The internet has forever transformed how we access facts and process information. Yet many marketers still produce content based on the assumption that there is value in merely curating information and facts. Sorry, but if content is to succeed today, it has to be a lot more than just factual.
Occasionally, my daughter will do something that reminds me I’m a dinosaur. Hazel has grown up with Google, Wikipedia and millions of other websites providing whatever information she wants with a few clicks. As a result, she’s developed a very different relationship with purely factual information.
When we’re watching films together, I will still go to my brain first when trying to remember where I’ve seen a particular actor before. But while I’m struggling with my memory, Hazel’s already got her smartphone out, opened the IMDB app and rattled off the actor’s entire filmography.
I have the same app on my phone, but using it still isn’t my first instinct. Instead, I go to my brain first, treating the internet as a safety net when my memory (increasingly) fails. I’m still conditioned by decades of having to think and memorise and make decisions without instant and ubiquitous access to information. Reaching for the smartphone feels like an admission of defeat – that my grey matter failed to retain or retrieve the necessary information.
Meanwhile, Hazel’s brain already defaults to the internet. She doesn’t see the need to retain random facts in her memory because the internet can retain it for her, while Google can be a far more reliable retrieval system. The internet has become an extension of her brain. Marshall McLuhan would most likely feel simultaneously validated and horrified.
If you’re over 30, you’re probably like me. We are the last survivors of an age that seems increasingly prehistoric. Our instincts, attitudes and behaviours were formed before the internet smashed a meteor-sized crater into society. Such pre-internet thinking will eventually become extinct.
Your 20th-century linear mind has been rewired into a 21st-century lattice.
Douglas Coupland: The Age of Earthquakes (2015)
The pre-internet brain
I’m still a fanatical buyer of dead trees, particularly non-fiction and reference books. Knowledge is, for me, best represented as a packed bookcase, not a mouse. Of course, I use the internet for research all of the time. But many of my habits and attitudes were shaped in the BG era (Before Google) when information and facts weren’t so easy to come by.
When I was at university in the late ‘80s, I quickly learned to sit close to the door when assignments were handed out. As soon as the lecture ended there was always a race to the library to grab the relevant books necessary to research the assignment. As the library usually only had two or three copies of each book on the reading list, and there were a hundred or so students on the course, delay could be costly.
Those of us who missed out would have a few limited options. You could bargain with someone to allow you to photocopy the relevant pages or collaborate on a study session (beer was a popular currency). You could hope that one of your housemates was a faster runner (which wasn’t an option for those of us flat-sharing with students from other courses). Or, as a last resort, you could hope the university book shop had a copy that wouldn’t blow your weekly budget.
Our access to information was limited by geography, availability, economy and the technology of the day. In many ways, information was its own economy—full of haves and have-nots, gatekeepers, curators and transactions.
By the time my daughter researched her first school project, search engines were available to help her. Facts were no longer locked away in small print runs but were instantly and freely available. Where once it took effort, time and money to learn how to make a perfect soufflé or discover the population of Nineteenth Century London, now it takes almost no effort, time or money at all. Ask Google (disclaimer: other search engines are available …) and numerous web pages will compete to give you the information you seek.
You may ask, “So what?” Doesn’t that prove content marketing is only going to increase in importance? Provide information to feed this hand-held digital brain extension and reap the benefits of a generation who are even more reliant on the internet for answers.
That appears to be the thinking behind much of the unremarkable content currently filling our search results and social media feeds. Most are probably commissioned and managed by marketers from the same pre-internet generation, hanging onto the outdated belief that merely providing access to curated factual information has a value. How many articles do we need on social media image dimensions? Is it really helpful to have hundreds of web pages repeating minor variations of the same straightforward “how to” advice? Does it add anything to the consumer’s experience to add yet another predictable used car buyer’s checklist to the thousands already indexed by Google?
As a result, content marketing has begun to eat itself. Far too much content is researched from Google, recycling information from the plethora of similar articles already out there, without adding anything new of genuine substance or insight. The only way such a content approach can succeed is by hoping the content somehow manages to be incrementally better than the source material that preceded it, including the competition. Surely, it’s insanity to chase increasingly small incremental improvements within the same topic area and with the same source material as hundreds of other marketers. Add in the usual pressures to continually optimise costs as well and it becomes unsustainable.
The Google brain
Increasingly, Google will answer purely factual queries right there in the search results, scraping the web to provide the most accurate answer it can without all of that messy clicking around. Ask Google “How did George Orwell die?” and a box appears at the top of the search results with the unmissable heading “Tuberculosis”, accompanied by a paragraph scraped from shmoop.com. There’s no need to click through to Shmoop, or any of the other websites containing biographies of the great writer.
Depending on your query, Google will even provide a quick cheat sheet of background info. Search for “King Alfred” and the right-hand column offers up a short bio, a summary of key dates, his family tree and a handful of images. School projects done in no time.
This is great for anyone looking for quick answers, but it is a potential nightmare for anyone whose content strategy relies on using that factual information to drive web traffic.
Last year, Joe Pulizzi said: “To put it simply, you can’t trust Google. It will stretch ‘fair rights’ usage as much as possible – so people can avoid having to visit your site as much as possible. Google is making it easy for the world and, in the process, diverting traffic away from your site.”
Yes, but only if your content doesn’t offer anything more valuable than otherwise standard factual info. Joe suggests Google is “making it easy for the world”. If our content strategies are in opposition to that goal, I suggest we’re on the wrong side.
But wait; there’s more.
Also last year, Google followed up the widely announced mobile-responsiveness update to its algorithm with a number of other adjustments that weren’t so public. Some websites noticed their rankings changing. This phantom update was later confirmed by Google as an adjustment to how the algorithm ranks various quality signals.
Hubpages noted that the phantom May update appeared to target informational or How to … content, but while some had noticed as much as a 22% decrease in search traffic, others reported an increase.
What’s going on? Google won’t get into specifics (no surprise) but a previous post on the Google Webmaster Central Blog following the Panda update in 2011 may offer some clues to the direction in which Google is heading.
The post lists a number of factors that Google considers when looking at quality signals, including:
- Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
- Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
- Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
There are many more quality signals, so I recommend reading the whole post. But the common theme is whether the information offers MORE than what is already commonly available. In short, does the content go beyond regurgitating basic or non-proprietary facts that are already freely available? Does it provide deeper insight, a new context or fresh ideas?
Maybe we’ll finally see an end to the flood of listicles and other production-line content that continually repackage the same information under the mistaken belief that this somehow qualifies as thought leadership.
Whenever Google has changed or evolved, businesses and marketers have complained that it is somehow being unfair. After so many blows, surely we’ve learned by now to never get too comfortable trying to low-ball our content for a quick Google boost.
Fresh Ideas, Not Stale Facts
Anyone can provide straightforward answers in response to straightforward questions. So we can forget any hope of extracting a benefit from purely curated information and aggregated facts. Forget the generic How to’s … and repetitive listicles, digests and handy guides. If that’s all you’ve got, the internet is full.
We should no longer expect to be rewarded for simply providing access to information. That’s old world thinking: BG thinking. Instead, we need to do more than churn out facts already well serviced by the internet and easily accessed by Google.
If information is knowledge, then wisdom comes from how we use it. Instead, produce content that expresses fresh and more complex ideas, offers deeper insights and genuinely leads our markets with new and original thoughts.
After all, isn’t that what thought leadership is supposed to mean?