I sometimes think SEOs are trying to scare marketers away from content. As the oracles of all things Google, SEO agencies have returned from the mountain to interpret Google’s Quality guidelines. Follow these rules to create good quality content and you’ll rank, they say. Ignore them at your peril! And often, they’re wrong.
They’re wrong because if there’s a golden rule for optimised content today, it’s “optimise for humans”. Google says that. SEO agencies often repeat it, but they’ve spent 15 years optimising for web crawlers. They don’t know humans.
Good SEO advice turns bad when it puts form before meaning. Back in the old days, you could use black hat techniques to make a bad piece of content ‘look’ like good content to a Googlebot. You can’t do that now. The algorithm will bust you. You will do much better optimising for charm.
Because this seems to be a tricky concept for many people, I thought I’d spell out 10 myths about quality content to help you reset your priorities.
Myth 1: Size matters with quality content
This is a pervasive myth. It comes from the idea that Google’s algorithm uses word counts as a quality indicator. Some have interpreted that as meaning the more words you have, the more value you’re delivering.
Content is not a buffet meal. You don’t get better value if you fill your plate to overflowing. The length of any piece of content should be determined by its subject matter. Writing 2000 or more words of gibberish is a waste of everyone’s time.
Quality content gets to the point, then moves on.
Myth 2: That content needs to be ‘skimmable’
Whoever came up with this one had spent too much time staring at heatmaps or the Analytics flowcharts. It’s very difficult to determine general rules from specific pieces of content. Just because readers drop off scrolling down one page doesn’t mean they’ll act the same on the next.
Content works best when it surprises and delights. Make it too simple, and it will be bland.
Myth 3: Quality content is ‘10x’ better
What does that even mean, that term ‘10x content’? Don’t answer that, I know what it means. The idea that you can produce something that is 10 times better than anything else assumes that all other content is the same. That’s just wrong.
And even if you could measure it … if there was some objective way of ranking all content against all other content … what then? If your content is nine times better, does it fail? How about if it’s seven-and-a-half times better?
Sweating over whether your content is ‘10x content’ is an excuse for paralysis. Just do it. Worry about making it better later on.
Myth 4: That you need to do video RIGHT NOW!
While stats of video views on social media seem impressive, they are a little misleading. Mark Ritson gives a funny and comprehensive explanation of why video ads on social media are a “tsunami of horse shit”. Follow that link for a video on his argument. I challenge you to watch the whole hour of it. He would challenge you too. He’d also argue that even if you watched a tiny fragment of it, that would count as a ‘view’.
Video is great, but expensive to do in terms of time and talent. If you have the time and talent, go for it. But the format won’t determine your level of engagement (and eventual ROI). The content isn’t the video—it’s the ideas in the video.
Myth 5: Content has to be aligned with your brand values
No, it doesn’t. Your brand values are probably the same as every other company’s brand values. You stand for honesty, integrity, and something else that I forgot because I fell asleep while listening to them.
While your brand values are meant to be unique to your brand, they’re just not. They never are. And even if they were, they’re limited. Two-dimensional. Content can be so much more than a vague promise to be ‘best in class’ or ‘a wise advisor’, or any of that other rubbish your brand agency came up with 15 years ago.
Myth 6: Every word must be spelt correctly, and every comma in the right place
I know Google has said that correct spelling and grammar is a quality signal. But that was a way of filtering spun content, where odd and meaningless phrases were jammed together with keywords on an infinite number of dummy websites.
That’s not what you’re doing, is it? You’re just doing your best to create the best content that you can. Every now and again, and spelling error will slip into it. Happens to everyone. Readers forgive that. Many of them won’t even notice.
There are plenty of spell-check and grammar-check tools that can make your writing good enough. But don’t waste time sweating over whether you’ve used the Oxford comma correctly. Editors like me do that. And I can tell you, NO-ONE CARES. Except other editors.
When you spend too much time focusing on minutiae, you put off publishing. Just get it out there. If someone spots a typo, fix it later.
Myth 7: The more complex and technical it is, the smarter it is
Did you know that the semiotic density of a text varies according to the redundancy of the auxiliary performance codes? Don’t worry if you don’t understand that last sentence. No-one does. It’s from a textbook written about Doctor Who, which was so famously impenetrable that one of the sentences—that one about semiotic density—was parodied on the show itself.
If you want to appeal to people who know less than you about a topic, don’t talk down to them. Don’t baffle them with jargon. Speak plainly. Use the simplest possible words and images to convey the most complex ideas. Precision is often the enemy of clarity.
Myth 8: The words are more important than the pictures (or vice versa)
Words and images are the vehicles for your ideas. You need them to work together to be effective. Having a dull picture is as self-defeating as having dull words.
Quality content should have engaging words AND images. If you illustrate your content with a series of graphs and pie charts, you will bore readers. And your aim is to excite them.
Myth 9: Content shock is a thing
Content shock is bullshit. The whole idea of content shock has always been bullshit. Content shock as a concept is applying the idea of ‘peak oil’ to ideas. It suggests knowledge is a finite resource. When Mark Shaefer first wrote about it back in 2014, there were nuances to his argument. He was saying time is a finite resource, not knowledge—that readers (or viewers) could only consume a limited amount of content. Which is true.
But it also assumes your audience is passive. And they’re not. They actively seek out information. They use search engines and social media groups and ask their mates.
It is true that people are getting better at filtering useless content. But they’ve always been pretty good at that. That puts the onus back on the content creator to think about their audience, rather than themselves, when they’re producing content.
Myth 10: That quality is the only thing that matters
Quality content on its own is not enough. Even if you have produced 10x content. Even if all the words are spelt right. Even if it’s 10,000 words long. Even if it’s illustrated by Picasso. And even if it’s the most blazingly important piece of thinking ever produced.
If you don’t have a distribution plan, no-one will see it. If you don’t have a plan to promote it, no-one will know it’s there. And if you haven’t produced it with a strategy in place to ensure it drives people to do something—anything!—then you’ve wasted your time.