You don’t have to spend more than five minutes reading about search engines and how they work to know you need original content for SEO. Google and other search engines penalize duplicate content even if you own both the rights to that content. If your content creator has inadvertently borrowed – or worse, outright taken – that content from another source without owning the rights to it, you could get a DMCA takedown notice or even face legal action. Obviously, original content is important, but what is it? First, it might be easier to look at what it isn’t.
“Original” Doesn’t Always Mean “New” (And That’s Okay)
People watch more than 6 billion hours of YouTube videos every month. That’s about 685,000 years’ worth of adorable cats, product demonstrations and movie clips. The chances that at least two of those videos will feature very similar content are extremely high. The same goes for written content, especially in hotly competitive verticals. Even the best writer isn’t able to produce a startlingly new way of thinking about five ways to trim belly fat or how to keep your shop floor clean. Even if they did, those writers would sell their new magic formulas for millions instead of putting them into a one-off blog post.
What most content creators do instead is take a slightly different angle on a specific topic, giving a new perspective on an established theme and leaving room for future variations on it. Take that shop floor example; a blogger might write one week about how to remove minor oil stains from concrete and cover soaking up liquids efficiently the next. From Google’s perspective – and just as important, from your audience’s – these highly specific articles are useful and original even if someone else has previously written something on the general subject of keeping your shop floor in good shape.
Some of your content is meant to entertain or inform, but much of what you publish is also designed to persuade. Emails that include a call to action, newsletters with links to your latest product and landing pages that lead to conversions must convince your audience, but conventional advertising gets lost in the torrent of marketing most people see every day. The FBI – yes, the federal agency featured in Tom Clancy novels and “The Sopranos” – might seem like an unlikely source for inspiration, but the organization has done a great deal of research on a far more serious type of persuasion: hostage negotiations.
Hostage negotiators face vastly more pressure than your marketing department, obviously, but they and your sales team both share a need to get someone to come around to a new way of thinking. The FBI trains negotiators to follow five steps to defuse a tense situation and lead a discussion to someplace more constructive. Most people fail when trying to be persuasive because they jump ahead to the fourth or fifth step. Incorporate all of them into your marketing content, and you’ll find a more receptive audience.
When Associated Content started in 2005, it marketed itself as a way for media to come from the ground up, a kind of citizen journalism that also happened to sell ad space on its margins. Writers had little editorial constraint, and the quality of articles varied tremendously; however, what AC did have was quantity. Millions of articles on everything from entertainment news to restaurant reviews flooded the Internet. Within a few years, AC had become valuable enough to lure big bidders, and in 2011, Yahoo took the plunge and bought the sprawling content platform for $90 million. Despite tighter editorial controls and weeding out close to 100,000 low-value articles from the now-renamed Yahoo Voices, the investment didn’t pay off. Yahoo Voices is no more as of August 2014.
If content is king, why did such a large investment in content ultimately fail? Analysts and SEO experts are debating the exact reasons, but a few common threads tie together most of these discussions.
Lesson 1: Low-Quality Content Gets Punished
Quantity is no substitute for quality, and although Yahoo purged itself of some of the lowest of the low, it still left thin, outdated and poorly written content on its Voices platform. Google, by far the largest and most influential search engine, hit content mills like Associated Content/Yahoo Voices with a one-two punch when it released its Panda and Penguin algorithm updates. Content that was written expressly to draw ad revenue or act as low-quality clickbait with a few hot keywords got severely penalized in Google’s page rankings, and that included a good portion of what appeared on Yahoo Voices. Visitors also learned to devalue the brand because it offered inconsistent quality.
For content creators, the lesson is clear: Prioritize quality over quantity.
Having an on-site blog is vital for SEO, customer engagement and establishing authority, but too many businesses use it as an ad delivery system or a dumping ground for ideas that didn’t quite grow into feature articles. That isn’t why your blog exists, and if you’re spending more time talking about “we” than about “you” in your blog, you could be losing your visitors’ interest. On the flip side, some topics instantly attract more attention, more traffic and more social media sharing. Fill your blog with more of these posts and fewer ads, and you’ll see engagement metrics rise.
How-to articles give readers evergreen content – that is, information that stays relevant over time – in a format they can immediately use. A great how-to article also demonstrates your own knowledge of the topic, and knowledge builds authority. Once you and your content creation team have pinpointed areas you know your visitors would like to explore in greater depth, coming up with a few related how-to articles is just the beginning. Those ideas can also become video demonstrations or form the foundation for a new white paper. One caveat: Don’t invest too heavily in how-tos that have already been covered extensively by content mills and crowd-sourced answer sites. Make your how-to content specific and focused, not shallow and broad. Sites such as eHow succeed on volume rather than depth, and no company site can match their output; instead, compete on quality, not quantity.
The opposite of a how-to list, an article that focuses on mistakes or problems the readers might be making can also have a powerful draw. Any reader who has a particular problem will read on to find the solution, while those who don’t know they have a problem will check out the post to see if they do. We all want to be a little closer to perfection, and finding out about the mistakes we’re making gives us a chance to improve. The concept of “new and improved” is powerful in advertising, and it’s equally potent in content; by giving your readers new ways to improve, you’re bound to hold their interest.