The real price of cheap content

by Tom Albrighton 22 November 2010 Digital and social, Popular, SEO

In an earlier post, I analysed Nublue’s survey of copywriting resources, arguing that freelance copywriters delivered a superior service to content mills – in the areas that really matter.

For me, the key criterion was quality of output – not speed, website design or even cost. In this post, I’d like to revisit the concept of quality copywriting and explain why the whole scope of the Nublue test was so misguided – and what it tells us about the way people see blogging and online content generally.

True value

The key problem with the Nublue survey was that it only reflected the perspective of the client, not the target audience.

So, you think your new blog post is a cracker. It was easy to order, it arrived quickly and it was cheap. That’s great! I’m really happy for you. But the true test of quality is how your content fares out there on the web, and what benefit it brings you as a result. Only when it’s realised business benefit can you truly say it was quality content. Otherwise, your assessment of quality is just a personal judgement.

It may be going cheap, but will it ever bring you golden eggs?

The quality of a blog post has three dimensions.

  • Commercial. What value will your post offer to customers? Will it help them make or research a purchase? Can it function as a landing page, guiding first-time visitors to the ‘business end’ of your site? And, whether they buy or not, will they form a positive impression?
  • Reputation. Is this post truly unique? Is it going to build up your authority, credibility or standing in your niche? Does it differentiate you from competitors? Is it something you’d want prospective employees, partners or investors to read – and judge you on?
  • Search and social. Is the post going to be commented, liked, tweeted and linked to? Is it going to be something you can push to social networks again and again, perhaps for many months? Is it going to get links and responses on other, reputable blogs?

If your posts aren’t valuable in these ways, why are you putting time, effort and cash into something that won’t bring you any benefit? Even if the content itself only costs a tenner, you still have to plan it, commission it, publish it, host it. Is it really worth it?

What’s the point?

‘Write me a post about IE9.’

‘Write me ten web pages about Irish whiskey.’

‘Rework this competitor’s content and make it unique so I can use it on my site.’

I get a lot of requests along these lines, and I always want to ask the same question: ‘Why?’

If it’s a blog post, what benefit will you really get from hastily written, internet-scraped, inaccurate or downright boring content? As noted above, no one will link to it, or like it, or comment on it, or (in all probability) even read it. It will just sit there, unloved and disregarded, making your blog look like a digital backwater. What’s more, there are hundreds of sites out there doing much the same thing; you’re aligning yourself with your competitors rather than differentiating. So what’s the point?

For SEO, the logic of cheap content is dubious at best. Even supposing you can get a ranking with your blatant spam (which gets harder by the day anyway), why should visitors stay on a site with average content? What impression will they form? How can such a site hope to convert traffic into sales?

For corporate web pages, the whole philosophy of ‘filling up’ the site with content as quickly or cheaply as possible is utterly misguided. As when buying a suit, a car or a meal, it’s about spending as much as you can afford to get the best possible result – scrimping and saving is just selling yourself short. And when you start thinking about hard performance factors like conversion rate, the idea of ‘cheap and cheerful’ makes even less sense.

The time factor is important too. While you spend months building a pointlessly derivative blog, or spamming the article sites with uninformative rubbish, your competitors are taking the quality route – building up such an advantage in terms of content, backlinks and SEO profile that you’ll simply never be able to overtake them. When success takes time, it’s best to start doing the right things right now.

Aim above adequacy

The depressing pursuit of ‘adequate content at best cost’, perfectly encapsulated by the Nublue exercise, misses the whole point of blogging – and online content creation in general.

Your aim should not be to create ‘me too’ content that achieves a passable standard of quality, but to make an exceptional and lasting mark on the internet with something that brings genuine, new value to the table.

But how do you get this wonderful stuff?

Choose better titles

Well, the first step is to stop posting dull, sheepishly topical briefs like ‘Review Internet Explorer 9’ to content mills and expecting anything good to come of it. A blog post can only be as good as the idea behind it.

Instead, try striking up a relationship with a copywriter who can come up with ideas that thousands of other people haven’t already covered. (Do I need to add that such a relationship can’t really be conducted via the web interface of a content mill?)

When you work with a professional writer regularly, they come to know your business very well. That puts them in the ideal position to consider how the expertise, knowledge and opinion you already have within your organisation could be turned into killer blog content.

What’s more, as you work together, you’ll become more alert and attuned to the blog ideas floating across your desk every day. Believe me, they’re there – but you won’t perceive them until you break free of the ‘get it done, get it cheap’ mindset.

