The strange world of “content marketing”

In my work as a freelance blogger I try to put worthwhile content into every piece I write. At least some of the readers should come away from it understanding something better than they did before. It may contain promotional material, if that’s what the customer asks for, but it has a solid core of useful information. That’s my understanding of “content.”

In the marketing world, though, it means something else entirely. The biggest market for freelance writers on the Web is “SEO writing.” That means writing whose main purpose is to provide “content” that search engines will rank high. The expertise for this isn’t knowledge about the subject matter but expertise in planting the right keywords and otherwise constructing the article to match Google’s current idea of what a relevant article is. It’s clickbait, only more sophisticated.

Not everyone thinks it takes a high skill level to do this. Some “content mill” websites pay one cent a word or less to turn the stuff out. People in countries where the living is cheaper are glad to do it.

The point of getting people to read these articles is to bring people to the website. The writers try to maximize ranking for searches on specific keywords. The site owners expect that people who do those searches will be interested in what the site is offering. For instance, a car repair shop might want an article optimized for searches on “Toyota repair.” It can’t be obviously stupid-looking; an article that stuffs the phrase “Toyota repair” into every sentence will leave readers unimpressed, and search engines will recognize it as an attempt to game the system. Actual expertise isn’t required, but it should sound as if it comes from an expert. The marketing word for that is “authority.”

This means that a large amount of what you’ll find on the Web is written by people who have “authority” but not much knowledge, and who design their articles to show up in your search results. That’s just one more reason to be skeptical about whatever you find on the Web.

Some people can write on almost anything and make it sound authoritative. It’s a skill. I sometimes venture into areas where I’m an enthusiastic amateur, but mostly I stick with areas where I actually have some expertise. In other words, computer technology. I follow the latest news so my writing is up to date and the topics are interesting. In a lot of ways, I’m keeping up on technology better now than when I was doing coding full-time. And I’m turning out articles that really have content, in the normal sense of the word.

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