Why Content Farms and Automated SEO Aren’t Good Enough for Your Brand
Published on February 10, 2017
“It is recommended to take a regular amount of exercise before the initial stage of the weight loss process. The main goal of this exercise is to reduce the risk of heart attacks and stroke. It is also recommended that people with heart disease should consult a doctor before beginning any type of exercise program. Exercise is one of the most important things to do in the prevention of high blood pressure.”
Notice anything wrong with that paragraph? For starters, it doesn’t really make sense – it’s a lot of words strung together that give the appearance of substance, without really saying much at all. The structure is all wrong; there’s no flow between ideas or concepts. Nothing is linked together. And the grammar, while not technically wrong, is garbage. It sounds robotic, stilted, artificial.
There’s a good reason for that, though. This content sample was written by a machine. And if its creators get their way, soon all SEO marketing content will be outsourced to computers.
The machine in question belongs to an Ohio company called AI Writer, which uses a neural net to churn out unique, pre-fabricated marketing content at a clip of thousands and thousands of articles per day. This excellent article at Motherboard brought AI Writer and its wunderkind founders – who created the neural network straight out of college, and on a shoestring budget – to our attention.
We’re not here to bury ingenuity or rag on these creators. They saw a niche, and they filled it. But this shift towards automated content, itself a replacement for the “content mills” that churn out thousands and thousands of articles in India and the Philippines, is a troubling sign for the future of our industry.
Why do these tactics make us nervous about digital marketing’s future? To understand that, we must first look to the past.
The Evolution of SEO
Do you remember a time before Google? It’s a little hard to do looking back from 2017. But there was certainly a time when search engines were revolutionary game changers for the world wide web. That time was the 90s.
The 90s saw a revolution in how data was cataloged and accessed online, thanks first to Excite (launched in 1993), which filtered search results by means of keywords and backend coding. Yahoo and Google (launched in 1994 and 1997, respectively) soon entered the digital search fray, and the modern search engine landscape was born.
As soon as these search engines became normalized, the rush was on to try to game the system, to make search engines work better for individual brands. This was the birth of SEO as we know it today.
Think of these early days as the Wild West of the internet; clicks were the “gold in them thar hills,” and every site, brand, and company wanted to gather the most. There are plenty of amazing stories from these early days of SEO; one of our favorites comes from Bob Heyman over at SearchEngineLand, who got a 3 a.m. phone call from the manager of Jefferson Starship, demanding to know why the band’s official website was being outranked on results pages by fan sites and zines.
But the result of all of this strategizing, planning, and gamesmanship actually set back the potential of the internet by a few decades. Instead of creating high quality content, the focus was on playing to these search engines and their (then quite unsophisticated) algorithms.
What came from this digital subterfuge? A mess, all borne from sites using what we now call “blackhat” SEO tactics.
You see, for many, many years, search engines operated pretty much exclusively around keywords. How often did the right keyword appear in your content? And did it always appear in the right places – in the first sentence, in the URL, in all of the captions and alt-text for pictures? The other big element that dictated the appeal of your site to search engines was known as backlinking; Google and other search engines would take note of how many times your site was linked to by other sites, and judge your site’s credibility based on that.
In marketing parlance, keywording tactics came to be known as “on-page optimization,” while backlinks became “off-page optimization.” Both were exploited by designers looking to get to the top of the pile. For many years, we saw devious techniques like:
- Keyword Stuffing: This occurs when writers pump their content full of keywords, even if it makes the actual written copy all but illegible.
- Duplicate Content: Posting the same content again and again to bolster your page count, or else explicitly plagiarizing other content available elsewhere.
- Bad Backlinks: Spreading your content through dummy sites that act like link farms, which link back to your site but provide no real value for users.
Since these dark, “anything goes” days, we’ve seen search engines grow much more sophisticated, and marketers have had to work to keep up. Rather than focusing exclusively on keywords, search engines now consider a wide array of factors, from mobile optimization to responsive website development. Google has also shifted its results to reflect a deeper focus on the intent of searches, while social connections and user experience, rather than the sheer presence of keywords, matters much more to search engines than ever before.
