Quality is Still King

Some Kings Live Forever
Some Kings Live Forever

Recent reports of quality content’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The importance of quality content is going to increase, not decrease. If Answers.com (where I work) and Demand Media succeed, it will be because we succeeded in following Wikipedia’s model and creating high quality content that matches what users are looking for. What content does well in search engines? Content that generates incoming links, and that addresses the questions that users want answered.

The importance of becoming an authority site was my top conclusion from PubCon. Google values sites that other trusted sites link to. Google’s moves into personalized and social search are going to increase the social cues Google uses in determining what content users value.

The quality eulogies were kicked off by Michael Arrington, whose The End of Hand Crafted Content provocatively claimed that “Hand crafted content is dead. Long live fast food content.”

Great linkbait, made all the greater by how far off it is. Here are some points:

High Quality = High User Value

The best of the recent articles is Martin Bryant’s Audiences aren’t stupid, Quality’s not dead, which ends with this point:

“There’s an uncomfortable truth that ‘quality’ content producers need to bear in mind too. Sometimes content farms with their hyper-targeted approach provide exactly what an audience needs. Even if it’s cheap and rushed, an article telling you “How to make a breakfast nook out of a church pew” (for example) answers a specific question – one that people most quality outlets wouldn’t bother to answer in isolation.

Sometimes it’s the ‘low-quality’ content that fulfills an audience’s need. In that case, is it really low quality?”

Bryant’s point also answers the Forbes editor who warned students about Demand Media:

“They’re paying seasoned journalists five cents a word for their stories. They’re paying very skilled video photographers $2 per video. You’re not going to learn anything about a secret drone attack in Afghanistan on this site. You’re going to find stories like: What’s the best way to donate a coat in Saratoga Springs?

Forbes is a business & financial magazine. Are most of their stories about “a secret drone attack in Afghanistan?” And if readers are more interested in “What’s the best way to donate a coat in Saratoga Springs?” then which story provides more value to the user? It seems like Demand Media is doing exactly what Forbes is trying to do, provide quality content of interest to a commercial audience. But Demand Media may be doing it better.

At PubCon Google’s Matt Cutts encouraged web publishers to do keyword research to see what users are looking for, so that the publishers  can meet the demand. This is a good thing.

Quality: The Wikipedia Model

User generated content sites’ long term success is dependent on becoming a trusted authority. Back in 2004 I was asked to add Wikipedia’s content into Answers.com (then GuruNet). I resisted because Wikipedia was lower quality than the professionally published sources we were licensing. Studies now show Wikipedia quality to be on par with Britannica. When Chris Whitten approached us to purchase WikiAnswers I had a similar hesitation, because it was often lower quality than our licensed content. But like Wikipedia (though a few years behind), WikiAnswers quality improves every year. I’ll put a stake in the ground and say that within 12 months it will be considered the authority site for answers.

Quality Unique Voices Will Find Audiences

Ross Dawson and Doc Searls have also provided clarity in this debate.

Searls writes:

“I’ve been hand-crafting (actually just typing) my “content” for about twenty years now, and I haven’t been destroyed by a damn thing. I kinda don’t think Fast Food Content is going to shut down serious writers (no matter where and how they write) any more than McDonald’s killed the market for serious chefs.”

Searls later writes “what matters most is what each of us does better than anybody or anything else.”

Dawson expects “the rise of effective content reputation systems, that allow you to assess the likely quality of articles before you read them or even find them.” One way or another, I’m sure Google will figure something out here.

Quality and LinkBait

The Arrington post was classic linkbait, content that’s hand-crafted to maximize reaction and incoming links. While writing that post Arrington couldn’t possibly have believed the article’s premise, that hand crafted content is dead. The piece was a masterstroke of hand crafted content. BTW, it currently ranks 3rd (of 21 million) in Google for “hand crafted,” showing what good hand crafted content can do for you.

Linkbait has similar problems as TV news shows that interview extremists from both sides because that makes better television than interviewing moderates as they explain nuanced views.

A second theme ran through Arrington’s piece, that writers need to figure out a new disruptive way to win. Arrington wrote that daring innovators will thrive, and that we need to learn to deal with the changing models. But a thorough and intelligent exposition of that idea wouldn’t have generated much passion in the blogosphere. So Arrington went with the linkbait theme of “The End of Hand Crafted Content.”

If one were really worried about ways that people try to game the system to get poor quality content to rank, he’d focus more on this kind of Linkbait and less on Demand Media.

Conclusion: Quality Remains King

Quality content is more critical than ever to a content web site’s long term success, and the sites that want to be here for the long run are going to be paying more and more attention to it. They’ll become high quality, or die trying.