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by Stephen Logan on 22nd November 2012
For some, Content Marketing is a gateway to endless possibilities; for others, it’s simply an overused buzzword. It appears that the more attention is given to creating and publishing ‘quality content’, the more the ideology behind it is lost. For now, everybody is looking to build relevance, links and profiles through the written word, but what might the future hold?
Creating articles for links is nothing new. Indeed, it’s been an easy win for companies for years. The only problem is that this is continuing to happen in 2012. Google couldn’t have been more blatant about their total disregard for low quality, spun content, but yet the cycle of lexical linking lunacy continues. For me, this creates various concerns for the future.
When a few people discovered that reciprocal linking would boost their rankings, soon millions followed blindly and clumsily. The result was a shift in the Webmaster Guidelines from Google, effectively nullifying the effect of these largely pointless exchanges. Even then though, some persisted.
When somebody discovered that you could easily hide keywords on a page, simply by adding white text to a white background – this was a revelation. You could increase your keyword density without anybody knowing about it, except the search engines. Sure enough, SEOs and site owners applied this theory liberally until it was shut-down by Google.
Then of course there is the aforementioned article/comment spinning and automated submissions. Suddenly one piece of flaky content could get a few hundred links, rather than just one. Praise be, this was the Godsend that we were all looking for – except it wasn’t, Google pulled the plug.
Notice a pattern? A new world changing idea comes along, everybody gets excited, some go to excess and then Google shuts the door. While Content Marketing as a broad field is unlikely to follow this trend, certain elements certainly could go that way.
Now, guest blogging is probably one of the most natural and effective ways of sharing knowledge and improving your profile. It helps to facilitate the distribution of fresh insights and information, giving a platform for anybody to have their two cents – whether driven by SEO or not.
Theoretically, article spinning was fine too – when done right. As long as you were mixing up the sentences and ensuring each one was mostly unique, then all you were effectively doing was sharing a similar message across multiple sites – just as most news stories are syndicated. In both cases though, there is an underlying issue: gamers.
As a Content Marketer at a Digital Marketing Agency, I’m looking to get maximum coverage for my clients and a decent link. This is gaming of a sort; however, in my defence, I would hope that the content produced is of a palatable quality and is suitably targeted to the individual blog. Sadly, I don’t think this is a universal consideration by any means.
There are now thousands of blogs all existing for the sole purpose of attracting foolhardy marketers. Some are bad, others are worse. Many don’t have a particular theme and a good number have the very loosest rules surrounding submissions. As long as you’ve got a unique article (and $20 in most cases), then you’re good to go.
Like white text, reciprocal linking, article spinning and all of the other outlawed practices, this is far too easy. The sad thing is that this is done in the name of Content Marketing and without even a flicker of irony. Google must be aware that this is happening and will no doubt take action if they see fit.
Just look at the recent update targeting sites with heavy advertising above the fold. Now, who do you think that was going after specifically? My guess, and I could certainly be wrong, is that this is deliberately attempting to weed out low value blogs and other content dumps. To be fair, most major newspapers have a banner advertising slot at the top (they need to monetise to cover sizable overheads); however, in these cases the level of authority and the quality of content (if that is a measurable entity yet) is what saves them.
Whether guest blogging will ever become what it was always meant to be is down to blog owners and Content Marketers. We have to take responsibility for the standard of articles being published, while ensuring quick wins are kept to a minimum or eliminated. Trust is also important. Blogs need to open the doors to good writers and not slam them shut for fear of collecting bottom-feeders. If it becomes a decentralised form of Article Marketing then it is doomed to fail.
As soon as you start handing money over in exchange for online real-estate, be it a humble link or a guest blog slot you are in contravention of Google rules. Now whatever your feelings are towards search engine censorship and their ability to enforce codes of conduct on the wider world, it’s a dangerous game to play. The link gets found, your name is tarred, rankings fall – or at least that’s the usual course of events.
Again, advertorials are the worst kept secret online. Many newspapers sell space to brands promoting their services; indeed we wrote about the problem back in 2010 – and not a lot has changed since. But while Google has a bit of a quandary when it comes to punishing major companies using national media outlets, it’s likely to take a harsher stance against new blogs churning out mediocre content.
