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Shallow Content and the Impact on Your Blog and Writing Career
Updated: Dec 10, 2016 / Article by: Lori Soard
If there is one thing that is true about the Internet, it is that it is forever changing. Sometimes those changes are good. For example, the first time I ever got on the Internet back in the 80s, I was a young high school student. Back then, the Internet was very basic. Mainly organizations and educational institutions were putting out information. You had to know some basic computer coding to effectively use those first home computers, too. This was probably pretty good training for those of us who would go on to have careers as writers, editors, and web designers. It forced us to learn the basics and build from there.
The Rise of Content
AOL debuted while I was still in high school, too. Back then, it was the platform to be on. There were forums, message boards, news items. And, for the first time, the average person could easily connect with other people, meet one another online in chat rooms and gather information and get email all in one place. For those who were not tech savvy, it was a very simple What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) type environment.
Then, the Internet exploded throughout the 90s and continued to grow in the 2000s. I've been a freelance writer and editor for over 20 years now and the changes I've seen during that time are truly mind boggling at times. When I first started writing, most publishers were still only accepting submissions via snail mail. Although a large number of them did have websites, online content hadn't yet taken off the way it would later in the 90s.
Then, there was suddenly content everywhere. Anything you wanted to know about anything was online. Blogs became a big thing and everyone was enthralled with the musings of their fellow Internet surfers. In fact, blogs became so big and content became king to the point that there was a sudden flip in how writing worked. Now, instead of most publishers only accepting hard copy, snail mailed submissions, most publishers now wanted the work submitted via email or a content platform and much of this work was published online.
Then, there was what I'd like to call “the boom” of content. Content mills like eHow, Demand Studios, and several others made millions during this time. Most of the money came from Google ads and all the content farms had to do was churn out articles with keywords that people were searching for.
The Fall of Content
Unfortunately for those content mills and many writers who lost their jobs during this time, myself included, Google's algorithm changes dissipated their profits overnight. However, while the changes sucked in many writers and impacted blogs that actually did have decent content, Google had the right idea here. Google essentially started to look not only at weather a site had keywords embedded but whether the content was truly of value, how well it was written, if the person was an expert. Over the last six or seven years, these changes have improved the value of the content on many sites.
Google also inadvertently did me a favor as an entrepreneur/freelancer. No matter what kind of business or website you run, it is simply good business sense to never put all of your eggs in one basket. I knew that. I grew up at my parents' knees learning business first hand. I've taken courses in business over the years. I've worked with some of the smartest businessmen in the world and they've mentored me. Yet, I'd fallen into the trap of my cushy little editing job for a single company.
It was easy because there was plenty of work, the pay was good, and I enjoyed the writers and fellow editors I worked with. The problem? It was my main source of income. When Google released their algorithm change, this site plummeted overnight. Within a few months, most of us had been laid off without prior notice to even look for other work. Was the content shallow on that site? Not always, but yes, sometimes. The keyword stuffing was a tactic that caused them to get gigged hard by Google and it resulted in some very unnatural sounding phrasing within the articles.
Is Content Going Shallow in 2016?
Back in February, I wrote a piece for WHSR titled How the Face of Content Is Changing in 2016. In that post, I explored Google's notes they released on how to get your site to rank better, but I also cautioned that since Google changes their algorithms almost constantly that you can't just follow a set of guidelines and hope to rank well long-term.
Yes, some content seems to have gone shallow. There is an emphasis on infographics and videos as research trends show that Internet consumers enjoy these short bursts of information. There is a reason for this shift. Researchers at the Xerox corporation found that when content has colored visuals that people are about 80% more likely to read that content. Of course, there are many other reasons to add visual content, which I would argue is fast for users to glance at but is not shallow at all as it can take longer to create than written content and just as much research.
On the other hand, many business owners are shifting to more in-depth, research-driven articles because they are finding it creates stronger conversion rates no matter what the search engines are doing. Several of my clients in late 2015 and already in 2016 approached me about doing longer, deeper guides on a variety of topics. Especially my business clients seem to be shifting away from the shorter, more shallow content of earlier.
Part of the reason for this is tied into Google's algorithms. Many websites are finding that longer content written by those recognized in that niche is ranking better in the search engines and helping their site rank better overall. Search Engine Watch took a look at what the perfect word count for a blog post might be. For many years, people thought it should be around 500 words. However, Google made an algorithm change in 2013 and started to look at how in-depth articles were. Was it shallow content or was there some substance?
