Thursday, August 16, 2007

How to Spot Web Clutter

The web is—let’s face it—a mess lately.

SEO’s and web marketers have been going around saying “content is king” ever since Google started giving more weight to inbound links. Good content is supposed to be the magic bullet: it brings in web traffic, it generates buzz, and it encourages people to link to you. Google is trying to select based on good content, but it’s giving rise to something else: web clutter.

Web clutter is badly written content that offers nothing of any real value to readers. It’s there to benefit the business alone. And most of the time, it doesn’t even do that. It just clutters up the web, jams up search results, and generally makes a mess.

So how do you know whether your content is valuable or clutter? I was looking around for mortgage information the other day and found a prime example of web clutter. It was written by an article-writing service that typically sells its articles for around $8 or so apiece. Great deal, right? Well, yeah…until you read the piece.

There were several clues that made this article look like web clutter:

Typos. Oh, where to start, where to start…how about “hme” instead of “home” on the first line? Or “dind” instead of “find” in the fifth? It looks like somebody forgot to run the spell-checker before taking this one live.

One of the first signs of web clutter is bad spelling and grammar. If the author couldn’t be bothered to catch basic typos, he definitely didn’t fact check. It’s unlikely any trustworthy information is to be found here.

Obvious keywords. The title was something like “California Home Mortgage Refinance Loan Tips.” It looks like the writer’s client simply gave him a certain keyword phrase and told him not to separate it, under any circumstances. Not only is this bad SEO practice; it also makes this article very obvious clutter.

This title is ungainly and a little nonsensical. Why are California home mortgages different than mortgages in, say, Arkansas? Is there a reason the California mortgage industry needs its own general article?

And is “home mortgage refinance loan” really the best way to state this idea? A better title would be something like “Refinancing Your Mortgage in Five Easy Steps: Tips From a California Mortgage Broker.” But then you wouldn’t be able to get the entire search phrase in there, unbroken.

That phrase, “California home mortgage refinance loan,” pops up a couple more times in the copy, each time sounding more awkward. My favorite part is when the article states that the featured broker could help you “with your California home mortgage refinance loan needs.”

Wouldn’t it be more clear and understandable if the writer had said “help you refinance your mortgage”? The author chose not to state it this way because he wanted to use the whole key phrase. If keywords and phrases make your title and copy more complicated than it needs to be, you’re clearly not writing with people in mind. Ergo: web clutter.

Shallow coverage. The last two problems are definitely symptoms of web clutter—they indicate nobody took much time in writing the article, and don’t care about the reader’s experience. But if you offer valuable information, most readers will forgive you. Shallow coverage is the worst part about this article in particular and web clutter in general.

This article is supposed to offer mortgage refinancing tips from a professional broker. You’d think that such a person would have in-depth knowledge to share, right? Well, maybe…but he wasn’t sharing it. His tips included: 1. Talk to a mortgage professional before picking a loan; 2. Research loans on the Internet; and 3. Get quotes from several different banks. No expert insight here.

Most people looking for info on mortgages probably knows this basic stuff already. They’re looking for more helpful advice. If the author clearly didn’t take time to think about what his readers might want to know before writing the article, it’s web clutter.

An obvious shill. It’s okay to put in a plug for your business when you write an article. But you have to earn the right to do that by offering something people need first: valuable information.

The article wasn’t very long, and nearly half was taken up by an appeal to go to a certain mortgage broker’s website and fill out a questionnaire. The piece is obviously not about helping people navigate the treacherous waters of home finance. It’s about getting a particular broker some search engine traffic off that one awkward key phrase. Valuable copy? No. Web clutter.

So why is this article web clutter and not good content? Because it isn’t helpful. Imagine a person in California doing a search online for tips on how to refinance a mortgage loan. They’re not looking for an opportunity to fill out a thirty-second survey. They’re looking for information. They want to know how they can negotiate the best interest rates, how to tell when to refinance, or who the best mortgage brokers are.

People who advocate this kind of article marketing will say that even though the article is bad, it generates traffic and gets the broker’s name out there. But will people want to hire him after the search engines direct them to this article? Probably not. He doesn’t come across as knowledgeable. His coverage of the topic is shallow, and even worse, his article is full of spelling mistakes. He doesn’t look competent, and it's doing him more harm than good.

The bottom line? Your article is web clutter if:

• It’s got careless grammar and spelling mistakes.
• The reader experience is sacrificed to accommodate awkward keywords or phrases.
• It doesn’t offer much useful information beyond the common-sense.
• It’s more concerned with promoting a business than with helping a reader.

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