We Can Do Better Than This

              
     
     
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UPDATE: Falcão Ruíz of WebMark SEO (follow him at @FalcaoNoMore) has translated this post into Spanish. How awesome is he for doing that? Extremely awesome. Gracias, mi amigo!

Esperanza by Edgar Rubio, on Flickr
Photo by Edgar Rubio (creative commons)

While prepping to speak at last month’s Content Strategy Forum, I reviewed a number of sites and blogs across the online production, design, architecture, and content strategy industries. Among other things, this made me reflect on the state of writing and discussion across the SEO and Inbound marketing blogosphere.

Which, in turn, leads me to ask: where are the SEO/Inbound sector’s equivalents of journals like A List Apart, Boxes and Arrows, or Contents?

These are the ABCs (ha, literally!) of the online creative/editorial/publishing world. You’ve probably at least heard of A List Apart, but the other two are just as fantastic, if not more so, depending on your area of focus. And they’re part of the canon for information architects, UX designers, online writers, and content strategists. Click through those links above and explore the writing you find there. If you haven’t seen them before, then I promise that you’re in for a real treat. Go ahead, I can wait.

What? You’re back already? If you only took a cursory glance at an article or two and then immediately came right back here, then something’s gone very wrong.

You were supposed to get lost in there! I mean, this is only the fourth post on this blog and the last one was just a big ol’ list of links. To be honest, I’ve got nothing but drunk poetry here, more than half of it written by #bestdogever on a kibble binge. But those sites have real words, written by real writers, edited by real editors, published by people with real passion.

You know… content.

Here’s my hypothesis as to why you bounced back: (or didn’t even leave in the first place) you’ve been overly incentivized to skim articles and glean quick tactics from blog posts with titles like “Top 10 Ways To…” or “3 Tips For…” or “Best Practices in…”. In other words, content without content. But what happens when you unexpectedly encounter real content containing all sorts of new ideas and complex thinking? Writing that’s subtly nuanced and that may take more than a minute or two to unpack, deconstruct, and understand? Well, that presents something of a challenge.

I know this sort of writing certainly challenges me… and that’s why I like it. We are what we read, after all. But for an industry that’s fond of stating that “Content is King,” we sure aren’t investing in a lot of high-quality content.

Have you noticed how pervasive this highly tactical yet not-quite-real content is across the online marketing blogosphere? It’s everywhere, like glitter at a craft show or like zombies in my Netflix queue. And even when it’s not Top X lists, the state of content in our community still tends to be poor. So much so that Richard Falconer just did an awesome job of curating and parodying a bunch of hilarious (and real!) articles about what [insert random topic] taught me about SEO.

These shallow, quick-learnings pieces seem to make up the bulk of the content that we, as an industry, tend to produce… and to consume, if we’re not careful to balance our diet with something more substantive. And sure, there’s obviously a place for this kind of writing within our community; many of the individual posts aren’t bad in and of themselves. Several are thoughtful, helpful, and insanely useful. It’s the overload and over-reliance on the form that I’m citing as a problem here, not the individual instances of the genre.

Because if all we talk about is tactics, if all that we write about are tips, if all we share and discuss is easily digestible content, then we create a series of core problems for ourselves and the online marketing industry as a whole. But mostly we just create poor communities.

Here’s why.

Obfuscation

Confused by kalavinka, on Flickr
Photo by kalavinka (creative commons)

Which one of those “10 Best Ways to…” articles should I trust when there’s a plethora of them all covering the exact same material?

If I were new to the field and became interested in, say, content marketing, then when I searched for [how to make an infographic], which one of those articles would I pick? They all look the same to me, and I’m relatively well-educated on the topic. How would these results look to someone new to the field?

Google Search results for [how to make an infographic]

Now sure, I know that TrustRank, personalization, authorship, creating click-worthy titles/descriptions, and tons of other factors all come into play here… but that’s exactly my point! As a new practitioner, I wouldn’t necessarily know about any of that. And so the paradox of choice would probably have a negative impact on my learning. At the very least, it would take me longer to learn and make an informed decision than if I had fewer choices (but ones that were more trustworthy and authoritative).

And if it’s that hard to learn about the simplest tactics, then how would I go about approaching an education in the more complex strategies? Or their foundational theories? This is the case where having multiple versions of the same content actually serves to obfuscate their meaning and value.

Sure, I can learn about A/B testing tactics from just about any CRO blog on the planet. Armed with those tips, I can create a simple set of test experiences in order to reduce my bounce rate from visitors arriving from organic search. But what if I was instead exposed to Marcia Bates’ groundbreaking 1989 paper on ‘berry-picking’ behaviors in online search? I’d walk away with a much richer systems-based understanding of human experience and be in a better position to create my own strategies instead of relying on others’ tactics.

Most importantly, I’d be able to determine what’s authoritative on my own without relying on a Google algorithm. I think you’d agree that’s a good thing.

It’s the difference between giving someone a fish and teaching them how to fish. Or, better still, how to build their own boat and navigate the oceans.

This is what SEOmoz does so well. They don’t just publish a blog, they curate useful and meaningful content from and for the community. I know from talking with some of their Associates that they go back and update Q&A, articles, and other resources as things change rather than republishing them over and over again. And they provide authoritative resources that help grow the industry and its trustworthiness. And they celebrate new voices by giving them a platform and audience where they can easily contribute to the conversation. And each year they bring the brightest minds together for one of the best conference experiences in the industry.

More like this, please.

