How to Spot Content Marketing in Search Results

Again, it all sounds simple because it is. But on the modern internet, where we all click on 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 stuff shows up in search engines. Why don’t companies just run ads to promote their products? The short answer: Ads are expensive, and writers aren’t.

Google’s page ranking algorithm was created in the 1990s, when most content on the Internet was uploaded there by amateurs or academics. You can reasonably assume that the information was uploaded by people who wanted to be useful. Sure, there were ads at the top of search results, but we all learned to scroll through them and find the information we were looking for.

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

So companies are now working hard to figure out what kinds of things Google is more likely to highlight in the 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 kinds of tricks companies can use to get those kinds of organic search results, and companies hire people much smarter than me to use those tricks. These experts hire writers exactly as smart as me to write articles that rank highly. Personally, I’m proud of most of the articles I’ve written as a content marketer. I tried to write useful and entertaining content. That’s always what I try to do. There are plenty of content marketers out there doing the same thing.

The Reddit Workaround

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

People understand this and come up with workarounds. A popular trick is to add the word “Reddit” to Google queries—for example, instead of typing “best vacuum cleaner”, type “best Reddit vacuum cleaner”.

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

knowledge is power

Understanding the economic motivation behind a medium can help you think about it critically. Product placement, for example, is no longer subtle. Decades of TV characters endorsing products means viewers are aware of what’s going on. That doesn’t mean product placement isn’t effective – companies, after all, still pay millions to get their products to appear. But the realization that product placement happens helps everyone be a little more critical. I would like to see a similar level of content marketing awareness.

I’m not pointing this out to make a moral judgment or to say that content marketing is bad. The website you are viewing now contains advertising and invites you to subscribe to WIRED because ultimately every business must find a way to make money. It’s just helpful to keep all of these incentives in mind when consuming any type of media, because that context is important.


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Amanda J. Marsh