and debugging my software than doing anything related to the sites—unfortunately it is an annoying type software to maintain because of its necessarily distributed nature. It was interacting with APIs from multiple service providers, scraping Google results, and managing sites on multiple external servers. Whenever there was a change in a third party, I had to modify the software again. The software was massively complicated and I piled and piled code onto it so that it could handle ever more edge cases and automate ever more steps. It is the most byzantine piece of software I’ve yet created.

One of the many screens of my little content farm control panel.

One of the many screens of my little content farm control panel.

The only part of the process that still required more than a click’s worth of effort from me was giving instructions to my outsourced writers. This job would have been given to a content manager if I had continued this business.

Pulling the Plug

At this point, I had built less sophisticated versions of the software that runs the larger content farms such as Demand Media. It hasn’t worked out great for them. This wasn’t the reason I hung up my content farmer hat. It had ceased to be interesting to me, and wasn’t even making much money at the time. You also need to be able to be proud of what you do, and helping to litter the web with more content that could only be described as confusing drek was not something that I was proud to be doing. Life is too short to be spent on doing things that give no meaningful value to anyone and no feeling of fulfillment to you.

What I Learned

It’s very easy to get sucked into valueless bullshit work. My addiction to solving problems and creating solutions had me working on my niche site system for quite some time before I stepped back far enough to really think about whether it was actually something I wanted to be doing. Everything that I’m doing now and hopefully everything that I’m doing in the future will add value to everyone involved. If a business doesn’t make customer’s lives better, it’s not something worth doing.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *