I’ve been riding the online content rollercoaster for a while now, both freelance and full time, at startups and at public companies, through thick and thin, long tail to head, from stubs to feature length articles and back again. I’ve helped produce seven thousand word expert instructional pieces with videos, images and purpose – and I’ve also been partially responsible for language butchering hundred word abominations wrapped in Adsense. And while I may not have written them all myself, I still feel personally responsible for having helped to create and manage systems that allowed them to be published and promoted. Don’t get me wrong. I’m incredibly proud of the majority of the content I’ve helped produce as an editorial director and content manager over the years. But as with a lot of things in life, it’s the ones that got away that always seem to come back to haunt you.
With all of the talk about “Content Farms” over the past year, I thought it’d be helpful to look back on my last five years as a content wrangler to see if I can identify some of the patterns and impulses that drive businesses to invest in large scale content creation – why some succeed, some fail, and others change their strategy (sorry, Pivot) every year or so in the hopes of riding a new wave of content to profitability. Although Google’s recent Panda update (often referred to as the “Farmer” update) came amidst growing concerns over the practice of mass content production, the debate about what constitutes article quality and relevance has been raging for some time now. And as companies that rely heavily on SEO content for traffic frantically race to adjust their strategies and make sacrifices to the almighty G, real users yawn and go back to the painstaking process of finding quality content that addresses their intent in the quickest way possible. As someone whose career was made possible by the emergence of content farms, I think that it’s appropriate to look back at how I got into this whole game and how my own views on what quality content is have shifted over time.
I’m beginning to think that my own story of stumbling into the online content game isn’t all that unique. As floods of old school journalists and recently graduated creative types with little to no technical programming skills flood the online space looking for work it’s inevitable that they would gravitate towards the text based world of content creation. As an English major, the only things I really knew how to do well were reading, researching, writing and editing. The process of synthesizing information from different sources and combining it into a reasonably coherent narrative is the bread and butter of liberal arts majors everywhere. Who knew that those would be the perfect skills to have in order to churn out large amounts of passable content on topics that I had no expertise in at all.
The problem with a liberal arts degree is that, although the skills I mentioned above will help you thrive in any decent jobs you manage to get, they do nothing to help you actually get those jobs in the first place. That’s why getting that first content writing gig was such a revelation to me. After years of waiting tables, catering weddings, bagging groceries and even selling vacuum cleaners, the thought of getting paid to research and write content online (even at those miniscule rates) was a watershed moment for me. You’re telling me that I can use my diploma for something other than a coaster? Sign me up! I didn’t much care that I wasn’t writing about what I was interested in. I was just happy to be doing something that I was good at and that came easily to me. Five years in the service industry and three years in a rock band gave me a much more realistic perspective on whether I would be able to support myself doing something I was passionate about. If I couldn’t do something I loved, at least I’d be doing something I was good at.
I spent about a year as a freelance content writer for a number of different sites, churning out masterpieces on everything from “How to Clear Your Cookies in Safari” and “What is an Actuary” to “How to Book a Flight on Bulgaria Airlines.” I admit that I was a bit confused as to why they would want me to write detailed instructions that basically amounted to telling the reader how to navigate the Bulgaria Airlines website when they could probably just go to the website and figure it out for themselves – but hey, for $10 I’d throw something passable together in half an hour let them figure out how they would get value out of it. Then again, that was before I understood the real purpose of what I was writing. Once I was able to peek behind the curtain and see how those titles were generated, it all started to make a lot more sense. I wasn’t writing to actually help someone book a flight on Bulgaria Airlines, I was trying to trick Google (and by extension the reader) into clicking on my article, and hopefully an ad, instead of the site that would actually get the information they were looking for. It may seem sleazy now, but at the time I was living in blissful ignorance (and poverty).
While the work was steady, it was still freelance and I knew that I had to find a full time gig soon in order to get my parents off my back about having health insurance. With a year of internet research and writing experience under my belt I was eventually able to land a full time job at a pre-launch startup company called Mahalo whose mission it was (at the time) to provide spam free search results compiled by actual humans. This seemed noble enough to me. Instead of producing garbage content to trick readers, I’d actually be sifting through all the spam in order to present users with only high quality, relevant content. How we were going to manually create all of the pages needed to provide a relevant SERP for the millions of queries that are processed each day was beside the point. We’d go after the top 100,000 search queries (which made up the majority of the searches) and then work our way down the longtail. I had no idea how quickly and aggressively we’d eventually give up on the head terms and start chasing the tail of the page view dragon.
As my first experience working at an actual Internet company, you could say I was a little impressionable. Within the first week of working there we had been taken to a Lakers game with luxury box seats, been served catered food for lunch every day and been awed by the efficiency of a $5,000 espresso machine. I felt like I’d hit the job jackpot! And while my actual salary may have been low and the work environment a little stressful, it all seemed worth it. And to be honest, it was. I’m not talking about the perks or the thrill of working at a supposedly “Hot” startup, I’m talking about the raw experience I got from helping to scale what would eventually become a massive content generating site – even if some of that content was sub-par.
