Random Acts of Content

by on April 21, 2011 | posted in Linkable Asset Creation

The internet has infantilized content. Before, content was extremely hard to create in any form, as it would take a lifetime to build something that people could consume. Now it only takes small blips in time to throw something consumable out in the ether for an audience to chew on. That’s a great thing, but it can also blind us to the accomplishment and amazement of what content formerly was.

In the physical world, it is almost impossible to spend a moment of your day without being touched by a piece of “content” that took a lifetime to create.

I wake up in an apartment building that took years to build, on the backs and equity of someone and something that was acquired over decades. I brush my teeth with a toothbrush and toothpaste that was concocted in a lab over years, manufactured in a building that likely took hundreds of people to construct, and marketed by a team that compiled expertise tirelessly in a classroom and through decades of applying theory to practice. I tie the shoelaces of my Nikes, whose arrival at my doorstep was simplified by a beautifully weaved supply-chain management system spread over the globe, constructed on the sweat equity of thousands. I take an elevator whose implementation is the construct of an architect who molded usability, aesthetic beauty and efficiency over decades so I can use it for five seconds and not think twice. I ride in my car to work with fuel and compact discs whose construction was centuries in the making.  I read a book whose synthesis is a combination of a life of knowledge acquisition and priceless lessons learned.

I live in Seattle Washington. In the big cities especially, it is impossible to not walk out and be touched by something that took decades to construct, whether literally or figuratively. The people responsible for each little piece of your physical world spent their lifetimes so you could brush those teeth, ride that car, have that bed, turn the light on in your room, or enjoy the aroma of a well-constructed glass of wine.

This is content before there was content. This is great content before “great content” was ever said.

Any time I need to be inspired by others, to build “great content” or anything at all that can do something good, all I have to do is think about the physical content world, and how much great, slaved-over accomplishment there is, there. How inspiring it is that thousands of hours were poured into the ability for me to sit here, now, in this city, and type this on a keyboard to send something instantly to you.

When you start seeing the physical world in terms of “content” as we do now in the electronic one, it’s easier to be inspired to do more of that epic-level content generation ourselves. When that happens, it makes it easier to maybe write one more sentence or spend one more minute building something online in hopes that yeah, maybe, it’s possible that we can someday replicate the incredible impact of that awe-inspiring physical content, too.

For more quick-change knowledge, check out my most recent column on Search Engine Land, Improve Your Link Prospecting With Reductive Queries.

  • Jason

    Reading this post honestly makes me feel like getting out of SEO.

    • Ross Hudgens

      Ouch, well, I could see that reaction. That just shows you don’t really love what you do (maybe?), so perhaps that’s a good thing.

      • Jason

        I wouldn’t say that, actually. It’s really that I agree with a lot of what you wrote. I’m a grown up punk rock kid who wound up in marketing; what actually excites me–more than selling things–is building great things, and making brands, experiences, products, services that actually are truly great. However, this takes a lot of people–something that you accurately point out above–and many of these people are looking at their part of the puzzle at such a micro-level that they don’t always get to appreciate the big picture. I don’t necessarily love SEO, per se, because SEO itself is relatively limited. What I do love is that SEO, to me, is the discipline where you get to touch the most different types of people within an organization, and have the most impact in bits and pieces all over the place, simply because “SEO” encompasses so many things from product to content/messaging to marketing, tech, etc. I legitimately love that.

        What I don’t love is the cheapening of “content” on the web, or what it means. I think this has only really gotten terrible over the last year or so, where the solution to every problem is “we need to create content around X keyword to rank!” And, it’s increasingly infrequent that I see that people are interested in actually building great content that educates, informs, entertains, etc., and instead there’s a desire to just write 300 words of gibberish to “rank” and… do what, exactly? Convince relatively stupid people to click and hopefully 2% of them will buy your product? Your product which was probably mediocre in the first place, hence the need to create mediocre content in support of it? An ecommerce-focused content farm is not why I love doing what I do.

        I am probably just in a cranky mood, so don’t mind me. The point is that I agree with your post wholeheartedly and I think there’s a growing perception–perhaps less with SEOs themselves than with the people who hire them–that this is what SEO should be, and that makes me sad.

        • http://twitter.com/evinmspence Kevin

          That’s what I like about SEO. Build a site. Write great content. Drive traffic. You can build and run a successful business all by yourself.

          In how many industries can you do that?

