The art of storytelling

Not too long ago, writing used to be about telling a story. Whether it was ad copy, fantasy novels, or essays – writers used to weave their message into the fabric of their work.

Writing wasn’t simply a tool to convey information. It was a powerful art that created magical universes, alternate timelines, and parallel dimensions. It sparked rebellions and ended regimes. People said the pen was mightier than the sword.

Then along came Google and writing became even more powerful. Information traveled at the speed of light. But something changed.

At first, the change was subtle. Information appeared on the web in a more refined state. It was easy to find what you were looking for. Convenience increased, yet the way we consumed information remained largely the same.

Beneath the surface, complex algorithms were crawling, cataloging, ranking, and serving information at the user’s behest. In time, smart people figured out how these algorithms worked. And they bent Google to their will.

The Wild West of SEO

Thus began “The Wild West” era of SEO. The way we presented information on the Web shifted significantly. Quality writing no longer mattered. It was replaced with keyword stuffing (repeating a term over and over again); private blog networks; 500-word “articles” that existed for no reason other than to hog web traffic, and other “black hat” practices Google has been trying to stop ever since (with a varying degree of success).

Web content was no longer directed at visitors. Instead, it was “optimized” for web crawlers.  User experience became a distant afterthought. All that mattered was the almighty traffic.

Fast forward to today and digital marketing is a multi-billion-dollar industry, with SEO as one of its strongest pillars. In fact, SEO yields the best ROI of all types of marketing (8 times better than paid advertising). When done right, it can be a great benefit to both your business and your user base. But people are still trying to game the system since it’s easier in the short run. 

Algorithms aren’t as dumb as they used to be, so stuffing a text with keywords (usually) doesn’t give you the same results as it once did. Link building is no longer as easy as buying a bunch of links or raiding link directories. “Black hat” practices still work in some niches, but they’ve been eliminated for the most part.

Yet we let the genie out of the bottle and there is no going back. Even today, when mantras like “content is king” get repeated like gospel, the guidelines for creating web content follow very strict formulas. Many SEO gurus will tell you to write for the bots and completely disregard the readers.

As a result, scores of freelancers and digital marketing agencies offer “high-quality optimized articles”. The process of content creation has been commoditized. As long as there’s money to be made, the topic doesn’t matter.

Why is it so hard to find good content online?

Go to Upwork or Fiverr. Finding someone to write a 500-word article for peanut money will take you about a minute. In fact, this is how most smaller publications and affiliate sites are run. They hire the lowest bidder to “reword” articles from other publications.

Everything gets spammed into oblivion. The “articles” don’t exist to fulfill an actual need or fill in a gap. No one writes these pieces to offer a unique perspective or a useful insight. They’re not even presented in a new or engaging way. The only reason anyone bothers with this type of content is to compete for a piece of that sweet, sweet pie (i.e. web traffic).

This, in part, explains why most company blogs are barren wastelands. They’re ghost towns because of terrible writing. No one who has an ounce of self-respect would read them. And yet, businesses continue to spit out poorly written content for the sake of publishing something.

The neverending torrent of bad writing has two simple explanations. Either the company doesn’t feel like paying for quality (because they don’t see the ROI), or they’re paying thousands of dollars a month to an agency and getting duped.

Many digital marketing agencies demand a large premium, then hire someone on Fiverr to do the work for 100 bucks and pocket the difference. It’s all about making money.

This happens more often than you think. I, myself, have been approached by companies with the “alluring” offer to become a subcontractor and “reword” articles for them. Naturally, I offered them well-researched, unique, quality content (like the one I create for my own blog), but “rewording” is cheaper. I told them to look elsewhere.

Yet, someone else will accept. You know they will. And the client will pay thousands of dollars a month thinking they’re getting quality articles in return. Instead, they’ll be getting content that’s been chewed up and spit out more times than the gum under a preschooler’s desk.

