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Has Content Marketing Lost Its Way

8 minute read
Brian Carlson avatar
Content marketing is not about gaming the SEO algorithms to convert a sale, but about providing high-quality, relevant content to users.

Marketers, I’m going to be honest with you. I am seriously concerned about the state of content across the web. In fact, I think content marketing is responsible for much of the poor content quality out there.

I know, that’s a pretty bold statement, and I fully expect many data-driven marketers to raise their hands and say, “What the heck are you talking about?”

Marketers might create content based on good search engine optimization (SEO) methodology, and follow everything content management systems (CMS), software packages and consultants tell them to do.

They’re giving users what they want, right?

Or, are marketers and SEO specialists — like they’ve been doing for the past 20+ years — gaming search engines?

The tactics today’s marketers deploy merely reflect current search algorithms, not what users want or like to consume.

To support this statement, I will tell you my personal digital publishing story, with certain identities redacted to protect the innocent. This story is not about “look who I am and what I have done.” It’s about watching the same things happen over and over and learning from the past to improve our future actions.

Publishing Goes Digital

I’m old enough — but not too old, so don’t laugh — to have been a leader in converting traditional print publications, like magazines, to digital-first web properties. In the mid-1990s I started my publishing career as an associate editor at Advanced Imaging Magazine, writing and editing content for industrial, scientific and medical imaging technologies.

After that, I had stints at Digital Imaging Magazine, eventually landing at CMP Media in New York and working at the legendary technology publication EE Times. There, I learned from industry veterans like Richard Wallace and Tim Moran.

Being young, scrappy, arrogant and a techie, I was in charge of modernizing EE Times’ traditional print processes for digital-first publishing. I was fortunate enough to run integrated 20+ person teams of designers, front and backend developers, writers and editors.

Ironically, after two decades of splitting teams up, corporations are now bringing them back together as cross-department working groups. It seems that sometimes, people go back to old ways that somebody else already figured out. This idea is germane to our narrative.

In the mid-2000s, I was hired at International Data Group (IDG) to convert a traditional trade print publication called CIO to a digital-first publication. At this stage, SEO, at least in the world of print trade publishing, was still fairly young. The best practices we set for CIO.com were some of the first in the trade publishing industry that were intended as both digital-first and web customer centric — or, as we would have called back in the day, audience- or reader-centric.

At that time, optimizing for Google was all the rage, despite other popular search engines like AltaVista, Excite and Lycos. Ever wonder how Google became the top dog?“In 2000, Yahoo pulled off the worst strategic move in the history of search and partnered with Google and let Google power their organic results instead of Inktomi,” said Loren Baker of Search Engine Journal (SEJ).

All sorts of companies and support organizations were developing SEO strategies and guiding businesses on best practices, while whole companies were launched to leverage the gaming of Google's search engine algorithms and organic rankings placements on search engine results pages (SERPs).

Back then, there were ways to game Google search applications, just like there are today. Google introduced a web crawler and PageRank algorithms that were critical to their growth and explosion in popularity. Google looked at the quantity and quality of external links pointing to a site.

Linking strategy was the first area that was exploited by SEO optimizers to game Google’s search engine. A whole industry was launched around link building, and for ten years this existed as a legitimate, but exploitative, way to improve rankings. Unsolicited link exchange emails abounded across the web. I know, I got them daily.

Digital-First Best Practices

When I was hired at CIO, they were a once-successful monthly print magazine that was woefully behind the times in converting to digital. As the Editorial Director, when I began my digital-first conversion strategy, the idea was not about gaming and tweaking the site to make it friendly to current search algorithm proclivities.

My strategy was about making content in the digital realm better for the reader and making that content SEO-friendly as an extension of that reader-centric philosophy. If I give readers good content with keywords that provide inherent value to them, that will improve search ranking, linking, time on page, page depth and all the engagement and awareness-centric metrics that data-driven marketers are looking for.

When I instructed my writers to stop producing 3,000–5,000 word print articles and instead write 1,000–1,500-word articles specifically for a web audience, it was not about gaming Google. Yes, it’s true that Google’s SEO algorithm favored shorter content at the time; SEO guidance should assist in making data-driven and customer-centric decisions. However, best SEO practices should not drive the entire content creation process.

“Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in the research and data for relevant keywords to your business,” said Chloe West, Content Marketing Manager at Visme, “and miss out on the opportunities that your customers are actually looking for.”

Content Farms Blow the House Down

Starting in the late 2000s, Google tried to address the mess it created with its algorithms, and the first thing it did was give more prominence to big brands or trusted sources for higher rankings.

Learning Opportunities

It made a variety of changes over the next few years, including universal search and schema markup. Two of the most important changes — from a content perspective — were the updates of Panda in 2011 and Penguin in 2012.

During this time, some people created businesses with the sole intent to game Google’s organic search results for ad revenue. These businesses were called, derogatorily, content farms.

A prime example of this business model was a company called Demand Media, now Leaf Group, as the old name earned a terrible reputation. It reminds me of when Clear Channel Radio changed its name to iHeartRadio. Or when Puff Daddy became Diddy.

These content farms created tons of low-quality clickbait content that dominated natural search results for years. There were also scraper sites that would re-publish original content in an effort to earn higher rankings. All of these shady businesses were making tons of money and ad revenue and were 100% reliant on organic traffic derived from Google.

When Panda rolled out, many of those websites saw their traffic disappear overnight. Google’s goal was a noble one — they wanted to eliminate all of the low-quality content that cluttered the web. In 2016, the company incorporated Panda into its core algorithm.

Penguin was another important milestone, as it targeted link schemes and keyword stuffing, which had become pervasive. Like Panda, Penguin became part of Google’s real-time algorithm in 2016.

Making the Same Content Mistakes Today

Today, I firmly believe the Google algorithm is in dire need of a fundamental update. While the company had good intentions with Panda, it resulted in the same relentless gaming and SEO manipulation that polluted Google’s SERPS in the 2000s.

What was once snippets of low-quality content have become lengthy tomes stuffed yet again with keywords, making many stories unreadable. Even worse, today’s content-centric SEO companies tell marketers to write in a way that hits SEO milestones and not in ways that appeal to readers.

I find much of the content produced by marketers today to be unreadable. I’m not sure marketers know this since I don’t think they read the content they create in-depth. If you scanned this material during your busy workday, it would look just fine, with the right SEO headline, word count and SEO ranking in your content optimization package. It would hit all the marks you're looking for. But if you have subject matter expertise and know the material in-depth, the content falls far short of providing value to the customer or reader. It comes off as self-serving SEO magnet material with little depth.

For example, I recently wrote an article that was 1,500 words. As a subject matter expert, I addressed everything I thought a reader would want to know — informed by keyword research, of course.

The SEO software I had, said the article should be 2,500 words long to match other content out there. And most non-professional marketing writers would listen to that advice and stuff 1,000 words of garbage into the copy, ruining the narrative and readability.

There is a lack of interpretation in what SEO content firms and their software packages are telling marketers to do. SEO should inform your data-driven content marketing strategy, not drive every part of it. You should produce meaningful content for the reader, not the SEO engine.

Conclusion

The reality is, content marketing is not about gaming the algorithms to convert a sale, but about providing high-quality, relevant content to users. If SEO helps you do that, great. That is fundamentally what customer-centric, once known as audience-centric or reader-centric, means.

“Good SEO isn’t just about selling products but sharing high-quality information,” said Steve Olenski, Communications Director for Oracle, in a CMSWire article. “Blog articles and related content might not net immediate sales. But by building trust with your audience, they can convert visitors into future customers.”