Great Content Does Not Exist

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We get it. If you read enough posts or watch enough webmaster videos, you’ll soon learn that that key to any marketing success online is to create and promote remarkable content.

Ideally, “great content” is what Google and other search engines would like to use as the most significant factor in their algorithm. If you search for [red widgets], the greatest page on the web about [red widgets] should be the very first result that you see.

While that is all roses in theory, putting that into action is a huge problem.

While the term “great content” sounds cool, at the end of the day what does it actually mean?

What separates regular old content from great content? Ask 100 people and you might get 100 different answers. It is an entirely subjective way to evaluate a web page. Spend a few hours on Twitter or marketing communities online and you’ll see that even the smartest marketers can’t agree on what great content looks like either.

If the human mind can’t quantify great content, can we expect machines to? Can an algorithm identify great content over regular content?

What Search Engines Can Decipher

Since an algorithm can’t yet decipher and fully grasp the greatness and meaning of a group of words, let’s start by looking at some hard 1s and 0s that an algorithm can compute into something useful when looking at a web page:

Word count

Does great content need to reach a certain word count? In a vacuum, the answer is no. But the trick with word count (and all measurable quantities) is does it somehow relate or hold a correlation with great content? I’ve read longform pieces that were brilliant. I’ve also read posts that were under a few hundred words that I’ve bookmarked for life.

Social shares

Does great content typically get shared more than bad content? I would say yes. However, social sharing can be a tricky beast to measure as it is so easy to manipulate. Much like how all links aren’t created equal, most social shares are probably worthless in the grand scheme of things and with some studies showing that over 40% of all Twitter accounts aren’t human, how much stock can we place into the number of social shares on a given web page?

A better way of looking at social shares is the number of shares done by a known influencer. I think Klout is tremendously stupid, but a better version of Klout could be used to quantify the overall influence of a particular social media account. If you only look at what accounts over a certain threshold are sharing a certain URL then you might have something, but it is tricky for search engines to easily get all of that data.

Author

Do certain authors tend to produce great content more than others? I’d suggest yes. While there hasn’t been a ton of evidence to suggest that Google is making “author rank” a hard factor in the algorithm, it does make sense when you look at a few specific examples.

Say Tom Author is a contributing writer to The New York Times and Wired. He’s got a history of writing several new articles a week on each of those sites and Google knows that every article he writes tends to do really well on Google+. His rel=author tag next shows up on a brand new site (his personal blog) that doesn’t have a lot of inbound links or authority yet. Shouldn’t that page deserve a boost in the search engines based off of his byline? I say that it would. Part of the problem with relying on this is that it places too much emphasis on Google+. If you venture out of the Internet marketing and technology realm, you’ll see that Google+ isn’t exactly flourishing and not too many websites are actually implementing authorship markup.

Backlinks

Does great content earn more backlinks than poor content? I would answer this one a resounding yes. Can you manipulate the algorithm a bit by building backlinks into crappy content? Of course. But Google’s link algorithms should be plenty advanced enough to know the difference between a blog post with 10 linking root domains from article sites and blog comments and 100 linking root domains from well-known, mature blogs and news sites.

Despite a number of new factors in great content (social shares & authorship), backlinks are still the most accurate way to determine how “great” a particular piece of content is. If I had to only choose one factor when looking at an isolated list of web pages, I would always pick the links.

Differentiating Content

Now that we have a list of a few hard numbers that we can use to quantify content, let’s take a look at what a few specific examples look like and how hard it is to differentiate one piece of content from another:

Content Word Count Linking Domains (ahrefs) Social Shares G+ Author Circles
A 440 387 7,176 511
B 79 19 1,049 No author
C 386 82 5,000 No author
D 1,122 266 1 No author
E 6,798 178 391 No author


A: http://justinjackson.ca/words.html
B: http://mode.github.io/blog/2014-01-16-football-hometowns/index.html
C: http://www.wired.com/design/2013/06/infographic-this-detailed-map-shows-every-river-in-the-united-states/
D: http://blogcacciaitalia.altervista.org/blog/106-buy-gamma-blue-11s-online/
E: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jarom%C3%ADr_J%C3%A1gr

Each of these web pages could be deemed great based on how you approach the great content dilemma. Here’s what we’re looking at, respectively: a viral blog post, an interactive map, an infographic, a pharma page with spun content and a Wikipedia article.

Each metric varies wildly. Example D, your run-of-the-mill spun article, is attempting to engineer great content by spinning together a large number of words and blasting the page with links. Other than the social shares aspect, it mostly passes the sniff test when you just look at these numbers.

Something else that I thought was curious was that only one page featured Google authorship markup. The sample size we’re looking at is extremely small, but it’s important to remember that the vast majority of the web hasn’t even heard of rel=author at this point.

Looking Through the Eyes of Google

So what can we learn from this extremely small and overly simplified chart showing the numbers behind great content?

Great content isn’t something that you can put a formula behind and it can’t be quantified. There might be a correlation between content that is “great” and how many links it earns, but that doesn’t make every piece of great content a link earning machine or every page with 100+ linking root domains great.

Moreover, does the much-ballyhooed great content that we’re supposed to be creating even exist? Or is the web really just made up of a bunch of different web pages that look totally different from one another based on how you try to evaluate them?

Much like trying to identify who is an elite quarterback in the NFL or what movies belong in a Top 10 list, defining great content through words or numbers is mostly a wasted effort. Telling your clients or peers to focus on “creating great content” is like telling a painter to just “paint something great.” It means nothing.

Looking at content from Google’s perspective — stripping out as much subjectivity as possible — is a good reminder that there aren’t any rules or best practices when it comes to building content that earns links and gets shared online.

All you have to figure out is how to build it.