As a result of all of these changes, we’ve seen the decline of blackhat SEO techniques and the rise of quality, personalized, user-focused content across the board.
What’s worrisome is that all of these hard-earned gains might soon be rolled back.
The Problem With Automated Content
So, just what is it that makes the rise of farmed, outsourced, and automated content so troubling? This trend represents a step back from the more egalitarian, enlightened SEO landscape that we currently inhabit, in favor of less user-friendly or audience-focused tactics; perhaps even more troublingly, the speed with which so many are adopting the technology reveals that many in our industry are still looking to game the system and cut corners wherever and whenever possible.
First and foremost, this automatic, one-size-fits-all approach to content creation is deeply lazy. There’s no craftsmanship or artistry to it, which makes it worthless to readers, who will always reward quality, thoughtfulness, personality, and voice over manufactured, churned-out, soulless copy that could come from anywhere.
Imagine reading the paragraph that we quoted early in this article and feeling genuinely informed. It’s impossible! Content shouldn’t just to exist to exist, it should be useful. If what you’re putting into the world isn’t of any value, why are you doing it?
And all of these complaints are just the tip of the iceberg. The problems presented by these new tools and tactics run much deeper and darker.
You see, user experience isn’t the main goal of this tool. Instead, the primary purpose of this AI-generated content is to bolster backlinks. As Daniel Oberhaus writes for Motherboard:
“Many of these clients are what DeMott refers to as “SEO-ers” which are essentially building fictitious websites on expired, once-popular domains that link to their ‘true’ website. The goal is to trick Google’s search algorithms into thinking that a bunch of legitimate websites are pointing to the client’s real website, which would suggest the real site is important or highly trafficked and should be higher up in the search results.
Most of this content would seem trivial or annoying to a human reader, but that’s okay because these SEO-ers aren’t making these fake websites for human eyes. As long as the content is realistic enough to trick Google, that’s good enough.”
All of this essentially amounts to a scam on top of a scam! This is just the practice of blackhat backlinking that we discussed earlier, now gussied up to feel more "real" to Google’s bots. This isn’t creating better content or providing a better service - it’s just better exploiting the weaknesses in a system! That’s underhanded and devious, and, what’s more, it’s not a marketing strategy that can feasibly last (not to mention making the promoted product or service look shady.) Leaning too heavily on this shady strategy could bring brands up short in any number of ways.
For starters, it’s key to remember that Google’s algorithms are always updating and changing; they have teams of thousands making sure that their bots are working harder, and the smarter the crawlers get, the dumber this spackled together pre-fab content will look in comparison. And what of your site itself? It seems only logical to us that brands who are willing to cut so many corners when it comes to attracting visitors will be likely to skimp on their design and development, as well. Trustworthiness and accountability matter to users more than ever; a faulty site elevated on search pages by underhanded tactics will still be a faulty site, and all-important Analytics data like bounce rates, page time, and conversion rates will reflect this lack of quality.
The type of content that will never get demoted or overlooked by Google? Compelling, insightful, artfully written content that tells stories, solves problems, and presents a unique point of view. The bottom line? Content farms and machine-written content aren't good enough for your company.
At the risk of sounding a little too Terminator 2-y, computers were meant to serve people, and not the other way around. Algorithms don’t buy products, and bots don’t rely on you for legal advice, physical therapy, or plumbing help. People do. Give them what they want as only another insightful, empathetic, talented human being can, and you’ll reap the rewards.
Looking for help getting started with SEO-focused content for your business? Curious about what it takes to start producing multimedia content like infographics, listicles, and video? That’s where we come in!
Here at Geek Chicago, we have a proven track record of helping businesses of all shapes and sizes find their footing on the modern web, whether that means retooling a website, building a social media presence from the ground up, or generating the sort of high quality content that drives in leads and creates conversions. Drop us a line today to get the conversation started!