Why “Content” Has Become a Dirty Word

The longer I publish online, the more I dislike the word “content.”

While marginal material has always been published, the web has really worked to change the definition of “content” from the subject matter of a written work (or the meaning or significance of that work) into something that simply fills empty space in a receptacle.

You know, like that empty space between ads on a web page.

Don’t get me wrong, the democratization of publishing thanks to the Internet is a wonderful thing. But I think we all realize that the cheap, virtually endless space provided by the web, combined with “do it yourself” monetization programs like AdSense, has led to an incredible amount of dreck.

These models actually encourage bad content. Why would a “publisher” want a reader to stick around, when they get paid only after someone leaves through a well-placed link?

The mindset not only leads to tons of trash, it devalues good content across the board. Why pay for quality writing when some barely-literate hack can deliver the same word count for less?

Now, of course there are plenty of publishers who don’t think or operate this way. But have you seen some of the “Made for AdSense” sites and splogs lately? This is regarded by many as a smart business model, and they thank Google all the way to the bank.

On the other hand, advertising copy has always been expressly about monetization, based on reader engagement that leads to a specific action or brand impression. A lack of compelling content in that context means no reader engagement, and therefore, no money.

Great copy is expensive, but it pays for itself on a purely return-on-investment basis. And the best copywriters continue to raise their fees, while “receptacle” content gets farmed out to the lowest bidder and makes money on the AdSense margin.

Two very different approaches to the written word, both based on pure economics.

However, “receptacle” content is in trouble, since that model relies almost entirely on search engines for traffic. Google is slapping around the demon child it created, because they have learned from history that the top search engine can just as quickly disappear from view.

Anyone remember when AltaVista was top dog?

Quality of content is key, and the goal of every search engine is to create algorithms that ruthlessly weed out crap from the top results. They don’t always succeed, but it’s still early in the game.

The only smart business model going forward is to write content so compelling to people that it doesn’t matter whether you rank in the search engines or not. And if the algorithms come out correctly, you will rank well.

So, am I saying that you should write your blog content like advertising copy?

No, that would be ridiculous.

But I am saying that great business, journalistic, or literary content has more in common with great ad copy than it does with “receptacle” content.

So, how do you apply copywriting techniques to blogging?

More on that next time.

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Reader Comments (41)

  1. says

    from a purely SEO point of view, content is comodifiable. The cheaper the content the more I can pay for and the more traffic I can get. Especially when you’re talking about CPC or CPA type monetizing models centered around search traffic, thats the case. In fact a well written script can generate some pretty cheap “content”.
    But I completely agree with you that this type of content is separate from really good copy (meant to satisfy humans instead of spiders), but yeah its very expensive to use as spiderfood.

  2. says

    Ha, Aaron… didn’t really think about it that way. Maybe just “bad” content is all I’m attacking here?

  3. says

    Does writing optimized but senseless content to boost traffic really accomplish anything? If you drive visitors to a site and where they have nothing worthwhile to read, will they buy anything? Will they come back? Maybe I don’t understand SEO well enough, but it seems to me that sooner or later a real person has to respond favorably to a site’s content for business to happen.

  4. says

    Well, that’s the true evil of AdSense Brad… when a reader clicks out on a contextual link to escape the garbage page they ended up on, an advertiser gets dinged, and the publisher of crap gets rewarded.

  5. says

    What we will soon see in the blogosphere is content aimed at converting readers to do more than click on ads.

    For example, in the field I am in qualified leads go for thousands of dollars. Adsense would not play a role in qualifying those leads.

  6. says

    While I sympathize with where you are trying to go with this point, I think trying to bucket general content as ad-driver is a bit myopic. You are focusing on a specific sector of the blogosphere within specific sector of the web. There has always been quality content that separates itself from the sea of crap, just like you need to weed through what passes for literature these days before discover that rare gem at the library or a bookstore. Like you’ve said the only thing that’s changed is speed of the game when it comes to spread of information. I for one see no difference in approach between writing what people would buy in newspapers, books, and magazines vs. online content. I don’t believe the pretense is more or less apparent in content for profit in offline vs. online. It’s how we choose to look at it, not necessarily how they are.

