Content ruined the internet

When I was a kid, using the internet cost 5 marks per minute and you had to listen to bee-boo-beeb-bop for good 15 seconds before it was connected. Streaming 1 minute video took an hour - reason why streaming wasn’t a thing.

Publishing anything on the internet was so complicated you actually needed to know something about something. FTP, HTML, PHP. When I created my first website, I needed to ride a bike to the nearest library, 5km and another back, to see if it actually works. Most often, it didn’t. Took about 20 trips to make it work.

The upside of making things difficult is, you weed out a whole bunch of morons who just quit. Same reason cancelling your subscriptions is so damn complicated.

Putting your thoughts out there for everyone to read became easy. No barrier whatsoever. Naturally, everyone’s thoughts are out there. I never was convinced I want to read everyone’s thoughts though. 

At some point we started to call everything content. It used to be articles, blog posts, advertorials, interviews, songs, home videos, poems, novels, monologues. Internet-facing companies just collectively realized we need content. What kind of content? Whatever will do. 

Turns out being bored is miserable, and everyone is so desperately seeking to escape their misery, that whatever will get someone to read, watch, or listen it. If it makes someone to linger on your site for tiny bit longer, your site gets pushed up in search results, resulting in more lingering escapists. It doesn’t have to be good. It just has to exist.

Along with demand came supply. I know a guy who’s dog is a content producer. What’s funny is that the dog is not actually bad at it. A lot of humans are. 

Now I’m not picking on content producers, even the bad ones. They aren’t the problem. Problem is your widget-selling company who seeks to outsource their widget content producing.

To come up with something interesting to say, one should belong into one of the following categories.

  1. An excellent writer, who can - through research - come up with something interesting.
  2. An expert, who already has something interesting, and just needs to write about it.

People from these categories are expensive. Excellent writer spending days on one piece is going to be out of reach, price-wise, for most internet businesses. There are experts in most companies, however. It’d be extraordinary to have a business without anyone who knows anything about their offering. Experts will have plenty of things to do other than write. Alternative cost of having an expert spend their time producing content is high.

I recently saw a demo of AI-powered content auto-generator. Computer writing articles, in other words. (This demo prompted me to write this complaint of a blog post.)

Articles I was shown where in my native Finnish, language that is notoriously difficult for AI. Google Translate has been translating Finnish for 15 or so years, and only within the past 2 years results have been even mediocre. I got to read autogenerated and human-written pieces about similar topics, side by side. Especially for articles full of quantifiable information, they were indistinguishable. In developer’s opinion, they were indistinguishable because of the excellent quality of his programming. But if your content is so meaningless a dumb box can do the same, you shouldn’t be producing content.

The way most auto-generators work, is they don’t actually write anything. They just add fat on meat. Generator is given a ”seed”, factual information, and it just adds filling. All information except science and love can be conveyed in 300 words, but most articles are 1000 words. Rest is meaningless nonsense. Auto-generator fills that 700 words with fluff. I doubt a computer can dream up a Harlequin novel anytime soon, but it sure can write sports news and product reviews.

Now my company is in the business of developing content-heavy websites that rely almost solely on SEO traffic. Are we guilty of everything I accuse others? Of course. We must have millions of words of content on our websites. Not every single word is going to be a golden nugget of information. We do keep our standards high, try our best to provide useful, meaningful and accurate information. It is expensive and sometimes frustrating. Figuring out what users want and how to deliver it isn’t always so simple. 

Despite above, modern SEO, especially in competitive niches, is just copying others and hoping it works. If competitors have 30 pages, each 5000 words of content, you’ll have to have at least the same - doesn’t really matter if you have 5000 words to say.