However, people trying to crack Google's algorithms rarely have success. It's good to be aware of changes and trends, because you will intrinsically start to incorporate some of these things into your writing. Ultimately, though, as a writer, I have to look at the topic and think about what all the reader who is searching for that topic might want to know. My job as a writer is to answer those questions and even a couple of questions the reader didn't know he had.
One trend I personally have noticed in this first quarter of 2016 is that many small businesses are jumping on the fresh content trend of wanting some short, to-the-point content about a very niche, very narrow topic. These pieces are aimed at their average customer and meant to answer a question or possibly attract a new lead. In fact, I've had so many requests for these types of articles lately that I've had to turn some of the work away. Shorter pieces tend to not pay as well as longer, better researched pieces. I also have some regular clients I work with who always come first, so if I'm busy with work from them I do not take on temporary or short side assignments but refer them out to other writers I know.
So, is content going shallow? No. I don't really think it is. I think that excellent writing and research will always be appreciated and revered. What I do think is that articles need to be scanable (more on that later under mobile users) and that the topic itself needs to be narrow and focused. This makes the articles more personal for the user who is searching for that specific topic.
Are Viral Sites the Next Content Mills?
In the last couple of years, we saw some sites simply explode onto the Internet and make hundreds of thousands of dollars while creating content that went viral overnight. Sites such as Elite Daily and Upworthy suddenly seemed to have a presence on every social media channel. AdSense revenue was through the roof causing people to question their SEO tactics. After all, if these sites could suddenly drive these massive types of traffic to articles that, let's face it, weren't so great, then why was everyone else working so hard to write in-depth, quality pieces for peanuts?
According to Mashable, many of these sites are already seeing a huge decline in revenue. What that says to me is that Google is onto them and their link bait tactics. You know what I'm talking about. You go onto Facebook and you see a photo and headline that says something like:
“This little girl had the worst day at school ever… click to find out why.”
The image is meant to draw your sympathy and emotion as is the headline. You click on the link and it's usually some vapid story you normally wouldn't waste your time on.
In addition to the link baiting, the articles tend to have very short, staccato type content with a link to the next page for more and then on to the next page and on and on and on. In this way, these sites are wracking up click after click as you scroll through slides or short content pages.
As a reader, do you like it when you click on that link and get crappy content? Me either. I suspect that the reason these sites are declining in revenue and traffic is because people who are on the Internet are quite savvy. You might be able to trick them for a time, but eventually they will grow wise to your black hat tricks and will refuse to be fooled again. That is why as a writer and on your blog that it is so important to have integrity. Don't try to trick your readers into visiting your site. You won't keep them as a reader for long that way.
One trend I see with many businesses is that they are growing blogs that are the go-to source for their specialty area. So, if the person runs a service business, such as a plumber, he will start a blog and share tips with his readers. He might upload a video that shows how to change out the filter in your faucet. His goal and focus are on one area and he wants to help, educate, and inform his reader. As he does this, he becomes known for his expertise and new customers call him when they need a plumber.
This concept works with any type of business, not just service businesses. You need to become one of the leading authorities in that area and people will start to seek out your articles. I have some readers that follow me no matter what site I write for. They follow me on social media and via my newsletter and they will click on the links I send them (especially in my newsletter). If you haven't already established a niche for your blog and yourself as a writer, start thinking about how you can narrow your focus and what you know that no one else knows or if there is a way you can present it better than others in your niche do now.
The viral news sites that seem to do really well also have a very focused niche. Don't just write about a car, but write about the Camaro and how to keep the engine running at peak performance.
The writing is on the wall when it comes to mobile web browsing. A recent report by comScore showed that we're “past the mobile tipping point” and that the majority of users browse online via mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets. Last year, Google even added an element to its algorithm that measured the mobile friendliness of your site in its ranking equation.
This mobile device trend when it comes to Internet browsing is both good and bad.
A smaller screen means that you have to change the way your site appears on those browsers, sometimes making it less functional.
Smartphones are killing human interactions in some cases. Look around the next time you go to dinner. Half of the couples have their noses buried in their respective phones instead of talking to one another.
