Curated Content and Why You Should Avoid It

As much discussed on this site and elsewhere, marketers’ need for good content has risen substantially in recent years, and likely is still going up.

Some firms have responded to that by putting their noses to the proverbial grindstone to find ways to create more and better original content. Unfortunately, many others are indulging in a smorgasbord of shortcuts that includes content curation, affiliate programs, doorway pages and, of course, social media.

This isn’t really surprising. Since the advent of the search engine, a formidable industry has emerged to game the system. And as SEO companies and others have successively mastered keyword stuffing, link farms and the rest, Google has almost as systematically outsmarted them in every single case. Each time Google foils another too-clever scheme, there’s lots of handwringing about how brutal a monopoly it is, before everyone moves on to the next great scam.

And so it is with content curation.

As it’s difficult to create good, original content on your own, an obvious solution is to copy other people. Of course, we can’t call it copying – that sounds unethical. But content curation sounds as though it might involve some value-add. Plus, curating is what museum directors do, so it must be respectable.

A CEO of a content curation software firm writes here on Forbes.com that “Many are turning to content curation tools that help find, organize and share content online to ensure that their site is constantly delivering updated, highly topical, keyword-rich content — making it a natural winner in the battle of Search Engine Optimization." Of course he would say that; he’s trying to sell us his tool. But nonetheless, content curation has gone from nowhere to ubiquitous in just three short years. 

Google Trends Chart of "content curation" headlines

As a search term, “content curation” gets about 1.3 million results on Google, and well-read marketing sites, including Marketing Profs, Beth’s Blog, Curata, and EContent Magazine, are only too keen to tell us how and why to curate our content (meaning of course, other people’s).

But there’s a problem with all this advice.

Let’s start with Google. Michael Wyszomierski of Google’s search quality team explains Google’s point of view in a short video here. In sum, he says that “Scraped content alone does not provide any added value to your users.”

So, no value, at least as far as Google is concerned.

Google first rolled out its Panda algorithm in 2011 to prevent low quality content from ranking well. It has refreshed that algorithm roughly once a month since then. The latest update, dubbed Panda 4.0, hit some low quality sites such as ask.com especially hard when it was released last month. According to Searchmetrics, ask.com lost 50% of its traffic over the course of a few days.

Google does credit sites if they add original content around the material they curate. But since it only credits them for that, and it might penalize them for the duplication, it’s obvious that at best curating doesn’t do much for your Google ranking and at worst might hurt it.  

But even without worrying about Google, it should be obvious that there’s little value in curation anyway. Search engines have become so good that users can easily find what they want without having to browse a themed site to find it. News sites are finding that an increasing proportion of users are arriving “sideways” (i.e. via search engine rather than by, say, a bookmarked link) and staying for a shorter time. This is causing anguish to webmasters who care about time-on-site. But it shouldn’t matter to a site that has lots of good content so that ever more users can find and view exactly what they’re looking for, even if they don’t hang around to see what else is there. In any case, if users want a content-rich themed site, there are many tools — such as My Yahoo, Netvibes, igHome and Protopage — they can use to build one themselves.

So content curation doesn’t help your rank in search engines, and it doesn’t provide the user anything he can’t do better himself. Despite all the high-falutin’ copy on the topic, content curation is simply the latest attempt to short-cut users’ desire for quality content by bringing them to your site with something else – in this case other people’s content. And it’s as doomed as all the cheap tricks that preceded it.

Unfortunately, there is only one reliable way to attract users with quality content: creating it. And that means working, not scraping. Sorry about that.

Comments

Submitted by Coen Koppen on

It's a somewhat valid point you make here. It also shows a thorough misunderstanding of content curation.

Good curation gives value by combining several sources and giving the reader an overview and commentary. It's very similar to some journalistic practices. Curation is more like building upon other people's content than simply copying. It's also not aimed at making keyword rich content. It's aimed at giving value and context.

Your argument about how it might be hurting SEO isn't really strenthened by facts. Equaling Ask.com with curation isn't a fair framing of the argument. Ask.com is almost completely build on scraping. Aggregation does not equal curation. Further: Matt Cutts says duplicate content isnt an issue if your produce quality content: http://searchengineland.com/googles-matt-cutts-duplicate-content-wont-hurt-you-unless-it-is-spammy-167459

Smart content curators always give their article a slightly different focus than the original creators. With a different title and commentary.And you give your two cents worth, your oftenly differing point of view. In this way it doesnt compete with the original article for attention in search engines.