Epistemic closure

shut in red by Chris Blakeley, on Flickr
Photo by Chris Blakeley (creative commons)

Epistemic closure occurs when we only listen to ourselves and stop taking in new empirical information from outside sources that might challenge our views, our fundamental assumptions about what matters to users, or to our work in general.

This sort of closed-mindedness creates a gap in our knowledge that negatively impacts our brands and clients — we go for the shortcuts and quick wins to get clicks instead of doing the hard work of creating experiences that work. If we only listen to ourselves, then change and evolution becomes difficult because we’re no longer being challenged to learn. We quite literally don’t know what we don’t know because we’ve spent too long in the echo chamber.

I don’t think anyone would describe the SEO/Inbound community as one that doesn’t celebrate learning; of course we do! It’s a huge, foundational part of the way most of us enter the field and grow into the profession. But I think to keep moving forward, we need to be more inclusive and open the community even further to include new disciplines and viewpoints. And we need to challenge the community to produce higher-quality work that’s sourced from folks outside of our walls. We need new voices in our community in order to best tackle new issues that matter.

No offense to anyone, but when I see the conference panels composed of the same 20-year veterans of SEO debating what may or may not be blackhat links, PageRank sculpting with “nofollow”, Panda 3.8.11, or whatever for the umpty-umpteenth time, I tune out because of the lack of novelty and new, original thinking.

Oh, behave… Of course I’m not saying that they’re not smart or accomplished (they are!) or that their thinking is somehow flawed (it’s not!) or that their experience is irrelevant (no way!) or that I should be on the panel instead of them (I shouldn’t!)… it’s just that we’re talking to ourselves again.

That’s the problem we need to solve if we want to keep learning and evolving along with the rest of the world.

The absence of discussion

don't speak, I know what you're thinking by newneonunion, on Flickr
Photo by Jennifer Brandel (creative commons)

Anthony Pensabene brilliantly pointed out our lack of comments on quality writing earlier in the year. He did a great job of challenging our community to do better, providing several examples of posts that seemed to be challenging and well-loved, but that didn’t actually generate discussion.

Others have similarly cited that we’re incenting visitors to “Like” or “+1″ our content without actually consuming it. Or even if it is consumed, we’re driving those people away from commenting. Or even if people comment, those comments are largely empty praise, empty trolling, or simply void of value altogether; they certainly don’t move the conversation forward or create new knowledge and learning in their own light.

When writers challenge themselves to deliver brand new thinking on a complex topic, to synthesize something brand new from multiple and highly technical sources, I think that, as commenters, we need to meet them at their level. It’s worth everyone’s time because that’s how people learn, that’s how ideas get shared… and that’s how a community grows.

More recently, Rian Van Der Merwe challenged us to make the Internet better by improving the state of our discourse. I’m as guilty as anyone of avoiding The Bottom Half of the Internet, but I want to challenge myself to do better, dammit. Part of it (for me, at least) is getting over shyness and finding new ways to tackle introversion. But another part of it is encouraging discussion through active participation and re-thinking what sorts of actions that we incentivize our community members to take.

Ed Fry and the Inbound.org moderators are talking about this quite a bit; our goals aren’t focused around stories posted, shares, votes, etc. They’re centered around engaged use and learning, creating knowledge and driving discussions with literacy. How do we build the kind of community that values rich discussion in the way that Hacker News has achieved?

We’re working on it… but we need your help.

Valueless meetings and conferences

Conference crowd by supervillain, on Flickr
Photo by Jarkko Laine (creative commons)

Michael King’s excellent post gets at the heart of the tactics vs. strategy debate at conferences. To be direct: if you can get all the tactics that you need from the blog posts, then why would you ever pony up $1,500 to go to some conference and have someone shout those same tips and tools at you while you drink bad coffee? Not to mention spending another $1,000 for airfare and lodging? As a hard-core introvert (and not to mention as a cheapskate), it would be difficult for me to justify paying that much just to network; the ROI would simply be too low for me.

But I’d certainly pay that much — and much more, even — for strategy, for insight, for challenging new ideas that have the impact of changing the way I work forever. Because if you can change the way I work, then you’ll fundamentally change who I am.

Want to see what it looks like when that happens in real life? Check out Jesse James Garrett‘s amazing closing plenary from the 2009 IA Summit. This is what it looks like when you change who people are and how they work forever. Look at their faces; he’s disrupting the way they consider their work. He’s making them question themselves, something that they wouldn’t have done without his provocation. That’s the power of strategy. That’s the power of insight. And it’s worth paying for.

And if I can get that to happen for just $2,500 and less than one week’s worth of time? Hell, that’s a Cyber Monday bargain.

Folks like Peter Morville, Louis Rosenfeld, Samantha Starmer, Kristina Halvorson, Rand Fishkin, Scott Brinker, and a (very small) handful of others have done that to me, including the people at A List Apart. Part of who I am and how I work can be traced directly back to them. And that’s a good thing; I know that I’m standing on the shoulders of giants and I want to be transparent about that.

So I challenge myself to bring that kind of value when I speak. And I acknowledge that I have not been nearly as successful thus far as I’d like to be. But I’m trying. Hard. And I challenge you to do the same when you speak, when you write, when you comment on the writing of others, and when you interact with the people whom you care about most.

Which brings us to our conclusion.

It’s time to commit

Resolution is in your hand by jeff_golden, on Flickr
Photo by Jeff Golden (creative commons)

None of this has been entirely new thinking. Wil Reynolds pointed out similar issues in his groundbreaking talk on Real Company Shit (RCS) at MozCon this year. Tom Critchlow also hit on this theme at the same show while speaking extemporaneously (and thoughtfully) for over half an hour using only a single slide.