The smaller screen also encourages scrolling, which means that readers may not be taking the time to really absorb the information you've worked so hard to put together for them.
Most people keep their mobile devices handy 24/7. This means you have many more opportunities for those people to visit your site. As a writer, it means that those sites need even more content, so there is a bit of job security for me.
People may read more during down time, such as when waiting in line, at a doctor's office, or while at their child's soccer practice.
More people are getting online who might not have high speed Internet in the rural area where they live but do have wireless service through their mobile device.
Staying Sane and Keeping Balance
With all of these changes, you can probably imagine that it can be pretty stressful to run a blog or be a writer. It is a constantly changing world. I know that there have been times I've struggled to keep a balance. For example, I was pretty sick in March. I came down a strain of the flu and felt horrible.
One of the difficult things about being an entrepreneur or a freelancer is that you are the main worker in your company. Sure, I have a couple of helpers, but when it comes to writing and editing, I am the only one that does that work. An illness or outside stress can put a kink in my creativity and make it hard to finish work on time.
One thing I do that helps me tremendously is that I have to-do lists and I prioritize tasks. So, if I know that I have an article due for WHSR every month around the same time, I then break down the things I need to do in order to complete that article and I prioritize those tasks because WHSR is one of my regular and favorite places that I write and edit for. If a client that throws me occasional work only contacts me during that time, the work to complete that task goes under WHSR and is not as much of a priority.
Still, I always want to fulfill my commitments to provide content, so I do get that other work done. However, I will honestly say that my main focus and my best work goes to my regular clients that send me work consistently month after month.
I also polled a few writers I know to see how they create a balance in this crazy writing/blogging life. They had some tips that I think will help you keep your focus on the bottom line goal and not worry so much over all these content changes this year.
Set Your Work Hours
Jodee Redmond, Freelance Writer and Blogger, has done this work for many years and has mentored other writers, helping them figure out how to find assignments and helping them one-on-one.
“I think that if you expect everything to be perfectly balanced all the time you are going to be disappointed. Keep in mind that if everything is in balance, nothing moves, and life is constantly in motion. For me, I think it helps that my father was self-employed as building and electrical contractor. He never worked Monday-Friday, 9-5, so I didn’t grow up with that pattern of him being home at a set time or necessarily home all day on Saturdays.”
Jodee shared that she tends to work during the day while the house is quiet and her family is out at work and school. She might work some in the evenings if she isn't finished with her work but she makes sure to take a break when her family comes home from the day's activities and spend time with them. She also has a set time that she stops working each day so she has time to unwind.
“It has taken time and some trial and error, but my family and I have negotiated a more balanced work and family schedule that seems to work better for us. In prior years, I would get too focused on work and I think they were feeling a bit neglected at times. Thankfully, they spoke up to let me know.”
Your Brand Is Everything
Nancy A. Shenker, CEO, theONswitch Marketing and owner of the Bad Girl, Good Business blog, has been blogging, as she puts it, “since the birth of the blog.” Needless to say, she's learned quite a bit about what it takes to keep your blog successful over the years and through Google's changes.
Her best advice includes:
“Go through a personal or business branding exercise, much the way a big-brand company would. Hone in on your audience (and what they are looking for), your competition, your voice and image, and your frequency of communication.
If your focus changes (as mine did a couple of years ago), you simply tweak and re-brand. But be sure you explain to your reader why things are changing.
Consistency of your brand is important to Nancy and she describes this as “a unique voice, visual imagery, and range of topics.”
In the end, it doesn't really matter if I personally like the changes that are taking place in content and with mobile devices. The changes will come no matter how much one likes or dislikes them. However, I am just as certain after doing this for over 20 years that the changes will change again next week, next month, and next year.
Whether you are a blogger, freelance writer, or business owner, know that while it is important to be aware of the trends and understand them that you should never get so caught up in them that you change the overall tone and goals of your business. Know why you're writing what you write and who your audience is and the trends will take care of themselves.
About Lori Soard
Lori Soard has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 1996. She has a bachelor's in English Education and a PhD in Journalism. Her articles have appeared in newspapers, magazines, online and she's had several books published. Since 1997, she has worked as a web designer and promoter for authors and small businesses. She even worked for a short time ranking websites for a popular search engine and studying in-depth SEO tactics for a number of clients. She enjoys hearing from her readers.