What is “content” anyway?

Caitlin Mackie, Leith Planner, explains why this term is such a nebulous thing

“Content” has become a catch-all for things that are not so clearly defined. It’s often overused because it can apply to just about anything, for example:

  • Is it things users read/watch/use/play with online?
  • Anything that isn’t infrastructure e.g. code?
  • Or are designers and developers also content producers?
  • Is it anything that can be published online?
  • What about offline? If you ask Wikipedia, the first piece of ‘content’ was produced in 1895…

It’s all a bit vague.

So, how did we get here?

Many people can rightly claim to have had some experience with planning and producing “content”. For me, it was through the lens of SEO.

In SEO, search engines play a central role. I’m continually impressed by how accurately Google can interpret the semantics behind the languages we use.

Ten years ago, though, search algorithms were not as advanced as they are today. (Algorithms are the processes and formulae that allow Google to interpret your queries and match them with the most relevant content.)

In the past, SEOs produced simple content (usually copy) for a nascent search engine to index. It was common to see websites with high-volume, low-quality, duplicated or scraped copy stuffed with keywords at high densities:

Image via Sparkitive (sparkitive.com)

But something happened in 2011.

In February 2011, Google released an algorithm update called Panda, which targeted poor quality content. [Updating algorithms is a continuous process, which you can read more about via this excellent Algorithm Change History.]

Another important update, Penguin, was released in 2012 to target link schemes, keyword stuffing, over-optimisation and unnatural links. Both Panda and Penguin have been updated a dozen times since then, but these original updates really shaped my understanding of digital content.

It meant that Google rewarded good content (relevant, detailed, regularly updated, well-written and designed, clearly structured, with citations and high-quality inbound links) and punished poor quality content.

Not-so breaking news

Partly because “content” is such a vague term, people questioned why this was such a revelation. Writers, designers, developers, UXers and even planners pointed out (quite rightly) that producing great content was important long before Google came on the scene.

But what it meant to me is that the world’s most powerful search engine, which has an audience of billions of people, started directly rewarding good content. This, along with many other factors, ushered in an age of brands as publishers, and the idea of content as an online commodity was born.

The birth of content marketing

Hot on the heels of these updates, people were quick to herald “content marketing” as the new must-have strategy.

And because “content” is vague, content marketing is similarly misunderstood and misapplied. When you hear about content marketing, often it’s a digitally-focused version of established brand and advertising strategies.

To me, it’s another way of saying that it’s still important to know your audience, find your insight and sculpt your proposition.

We might be talking about digital audiences and formats, but the process is still the same. We still need to understand the audience’s needs, business objectives, and the infrastructure that’s in place. Knowing this, we can start to look at topics, formats, media planning, and writing briefs.

Image via Media Crush (mediacrushllc.com)

The definition I like best is from the Content Marketing Institute:

“Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined target audience — with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

Not so different from most advertising strategies though, is it?

Where next?

Brands are still producing content without thinking about it first. This too is not a new development. Often, because digital content is produced at pace, we’re tempted to skip some important steps along the way.

My hope for the future is that brands who have been burned by content marketing will return to the basics, that is: always think carefully about who you’re speaking to, and why.