Ugly Business

[Mercifully not what it may sound like, though the temptation is there].


There’s a real internal challenge in play. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the art of quality writing. Some lucky souls can churn out thousands of quality words every day, but most of us mere mortals will always struggle with that.

I want my own page to represent a benchmark for thoughtful writing. If it takes a week or a month to make the right statement, then so be it. After all, if you’re hoping to make £150+ per day as a copywriter, the very least you can aim for is to showcase ‘quality’.

In 2011, I’ve finally embraced the rule that less is more. As a doctoral student, it’s natural for verbosity to take over while the 80,000 word target still seems distant. Pages – thousands of words – achieve nothing. Now that this pressure has relaxed, I’ve realised the pleasure in shedding words.

A trip to Geneva in October saw a 25,000 word chapter compressed into a 5,000 word presentation. It wasn’t a perfect transition by any means – over condensing is a flaw too – but it showed every scrap of excess. The extract on Upon Appleton House here represented a 40% trim on the draft, and read much better for it. I’ve learnt to edit – and not before time. There’s a pleasure in tighter, sharper, richer writing.

The Mechanical Writer

However, there are polarising forces at bay. A large part of my current job is to churn out SEO news content, and it’s tough to match my principles with the volume required.

Since replacing an agency, I’ve made some changes. Some are rudimentary. No integrated call-to-action, for example, was a shocking omission that needed rectifying. Some are more ideological. Making the material more relevant and less mercantile has been important. I’ve got enough experience now to understand the appeal to consumer behaviour.

Cold hard links are not going to sell credit cards. Everyone who applies for a card on our site, I imagine, is thinking in the back of their heads:

Why am I not doing this on Moneysupermarket / Meerkat / GoCompare / [ad nauseum]?

Volume-By-Numbers = Authority = Trust.

There are too many established competitors now to expect to make inroads without having the aura of expertise about the place: faces; warmth; confidence; reassurance. Bulk agency content isn’t geared towards that.

Quality news writing is surprisingly difficult. Journalism is an underestimated skill that warrants training and benefits from years of practice. It’s unusual grinding out writing every day, and news doesn’t suit my natural patterns. The finance blogs, though hidden away and little read, are a much better outlet, and offer some opportunity for creativity.

I grimace about the quality generally, though. On that score, I’m a £9 p/h hack, and I know it. An improvement on Adfero, but that’s hardly a compliment.

One of the oldest sayings in the book is ‘practice makes perfect’. But perfect doesn’t always mean good. We can become perfect at doing something badly, and writing falls right into this category. We may not wish to perfect the skill of writing trash, but that may inadvertently be our practice. I’d prefer to miss that boat.

The Copywriter

Recently, I’ve been tasked with sorting out the site text on certain high-profile landing pages. Perfect! First move: I trimmed 1,100 words down to 400, and turned a rather tacky gimmick into an FAQ and a Glossary.

‘Much better’, thinks I. ‘Not so’, thinks the boss. Concerns about how SEO may or may not penalise the page for being without its deadweight text means that I’m now having to build the text back up again.

Looking at competitors, Moneysupermarket’s equivalent page has only 350 words, while a site of roughly the same market share but (annoyingly) better Google rankings, has about 1,200 words. On that example alone, word count is inconclusive. If anything, succinct wins the day.

But the overriding prerogative is that it’s better to flood with words and plump for SEO benefits rather than having a slick, accessibile and readable page. It’s a crying shame that we’ve come to believe in excess just for the sheer hell of it.

Our competitor’s page makes painful reading, and it’s not pretty to look at, but it’s stolen a march on ours (before my changes were implemented) and we need to get that back.

I’m not giving up on the quality principle, though. I need a page plan that combines aesthetic value with volume and concision. And I think I’ve got it.

With that, I realise that I’m not a hack; I’m a serious player in this game, as I chip away currently at less than half the daily rate I’ve worked at before for smaller sites and lesser impact. Make inroads here, on pages that have had three million hits, and words might yet bring me a living.

But it’s an ongoing challenge, especially for a quality-driven individual. SEO is an ugly, destitute sport, especially in the heavily competitive market for financial products. The mechanics of an optimisation system that would frighten us into smearing shit over the walls just to cover more white space shows the degree of filth and trickery at work. And isn’t it always messy, getting to the top?

The sites that really earn their keep – other than those with an endless pot of gold for Google – are those with content masters and excellent whitewash, hiding all the signs. I’d prefer to catch that boat.

(Says the man now many miles from the sea, and terrible at fishing.)


2 thoughts on “Ugly Business

  1. Call me crazy, but keyword stuffing went out of fashion with the fax machine and the power lunch, it’s so old hat now it makes top hats look positively contemporary. You know it, I know it, your boss needs to know it.

    Search engines care more about who’s linking to the page and who’s reading it than they do about what’s on it. Quality articles attract quality links and that’s what gets a site noticed — by search engines _and_ by people.

    The key stats here are bounce rate and time spent on the page. If 90% of people are bouncing off the site and only 1% are reading for more than 30 seconds, you know you’ve got a problem, because the chances are the site isn’t converting.

    What about producing a mix of articles / pages, adding goals to Google Analytics, and tracking to see what sort of page is most likely to lead to a conversion? Your boss can’t argue with the science… get out there and prove him wrong 🙂

    1. Thanks Al. It was really good to speak about this. I backtracked a little on my initial prognosis. Our Google ranking was low, and keyword density is one of the few immediate measures available (to prevent it slipping further if nothing else). I can’t help wondering if Google controls its ranking system like a UMS (like A-Level marking); that would make sense to me.

      The problem is that it’s very difficult for this site to get quality inbound links. There are enough competitors out doing exactly the same thing, and it’s just a trail of trash, as far as I see it. The site doesn’t currently handle the kind of data that could generate exclusives, and it’s likely to be a while before the new blogging style activity gets noticed. Anyhow, I’ve identified the kind of content that attracts organic traffic. I’ll continue to pursue that, but more time will be going towards different material.

      It’s just fiendishly difficult to make an impression when it comes to this kind of aggressive marketplace. As much as anything, I’m relying on word of mouth. Anyone wants a financial product, use our site. The more money that flows through GoCompare and Meerkatville, the more horrendous ads we’ll all have to endure…

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