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is no substitute for quality, and although Yahoo purged itself of some of the lowest of the low, it still left thin, outdated and poorly written content on its Voices platform.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.
Lesson 2: Readers Want Content, not Ads
Although the site occasionally partnered up with third parties that bought content directly, ad revenue was one of Yahoo Voices’ largest sources of income. Pages had wide margins for advertising that aligned with the subject of the article. While this worked well for some verticals – beauty product reviews that featured ads for complementary products, for example – it was less successful with others. Over time, the article space shrank to make more room for ads, eventually leading to a postage-stamp-sized space for text and a field of above-the-fold ads. Even if the content had intrinsic value, the overall appearance was one that prioritized ads over meaningful content, and viewers bounced from what they perceived as one big advertising page.
In other words, have something to say – not just something to sell.
Lesson 3: You Get What You Pay For
Given that high-quality content gets priority rankings on Google, why did Yahoo Voices continue to publish spam, thinly veiled ads and poorly-written pieces along with the many useful articles that also appeared there? One big reason is cost. Up-front payments for content were typically small – single-digit dollar amounts for 500-word articles were the norm – and revenue share from ads amounted to a few pennies per month for most articles. Writers looking to build their portfolios might publish a few pieces but would quickly move on to more lucrative freelance assignments. Prolific content spinners who took the same original article and turned it into ten similar ones could make the system profitable, but their work was inconsistent at best. Because the low pay scale benefited only content creators at the two extremes, the overall content quality declined.
For content buyers, the takeaway is to pay fair market value or risk getting less-than-ideal results from inexperienced writers and mass producers of low-value content.
Lesson 4: Relationships Matter
Content, like any other product, can be branded, and those brands often carry tremendous weight. Readers turn to professional journals, internationally recognized news organizations and individual authors whose voices they’ve come to know when they want authoritative content. The Yahoo Contributor Network was made up of thousands of individual writers, but while each content creator could develop a following, that brand loyalty never translated to the overall Yahoo Voices brand. The editorial oversight Yahoo implemented when it bought Associated Content was enough to raise the bar from its lowest setting but not enough to create a valued brand across multiple writers. The relationships readers created with Yahoo Voices writers may outlast Yahoo Voices itself.
Your content should be a part of your brand identity and help readers develop a relationship with your company.
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