It wasn’t long before we realized that getting traffic through Google was a lot easier than getting people to actual go to us directly for information (partly because of our terrible user experience and lack of relevant results for the majority of queries). But we also realized that Google wasn’t going to index a page of search results either, which is why we started testing adding content to our pages along with links. To make a long story short, over time the amount of links on the page decreased while the amount of content increased – until most of the new pages we were creating were no longer SERPs, but full blown content plays with a few links tacked on. As a general website, we weren’t constrained by niche or topic, so we went after everything: news, sports, music, video games how-tos, travel. While we weren’t experts, we each had our own areas of expertise. I had been playing guitar for 15 years at that point and so I decided to try and write an instructional article on how to play guitar. I spent a week writing it, editing it and taking pictures of my hands on the fret board to illustrate the different chords and scales. It was one of the first full blown How To articles that we ever produced and I was rightfully proud of it. While certainly not overnight, it eventually got enough links to make its way to the #1 spot for “how to play guitar” – which ended up generating around 2k page views a day on a consistent basis. We hit a few other home runs in the early going, with articles from the brilliant Lon Harris and Nicole Gustas also catching fire. Bingo! Content was our new savior…and, looking back at it, also our downfall.
In what seems to be a universal impulse among business minded folk (of which I’m not really one), if you find something that works, find a way to do it quicker, cheaper and in greater quantities. And while that may work for soybean production or industrial manufacturing, it’s not the wisest move when it comes to content strategy. Eventually our how to articles went from being thousands of words with images and videos, to a thousand words with no media, to 500 words…you get the idea. Instead of writing one how to a week on a topic we were knowledgeable about, we were expected to write 7-10 on topics that we had no interest in. I felt like I’d come full circle – I was back to writing low quality content as fast as I could. Even though I eventually transitioned into a supervisory role managing other freelance and in-house writers, I was still just a cog in the machine. We all tried to reason with management that quality trumps quantity (an argument as old as time), but were met with fierce resistance. A new business model had been found and our calls for moderation and editorial conservatism were counter-productive.
The sad part of it was that, at least in the short term, they were right and we were wrong. We found that quality did not always equal success in terms of traffic or page views and that we had a better chance of a positive ROI by producing hundreds of short articles than we did writing a few in-depth feature length ones. If a 200 word article on how to play the Xylophone written by someone who’d probably never even played a Xylophone could rank well and bring in traffic, what was the point of hiring an expert and paying premium rates to get it written? While it may have been a short-sighted strategy, I certainly can’t fault management for chasing that carrot. Start-up companies are in a desperate race for survival, which in Internet terms means traffic, page views and ad revenue – and this seemed like the easiest way to get there. The only problem was that there were 50 other companies pursuing that business model and collectivelyticking off Google in the process. Eventually the party had to come to an end. While I left the company well before this recent round of layoffs (almost two years ago this month), I still feel at least partially responsible for helping to initiate and facilitate that strategy.
For those affected by the recent algorithm change, the race is on to realign their content strategy to get back into Google’s good graces. That will probably mean investing heavily in “Quality” content to show that they are serious about reforming their ways and producing content that is geared toward helping users and not tricking search engines. While the websites I currently work for weren’t hit all that hard by the Farmer update, we are nonetheless re-evaluating our strategy in order to find ways that we can add value to our top performing pages, identify and weed out sub-par content, and generally improve the experience for our users. It’s an ongoing process that will probably end up having to be revisited again in the future. But that’s just the reality of competing for mind and market share in the digital realm. What worries me, though, is that search marketers will eventually discover another chink in Google’s armor that they will all rush to exploit with cheaply produced low quality content. Whether it’s producing and optimizing low qualities videos on YouTube, manipulating local results with misleading content, or some other cheap ploy to get undeserved attention, you can bet that once it’s found, another land rush will ensue. And once that new tactic starts to pollute the results and anger the search gods, you can be sure that mole will get whacked just as severely. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of getting whacked around.
The real challenge is to try and develop best practices and philosophies that can stand the test of time (and the changing whims of the almighty algorithm). Obviously developing a content model that doesn’t rely entirely on search traffic is a key to becoming independent, but until social steals the crown from search, you’ll still have to optimize for spiders as well as humans. Google has always maintained that optimizing for users will naturally lead to being well optimized for the algorithm. The higher the quality of your content, the more likely you are to be linked to, tweeted, liked and mentioned – which are all factors that will increase your authority. But try telling that to the thousands of high quality sites that got unfairly penalized by the farmer update and wound up seeing sites that scraped their content rank higher than them. This level of collateral damage should remind you that the Algorithm is not infallible and that even the most white hat SEO tactics can’t always protect you from harm.
I don’t pretend to have any great insights into how to fool-proof your content strategy or how to avoid the wrath of an angry search engine, but I do have enough experience to know that, in the end, it really is just about the value that you provide your users. As soon as you start compromising on quality and oversight in an effort to maximize profits, you open yourself up to the possibility of a severe backlash. You might get away with it for a while and it may end up making you money in the short term (or allow you to stop eating Ramen for every meal), but it won’t keep you full forever. While I won’t pretend that there aren’t exceptions to this rule, the risk of seeing the majority of your traffic and revenue fall off a cliff in a matter of days is a sobering thought.
Good content is more than just words on a page. It’s the experience of landing on a page and being able to locate the information or functionality you’re looking for in the shortest amount of time and in the most intuitive way possible. It’s not about word count or how many keywords you use. It’s about voice and persuasion, utility and exclusivity. By focusing on having the biggest online footprint, you miss the opportunity to really craft your message and differentiate yourself from the thousands of people chasing after the same dwindling ad impressions. As someone who’s been involved in both types of content strategy, I can tell you that, while quality is a lot harder to maintain and a lot more expensive to produce, it’s really the only way to build an online presence that isn’t susceptible to the fickle whims of search.
In the end, I just feel grateful to even be thinking about these types of questions. With the emergence of content strategy as a viable career option, word herders and paragraph pushers everywhere finally have another way to make their skills pay the bills. And if my next five years in the online content industry are as interesting as the last five years, I’m in for one hell of a ride!