Bottom line: producing Top X lists isn’t going to be enough if you want to do RCS. Designing infographics about infographics isn’t going to get you speaking gigs or a book contract. Writing hundreds of articles to fill in the long tail of the online marketing keyword sector won’t establish your agency as an authority, nor will spinning another site’s content ever make you famous.

Moreover, my strong suspicion is that the traffic these tactics will win you is just as empty and low-qualified as the content itself.

Attacking someone who has the temerity to suggest that maybe, just maybe, guest-blogging has it limits as a strategy won’t change how the outside world sees SEO and Inbound marketing. Or how they perceive the people who do this work. And it certainly won’t increase our ranks of practitioners or make us feel any better about sharing our knowledge with others.

Nor will it create a strong, engaged community of practice like A List Apart that can engage in long-form conversations about emerging ideas; conversations that expand the territory of these practitioners’ disciplines; conversations that change people’s lives because they fundamentally change who people are.

You know… RCS.

We need to move beyond click-bait and link-bait if we’re going to change people’s minds about this industry and its practitioners. And, much as I love my metrics, we also need to move beyond the usual KPIs in order to measure real engagement and value. We need to be willing to sacrifice a short burst of attention to individuals in order to achieve sustainable, durable participation and conversation that includes everyone.

TL;DR? We can do better than this. And we must, if we want to continue doing what marketers have always done: change perceptions.

And I know that changing hearts and minds begins at home. Last week on Thanksgiving, I wrote about who I’m thankful for. And now I’m working on my new year’s resolutions. One of them will be to create valuable, original content and to bring value to all of my conversations, both online and off, with audiences large and small in order to build a better community.

I invite you to join me in this resolution right now by clicking the box below.

My New Year’s Resolution for 2013


This isn’t a real HTML form, of course. Clicking the box doesn’t submit your name to a database. Or even to my inbox. I don’t have click-tracking in place or anything to tell me whether anyone clicks it at all. So no one will know if you click the box.

Except for you. You’ll know. That’s the point.

              
     
     
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About Jonathon Colman

Jonathon Colman is a content strategist, SEO & Internet marketer, speaker, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. You can follow him on Twitter @jcolman, Google+, and LinkedIn. Feel free to contact him directly.
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82 Responses to We Can Do Better Than This

  1. Anthony Pensabene says:

    i enjoyed reading this and hope all our peers read (all the way through). i had a passionate conversation yesterday about the industry. i have similar concerns of those expressed above:

    - talking to ourselves: yep. how about talking to business people, communicating what we do in layman’s terms? that way, the industry gets more leads and is more exposed to a wider audience. I (assume) think we can help any business; no one doing RCS should be in want of leads. If so, it’s due to a lack of communication to the broader business world or the inability to do what your brand says it can.

    -i really dig the closing message. you’ll know if you checked it. we are in an industry where no one is held accountable. I don’t encourage witch hunts but working with ethical people who want to provide value. those who do shitty work (and they are very visible) actually take away from the industry, its future, and its brand (what do most business people think of SEO as is?)

    i think if more pride and respect is injected into the industry and respective deeds of practitioners, we’d help benefit the industry and all involved from the inside out.

  2. I really enjoyed this article and it is obvious you put in alot of time and effort. I think any industry feels that they are suffering from much low quality work. For example I used to work in the music industry and we all agreed that the music this days is plentiful and low quality. However, I also like that you are taking a stand on the issue against all of the inbound nonsense out there. Keep up the great work and I will keep reading

  3. Jonathon,
    I really, really enjoyed this post. As a “content creator,” I couldn’t agree more with your perspective. Interestingly, the posts I am most proud of tend to be longer and more complex, and as such receive little attention, whereas the more “stock” posts I write for the general reader or small-business owner who may be new to online marketing tend to get a lot of shares; this has naturally lead my colleagues to pressure me to write more of the latter. In 2013, we’re hoping to rectify this by having a few of my younger colleagues write the how to’s and tip sheets, giving me more time to write thoughtful content.

    I am concerned about two emerging trends that suggest the Internet will be awash with much more regurgitated content than it is already: the rise of brands (especially big brands with uber resources) as publishers, and the refinement of robo-content. In fact, I recently wrote a expounding on this idea: http://ow.ly/fA0Cs.
    Thanks again for your thoughtful perspective; I always enjoy your posts!

    Regards,
    Chris

  4. Great piece – this is the exact attitude I have towards all this SEO/marketing advice. There is a plethora of content for the beginner/grandma, but after a certain point, most content are just fluff.

    I think it comes down to passion and core values. A guy writing about “How to get 500 backlinks from article directories” doesn’t see the big picture, and isn’t passionate about anything. But when you see Rand Fishkin write a piece about “Relationship building is the next link building”, it’s because he’s passionate about making the web a better experience for users. He believes in his mission, and it shows through his work.

    • You have a valid point Henley, and it sheds light on what I think Jonathon is trying to say. Passion proceeds thoughtfulness. If you’re passionate about something, you’re going to give it your best.

      Often times people just look for the easiest way to the top and employ impish tactics. This certainly includes content.

      I think what Jonathon is trying to discourage is half-hearted content where the motive is: I’m only writing this, to stuff my keywords and add noise to a trending topic (with a catchy cliche title like Top X Ways To Do Y).

      It’s a challenge to do better in whatever content form you are using. Yes, audiences are varied and therefore looking for different types of content, but what shouldn’t be a variable is the quality.

