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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.