Content is not a commodity

Good writing is hard, it takes skill, and time, and knowledge. It’s vastly more difficult — and absolutely worth it.

“Quantity has a quality all its own.” 

– Napoleon Bonaparte 

How many times have you clicked on a Google search result and found yourself reading something like this?

$keyword tips & tricks (plus fifteen surprising things you didn’t know about $keyword)

$keyword has been in the news lately, and no wonder why! People all over the world, from movie stars to garbage collectors, have tried $keyword and swear it changed their lives. Want to learn more about $keyword? Read on to find out.

What is $keyword? 

You may find yourself asking, “Wait, what is this $keyword anyway, and why should I care?” We’re here to tell you everything you need to know about $keyword. 

And on and on. The text, while cogent, is virtually free of actual information — it’s just packing material crammed around the targeted keyword phrase

I’m embarrassed to confess I’ve published pages that read exactly like this one. Years ago, my five-person team maintained over 200 SEO websites requiring new content monthly. Our domains, like all good SEO properties, targeted specific niches. For example, we didn’t have an office supplies website, or even a pens website — instead we owned:


… and so on. Each site had a specific focus, and required relevant and accurate content for our SEO goals. 

We tried hiring freelancers through Craigslist, Upwork, and similar sites. Freelancers had a 50% failure rate on the first assignment. We instituted a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy which guaranteed Ebola-level casualties among our freelancers. After two years, we had discovered 5 writers who always made deadlines (and three of them wrote engaging content). 

We tried hiring dedicated full-time copywriters in-house, who quickly collapsed under the workload and quit or transferred to another team. 

Finally, we discovered a solution — an a la carte content development service! Just enter your keyword phrase, word count, and desired quality of output (one through five stars), enter a credit card number, and hey presto!

2-star content example

Here’s the thing: all the content was TERRIBLE. I actually found myself lowering my eyelids to blur my vision while pushing new pages into production because I couldn’t stand to read the words we were publishing. My team felt the same way. When we changed tack and tried editing these articles into something useful, productivity plummeted. The dilemma’s horns:

  1. Do good work while blowing deadlines
  2. Meet deadlines by publishing semi-literate copy

We felt frustrated. Higher-ups wanted more and better articles and asked if we could launch and maintain two additional URLs each month. I bought my team lunch every day, instituted mandatory overtime and Saturday hours, stocked the fridge with energy drinks and beer, anything to keep us at our workstations, pushing content. 

Then I read something that changed my life.

social media strategy funnel
by Angie Schottmuller, via

A colleague sent me a link to an article on social media strategy written by marketing jedi Angie Schottmuller. Here’s what jumped out at me:

My brain exploded. 

It was like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indy and Sallah realize Belloq and his German friends messed up in the map room. 

I drifted over to the whiteboard in a euphoric daze, grabbed a marker, and started writing. I ended up with something like this:

I dragged my team over and talked them through my thoughts. “We’ve been so focused on publishing pages every month we’ve lost track of the most important thing. If our 200 new pages don’t make a single sale, we’ve met our team goal, sure, but we’ve failed the organization.”

They got it. So we sketched out a plan…

“Quality is more important than quantity.” 

-Aesop’s Fables 

We chose a website for our test, interviewed several writers and engaged one, offering 30x the rate of our semiliterate words-by-the-bushel service. I paid out of pocket because I didn’t want to waste time asking for permission or divert our existing copywriting budget. We waited six weeks, on tenterhooks, until the new SuperArticle finally came in. We published it immediately, high-fived, and went back to work. 

Six weeks later the numbers were in. Our new long awesome article:

  • Converted 12x better than the rest of the site
  • Brought in just under 50% of the site’s total traffic
  • Made more sales by itself than half of our SEO websites did

I gave my team Friday and Saturday off for the first time in months. On Monday, we presented our findings to my boss, along with a new plan. 

Not everything went smoothly. Turns out a 12x conversion rate improvement was on the high end of the range we saw, though we never saw lower than a 5x improvement. Our new writers were expensive and sometimes difficult to work with (more like managing people, as compared to adding content to your shopping cart and checking out). 

In hindsight, I felt smug — I’d proved that better writing makes more money (with numbers!). I felt like I’d scored one for the professional writers of the world. 

On the other hand, we’d wasted so much time with barely-sensible mass-produced content. I’d invested dozens of leisure hours testing Markov chains and synonym-insertion scripts in an utterly failed attempt to take writers out of the equation entirely. 

On the other other hand (and there can be so many hands on the Internet), we rediscovered an essential truth: good writing is hard, it takes skill, and time, and knowledge. It’s vastly more difficult — and absolutely worth it

Don’t get stuck in the commodity trap. Don’t confuse doing work (publishing pages) for results (making sales) like I did. Bring in an expert, stand back, and prepare to have your mind blown. 

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