  5. There’s a certain irony in a blog post arguing for more in-depth content concluding with a tl;dr and a zero-effort tickbox click (the very epitome of shallow online activism).

    Anyway, I think you’re right Jonathan, the digital marketing community (and please, in the spirit of favouring substance over artificial hype, let’s not call it ‘inbound marketing’, shall we?) needs to embrace the equivalent of long-form journalism.

    However, like some media outlets are just after quick page impressions (the Daily Mail comes to mind), most digital marketers aren’t after conveying a meaningful message – they’re after links/authority/recognition/whatever they believe will help them advance their careers or attain their short term goals.

    Embracing substance often entails a certain sacrifice of (short-term) ego, because it means giving something meaningful of yourself without gaining anything else in return (besides, perhaps, a sense of altruistic accomplishment). In the long term this form of sharing provides much greater benefits, but as a community we’re too focused on the Likes/Comments/Retweets/Upvotes our articles get, instead of giving anything of lasting value.

    How we change that mentality – especially as this form of vapid hype-chasing can actually be a positive in our fast-moving industry, as some major names in the industry are embodied proof of – is an entirely different discussion…

    • Agreed, Barry, and I think that’s a valid critique (both of me and the Daily Mail).

      I did the “TL;DR” at the end mostly as a way of making a rhetorical point and bringing the title back to mind. But I understand that it’s part of what incentivizes skimming. That said, the checkbox is supposed to be easy to click. I’m trying to make the point that the reader/clicker has to follow up with the energy and discipline… but only that person will ever know if they fulfill that commitment.

      Building community, engaging in long-form discussions that change people’s mind and move things forward is like a gift we give ourselves; we’re the only ones who know if we actually follow through with it or not.

      • Steve says:

        Personally I like the tick-box – and think it ties in well with the sentiment of this post – for two reasons:

        1) There’s a lot of scepticism towards tick-boxes: the fact that you’re taking people’s data, signing them up to a mailing list, potentially opting them into something, etc. So a tick-box that doesn’t do any of that is quite refreshing. And incidentally…

        2) It’s innovative. I’ve never known a tick-box that didn’t do anything before and therefore that makes it pointless anyway, but at least it’s different. And being different gets talked about, gets linked to, gets shared, gets traffic, etc.

        While I still have a lot of optimism for this industry, even as the worst of times (maybe that’s just my nature though), you’re right to point out that it has some issues regarding scepticism towards the unoriginality and for a lack of innovation. But I think we’re getting there. We just need a bit more time.

        Does that make any sense at all? Feels like I just brain-dumped on your blog. Sorry Jonathan!

  6. Iain says:

    I like this post. I like that it stays positive and proposes solutions and inspires further thought. I like that it doesn’t call anyone out or ridicule people who may very well be trying their hardest to do what they think is the right thing to do at that moment in time. I’m not so fond of the appreciation for Richard Falconer’s blog that, though absolutely humorous, also struck me as somewhat cruel.

    There is definitely a lot to think about here and I will need to read it a couple more times to get my own thoughts in some kind of order.

  7. Jonathan – Thank you for inspiring me.

    Our blog has fallen into a lot of the traps you described and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why/when it happened.

    I think editorial calenders have a lot to do with it. You read all of these blog posts about the importance of frequency in your posting schedule and it convinces you that 3-5 blog posts a week will lead to Google Nirvana.

    In practice, I think it has taken the human element out of our writing and hurt our goal of building a real eCommerce community.

    No more. It’s time for a change and we must hold our content to a higher standard. I just scheduled a meeting with our marketing team to discuss. Thanks for forcing me to admit that we have a problem :)

    I’ll leave you with a quote that I heard at a meetup last week which applies to this post and a lot of your content – “When you inspire someone, they will never forget you. Do you want to gain more recognition? Inspire more people.”

    • Hey, waitaminnit – I like your blog, Rick! I’ve been sending various posts around to my colleagues as examples of timeliness, relevancy, and willingness to bring in outside experts.

      Didn’t mean to make the case that it’s all long-form journalism or nothing; just that we need to add some diversity, balancing out those tactical posts and gimmicky features with deeper/strategic discussions.

      Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater; just challenge the assumptions you’re making. That’s all. :)

      • We can do better. Expect to see some great stuff from our blog in 2013.

        Also I have a favor to ask from you…Since this blog is getting so much traffic from your first 4 posts, we would LOVE to do a guest post for you!

        The title of the guest post will be: 10 Twitter Tips to Help Improve Your SEO!?!

        • LOL. Deal! But only if I can get a reciprocal link wheel from your blogging network of directories. :)

          • Jalpa Trivedi says:

            really a good deal, lol, love the way how u people working to bring in the changes;… i am stuck in finding the new ideas….but, after reading your blog… I am really motivated to give something best out of me…thanks Jonanthan…
            and, one more Jonanthan..I have read this post 3 times in order to sip in each and every information.. :)

  8. Thank you for writing this. As someone who considers herself a real “content” person, it’s a daily struggle – do you write what you think is valuable or do you write what you know will get shared/commented on. Because they’re not often the same posts, even if they should be.

    You’re right that we can do better – both as creators and consumers – and that we should.

  9. Max Minzer says:

    Challenging things around you and your own ideas is what helps you discover your true self and changes community around you.
    Challenge everything, including yourself.

    I need to improve some area of my online efforts and challenge myself in things I’m not good at. Always.

    I commit to bring value in ALL my conversations & efforts!

