Monday, July 22, 2019

Trying not to fertilize a content farm

I got an email this week from a person purporting to be the webmaster of a gardening website, asking if I would link to his page about growing buckwheat at home, from my page about buckwheat pancakes. The email seemed a little strange: it looked like a form letter with inserted fields. And there was a link at the bottom to unsubscribe. That's not something that I'd expect from a hobbyist looking to increase his connections.

But, rather than just ignore the email, I decided to do some investigation. If you'd like to play along at home, you'll find the site at “the daily gardener” — for obvious reasons, I don't want to insert a link or anything like a link, but I'm sure you can figure it out. Beware: while it has innocuous content today, it may not six months from now; I used a guest account on my home Linux box, and deleted the browser's config after visiting.

As I said, it has innocuous content. In fact, for a likely content farm, it has pretty good content: easily digestible chunks of information and lots of pictures. In other words, consistent with most of the gardening sites that I've seen.

There were, however, a few red flags. The first was that certain sentence phrasings were not those of a native English speaker. That, however, could just be the result of editing (I know that I've left some bizarre sentences online after deleting and re-arranging words). The second red flag was that the word “daily” in the title really did mean daily: there was a new long-form article published every day. That too could be explained: the profile picture showed someone who appeared to be post-retirement; he could craft content full-time.

A third red flag was that there were very few outbound links. This is another place where my experience is not necessarily relevant: while I put a lot of outbound links on my site to provide the reader with more information, not everybody does. But most of the gardening sites that I looked at do. And if he's requesting me to link to his site, you'd think he'd be doing the same.

None of these red flags were convincing, so my next step was to take arbitrary sentences from his pages and put them into Google. In the past I've done this to find people who are pirating content from my site, and have issued several DMCA takedown requests as a result: people who put together pastiches tend not to change their source material. Surprisingly, it took a half-dozen attempts before I found almost-exact text from another site (which made me wonder whether most of the site's text was generated by a bot).

By now I was pretty much convinced this site was a content farm, so I explored its history. First stop was whois, which told me that the domain had been registered in 2005. Hmm, but all of the content looks new.

Next stop was the Wayback Machine, to look at how the site changed over the years. And what I discovered was that it was originally an online store, and remained so until the domain expired at the end of 2018. And then in April of 2019, the site was revived with a new look and new content.

Last up was a Google image search, using the picture from the “About Us” page. And, in addition to multiple links to “his” site, there was a link to Shutterstock. OK, that pretty much seals it.

After doing this research, I did some searches to find out if there was anything else that I should have looked for. And was surprised that there were very few “how to spot a content farm” articles available (one of the better ones is from Austin Community College, apparently to keep students from using such sites as citations). Most of the articles were about how content farms don't work, and that Google actively penalizes them. But if you search for “growing buckwheat” you will find the daily gardener site in the first page of results; perhaps it's too new to have triggered alarms.

And there is one thing that I find really strange about this site: there weren't any ads. That is — or has been — the main reason for content farms: get people on the site and hope that they click an ad. But not here. Nor did the network tab on my browser show any activity after page load, so it wasn't (when I looked) some sort of click scam.

So what's the goal? Is this a “long con” approach to black-hat SEO? Are they building traffic before turning the site into something nasty?

I don't know, but I won't be linking to it.

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