AOL Trolls for SEO Bait... Uh, Make That "Exposure-Compensated Bloggers"

Last Updated Apr 27, 2011 2:04 PM EDT

Only a few weeks after AOL fired Moviefone editor-in-chief Patricia Chui for daring to suggest that the company might welcome fired freelancers back as unpaid bloggers, upper management has apparently had a change of heart. No, not about Chui. About the whole unpaid blogger thing. AOL wants 8,000 free bloggers for Patch, the company's network of hyperlocal coverage. In eight days, too, naturally.

The real reason? To draw more search-engine traffic via SEO, of course.

Such an about face does cast AOL demurrals about the "please write for us for free" invitations in a disingenuous light. Chui wasn't the first AOL editor to bring up free work. She just caught the bullet for being the second one to mention it in public.

Lots of free blog posts = attention from Google = ka-ching!

But then, the idea was always to get writers to churn out massive amounts of free material, because, as I've noted before, that helps search engine optimization. A major reason for Huffington Post's success has been thousands of bloggers raising the site's search engine prominence.

The more new material that goes up with some thought behind it, the more attention search engines like Google pay. The more attention, the more traffic. The more traffic, the more ad revenue -- and, boy, does AOL need that. For CEO Tim Armstrong to put Arianna Huffington in charge of editorial would have been unthinkable had he not wanted to implement a similar approach throughout his organization.

But AOL's rollout of the strategy again epitomizes its sketchy management approach, if Jeff Bercovici's story on Forbes.com is even half-correct:

Patch, AOL's network of hyperlocal news sites, is trying to recruit as many as 8,000 bloggers in the next eight days, according to editor in chief Brian Farnham.On Friday, Patch editors were told to start recruiting bloggers in preparation for the launch of its blog platform on May 4. Yesterday, Farnham issued a memo with concrete targets: Each editor is expected to sign up five to 10 new bloggers by then.Farnham's rationalization is that Patch is a "startup" and that Patch editors would have to get used to "changes and moving fast."

Go hyperlocal, young blogger

A nice thought, that. Now, time for a reality check. Hiring bloggers that are good and getting them into place -- particularly when you want them to donate their services -- isn't easy. One way HuffPo pulls this off is to dangle the possibility of building a huge audience, because of the site's huge traffic. Most of the Huffington bloggers are virtually unread, so the promise is empty. However, at least it sounds like it could be true.

What will Patch offer? Hyperlocal means focusing on a small area. That means limited audiences, so it doesn't provide a big bargaining chip. And then there's the added work for the existing Patch editors. As sources inside AOL have told me, people actually go over the Huffington Post blog entries, providing some degree of copy editing.

Frankly, I have a hard time believing that HuffPo put in that much effort, as it would have involved something like 40 bloggers per HuffPo employee, most of whom aren't even editors. But set aside the math for a moment. Each Patch editor will have to watch over 5 to 10 bloggers while doing everything else they have to do. And apparently the report that AOL would hire hundreds of new Patch staffers to help make the job more manageable was another of those management statements that weren't meant to be taken literally.

After all, hire more people? Wouldn't that cost money?

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