  10. Adreana says:

    Jonathan, there is a place I go for what you are selling and it is not the Internet. It is college. I mean community college courses, University extension courses or even online courses. I pay money to go to a structured setting where my focus is on the material, where I am accountable for showing my understanding of the material through assignments, tests and grades, and where I am surrounded by other people from various backgrounds and levels of experience who are interested in the material. When I am lucky (and that has been often) the instructor/teacher/professor is a professional in the field who also knows how to explain the material and invite students to think critically about the material. Even when the instructors are not great the textbooks are thoughtfully written and the student discussions open up the textbook reading. I’m not disappointed by the lack of quality content on the Internet because I never considered the Internet to be a substitution for structured, face-to-face (even online face-to-face) learning. As long as the Internet driven by people trying to make money at something, shortcuts will abound.

  11. I love meaty posts like this, and I’ve often wondered why we don’t see more of them in the SEO community. I think it mostly boils down to how much SEOs still think about content in a pre-Panda world. If you think about content as: 300 words, 1-2 target keywords, you don’t get quality meat like this. I think as that mindset fades in the coming years, we will see a move towards more * actually* quality content. But, who knows, this industry always surprises me!

  12. I have a real problem with this post, and I don’t aim to offend you, Jon. I’ve followed you on Twitter for a good while and I appreciate your contributions to that community and the digital marketing sphere as a whole. That said, it feels like your post is a holier-than-thou, hipster discourse on content marketing.

    My main issue stems from the fact that there are a litany of assumptions made here about the TYPE of content we’re writing, the AUDIENCE we’re after, and the MOTIVATION behind the content. All of the examples and suggestions given here all hide under the blanket of “content marketing” irrespective of context. A peer-reviewed journal for marketing PhD students is going to have content that is vastly different from Mashable, and that is not a bad thing.

    Long-form journalism is not the only acceptable publishing method. It’s certainly not the go-to model for things like entertainment magazines. Why? Because their audience doesn’t want that. That doesn’t make entertainment journalism an illegitimate field (though my personal hatred for it would say otherwise), it just means they’re publishing content appropriate for their users. Even if we limit the example to those interested in digital marketing, we STILL end up with wide swaths of readers that are aiming to get different things out of the content they choose to read.

    This post is basically saying that, regardless of our specific circumstances, we should be telling our audience what kind of content they want, rather than responding to usage trends and our own analytics.

    Some people only have a passing interest in marketing and might want a high-level look at a few tips for improving landing page optimization. How would a person like that react to a lengthy, peer-reviewed, “high-quality” whitepaper on the topic? They’d click back to the results to find one of those “top ten ways to…” articles that give them what they want. While that may seem appalling to you, it’s the reality of the thing.

    The fundamental flaw in this way of thinking is the same flaw that makes people want to force McDonalds to replace menu options with organic/vegetarian/whatever choices. It’s not that the options are objectionable (though, ick, vegan Big Mac?) it’s that those behind it are telling people who eat at McDonalds that they are making the wrong decision, and that they can’t be trusted to make the right choice, so it’s being made for them. Looking back on this example, it’s a bit extreme, but still apt for the discussion I think.

    Anyway, I got a little long-winded and a bit ranty, but hey, we’re encouraging discussion. :P

    tl:dr; Don’t make someone eat a 5-course meal when they only want a hamburger and fries.

    • Totally hear your points, Mitch, and thanks for sharing them here — I really appreciate this dissent! Definitely no offense taken. I can agree to a lot of what you have to say, but would challenge you with a few follow-up questions:

      1. How do you solve the problem of obfuscation? One post about “X Ways to Do Y” helps new people learn how to do it… But 100 posts about “X Ways to Do Y” hits up against the Tragedy of the Commons (everyone’s fighting over the bits of long-tail keyword traffic) and actually makes learning harder.

      2. How do you make sure that people learn what else is out there? I think that SEO/Inbound’s advancement and influence over other disciplines is slowed when people have trouble learning. Worse, still, I think most folks skip right over us when their perception of the industry is that it’s either all surface-level or filled with hacks and tricks.

      3. How do you improve the quality of discussion when the content is all tactical/how-to stuff? I think that folks need to be challenged with more complex thoughts than a bulleted list allows for. I think individuals grow (and through them, communities) by tackling those sorts of challenges.

      4. How do you improve the quality of conferences? Because as much as I love seeing all y’all in person? I want to fundamentally improve my work and my approach as a practitioner. Bullet points and how-to tactics may give me new skills, but not new insights.

      Again, I totally agree that long-form writing and peer-reviewed journals are just one kind of communication. It doesn’t have to be my way or the highway here. But I’d argue that we need some more diversity in our writing and community discussions.

      TL;DR: I just can’t believe that the intellectual prowess of the SEO/Inbound community tops out at “X Ways to Do Y”.

      • Hey Jon, here are a few of my thoughts on the points you brought up:

        1. I would argue that there really isn’t any obfuscation going on here, and that multiple, similar results actually aid in the learning process. Lemme ‘splain:

        - A generally accepted research practice is to include multiple sources in academic works. If I pop up a search result on “how to improve my SEO” and get 10 articles that share roughly 60% of the major points, I now have multiple sources confirming the validity of these points. I would rather have 50 “Top 10″ blog posts from distinct sources that confirm specifics of a practice than 10 in-depth, widely variant posts simply discussing the practice.

        - I don’t know about anyone else, but I use the “multiple close match” SERPs (like the infographic one you linked above) as a sign I got the search term right. If my SERP is TOO diverse, I feel like I’ve missed the point and my query has been too general.