Get better content

Having got a nice title together, make sure you honour it with some decent writing. Again, I don’t recommend going to a content mill, since you’ve got no control over who takes on your assignment, nor can you enter into a dialogue with them, nor is there any real mechanism for having your content revised or improved – which is the only path to quality.

Moreover, since they’re paid by the word, content-mill writers have zero incentive to add something extra in terms of research, snappy phrasing, humour, original opinion, different perspectives or anything else that might lift your post above the sea of mediocrity. So even the best writer, should you be lucky enough to get one, has no motivation to do the very things you want done.

It’s a crucial point, and one that content mills would rather their clients didn’t think about too deeply about. But there’s no way round it. The more time and effort goes into your post, the more likely it is to deliver lasting value to your business. There are no short cuts, no discounts, no quick and easy way. However, it does get easier the more you do it – provided you do it the right way in the first place.

Put quality over quantity

Finally, learn to put quality over quantity. Carefully considered content beats cheapo spam every time.

Some content mills crow over the fact that the typical freelance copywriter costs ‘ten times as much’ as their service, while glossing over the quality implications. For me, it’s very simple: while your cost per word is higher with a ‘real’ copywriter, your content is going to deliver far more benefit, however you measure it (backlinks, reputation, readership). Proper copywriters deliver far more bang for your buck.

Do they deliver ten times as much benefit, to justify their price? Well, as I’ve argued above, derivative and low-quality blog posts deliver little or no benefit at all, when you take all the factors into account. So a good blog post could be infinitely superior to a poor one.

To put it in the language of accounting, working with a copywriter makes content into an asset that delivers a return, rather than an overhead to be resented and minimised. Seen in this light, it’s easy to see why investing in it is worthwhile.

Start making sense

‘Best price’ offers, like the poor, will always be with us. In every sector, in every professional discipline, there will always be suppliers who opt for a value proposition based on the lowest price. And there will always be customers for them, too – people who see price as the overriding factor in every purchase, as well as those who lack the time or insight to analyse costs and benefits in a more balanced, reasoned way.

But when it comes to copywriting, there’s no getting away from it – the benefits from content-mill writing are small, and shrinking fast. That cheap content you’re buying could turn out to be very expensive indeed.

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  • Kes

    The amount of times i hear people say “Content is king” without a full appreciation of why content can be king is untrue.

    Content is only king if it’s good quality content that converts and/or attracts links. Content for contents sake is sometimes ok for spam projects but not if you’re looking to build your brand and long term results.

    And buying based on price is just foolish. You get what you pay for!

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  • Tom – I agree with everything you’re saying in principle but I still get several requests a month from pretty credible companies who want thousands of pages of content for extremely low rates. The question is does it work or not? And why are companies still using cheap chod if it doesn’t really work?

    I don’t want to undermine what you or I do – I think that the lovingly hand-crafted copywriting I produce is worth the money every time (and so do my clients). There are very compelling reasons why an experienced, professional copywriter is a valuable asset that have nothing to do with search results and businesses who don’t realise that are missing a trick.

    But – what I want is some really convincing evidence, case studies that show that good content really works and cheap content doesn’t, especially when it comes to large brands. I want a nuclear weapon that I can whop on the table and say “this is why you need to spend more on your content”. Actually it’s more specific than that, it’s about increasing the rate they pay per page of content, and to do that I have to quantify what is meant by quality… anyone who has read Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance will now be having a nervous breakdown.

    I wrote a blog post last week in which I described what’s going on at the moment as seeming like a battle between experienced freelance copywriters and the “factory farmed” content. We had one enquiry recently from a very very reputable premium brand who chose a copywriter (over us) who was charging less than they would have paid their cleaner. Intuitively that just seems plain wrong. But in practice companies are still out there trying to source content for $1 a page. Why? If it doesn’t work, why? Who are the people recommending this approach? Is there evidence out there to suggest that it does work?

    I recently missed out on another bid where we were charging a rate I felt was already slitting my own throat. However, with the volume they were suggesting even a tight margin would have been worthwhile. My justification for slashing margins was that actually what was required offered limited scope for creativity or even interpretation – perhaps there are some web pages where quality isn’t a primary concern, or where the brief is tight enough to allow a “production line” approach?

    Like you, I believe that quality is paramount and that cheap chod content doesn’t work – for all the reasons you say – but until we as copywriters can state definitively that cheap content affects your bottom line we’re missing that nuclear weapon.

  • We get similar requests every day, as well (for the copywriting side of our business). For the translation side of our business, the situation is even worse.

    Even customers that do put resources into their content often fail to understand that cut-rate translation immediately zaps any opportunity they may have had to leverage the strengths of the original version in the foreign-language versions.

