Content as Product?

In the past year we’ve seen a meteoric rise in interest around “how-to” Web sites that offer short, useful information and articles that help people answer questions.  It seems as if suddenly overnight, a group of sites have emerged that offer quick and useful answers to basic “how-to” questions.

For people who see search engines as the dominate interface for engaging with the Internet, this development won’t come as a surprise. Content sites are rising up to meet the informational needs of people seeking answers. (If you’ve ever typed “how do I…” into Google, you will understand this completely.)

However, finding answers is one thing. Finding good answers is another. We need to think seriously about the quality of original content that is being delivered through search today. We also need to ask, what determines good content? For example, if online “how-to” content is labeled bad simply because it is being written based on what search engine users are asking for, we are missing a huge opportunity to take this kind of writing seriously.

Over the past year, we’ve seen fears emerge around content being sold as an interchangeable product or commodity. For many, the term is negative. Commoditization is associated with items becoming so similar that they are indistinguishable from each other, leading consumers to choose based on price or other basic determinants.

For content sites, this might mean searching for gardening tool recommendations and finding 15 nearly identical low-quality articles with the same information.

If we resist the “race to the bottom” idea of commoditization of original content, and instead think about its highest possible state, here’s the scenario I hope for: writers and publishers adding great original articles online that offer equally useful information about topics that are being searched for.

Content creators with an established body of articles who have maintained rights to their work will be able to resell, repurpose and perennially republish their work into the future. This is the positive side of commoditization, where well-written content becomes a commodity that can be bought, sold and packaged to the gain of its creators. But it is only possible if quality is held up as the guiding principle.

How would this new world look for consumers, advertisers and creators? For consumers it presents choice. Ideally new content sites will deliver a range of equally great answers to help the online seeker find what they’re looking for.

Perhaps with so many new sites entering the game, there would be a race upwards.

Competitive sites, looking for traffic, would strive to provide the best answers, or the most useful content, or the most reliable, well-researched information. This would be a nirvana for consumers. For the advertiser, this new world would deliver targeted niche audiences loyal to the best sites.

Writers and other creators of original content would enjoy a wider field of potential publishers that would be pleased to post their work. And if these sites recognize the competitive value of having top creators onboard, publishers would offer premium rates and revenue share to the best writers. Perhaps they would let creators retain all the rights to their work, so the writers and producers could resell or repackage it themselves. In short, it would be a seller’s market for content creators.

One obstacle is the tremendous buzz around content curation and the term “content mill,” which is used by some to defame the industry. Quality entails producing articles and also corralling or “curating” them into meaningful areas for consumers. The fact is, there is a lot that is misunderstood about the space, especially what these sites provide consumers and advertisers.

While there is nothing wrong with producing content that consumers are actively looking for on the Internet by watching search terms and utilizing SEO, a problem exists when these practices put quality content in peril. If it doesn’t provide value, is it going to stay around or be good for the consumer audience? 

This negative buzz around content sites has prevailed since the world noticed that some are using algorithms to determine what people are looking for and then assigning these topics to writers. Indeed, the notion of using an algorithm to figure out what people want to read has gotten a bad rap.

Some have referred to this as creating fast-food content or the rise of writer-bots and editor-bots. The image is an assembly line churning out story ideas, or perhaps a massive “good content creation” machine, pumping out titles for articles along with suggestions for online topic “holes” that need filling.

The assumption is that there is no human element in the process — no editor or writer using his or her own mind and free will to decide what topics to write about.

In my view, however, an algorithm is simply a tool. Used in the right hands, it can be a powerful application for researching the gaps that exist in original content online.  For writers or producers who are curious to know what people are searching for online, using algorithms to determine this offers simply another editorial resource.

Where does that leave us? For publishers who have seen this switch coming and help writers share their work with the world, the potential to monetize this content is huge. Welcome to the future of writing and content. To do it right will take a mix of both art and science.

Peter Berger is CEO of Suite101.com, a global content site visited monthly by 24 million people.