Curation is finding content by aggregation/scraping, via your social media networks and human curation / collegues. This is then followed by adding context and insight. When done correctly is does provide value for readers even if they arrive at your site 'sideways'. It's just a more efficient method of creating content. And like creating content from scratch it can be done right or wrong with the amount of earned attention from search engines and people that goes with it.

Submitted by Tim Parker on

Coen, thanks for your comment.

I don't think I misunderstand content curation. There's a spectrum, from pieces like the one I just wrote that reference other content -- such as the video clip -- and write a commentary around them, where the proportion of scraped (or quoted) content is about 1%. At the other end of the spectrum is ask.com at (apparently) 100% scraped. Doubtless there are articles and sites that represent everything inbetween.

My point is that the only parts of those sites that add value are the original parts, not the scraped ones. The advocates of curating are, I think, trying to have it both ways. To ease their workload by scraping, but putting enough other content around it they can claim it counts as original. I think Google is, or will get, smart enough to tell the difference. And despite all the fluff about "curating pieces that  share knowledge etc.", most people are doing this in the hope of ranking better in search engines.

Also, curating doesn't make sense to me as a strategy. If I wanted to write a bike review site, sure I'd take product pictures and specs from the manufacturer and add my reviews. In that case I'd legitimately copy material because it makes sense for my site, for users and for the manufacturers (of the good bikes anyway). But I can't see why I'd choose "curation" as a strategy, as opposed to "world's best bike reviews" as a strategy.

So sure, curation -- formerly known as copying, borrowing, lifting, coopting, replicating or whatever -- makes sense in some specific situations. But as a strategy for adding content to any site it risks adding no value, and even -- if it exceeds fair or permitted use -- amounting to plagiarism.

The proof though might be in the pudding. There is an awful lot written about the theory of curation and precious few examples. None of the four articles I linked to show any. So if you know of a curated site that works, please share.

Submitted by Coen Koppen on

Your argument that people can 'curate' or aggregate for themselves is valid. They should. It's fun, there are some great tools out there.

On the other side of the medal. Not all people know all of the best sources in their markets and can put this in context. So a themed site can give some added value there.

Submitted by Tim Parker on

Coen, I agree. Though I'd prefer to educate people about how to construct their own page so they can have exactly what they want. Or perhaps in your business, custom-build it for them. For personal use, as opposed to trying to reach the masses, either makes a lot of sense.

Submitted by Coen Koppen on

Tim, I'm all for enablement. But themed sites are not meant for the masses they are (for the most part) aimed at likeminded niches. So the information may be better focused and presented than they can rustle up themselves. Also you're forgetting about the community part of those websites. I'm not talking cynically here > it's about sharing knowledge and facillitating interaction/discussion.

That said content curation is more efficient than creating from scratch but should not ever, in my view, amount to simple scraping. On that we can agree. If being an automated filter for your audience it your aim. Don't. Your adding very little value. Scraping should only be phase one of the curation process.

If using content curation as a part of the blogging process is your aim. Go ahead. It's fun, you learn a lot by reading a lot of other material and maybe just maybe you can connect with your sources of inspiration. And contrary to your standpoint it does add value combining several sources and viewpoints in one article. Good content curation isnt that different from blogging, being an editor: http://langwitches.org/blog/2014/06/15/blogging-as-a-curation-platform/

Content curation isnt a strategy on it's own. It's a useful and effective addition to your own content creation. It gives your readers a lot different views next to your own aka paints a bigger picture than solely your neck of the woods.

Submitted by Tim Parker on

Coen

Thanks again for your comment.

Themed sites for specific audiences make a lot of sense. If I understand what you do correctly, gathering and presenting information for particular people and companies on things they need to stay abreast of is certainly a valuable thing to do. And there's always a place for including some of what others may have created already in web pages, blogs and articles. And there always has - at least for so long as each of those things have existed.

I'm railing against those who regard 'content curation' as a strategy for driving traffic to any site -- and I am sure you're not one of those. It's no coincidence that the term emerged just as Google made link farms, doorway pages and the like into liabilites. It's the next big thing for those who want to game the system. If they weren't talking about something different than we've always done, they wouldn't have needed a new name for it.

So, I am sure we'll ocacsionally feature something someone else created, so we can talk about it. There are a couple in a post here that I wrote last year. 

We just won't be calling it content curation.

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