          • Ross Hudgens

            I actually somewhat (unfortunately) agree totally with Jason. It’s possible to do it the right way as you suggest, Kevin, but the problem is that normally requires being an entrepreneur/having tons of leeway. The standard SEO job is to create the “cheapened” content that doesn’t really make an impact and boosts up a mediocre product.

            The idealized version that Jason talks about is what we should all aim to get to – and it’s something I do as well. But I also know that trudging through the “cheapened” part is often required to get that down.

          • http://twitter.com/kevinmspence Kevin

            I totally understand where Jason is coming from. I’ve been there, and the entire SEO process does have a tendency to become disheartening after awhile. Even if the product/site you’re promoting is really great and helps people out in a real and genuine way, at a certain point you become existential about the whole thing.

            *Why am I doing this? Is there light at the end of this grind? What impact am I having on other people? Is this meaningful? *

            We all want our actions to have meaning.

            In my case, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some really first class usability experts and product managers who have helped me see through the user’s eyes as best I can. Personas and usability sessions have taught me a lot about how people think and what they’re trying to accomplish in their limited time online. People have problems that the right information can solve — and they’re actively looking for it.

            Thanks to these experiences, one thing I’ve internalized more than anything else is that every person out there has very real pains. Sometimes the pains are simple and sometimes they’re complicated, but they’re all equally real — people are looking for answers anywhere they can find them. It was a personal revelation for me when I started to really understand this, and my revelation has taught me this:

            Every piece of content you put out there should help solve someone’s problem. It should help relieve a single person’s pain as much as possible (personas are a big help here). Yes, this is sales speak if you want to be pessimistic about it — but I believe in it and it helps me feel good about what I do (note: it also helps your copywriters feel good about what they’re writing, and it’s contagious as hell).

            You can still use each piece of content to support a larger SEO effort — yes, every post should be a small pillar in the bigger picture. But if the content you put out there isn’t solving someone’s problem then you’re wasting your time — it might help *you*, but you’re not going to feel good about it and nobody else is going to give even the smallest shit. Even though we’re selfish creatures, I’ve learned that most people don’t feel very good about themselves if they aren’t helping someone else in some capacity.

            Ultimately, it’s up to you to align yourself with products/content that you can believe in. That might mean turning down job offers or clients, but…to put it bluntly…you are what you eat.

            And to my original point, the internet is one of the very last true democracies out there. If you’re truly good at SEO then you can build something up for yourself that truly helps people…with a side effect of putting money in your pocket.

          • Ross Hudgens

            Well said Kevin – agree completely.

  • Gordon Campbell

    Interesting and inspiring read. I love your posts man.

    Jason – Give yourself a kick up the ass. Your job is amazing. You get to help businesses grow and develop businesses and if you create the occasional bit of content that isn’t the work of Shakespeare. Remember it’s sh*t that makes flowers grow;)

    • Ross Hudgens

      Thanks Gordon! And thanks for the comment, good metaphor. :)

  • http://globalsitesecrets.com Russell

    Great post man, what is interesting is thinking about what will be said 20 years from now regarding our current work. Is there any value? What is it if so? How are we shaping the future today?

    Cool questions to think about.

    • Ross Hudgens

      Definitely! As I mentioned in the comment above I think we can shape the future, but only if we make sure we think about actually doing so. We can create real impact by helping build a brand w/ more SEO impressions or by spreading products that actually help the world. But if we simply push up another debt consolidation website one more spot, I wouldn’t say we create that much lasting impact.

  • http://www.johnfdoherty.com John

    Ross –

    Good post, man. It makes me think about what “quality” content is. I guess some people are fortunate enough to work with large brands that have the money and resources to put into creating quality content, though many of us are working with smaller brands that don’t see the “value” in it. This is why I think the SEOmoz story is so cool (I was just looking at Rand’s slidedeck about it) because it shows the value of inbound marketing and how well it can work when you start with exactly what you are pleading for – great content.

    Once again, great post.

    • Ross Hudgens

      Thanks John, appreciate the comment. I loved Rand’s SEOMoz deck as well. The problem with everything involving only building great content to solve someone’s problem as Kevin says or what Rand did, is that getting there costs a lot of time and money. Not everybody has that. Thus the chicken or the egg problem. To get the time and money, you have to not do the pure SEO as discussed here – unless you’re fine with living in poverty/being really underpaid for a long period of time.

  • http://www.bentowing.com ben

    quality post

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