        2. In this case, I think we’re talking about two fundamentally different audiences and types of traffic. In question one, you’re appealing to someone with a certain question searching for specific information (how to make a good infographic) and in #2 you’re into the community/industry enthusiast aspect of things. Someone who just wants to know how to spin up a nice infographic with some stats might not care at all about best practices or in-depth discussions, but someone who composes infographics at their job would be more inclined to do so.

        The real difference is that each type of content is accomplishing different things. The first is for reference, meant for quick consumption and high-traffic. The second is meant for industry insiders, who, if you pique their interest with some of the easily digestible “low-quality” content, may stick around on your site and see what else you put out. At this point the community has kicked in and your audience is now fundamentally different, allowing different types of content to be well-received and wholly consumed.

        3. Again, not all content is solely tactical/how-to’s. It’s overwhelmingly balanced in that direction, because of basic supply/demand theory. More people search for quick tips than in-depth discussion (thus the higher traffic/long tail pursuit), so naturally more content is produced to satisfy the greater demand.

        I agree that an oversaturation of quickly consumed content can be a negative thing, just like an oversaturation of long-form journalism and what you, as a person, deem “high-quality” content can be a bad thing. If you’re not serving your readers, you die out. It takes balance, here. The thing we’re battling on is epitomized here:

        I think that folks need to be challenged with more complex thoughts than a bulleted list allows for. I think individuals grow (and through them, communities) by tackling those sorts of challenges.
        (emphasis added)

        Opinions are not universally applicable. We cannot assign a “best” thing to someone we don’t know, in a situation we aren’t familiar with. The “SEO/digital marketing industry” is still littered with people at varying levels of experience and expertise. We can’t make a blanket statement here; it’s ultimately a disservice to the community.

        It’s the generalizations I take issue with. Sometimes long-form posts are great (for intimate, community-centric content) and sometimes short, easily digested posts are great (fish net for gaining traffic, filling the top of the funnel, widespread appeal, etc). We can’t say “we should focus more on long-form content because it’s better” because in a lot of cases, it won’t be.

        4. I can’t really speak much here, because I’ve attended an underwhelming number of industry conferences. So… just do it better, y’all. :P

        TL:DR; It doesn’t top out at “top x ways to do y”—it’s just more common because more people want it.

        • I’m seeing here and on Inbound how you rail against generalizations. That’s awesome and pure and I really admire that.

          But I went out of my way to cite awesome examples of tactical posts that did an amazing job of serving the how-to needs of their audience. Jon Cooper, Phil Nottingham, and Mike Pantoliano really delivered in their posts. Those are fantastic examples of this genre done right. I’d hate to see great content like that go away.

          But that’s not what I’m asking for. I’m saying that we’re over-relying on the form. And that leads to a lack of diversity in the content we consume as well as the learning that comes from consuming it. I’m not saying everyone needs to do long-form, peer-reviewed work — I’m saying that we, as a community, should value it more than we do, that’s all.

          We’ll have to agree to disagree on what this over-reliance means for the community. Sure, it’s my opinion — that’s why I wrote the post, because this is my blog. :)

  13. Janet says:

    Thank you for expressing so well why these issues are nagging at us.

    SEO has attracted brilliant talent – look at the complex tools that automate our work with a few keystrokes. That tendency to automate, however, is poorly applied to content. Even though Google’s updates should have ended the practice of lousy content, I sometimes feel that SEO is making the web a virtual garbage dump.

    You are prompting us to be responsible and accountable; for me, it’s a nudge to wake up and envision how to be more meaningful. Thanks!

  14. I definitely agree with the sentiment behind this post, but like Ian said above, I kind of shake my head at it as well. The SEO industry is really self obsessed. There is good and bad in every industry, there are also different tastes in every industry. The SEO industry is not unique in this. Some people like to read the financial times, others like to read the back pages of the local rag (in the UK that would be the Sun). Maybe some people like the really short tips, maybe they don’t have time to wake up and read 5 pages of epic strategy we “feel” they should love. Your readers are your consumers, so if you aren’t just writing because you like writing (if there is a business reason), then it really doesn’t matter if you feel they should like your content over others. That’s not how this works. Sure it’s great to lead and change their mind, but if that’s not happening, then it’s because not all people want the same thing.

    Most of what’s written about in the SEO industry is just repackaged ideas from people like Todd Malicoat, Aaron Wall, Rand Fishkin, Bruce Clay etc etc or it’s just ideas taken from other marketing industries. Even Will’s famous RCS presentation isn’t anything new, it’s just been packaged up really well (Will is an amazing speaker). There is nothing wrong with that, as those ideas, repackaged and given to a room full of people who haven’t seen them before still add huge amounts of value.

    I also don’t agree with Mike King (who I really respect) in that the SEO industry needs more Ted like talks on strategy. In my opinion it’s a lot easier to do a TedTalk with blue sky thinking vs delivering a practical case study of how you’ve used that thinking to create value for your customers. SEO conferences in general are lacking in any type of data to back up the big visions that are presented. Lot’s of people presenting these visions are not implementing the very things they are asking other’s to do. I talk with people who have been to this conferences and they come away full of ideas, but with no direction in terms of how to implementing them. Presenting a strategy based all around how Coke is adopting “Content Marketing” sounds great at a conference but has very little value for 90% of the people in that room.