There is something primeval about such an extreme level of avarice. Yet many agencies make piles of cash operating this way, clients be damned. And they get away with it, too. The thing about SEO is that it takes a while before it can generate results. By the time clients becomes the wiser, the agency has made off with a year’s worth of fees. If you’re going to hire an SEO company, make sure it’s a reputable one.

Have we lost the art of storytelling?

With all this oversaturation and overoptimization, we seem to have lost the art of storytelling in the process. The Internet offers more how-to’s than we know what to do with. But it’s the human part of the stories that seems to be brushed aside. Indeed, humanity has been stripped off of web writing and all that remains is barebones information that replicates itself ad infinitum like a primordial single-cell organism.

That’s why I rarely do keyword research for my blog. I tell the stories I want to tell. I try to resonate with my readers on a human level. And I know it’s working, because people read my writing, whether on my own or clients’ websites.

This process takes work and takes time. It takes dedication. And it cannot be replicated and put on a production line. But that’s why it’s important. That’s why it matters. Besides, if the story is worth reading, it will find its way to the right people.

It’s not all doom and gloom.

I can already hear a horde of disgruntled SEO professionals coming for me with pitchforks and torches. Before you start flooding my comment section with inflammatory comments, hear me out.

I know this post comes off as a bit negative towards the SEO community. Let me be clear – while I’m very critical of some practices, I also know many brilliant people working in SEO and content marketing. They pour their heart and soul into their work and deserve every ounce of respect they get. These are the people you should give your money and recognition to, not the parasites.

I’m also not against SEO or doing research. I do it for my clients and it works out well. I’m merely suggesting “optimization” shouldn’t take precedent over the reader. I write for humans first and optimize later.

Here’s the thing – the “S” in SEO doesn’t stand for “soulless”. Your content can reach your audience on a human level and still be well-optimized for search engines. Sure, it’s more difficult, which is why many say “it’s impossible”, but it can be done. We don’t have to sacrifice our humanity on the altar of search engines. But we need to wake up for today’s reality and draw a line in the sand.

Small business owners need to figure out when they’re being duped. Users need to stop accepting mediocrity. And us writers, marketers, and SEOs need to remember the humans on the other side of the screen. Those are the people we’re doing it for. 

When it comes to Google, we all vote with our time and attention. We all have a voice. It’s time to say, “Enough is enough!” As netizens, and moreover, as human beings, we should demand companies stop treating us like numbers on a spreadsheet. We need to return storytelling back to the Internet.

Till next time.

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2 Responses

  1. “if the story is worth reading, it will find its way to the right people”

    I guess that sentence above sums it all up.

    Thanks, Atanas, for this article! It brought back the inspiration for writing I’ve lost recently. With the advancement of algorithms and the invention of GPT-3 I started to doubt my own decision to write. Why waste long hours and even days researching and writing an article when an algorithm can churn up hundreds and even thousands of articles per second?

    I can’t compete with the algorithms. I can’t compete with the black hat tactics. I can’t compete with the devastating effect of the social networks.

    But then I realized – I don’t have to.

    It’s about staying human in a dehumanized world so other humans can relate and connect to what I write. Just like I feel moved by reading each of your articles.

    Thanks for taking the time and effort to express what you think and feel. You’ve already got your audience. And we are looking forward for your next article.

    • Hi Nick,

      Thanks for your comment. Knowing my writing resonates with someone on that level makes it worth all the hours I pour into my articles. 🙂

      As for GPT-3 – I, too, have recently grappled with ways to handle its inexorable march. So much so, this will be the topic for my next articles.

      The truth is, it’s here and it’s here to stay. There is nothing we can do about that. Nor should we. Businesses will always look for ways to maximize profits and tons of cheap content will be one of the ways to go.

      However, even if it emulates your writing style or steals your voice – GPT-3 will never be “you”. It will never share your experiences and tell your stories. It will never resonate with your readers the way you do.

      So, no – you don’t have to compete with AI. In fact, when AI comes, I think real human writing will become even more important.

      Thanks again. Cheers.

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