The internet is overflowing with ‘content’, and it sucks. Users are fighting back.

Anyone who did SEO in the early 2000s, including yours truly, probably recalls the adage ‘content is king’. It meant that rather than focusing on building links, writing the best possible content should take priority. In theory, links would be rewarded without having to buy or ask for them, because people would apparently feel compelled to link to to this great content at their own volition, and also Google’s algorithms would somehow be able to appraise the value of this wonderful content and rank it higher.

Of course, in reality:

-In an era of centralized media silos and platforms, and social media platforms which increasingly disallow linking-out, writing ‘great content’ is hardly any assurance anyone will care or will link to it. I can attest to this. There is no option to post separate posts with links on TikTok or Instagram, for example. Other platforms such as Twitter impose an algorithmic penalty, which supresses virality, when posting links.

-Search engines, including the all-powerful Google with its presumed omnipotence, cannot tell the difference between effortful content and either GPT-written or outsourced content, or SEO-filler content except for overt spam or duplicate content.

The end result is ‘content’. Let’s cover the hallmarks of content:

Tons of unnecessary whitespace? yes

Excessive AI or stock images that serve no purpose but to hog-up bandwidth? yes

Does not not contain actionable or useful specifics? yes

Full of ads, and especially affiliate links? yes

SEO-optimized filler, including unnecessary repetitious use of keywords? yes

For example, the below results for “luck and success” are not SEO spam in a technical sense, but they contain essentially identical filler:

And also ads disguised as news. For example, The Motley Fool pays Yahoo Finance to run fake news that links to a subscription service. (Where is all the outrage by the media about this type of blatant fake news?) The target market, I am guessing, is a dwindling pool of high-net-worth retirees who have not yet been swindled and are not savvy enough to know that Warren Buffett would never invest ‘hundreds of billions of dollars’ in AI, and in the extremely unlikely event he did, it would be reported by a reputable source, not The Motley Fool:

And in regard to YouTube:

Long, rambling intros and annoying background jazz-like music in a loop? yes

Too much product placement? yes

AI-generated voiceovers? yes

A refusal to ever get to the point, assuming there is one? yes

Wishy-washy or irrelevant studies cited as evidence? yes

The same people interviewing each other regurgitating the same filler? yes

This is content. It’s technically not spam in that it does not violate the guidelines of Google or YouTube, but to the end-user it sorta sucks. It it were obvious spam, it would be possible for it to be algorithmically filtered, but no such filter exists for ‘extremely-mediocre content boosted by domain authority,’ which is what passes for content. Or nonsense/wrong claims. Even to someone without a medical degree, the claim of a mouse being cured of cancer with vitamin b12 is bullshit, which is the type of content that not uncommonly passes for health advice on YouTube.

At the same time, it’s not clickbait: The content does more or less match its title, but rather than baited and hooked by a false promise or some sensationalist claim, it’s the expectation of something useful never materializes. If anything it’s worse because of the greater time investment, such as a 2-hour video, whereas a clickbait article can at least be skimmed.

This is is why so many people are appending ‘Reddit’ to their Google queries. They don’t want more content. They want actual user experiences. And not only experiences, but also necessary quality control: The guy spreading his b12 nonsense would be downvoted on Reddit, and deservedly so.

People don’t want to read a generic article about a certain type of diet written by someone paid by the word count or composed by a language model: they want to read the experience of someone who actually tried it. Indeed, the first search prompt for “does keto work” is Reddit:

Even studies are not that helpful. Studies tend to be done under exacting conditions which may not be applicable to how ordinary people use the product or service. Or the participants of a study are not representative of whoever is seeking help. Studies also suffer from a garbage-in, garbage-out problem, in which if the methodology is flawed then no amount of data suffices. Case studies and testimonials are more useful even if the sample-size is smaller than a study. This is what Reddit, again, accomplishes. Not to mention, many studies, to put it bluntly, are shit. The replication crisis is a thing for a reason:

Yes, even if Reddit does have a lot of spam, including affiliate links and shills, reading the experiences of actual people who tried said product or advice is still infinitely better than content that is written for no specific person in mind, in which the end goal is the visitor sticks around long enough to click an ad or subscribes to a newsletter.

This is not to say user-contributed content is always good; to the contrary, a lot of it is bad. There was the embarrassment that was Yahoo Answers, and Quora tends to not be much better in this regard. But it’s still better than content. The implicit objective of content dooms it to never rising to the level of ever being truly useful or helpful. It’s like watching a sales pitch and expecting to get value it of it; you soon realize your time was wasted. There’s always some ulterior motive, whether it’s to buy a product, ‘coaching’, subscribing to a newsletter, or ‘more engagement’. It can never just be helpful–there is always some annoying call to action.

Or in regard to YouTube, many people do not want to sit through a 2-hour video, and want it distilled to the actionable points. Or instead of enduring a rambling podcast in which the same two people interview each other for the umpteenth time, the salient points are summarized on Reddit or in the comments with timestamps. This is is how end-users are taking control of their time in a world awash with content that seeks to waste it.

This succinctness however comes at the cost of fewer views and ad-clicks, so content producers ought to take notice. Cable news and print newspapers have in large part been replaced by the internet, which is a faster and more convenient way to consume information. I can glance at my smartphone and skim the headlines. YouTube reels–at only 60-seconds long–have gained rapid popularity for this reason, such as breaking-up a long podcast interview into a series of reels of the most interesting points. AI can summarize long texts.

Overall, despite the frivolity of social media, people don’t want their time wasted and will look for any way to expedite the consumption of information if possible. Social media is commonly described as a waste of time, but the key difference is that users are not being tricked into expecting something useful or some special insight. Someone who scrolls his Instagram feed for pictures of scantily-clad women is getting what he expects if those are the accounts he chooses to follow. Maybe one day content can retake the throne, but right now it’s looking more like the jester–just a big time-wasting distraction.