    Does a cheap translator know anything about web vs. print copywriting? What about SEO? Does the translator bother to take a brief (or even know what one is) to find out about what the underlying marketing objectives of the content are? Does the translator take the time to ask who the main competitors are and survey their websites for positioning, messaging, and key words?

    Thanks for including some solid customer-centered arguments for why good content matters!

  • Thanks so much for this post. I will definitely share it. As a full-time professional writer, it’s infuriating to find that so many people devalue what I do and expect me to work for lower rates than I made right out of high school (a lot longer ago than I want to admit.) This is true despite the fact that I’m a magna cum laude college graduate and the author of 11 books. As a reader, it’s equally as infuriating to visit a website and find mindless copy ridden with errors and inaccuracies. I immediately distrust the site and leave, and I can’t believe I’m the only one who feels that way. Even Google’s recent whitepaper on SEO emphasized the importance of quality over quantity. I’ve actually had clients ask if I can write “not as good” for less money.

  • Ooo, this is a subject that is close to my heart — and it absolutely gets my blood boiling when people ask me to write a 20-page website for, say, £20.

    But, as Tom points out, those who understand the true value of good-quality copywriting should be in a much stronger position than their frugal competitors who run to content mills for ‘cheap’ copy.

    Superior copy will always run rings around ‘cheap’ copy. Which I guess is why experienced professional copywriters like us who charge decent living-wage fees often have to rewrite copy that has been produced through the content mills or ‘offshored’. Copy full of non-native verbiage that could offend rather than entice potential customers. Which, if you think about it, means that often ‘cheap’ copy turns out to be the most expensive of all.

    This is a lesson I learned for myself once upon a time before copy ‘sweatshops’:

    At the end of the day, it boils down to this:

    a) Hiring a ‘cheap’ copywriter is like playing Russian Roulette with your business. You might get lucky, but more often than not you’ll just end up throwing good money (however insignificant) after bad.

    b) Seasoned copywriters whose copy get results charge more (sometimes, considerably more) than those found lurking on ‘content mill’ websites, because they are worth it.

  • Quality content is extremely important, although it has to be within the framework in which it can be found.
    Effective writing will altermately determine whether an enquiry, sale or action will take place. Like you said the true value still goes beyond this..

  • ‘I’ve actually had clients ask if I can write “not as good” for less money.’ Priceless!

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  • Greaf article,
    Really interesting.

    I come at this from a slightly different angle as I’m not a copywriter but more as someone who sorts out the overall web strategy for companies.

    Now 99/100 this means a wbesite and I always try my hardest to involve a good copywriter as most clients (as you guys are probably much more aware) can’t write for toffee. Some clients seem to think that the ability to form words and copywriting are one and the same thing; hey ho!

    With websites there is *always* someone who can do it cheaper; I cannot throw a stick without hitting someone who says that can do this or that and (yippee!) do it at very low cost (sound familiar?). I’ve learnt that I just have to explain my costs, my pricing and the quality which goes into it. I’m not getting involved in a ”race to the bottom’ war on price – i try to tell people if that something sounds to good to be true…it usually is.

    Someone in a prev comment was looking for more hard evidence of hand crafted v content mills – am sure you could do your own tests here (ie get a budget copy company to write something). However, I’d also concentrate on Google – I think many of their recent Panda updates were specifically aimed at crap content? As someone else points out: content is not king – quality, relevant content is.

    Sorry for bleating on & for any typos – tricky on the iPhone


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  • To be precise, quality content is only of interest if the text is intended to be read. There are thousands of link-building sites whose only aim is to have “content”. They serve as feeder sites that link to the “money” sites. Only last week I read that what the content said is irrelevant as long as it had the right keyword density and – crucially – links. It turns out that Google has pulled the plug on that one by delisting large numbers of blog networks. It was a market that was created artificially and whose aspirations were purely quantity-driven.

    It still begs the question of why people bother to run out or even spin article of 300 words for $5 when there is a far more lucrative market out there.

  • @Michael

    Yes, it’s true that Google looks far less kindly on this sort of content these days. Unfortunately the SEOcean liner is slow to turn round – I don’t mean the professionals so much, but the amateurs, for whom a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I still get regular requests for prices on ‘content’ of exactly this type.

  • Completely agreed. Essentially your stamp should be on the blog post, and that’s what’s missing from these content mills. Instead of just aimlessly putting out content that no one is guaranteed to read, why not hire a real copywriter to put some thought into it, and position your business? When the alternative offers little to no benefit, this wins every time…