    If we are talking about crappy content being retweeted + shared by a group of people who just retweet + share that content, then it’s easy to just avoid that. Don’t read their content, don’t follow them. Why is this an issue?. This also happens with great content. There is a particular group of marketers who are all friends and consistently retweet their own content, share it and let others know how awesome it is. There is nothing wrong with this, groups of people tend to form based on friendships and the content quality then becomes irrelevant.

    This is a great post to get people talking and I agree that the quality of content in the SEO industry is really poor. I tend to read content on CRO, Analytics, general marketing strategy. Guess what, there are examples of poor content in these as well. There isn’t as much as SEO’s tend to do things to death, oh content is the next big thing, let’s f*cking do that to death, and that is never going to change. 90% of the SEO industry is following, only 10% is really leading.

    (posted on inbound.org as well)

    • First of all, thanks for posting your comment to the Inbound thread. Like I mentioned in my post, we’re trying hard to build that into a self-sustaining community driven by conversation and literate discussion — your comment brings us a lot closer to that goal!

      I LOL’ed at your “f*cking do that to death” bit — that’s spot-on, in my experience. But I disagree with your take on conference talks and Mike’s post, only because I think it’s too easy to do the 15-minute “how-to” talk and much, much harder to take the Coca-Cola content marketing presentation and make it work for the room (and online). Lots of people can do the former and not so many can do the latter. Because it’s hard.

      I don’t think that doing a TED-style talk means that you have to talk about work at a large scale for large clients with large metrics for large $$$… I think it means that your strategy has to be large, which speaks to coming up with original insights that others have not yet discovered (or shared, if they have discovered them) and presenting them in an engaging way for your audience.

      My guess is that most speakers only have the right idea at the right time for the right audience to give a talk like this once or twice in their lives (full disclosure: I’ve never reached this level of presenting and the odds are against me getting there). The same way that most writers only have one or two really good books in them.

      But for the tiny minority who are capable of giving more, of performing at a higher level, of speaking to an audience in a way that transforms them? They sure as hell better not waste that talent and opportunity on a talk filled with LOLcats and Star Wars jokes.

      ‘Cause I’ll be pissed. :)

      • Thanks for the reply Jonathon. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said.

        Yes, it’s great to have people like Will in the industry who can give speeches that transform how people think about their strategy for the better. My point was, we don’t need a whole conferences filled with those kind of talks. As you mentioned, this is a particular talk given a couple of times during a lifetime. What I meant are those poor versions of a TedTalk where all that’s discussed is how things should be with no evidence to back it up.

        I’ll use a great example from a book I am reading at the moment (just because it’s on my mind). In “Start with Why” – Simon Sinek gives a simple concept he consistently repeats throughout the book (and his talk) backed up by examples that make it easy to digest. Concept + Real World Examples = Great content in my book.

        What I find is a lot of SEO presentations give lots of high level, strategic concepts with no evidence of how they have implemented these tactics or any clues about how others should do it.

        Just to be clear, I am not talking about Will’s talks and maybe TedTalk wasn’t the right term for me to use.

        I have to say though, my favorite presentation at a conference is usually the case study. Maybe I am just boring like that :)

  15. Matt A says:

    Wow – now that’s a post! Bookmarked to tear apart with Evernote later. While I think there are valuable lessons in many of the articles you dog, I understand the lack of value in many. I don’t like reading 10 articles to learn 1 new thing and neither should any of us.

    Now I’m going to hit all those links you suggested … but great post!

  16. Size doesn’t always matter. Posts and articles are like music compositions. The memorable songs uniquely mix themes, ornamentals, and emotions.

    So here we’re talking about our industry; for our clients maybe there is value in a long-tail targeted rehash if you already have the presence of mind. It’s possible (again, no rules to a composition). But in the deeply psychological world of marketing (for those SEOs who consider it marketing, it’s not all of us), thought pieces are really valuable. A certain kind of composition proves to leave more behind.

    It’s a problem where some of us crank out posts. It’s a problem where we curate things that are rehashed because a bigger SEOs name is on it (something Inbound.org has gotten better with) or because the headline was sexy. It’s also disrespectful of our time. I don’t have the time to read all day so I focus on those I trust. How many articles have you bailed out of already today? I’d like to learn from other unique viewpoints and experiences, so for our industry, considering Jon’s advice going forward would be a great thing for many like-minded writers/SEO/marketers.

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  18. At yet the irony is that the most brilliantly written content may get less interations, less social mentions and less links if it is challenging (the whole TL;DR you discussed) meaning that it does not rank well and does not get read at all.

    So which is more of a failure? Content that gets read, or at least skimmed, but is light or derivative, or content that has in-depth reasoning and analysis, but get far fewer readers?

    This will work for the big, established sites that will get high volumes of visitors already, but for smaller blogs, especially those in very competitive markets, it’s going to be really difficult to get noticed in all the noise. At least until search engines can come up with a way of truly identifying quality content – but I suspect we are a few year away from true AI yet.

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  20. Thank you Jonathon for sharing with us your point of view.
    It is indeed inspiring even though I would’ve liked to see one more appendix to the post:
    Passion

    Because I think that’s the main reason people create such good articles like this.
    Passion is the key to build something that resonates within the people that are reading it.
    Passion is the fundamental element for a written content to change the life of the reader.

    If you know how to write, what to say and have passion: You’re good to go.
    And I think that’s what we may miss in this era.
    As you already said: 10 Ways To Find Your Passion aren’t going to change the world if you don’t put passion in it.

    And I would also add Experience (life experience) as another key item.
    I understood some months ago that the biggest thing we can do is to share our unspoken experience.
    Not the one we read in the books, but the one we acquire through doing (and doing and doing) and then we took for granted.