So if you’re paying for guest posts, with the articles featured in a section called “sponsored” or even “guest posts”, you can’t assume that this link will continue to be beneficial. People have to get smarter and more creative; the emphasis shouldn’t be on getting content published anywhere, but more on ensuring it’s in the right place.
As previously alluded to, Google could easily pull the plug on low level blogs, nullifying links and even penalising those who have engaged in questionable tactics. Whether they will is another matter entirely, but I would expect it to get much more difficult for those gunning for quantity over quality. The attacks on sites with advertising are probably just the tip of the iceberg; as the Googlebot becomes more intelligent, the seemingly subtle quirks that differentiate good blogs from bad will probably become more apparent.
Again, this is a great incentive and one that should favour writers who regularly create excellent articles on a specific subject. The Rel=Author tag is starting to take off, appearing with increasing regularity within the search results. Equally, there is a school of thought that would suggest this is likely to improve rankings for related content and searches – certainly it will influence it in the future.
But with every positive, there is often an equal negative; and again we come back to gaming. I’m a cynic by heart, therefore I tend to see the downside to most things. Hardened by a fair few years in this industry, it would seem to me that this – along with all other ranking factors – is just as easy to game.
If all you need is a gmail account, a website and blog, it’s relatively easy to establish yourself under a pseudonym and then pass it on to the highest bidder when you’re starting to gain rankings and authority. Ridiculous, surely? Well, very possibly – but the fact that it can’t be written off entirely is testament to the value of content and the potential of authority. With the Internet being a largely anonymous space, who would ever know if one author handed over to another? All hypothetical, but not impossible.
While Panda may have been big news for Content Marketers, the Knowledge Graph has the potential to be huge. Organic results may become even more personalised, with Google dragging in data from reliable sources, albeit this doesn’t currently doesn’t extend much further than Wikipedia. The significance of this is that the search engine is slowly becoming intelligent, plotting the connections between various queries and reflecting this in the results.
With authorship, personalised search and local results also disrupting the natural flow of organic rankings, building your own authority and creating expert content is essential. Gaming could slowly be eradicated, which is certainly what Google is looking to achieve. After all, why should it matter how many links your site has if you still don’t offer anything usable to visitors? If people are sharing your content and you’re an established expert, traditional optimisation should largely go out the window.
If semantic search is ever to become a reality, Google is going to need some decent content to provide reasonable results. It is also going to need to know who to trust, which is where your content marketing now is going to become so important. Even if you’re not entirely sure what the point is, don’t just consider the short-term benefits – think about the long-term. By growing an audience, as well as establishing expertise, you should reap the benefits.
Now whether the search engine theory will ever come into practice, to any extent, is up for debate; however it would be somewhat fanciful to assume that things will remain the same. Content marketing is the perfect bridge between current optimisation and any potential updates in the future. It builds context and authority while also gaining links for a bit of SEO goodness.
Quality is a word that gets bandied around far too frequently when talking about content marketing; often with very little merit. As with link building and the now defunct practice of article marketing, there will have to be some form of evolution that genuinely eliminates the worst practices – such as spinning or low value keyword-orientated articles. As mentioned, even guest blogging is likely to be thinned out, as weaker blogs and those that offer sponsored slots fade into obscurity.
Essentially, Google aren’t daft enough to count all pieces of content as equal. As soon as they are able to eliminate weaker forms or promote genuinely high quality articles, then you can reasonably assume that they will. Things rarely stay the same for long, particularly in the world of search engines. This evolution should be good news for all parties though.
Genuine Content Marketers, site owners and search engine users should all reap the benefits of a more intelligent indexation of content. Sure, you might have to be a little more creative, use a few extra platforms or increase outreach, but that’s no bad thing. Content Marketing is still in its formative years, which means that there are plenty of mistakes being made and even more lessons to be learnt. What we accept as standard now could soon be laughable; user habits change, as do expectations, and the whole point of Content Marketing is to adjust accordingly, tapping into the zeitgeist of the time.
Essentially it’s all about finding easy solutions to difficult problems. The future is far from certain, but one thing that you can be reasonably confident of is that content will play a major part in it. They may sound like empty buzzwords, but all marketers need to be dynamic and adjust to the new challenges they face, very few things are ever set in stone.
So what do you envisage for the future of Content Marketing, or even the way it is promoted and distributed. How will the changing face of search impact the effectiveness of content and will authorship prove to be a false dawn or the next big thing? As always, your thoughts are most welcome.