Ugly Business

In 2011, I’ve finally embraced the rule that less is more. Unfortunately, that’s a bit of a challenge for my day job.


As a doctoral student, it’s natural to be verbose when your 80,000 word target seems a long way off. Now that this pressure has relaxed, I’ve realised the pleasure in shedding words.

For a trip to Geneva in October, I compressed a 25,000 word into a 5,000 word conference paper. The extract here on Upon Appleton House represented a 40% trim on the original and read much better for it. I’ve learnt to edit – and not before time.

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.

The mechanaut

Among the polarising forces is my current day job, a large part of which is to churn out SEO news content.

It’s not all lost hope. Since replacing a mass-content agency, Adfero, I’ve made some key changes.

Some are rudimentary, such as adding integrated calls-to-action. That was a shocking omission that needed rectifying.

Some are more ideological, such as making material more relevant and less mercantile. It’s important to 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, etc? Popularity equals authority equals trust.

There are too many established competitors now to make inroads without expertise, personality, and credentials. Bulk agency content isn’t geared towards that.

Quality news writing is surprisingly difficult. We’re told that ‘practice makes perfect’, but if you practise being crap at something, you might well become expertly crap at it. Writing falls into this category.

The copywriter

Recently, I was tasked with sorting out the site text on certain high-profile landing pages. My first move was to trim 1,100 words down to 400 and turn a rather tacky gimmick into an FAQ and a Glossary.

‘Much better’, thinks I. ‘Not so’, thinks the boss. He’s more concerned about SEO losses that may result from less deadweight text. I’m now having to build it all back up again.

Looking at competitors, Moneysupermarket’s equivalent page has 350 words, while a site of equivalent market share to ours (but better Google rankings) has about 1,200 words. It’s painful reading and not pretty, but it does a job.

I see why you would want to emulate close rivals, but word count alone is clearly inconclusive. It’s a crying shame that we’ve come to believe in excess just for the sheer hell of it.

I’m just not giving up on the quality principle. I’m better than a hack, as I chip away at less than half the daily rate I’ve worked at before for smaller sites. But it’s an ongoing challenge. SEO is currently an ugly sport, especially in the heavily competitive market for financial products. And isn’t it always messy, getting to the top?

The sites that really earn their keep – excluding those with an endless budget for Google – are those with content masters and excellent whitewash, hiding all the signs

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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