From a certain point of view, writers used to have it pretty good. The industry was tricky to break into, the means of production tightly controlled, and the end product profitable and finite. It was an exclusive club: most aspiring writers simply gave up and got a real job elsewhere.
Then the internet came along and ruined everything. It spawned Livejournal, Blogger.com and the Huffington Post. The floodgates opened. Written content was no longer a valuable commodity. Any Tom, Dick or Harry with an internet connection was suddenly a writer.
Many years later, at a technology conference in 2010, Google’s Eric Schmidt reeled off an amazing statistic: that the total volume of data produced from the dawn of human civilisation until 2003 (around five exabytes) was by then being produced every two days. Tom, Dick and Harry had been busy.
Two years down the line, the volume of data has grown even more significantly. YouTube accepts one hour of uploaded video footage every second, while Facebook is now estimated to house around 4 per cent of all the photos ever taken, with 250 million more uploaded every day.
The problem with all this information is that it needs to be sorted, indexed and searchable to be of any use to us. This is why search engines like Google and Bing exist. In the last few years, however, they have been doing a less–than–stellar job, not because their methods worsened, but because people worked out how to game the system.
The newly-invented industry of search engine optimisation (SEO) figured out ways to abuse search algorithms to bump websites up search rankings. In a world where a top result on Google is akin to a shop on Oxford Street, this industry became highly profitable.
SEO is an industry that exists in an regulatory vacuum, whose primary function is to misrepresent their clients in order to push them up search rankings. Broadly speaking, search engines measure the importance of a website by the number of links pointing towards it, so by creating vast swathes of incoming links SEO agencies can artificially inflate the importance of their client’s site.
Think of it as PR for the MMORPG generation: grinding hundreds of tiny victories until your website levels up.
The gaming of search algorithms became so widespread that large “content farm” companies were established, the most famous being Demand Media. These companies use software to generate articles based on popular search terms. Titles and keywords are dictated by machines; human writers fill in the blanks.
This year, Google has begun to fight back – aggressively. Its algorithms are getting better and better at identifying dodgy links generated by scurrilous SEO agencies. It is simultaneously disregarding them and punishing websites attempting to abuse the system.
Earlier this year, when Google deployed its “Penguin” update, millions of websites around the world were served warnings that their linking activity was suspicious. Many were also given penalties and told they would remain penalised until they cleaned up their act.
This caused a minor apocalypse in the SEO industry. Agencies realised the links they had built were now not only useless, but a huge hindrance to their clients’ websites. Link building “experts” had to frantically relearn their trade overnight. Content farms saw revenues nosedive.
So how the hell is this all helping writers? Well, Google has shifted its focus to favour good quality, original content and the discussion surrounding it, not just links. It is using “social signals”, meaning how many times content is shared on social media, to heavily influence search rankings.
Of course, SEO agencies, loath to simply admit defeat and play fair, are trying to abuse these signals too. Pointless Twitter bots that endlessly tweet links to their owners’ articles in search of a rankings bump are commonplace, but the smart guys know the jig is up.
A relatively trustworthy SEO consultant (I say “relatively” because, as I’ve already discussed, this is an industry built on deception) tells me he is focused almost exclusively on “what’s next”: “We know blog content works for now, but what will Google do next?
“The list of effective SEO strategies is shrinking. Google have already killed the bottom end of the industry because all they know how to do is build crap links.”
The result seems easy to predict. If Google wants quality content on reputable sites, then, like a dog chasing a bone, that’s what the world’s SEO agencies will have to give them. Boatloads of content, written by – depending on the quality of the agency – students in China for a dollar per article, decent copywriters, and in some cases even experienced journalists.
Since the Penguin update, even the lowliest SEO consultant is being forced to pay writers to produce content, and it’s all thanks to Google’s quiet war against a fly-by-night, unregulated and dishonest industry.
Having done more than any other company to decimate the writing industry of old, ironically, it is now Google providing more jobs for writers than at any other time in history.