The Huffington Post’s Business Strategy – SEO and Content Farms vs Branding and Customer Loyalty

February 16th, 2011 by Scott Shockley

There has been much discussion about the Huffington Post since the announcement of its acquisition by AOL early this month.

Content Farms are like the McDonald's of Content.

There has been a lot of praise and criticism for its internet marketing and SEO tactics including content-farming, a practice of creating, many times tremendously low quality, pieces solely for the purpose of attracting visitors via trending searches.

The Huffington Post’s content model has been under much scrutiny, especially in the wake of a debate about low quality content in Google search results. As Jason Calacanis of Mahalo.com said, “If you make Google look stupid, they’ll fuck you up.” A content farm is basically a website or company that produces a massive amount of content a day at low prices, and therefore low quality. Content Farms are like the McDonald’s of food, or the Soulja Boy of Rap, and you normally don’t want to find their efforts in your search results. A great laughable example of this results when you Google: what time does the Super Bowl start?

Yeah, the Huffington Post, the serious political blog getting purchased for $315 million is responsible for that crap. Beyond this, it is a site for unpaid bloggers to submit their possibly low quality, redundant content. To get back to what Calacanis said, and what Matt Cutts of Google has been saying, sooner or later low quality (but not quite spam) and redundant content will be penalized to a greater extent by Google. Whether through Facebook likes, bounce rates, account personalization, or several other means, Google is looking at ways to do this.

I would argue, however, that what should be even more important to the Huffington Post than SEO is its brand. A brand is not a logo, it’s a promise to customers, inherent in a company’s products. As of 2/15/11 – 10:15 am CSD, if you Google News “obama’s budget,” you get results from the Huffington Post among others, but what you don’t get in the first 30 results is the Economist, a weekly magazine, which in spite of current economic conditions and a $130 yearly subscription rate, is experiencing growth in the United States. This is because the company knows what matters to its readers. Economist readers know that the content will always be well above average, including the free stuff on the website. This is a real danger for the Huffington Post: if, as they claim, the bulk of its readership is interested in the serious, paid-for political pieces and the equally as serious unpaid contributions from people like John Kerry, then it risks alienating its most important customers by posting 153 word “articles” about Lady Gaga smoking pot.

There are some pros. If you beleive that the perception of Huffington Post’s most loyal readers is not altered by the inclusion of subpar content, then there really is not much of a branding problem at all. Without this problem, the SEO strategy works wonders. As recently discussed in the New York Times, the Huffington Post sometimes creates search engine optimized content based on what they predict will be a popular search, or what is trending on Google and Twitter during any given time frame, like the Super Bowl page. If you can maintain a core audience and acquire additional readers who are interested in pop stars and what time the Super Bowl starts, you are cultivating more eyes to make more clicks to make more ad revenue. There is also the added bonus of the possibility that these newly acquired customers will stick around, actually read some real news, and maybe an Op-Ed here and there.

Furthermore, whatever happens to be news at any given time will inevitably be trending online. It makes perfectly good sense to make sure you are using the right keywords and html optimizations to grab hold of the traffic that you are competing for. This is where the Huffington Post wins–where the New York Times spelled out the acronym SEO in its title tag, the Huffington Post would have stuck with the acronym, after a review of the evidence below.

Ultimately, AOL is now responsible for answering these questions. What do you think about the Huffington Post’s business strategy?

Image Source: Thanks to selective_hearing on Flickr for the McDonald’s image.