  7. says

    I don’t think it is that bad.

    While there is indeed a lot of crap out there to feed the search engines, there are still enough people who spend their time writing “good” content.

    Search engines are not everything. Many of the really successfull blogs receive most of their traffic through referrals or returning visitors. I don’t think you can compete in the long term if you only write cheap content for robots.

    (unless maybe, if you are an evil spammer… but then you are not writing anyway)

  8. says

    Nick, make sure you follow the link at that text for more info.

    Michael, yep… I’m quite familiar with that field. :)

    Soxiam, that’s not all that has changed. The number of junk pages on the web far out numbers junk printed content — by a frightening order of magnitude.

    Florian, you likely don’t spend as much time as some of us do poking around in the online trash. It’s an occupational hazard I guess. :)

  9. says

    You are right that content simply doesn’t describe all the aspects of ‘website copy’.

    And there has to be a simpler word for it – text? site text? – that everyone would understand. Content is from a vocabulary of a marketer or a publisher, not from the point of view of a website owner or the site visitor. Btw, how would site visitors call the ‘content’?

  10. says

    When I write … book reviews, press releases, ad copy, web content, an email series, or a direct response letter … ultimately I’m delivering information from someone to someone about something. Sometimes I write to generate a specific response, sometimes it’s just to inform, or in the case of one of my blogs, simply vent.

    I may use the term “content” as shorthand, but as I write my head is thinking “information, stories, observations, anecdotes, “how-to”, sales messages, etc.”

    Crappy adsense-only sites and the bottom-feeder project offerings on Elance and other freelance sites (“Offering $200 for 500 250-word keyword rich articles on the benefits of hoo-ha”) cheapen the craft and commoditize the art.

  11. says

    there are still enough people who spend their time writing “good” content.

    They may spend their time trying to write good content, but – and this is no exaggeration – more than 99% of what is written is marginal garbage. The problem is that most people do not and cannot understand the nuances of writing good copy.

    Brian: Love that cliffhanger at the end of the article. You are a breath of fresh air in an online sewer. Now I’ll be heading back to that sewer to fill it up with even more spam . . .

  12. says

    Hey Brian,

    Even in comments to your post there are people using the new definition of “content”… the definition that means “junk meant to scam the search engines and make a quick Adsense buck” versus the old definition of “information communicating something valuable to a viewer”.

    I agree. I can’t use the word “content” without qualifying it anymore on my blog or with my magical email address customers. They assume I mean “junk sites”. It’s like the Adsense sweatshops have actually redefined a useful word. What word do we have to use now?

    We can’t just qualify it as “quality content” because the junk site generators and splogging tools use that phrase to mean “tricks the search engines better” instead of “communicates more value to a viewer”. I think we have to abandon the word “content” to the sploggers, junk site creators and Adsense junkies.

    What word shall we start using? Any ideas?

    -James D. Brausch

  13. says

    I don’t know James. I’ve felt this way for several years and it’s getting worse even as the model gets cracked down on at the source.

    I just know that I feel good about the staying power of those who put the work in and avoid the quick buck that’s quickly becoming an illusion anyway.

  14. Yu says

    It all goes back to man vs. machine doesn’t it. What was that in the Psalms, “a slave cannot serve two masters”? (replace slave with copywriter)

    Who knows in the near future we might have algorithms that write algorithms.

    I feel like we’re in the ‘frontier’ phase of the content wars. But ultimately people would be visiting the sites and ratings would go up and less people would be visiting the sites that are just crap, therefore the ratings would just go down and disappear.

    Or am I being a utopian?

  15. says

    As blogs become adopted by more businesses I expect to see the quality to rise. Hammered out content can attract the search engines but only engaging copy will retain readers.

    Blogs can be a marketing tool for developing trust and confidence over time. But wont achieve that if potential customers hit the unsubscribe button.

    Blogging could evolve to be the breeding ground for the next generation of online professional copywriters.

