SEO, Google and Re-Journalism

It’s an old truism of the web that content is king. By content, of course, we mean the textual narrative of a web site, including product descriptions, company information and, of course, articles. The fundamental assumption of the web, dating back to its inception, is that a web page is first and foremost an information vehicle similar to traditional publications such as newspapers, magazines and journals. Think for a moment how printed media metaphors dominate the vocabulary of the web (page, bookmark, etc.). Though content is now broadly defined to encompass video, audio and other digital media, from the perspective of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), textual content still plays the central role.

Textual content remains king because text-based search is how we access the web, and information is generally what we seek. This reality is deeply embedded in the formulae employed by those divinities that pass out search-result crowns, the Search Engines. The on-page component of Google’s Page Rank algorithm returns search results primarily based on a match between the search term and the textual content of the site. The more relevant content you have, the fresher the content is, and the degree to which the content coheres to the overall keyword identity of the site — the higher your site will rank in the search results. And as we all know, a high ranking results in significantly more traffic. And if you’re doing business on the web, more traffic equals more potential revenue.

Though I’m no guru in the SEO/SEM space, and I’m not up to date on all the latest intricacies, I have noticed a shift in emphasis in SEO practice from keyword optimization to content. Specifically articles. Part of the impetus of the shift, from what I can tell, is a series of adjustments Google has made in its Page Rank algorithm to account for the rise of blogging and to counter various “black hat” techniques for manipulating keyword searches. Google adjusted Page Rank to punish various black hat practices and (presumably) put relevant content back in the throne, but given the value of a top-ten search result, new ways to game the system have emerged. The most prevalent seems to be “re-journalism.”

Re-journalism is the practice of revising existing subject-matter articles and posting them on the web in the guise of fresh, original content. To the degree that Google gives search-result preference to sites with a lot of relevant content, sites with fresh content (new content posted frequently) and links to and from a site, re-journalism emphasizes a keyword focus, a sufficient rearrangement of the language and embedded links. It’s now possible to grab a few articles off the web, reshuffle the words, add a few of your own, do some linking to other sites, throw the content up on a WordPress template, and voilá — you can get some Google love.

The net result of this re-journalism frenzy is a lot of reshuffled, rehashed and reformulated content on the web. Much of it fails to plumb even the middle depths of the subjects it treats. Little of it has been fact-checked. Many “spun” articles contain and repeat errors from the original. Little of this content includes credit or citations to other authors.

The practice of re-journalism has inspired in me a range of reactions, which are probably rather typical of anyone who might think about the issues involved. Is it right? Is it wrong? Is it evil? Google’s informal motto, after all, is “Don’t be evil.” Have they spawned a final debasement of journalistic ethics? Or of artistic integrity — of originality, in short, of the value of original creative work?

The old English major in me is appalled by the loss of respect for authorship, for original content. Does the web really need more regurgitated, redundant content? The latent cultural critic in me tells me to relax, remember my literary theory courses and Roland Barthes — the idea of the “author” has been dead for years. And finally, the businessman in me watches with fascination as the web bubbles up another micro-industry.

Yes, re-journalism is simply one of web marketing’s new micro-industries. No matter how much you might view article rewriting as plagiarism of the most base kind, SEO mavens will insist that you miss the picture. Everyone in the business knows what the re-journalism game is about, and none of them think it’s about traditional journalism or the integrity of one’s original ideas. In fact, much of this content was created with the specific intent that it be spun, rehashed and republished by others.

Re-journalism is a business now. The freelance job boards are filled now with ads looking for article rewriters by the hundreds. There are ads at freelancer.com, for example, calling for rewriters who can do 10 or 20 articles a day. There’s an ad looking for 5,000 articles of 350 words in two months’ time. Each article pays around a dollar, it seems, and none of it needs to be completely original. Just original enough to boost a site on Google so that search visitors can find a product or service.

It’s a business, but so is selling academic papers to students. Is re-journalism ethical? Can Google stop it? Should it try?

A final question is whether the rise of re-journalism has completed a shift in the nature of the web that some say has been coming for some time. Is content still the king that search serves, or have the roles reversed? And if so, is that a good thing?

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