This creates a rampant inflation of spam-like, ‘optimized’ content — content designed mostly or solely for the purpose of reaching a higher position on traffic gateways’ rankings. Ranking-driven content is pervasive. It blends into all forms of digital content, from eCommerce sites to blogs and to individual Facebook pages, making it increasingly difficult to draw the line between spam, optimization and original content.
This post expands on my Content Inflation slide deck by discussing in a bit more detail the examples that show how deep content inflation runs…
Every blogging guide recommends publishing a regular stream of posts, irrespective of whether one has something meaningful to say or not. The ultimate purpose is to keep the audience engaged; the short-term purpose is to occupy the space, appear current, stay top of mind, and keep being well indexed by search engines. As Handley and Chapman put it, in rather politically correct fashion, in ‘Content Rules’: “If you want to remain top of mind you have to find a way to converse much more frequently than when you have big news.”
Bloggers and corporate bloggers are at the forefront of content inflation: According to Technorati, in 2010 over half of its bloggers planned on blogging more frequently in the future and 43% planned on expanding the topics that they blog about.
To produce more content and distribute it to more platforms, publishers can rely on tools like content curation software Zemanta and autopost sotware from Hubspot that partly automate the production and the distribution of posts to mobile and fixed platforms.
Content farms cheaply assemble content around keywords and topics selected for their traffic potential as observed in search analytics. Content farming is no longer the privilege of mercenary content farms like Demand Media .
As they compete for visibility, professional media from the Guardian to the Wall Street Journal which depend for 30% to 80+% of their traffic from search engines, have no choice but to adopt some content farming techniques. Newsrooms are driven in real time by traffic trend analyses from the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) software or the SEO agency. Journalists are invited to wrap stories around most searched keywords.
Ideally, visibility-driven optimization brings content “closer to readers’ demand”. In practice, it will often feed rear mirror views, mindless repetition, plagiarism, and the bloating of existing trends.
Publishing is compulsory not only for “native” publishers such as established media and bloggers. The imperative extends to retailers, brands, and basically every enterprise that needs to drive clients to its site. Since Google’s Panda intensified the war on ‘duplicate content’, retailers try to give a unique spin to their product descriptions in order to differentiate them from the descriptions of manufacturers and competitors.
An SEO agency that will remain unnamed recently praised a small client for producing “four new product descriptions a day”. “Should we go as far as creating different descriptions for each colour?” asked a retailer in the audience. That would be easy to achieve by using a spinning software such as The BestSpinner that automatically suggests synonyms to existing words. Alternatively, retailers might contract manual article spinning services from offshore contractors.
What value does spinning bring to consumers? Clearly, none. In the consumers’ interest, identical products should be easily identified as such and retailers should compete on price and services rather than on spinning content.
Content freshness is taken into account by pretty much every gateway. It is used to establish the relevance of a piece of content, hence its rank. In addition, most gateways maintain a “Most Recent”, “Last Updated” or “News” listing next to the “Most popular” listing.
Publishers are therefore tempted to introduce meaningless changes to their content in order to enter the “Recenty Updated” listings. For example, the iPhone AppStore is a very narrow gateway for half a million applications from 100,000 publishers in the US alone. Many app publishers therefore release updates in multiple installments in order to recall their app to the users’ attention.
Publishers will do anything to reach the “Recently Updated” listing: jobseekers frequently tweak a sentence here and there to freshen up their CV’s Web page; Facebook users check-in and change their profile photo to be reminded to their friends ….
Social media badges play an increasingly important role in gateway rankings. Some social content, such as Google + public posts and LinkedIn profiles, is directly indexed on search engines such as Bing and Google. In addition, social media metrics such as the number of connections, Likes, Shares, +’s, retweets and other signs of social activity are increasingly included in gateways’ ranking factors as cues of quality and influence.
To earn badges on social networks and be ranked as a top social media activist by Klout, networkers multiply Facebook posts, Tweets and ReTweets. As Klout puts it: “Keep engaging with others, and continue creating engaging content to see your Klout Score rise”. Klout recently announced that 100 million online users now have Klout scores.
A slightly different example to illustrates how content inflation contaminates every large content network, not only the Web. Amazon Kindle sales and review ratings are very important components of the ranking algorithm that determines the position of a book in the Kindle store’s one million book listing. How else can avid readers pick a new book among one million but by browsing through category listings, starting at the top of the rankings?
A new generation of self-published writers (using KDP for Kindle Direct Publishing) has learned to masters the art of optimizing their position in these rankings. They concoct formulaic short writing pieces which assemble popular ingredients such as romance & vampires – not stopping sometimes, as noted by the Guardian at blunt plagiarism. These authors discovered that readers rate books also on price performance ratio: they then adjust prices from $2.99 to $0.99 or even less, until they find the price-performance ratio that gets the maximum number of buyers and positive ratings. KDP has created ranking-optimized books!
From these examples, one can see that ‘optimization’ of content to reach more visibility on traffic gateways and their rankings is increasingly indistinguishable from original content creation. More than ever, content is marketing and its takes more and more of it to reach customers. Once a more or less benevolent King, content is now a tyrant who knows no mercy !