  16. says

    They may spend their time trying to write good content, but – and this is no exaggeration – more than 99% of what is written is marginal garbage.

    Just because there is a lot of garbage out there does not mean the good texts are becoming less.

    There have always been people writing who are no trained professionals. On the internet, they just get more exposure because it’s easier for them to publish. I bet there is as much “garbage” written on paper, but it’s just better hidden because it’s harder to distribute.

    But just like nonprofessional texts didn’t hurt anyone “in the old days”, nonprofessional websites don’t hurt anyone now. You still have the choice not to read them, just like you don’t have to read the local pupil magazine.

  17. says

    James, good idea trying to find another word for “content”. It sounds so cookie-cutter. The only word I can think of is “composition”. “Substance” or “Web Substance” is the sense I’d like to convey to clients, but it sounds clunky.

  18. says

    Peter, I’ve seen much nicer trailer parks. :)

    Seriously, that’s a good post, and it hits the nail on the head how the MFA sites hurt legitimate publishers who want to use AdSense.

  19. says

    I had no idea! This is too cool. I think the synchronicity is something. We’re all tired of the boring content on the web these days. We want some good stuff back here,

  20. says

    Florian said:

    I bet there is as much “garbage” written on paper, but it’s just better hidden because it’s harder to distribute.

    I find myself agreeing with Florian. I guess people become too harsh with Internet content sometimes. Yes, blogs/websites specifically “published” to get AdSense clicks are nonsensical — occasionally — and content published for good search engine ranking surely sounds gibberish very often, but still some people are able to achieve a beautiful balance of everything.

    As Brian rightly said, the focus should be on generating good, well-meaning content that actually enriches the readers/consumers in some manner. And there are lots of people who are doing this.

  21. says

    I’m with Roberta here. I believe writing is a “craft” and an “art”, too. I once clicked on a technorati link from a story on Simplenomics that valued websites, and my site valued at $0. Now, I get on average 700 page reads per day, so I believe there is some value to what we have to say, but I don’t have time to worry about that. Sure, I’d love to make money with my site, but I believe it will come eventually (with the help of tips from sites like copyblogger which I’ve linked on all my pages, btw).

    Until then, I just have fun with it all.

  22. says

    Personally, when someone asks me if I’ll write “Web Content” for them, I get downright insulted, since “Content” almost always means “uninspired text that will never get read and how many pennies per hour do you charge anyway?”

    Usually I counter with “Nope. But I’ll write copy for you that will turn your site into an honest-to-god tool for your business. How about that?”

  23. says

    People might write bad content in the hopes that someone visits, clicks an ad and they make some money, but I think it’s harder to do than most realize. So they start out thinking, “I can write this crap, slap on some ads, and bam-mo I’m rich!” I’d say the majority of people aren’t rich or even making much of anything with that technique.

    Eventually, they’ll give up. That’ll leave us with piles of garbage floating in the blogosphere, but at least it’ll be non-updated garbage, which we can hopefully filter more easily.

    Good content always wins, no matter what. If you really want to be successful online think: networking. And good content creates easy + valuable networking opportunities amongst smart people.

  24. says

    Interestingly, that’s the first time I’ve come to see content in the way you describe it. And I think you’re right point it out as a warning to those who don’t care for such a definition of content.

    I like the set up.

  25. says

    Great piece. I completely agree.

    It also bothers me when the person or organization that owns a good piece of real estate in a great domain name throws up a splog. I think that I could do so much more with it.

    Also, since the barriers to entry are very low, it is very easy to copy a good idea, throw a new name on it, and try it.

    Eventually the good stuff will rise to the top, but it still bothers to see the splogs and garbage sitting on a great name.

  26. John says

    Its only a matter of time until Google and other SE find a way to ban “bad” SPAM content. Sites like Constant-Content will most likely flourish because these Spammers will have to pay real writers for real content.

  27. says

    I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed here. The sheer volume of poorly written articles proliferating on the web will lead Google, et al to alter their search algorithms to punish those seeking to game the system. Real content with real value will be in great demand and real writers will profit.

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