Content and Its Discontents

By April 9, 2013New Media

computer-crashDoesn’t it seem a little strange that About.com has an entire subdomain dedicated to doing your laundry, including their own designated laundry correspondent?  This kind of thing is actually pretty normal in a world where information is shaped by search engine optimization, or SEO.  Today, every entry into a search engine is potentially worth money if, for instance, you can lure in somebody searching “permanent marker” to visit your website, subject them to advertising, and maybe give them some information they need in return (a big maybe).  I’m not saying SEO is a bad thing in itself–in fact, jobs in SEO are a hot opportunity for writers especially–but today, no search query is sacred.  Even a Google search for something as serious as “drug addiction” will yield an About.com page that offers more advertising than actual assistance.

This is the problem with “content,” a term that in recent years has acquired a new meaning as everybody from big businesses to small non-profits to freelance writers started obsessing over how they would capture the audiences of the Internet: after a certain point, content is no longer helpful and turns rather exploitative of its readers; taken to an extreme, readers cease to be living, breathing human beings with real needs and instead become monetized clicks.  But here’s where I’m getting to my point: people aren’t stupid.  We know when we’ve been duped into clicking on something that’s irrelevant.  (The “bounce rate” in search engine statistics measures this exact phenomenon–how many readers click the “Back” button after landing on your page.)  Moreover, we feel annoyed when it happens, which is not exactly the emotion a clear-thinking business or organization would want associated with its brand.

John Jantsch at Duct Tape Marketing knows this.  His proposed solutions for content developers are rather interesting, too, because they represent some of the same approaches we at the UCWbL recommend to all writers.  Many of Jantsch’s recommendations sound a lot like the invention strategies we use to help writers get started on research papers and argumentative essays:

  • What’s something my audience wants to know about and that you can explain for them?  Or, what’s a problem they should know about, but don’t yet?
  • What’s a story you can tell that might help build a stronger connection between you and your audience?
  • Now, what are the obstacles that might get in the way of putting these goals into action, and how can you deal with them?
  • What sort of voice should you use to accomplish your goals?
  • What kinds of logic and evidence?

These questions suggest that all good writing shares one feature in common: it does something concrete that readers can carry home and share with others, and that’s a lesson that all writers, professional or not, should consider tattooing on themselves somewhere, or at least take care to remember from time to time.  Judging by the infinitesimal amounts of bad “content” on the Internet, the stakes seem pretty high.