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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

How to Spot Content Marketing in Search Results

Google results are less useful than ever. It’s my fault.

OK, not entirely. Until recently I was employed, full-time, by a software company where I wrote articles designed to rank highly in Google results, where they’d get millions of clicks.

More and more of your search results are like this. It’s called content marketing, and it’s somewhere between the editorial content you read on sites like this one and straight-up advertising. At its best, content marketing blends a certain amount of useful information with something that serves specific marketing aims. At its worst, content marketing is a way for marketers to get blatant sales pitches to rank highly in search results while also ruining your day.

You probably interact with search-based content marketing all the time, whether you realize it or not. Here’s how to identify it and think critically about it.

What Content Marketing Looks Like

For the most part, content marketing is designed to look the same as the editorial content you see on a blog or a mainstream publication’s website. The main difference is that it’s hosted on the website of a company.

For example, if you search for “the best Slack alternatives” a top result is on the blog of an otherwise obscure company that offers a Slack alternative you might want to open in Incognito mode. And wouldn’t you know it: ProofHub rates it own app as the top Slack alternative.

There’s nothing specifically dishonest about this—if you’re paying attention it’s very obvious that the list is hosted on ProofHub’s own website. But if you’re not paying attention—and most internet users are not—it’s easy to assume you’re looking at a neutral publication.

This kind of content marketing can push results from neutral publications farther down the search results—which is part of the point, and in some cases is a way to suppress criticism. Most people click the top result of a search without thinking, after all, so there’s a lot of incentive to control that spot.

Not all product marketing is this transparently self-serving or deceptive. I know many people in the industry work hard to make sure their information is transparent, reliable, and useful. But it’s still worth knowing the motivation behind what you’re reading.

Pay Attention to the Website You’re On

This might sound simple, but the easiest way to identify content marketing in search results is to notice what website you’re looking at—or, if you’re on a social network, whose account you’re looking at.

Content marketing, generally, lives on the website of the product that’s being sold. So if you Googled “the best lawn mowers” check to see whether you’re on the website or social media handle of a company that sells lawn mowers, or a lawn care service, or any closely related industry. It’s easy, while searching for a specific piece of information, to skim past the header of whatever website you’re looking at and just scroll to the actual article. You need to be mindful.

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Here are a few quick tips for spotting, and potentially avoiding, content marketing:

Notice the name of the website you’re reading. Most of us have a few websites we trust. Try to click those links before clicking anything else. Failing that, notice what website you’re looking at when you click.Pay attention to the website’s top bar. Blogs and media outlets generally don’t have links to a Pricing or Features page. If you see those things above an article, you’re probably looking at content marketing.If an article recommends a product, check whether you’re on that product’s website. This sounds obvious, but it isn’t. I can’t tell you how many times I, while working in product marketing, failed to do this—to think I’m reading a neutral review of a product only to realize I’m on their website.Check out the homepage of the site you’re on. Is this an editorial outlet or blog dedicated to providing information? Or is it a company that’s trying to sell you something? Either way, it’s good to know what you’re looking at. If you can’t tell, do a web search for the name of the website you’re looking at.

Again, this all sounds simple because it is. But on the modern internet, where we all click search results and Twitter links without thinking, it’s surprisingly easy to read a post on a company’s website without realizing that’s what you’re doing.

Why Content Marketing Exists

You might be wondering why this sort of stuff shows up in search engines at all. Why don’t companies simply run ads to promote their products? The short answer: Ads are expensive, and writers are not.

Google’s page-rank algorithm was built in the ’90s, when most content on the internet was put there by either hobbyists or academics. You could reasonably assume that information was uploaded by people who wanted to be helpful. Sure, there were some ads toward the top of search results, but we all learned to scroll past those and find the information we were looking for.

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Now things are a little more complicated. Plenty of companies still pay for ads, but many have discovered there are cheaper ways to get traffic. The search results below the ads attract just as many clicks as, if not more than, the ads at the top. In the marking industry, this is called an “organic” search result, which basically refers to any search result that isn’t an ad.

So companies now work hard to figure out what kinds of things Google is more likely to put high in results—an art called search engine optimization. This can, with the right strategy, be a much cheaper way to get traffic than paying for ads on Google or other websites.

There are all sorts of tricks companies can use to get these sorts of organic search results, and companies hire people much smarter than me to employ those tricks. Those experts hire writers exactly as smart as me to write articles that rank highly. I, personally, am proud of most the articles I wrote as a content marketer. I tried to write useful, entertaining content. That’s still what I try to do. There are a lot of content marketers who do the same thing.

The Reddit Workaround

It’s not everyone, though. Search results are harder and harder to wade through as bad actors get better and better at ranking highly. It’s frustrating.

People are catching on to this and are coming up with workarounds. One popular trick is to add the word “Reddit” to Google queries—for example, instead of typing “best vacuum cleaner” type “best vacuum cleaner Reddit.”

Reddit users, historically, are deeply hostile to anything resembling marketing. This means that interactions on the site are, on the whole, (possibly) more likely to be an authentic conversation between actual humans with opinions. The results you get won’t be organized, but personally I often find them a lot more useful. (Advance Publications, which owns WIRED publisher Condé Nast, is a Reddit shareholder.)

Knowledge Is Power

Understanding the economic motivation behind a piece of media can help you think critically about it. Product placement, for example, isn’t subtle anymore. Decades of TV characters endorsing products means viewers are aware of what’s happening. This doesn’t mean product placement isn’t effective—companies, after all, are still paying millions for their products to show up. But the awareness that product placement is happening helps everyone be just a little more critical. I’d like to see a similar level of awareness around content marketing.

I don’t point this out to make a moral judgment or to say that content marketing is bad. The website you’re looking at now contains advertising and appeals for you to subscribe to WIRED because every business ultimately needs to find a way to make money. It’s just useful to keep all such incentives in mind while consuming any kind of media, because that context matters.


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