    We may not even realize it because we don’t usually think about it, but that is our gift.
    And if we share it can actually teach something that has real value, real meaning and it is unique.

    I think this is what you just did.
    I am really grateful for that :) It was a while since I didn’t enjoy reading an article so long (and I can assure you I want to read them).

    So, again: thank you :)
    I just started following you also on twitter, hoping for other good posts to come.

    Regarding the question about the readership (made by Jonathan Elder ):
    I think titles like 10 Hacks To Get New Clients are needed to this world and I don’t think we can (or should) change that.
    Ogilvy said: If it doesn’t sell it isn’t creative.
    And I totally agree with him.
    Yet, we are also taking into consideration the opportunity to make better content, not different titles.
    It’s definitely possible to can make better content with a structure and a title that attracts our readership.

    BTW: I think I’m the only one without a personal website here.
    I should probably fix that…

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  22. Jonathan says:

    I liken this to a Politicians speech. Well crafted and promises a lot but then 4 years later things haven’t changed.

    No resolutions are going to change the quality of content out there because there’s a demand for both the good and the bad.

    Not only that, if there was no value in bashing out simple generic blog posts then SEO’s wouldn’t do it.

    It’s abit like low level link building tactics, a small few used to say “we can do better than this” but did the majority? Nope, because article spinning and directories worked and it was easy so everybody milked it. The only reason they stopped is because it didn’t work any longer. Due to something completely out of their control. Not by them personally making a resolution or ticking a box.

    The same for average, short form, generic content; unless it somehow stops working i.e. there’s no value in it for the author or the entire perception of people who consume it changes (unlikely as attention spans are clearly getting shorter) then it’s here to stay.

    • Jonathon says:

      I understand why you would feel that way, Jonathan, but in regards to creating change, I think a personal commitment has to come first before anything else. A resolution and simple action is a good way to get started on the path to changing your habit.

      And I’m not saying there’s a lack of value in short, easily digestible writing. I linked out to three great examples of tactical, how-to-do-X content that are fantastic efforts representing the best of the genre.

      I’d hate to see awesome content like that go away or disincentivize authors from creating it. But I think if all we focus on is tactics that are repeatedly endlessly over and over, and that’s all we create, then while it might provide short-term value, it causes long-term harm in terms of slowing our growth and learning.

      Of course it’s political. All content is political, as is strategy, as are communities of practice. And that’s OK. I want us to acknowledge the politics, be clear about our motivations, and act to grow our community’s knowledge and reputation instead of feeding ourselves junk food forever.

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  29. Benjash says:

    Traditional establishments have been focused on building brands and great content for the last 50 years. The only reason SEO exists is because the expertise and knowledge, delivered results.

    The rules of the game have changed. Not just in the case of Google changing into algorithms but the spread of social media has made getting attention online a whole of lot more democratic.

    The tips, tricks and hacks just don’t work as well as they used. There seems to be a convergence of traditional industries and the SEO industry.

    Are we now all publishers / bloggers / content creators / information architects who love excel?

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  34. Jack Brand says:

    I clicked the humble lil’ checkbox.

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  38. Tedel says:

    You know? You really drew some attention on this post. You even got published as one of the Top 10 by SEOMoz in the last issue; and despite the fact the Internet is full of ahem… note very good content, the fact is that there are very good articles out there you might like to take a look at.

    The first of the list would be Bob Hoffman’s The Ad Contrarian blog. He really writes great stuff, and he usually slaps online marketers hard in an hilarious manner.

    After him, I think it is worth mentioning this post on how to write for the web. It’s just incredible.

    The list can become certainly huge with other blog commenters, but my point is that not everything is lost. There are still wonderful articles on the Internet (I don’t even know who coined the word “content” —it says nothing.). I think it is just a matter of looking for new sources… (or maybe create a new community of just extremely-good articles out there)

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  46. Digi says:

    Great read, Jonathon. Very timely too. My boss just asked me to find new ways to write mentions and I stumbled upon your article, thanks to Jessica Lee’s article. I had a great time reading it. It’s a challenge for me as a writer to improve on my craft (if you can call it that). And because of this, I am now thinking of new techniques on how to find topics that will spur interest in not just myself but my target readers as well. So thanks! :)

  47. Wow. Seems wrong to read this post and not leave a comment. The problem is it’s so much easier and well, quicker to just tweet it out and leave everyone else to come read this post and get challenged.

    It’s hard to put yourself out there – especially when the kind of challenging content and thoughtful discussion that you describe could result in scorn and derision. Yes, another formulaic blog post could lead to the same, but frankly do you care if your heart and soul hasn’t gone into it?

    I completely agree that it’s a worthwhile endeavour, it’s just also a difficult one, but thanks for the wake up call to make more effort.

  48. Today I woke up thinking about this post, so I had to come back and read it one more time. I agree with Henley when he says that in the end it comes down to passion, and that’s exactly why I love reading your blog: you inspire passion for what we do, and you keep challenging us to do better.

    I know that we can do better than this, and I have a good feeling about 2013.

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  52. I have no idea about your skillsset or the exact topic of your blog (online marketing in genereal perhaps?), but your writing is brilliant and it’s clear to me, that you got your head and heart at the right place and I’ve only read the first 30 paragraphs of this post.

    ^that sounded like an “WOW – Awesome article – I’ve just bookmarked it” – But it’s not..

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  58. Bang! You’ve just earned yourself a follower/fan. Did we discuss link earning?

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