May 20, 2024


Technological development

How to Spot Content Marketing in Search Results


Again, this all sounds simple because it is. But on the modern internet, where we all click search results and Twitter links without thinking, it’s surprisingly easy to read a post on a company’s website without realizing that’s what you’re doing.

Why Content Marketing Exists

You might be wondering why this sort of stuff shows up in search engines at all. Why don’t companies simply run ads to promote their products? The short answer: Ads are expensive, and writers are not.

Google’s page-rank algorithm was built in the ’90s, when most content on the internet was put there by either hobbyists or academics. You could reasonably assume that information was uploaded by people who wanted to be helpful. Sure, there were some ads toward the top of search results, but we all learned to scroll past those and find the information we were looking for.

Now things are a little more complicated. Plenty of companies still pay for ads, but many have discovered there are cheaper ways to get traffic. The search results below the ads attract just as many clicks as, if not more than, the ads at the top. In the marking industry, this is called an “organic” search result, which basically refers to any search result that isn’t an ad.

So companies now work hard to figure out what kinds of things Google is more likely to put high in results—an art called search engine optimization. This can, with the right strategy, be a much cheaper way to get traffic than paying for ads on Google or other websites.

There are all sorts of tricks companies can use to get these sorts of organic search results, and companies hire people much smarter than me to employ those tricks. Those experts hire writers exactly as smart as me to write articles that rank highly. I, personally, am proud of most the articles I wrote as a content marketer. I tried to write useful, entertaining content. That’s still what I try to do. There are a lot of content marketers who do the same thing.

The Reddit Workaround

It’s not everyone, though. Search results are harder and harder to wade through as bad actors get better and better at ranking highly. It’s frustrating.

People are catching on to this and are coming up with workarounds. One popular trick is to add the word “Reddit” to Google queries—for example, instead of typing “best vacuum cleaner” type “best vacuum cleaner Reddit.”

Reddit users, historically, are deeply hostile to anything resembling marketing. This means that interactions on the site are, on the whole, (possibly) more likely to be an authentic conversation between actual humans with opinions. The results you get won’t be organized, but personally I often find them a lot more useful. (Advance Publications, which owns WIRED publisher Condé Nast, is a Reddit shareholder.)

Knowledge Is Power

Understanding the economic motivation behind a piece of media can help you think critically about it. Product placement, for example, isn’t subtle anymore. Decades of TV characters endorsing products means viewers are aware of what’s happening. This doesn’t mean product placement isn’t effective—companies, after all, are still paying millions for their products to show up. But the awareness that product placement is happening helps everyone be just a little more critical. I’d like to see a similar level of awareness around content marketing.

I don’t point this out to make a moral judgment or to say that content marketing is bad. The website you’re looking at now contains advertising and appeals for you to subscribe to WIRED because every business ultimately needs to find a way to make money. It’s just useful to keep all such incentives in mind while consuming any kind of media, because that context matters.

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