Copycat Content: SEO Tools Got Us Here, Humans Will Get Us Out

There’s a copycat crisis in content marketing. Explore the search results for virtually any lucrative keyword, and you’ll find a bunch of articles with lookalike titles, headers and examples. Increasingly, “SEO content” has become a synonym for meandering “ultimate guides” and formulaic “7 ways” listicles.

Similarities between blog posts chasing the same keywords are unavoidable—there’s a core set of information that articles need to cover to match the search intent. Few content marketers ever set out to rip-off content, and if you plug these copycat articles into a plagiarism detection tool like Copyscape, chances are they won’t set off any alarms.

But there’s a deeper problem here.

In chasing search traffic, companies are sleep-walking into intellectual plagiarism. They’re fixating on their keyword research tools and SEO briefs at the expense of originality and personality. They’re curating other people’s work, instead of creating their own. They’re choosing to make content longer, instead of better.

1. SEO Content Needs a Human Touch

Tools like Clearscope, Ahrefs, Moz and SEMRush are the right-hand of every content marketer and SEO practitioner, but problems arise when we over-rely on those tools.

SEO tools have a very particular data set at their disposal: the existing search results. When their input consists entirely of existing articles, we shouldn’t be surprised when their output looks like those articles. After all, they’re designed to highlight the topics and keywords common between the top-ranking articles (articles A, B and C, below), and recommend a new article structure that’s a consolidation of all three (article ABC).

When we adopt their recommendations wholesale, we end-up creating copycat content:

  • We include the same keywords, headers and examples “because the existing search results include them”—even when they don’t make sense.
  • We fixate on an SEO score straw-man, instead of vetting content for the qualities that really matter, like originality, clarity and interest.
  • We consolidate other people’s ideas, instead of bringing our own to the table.

SEO tools are extremely useful, but only when used in conjunction with the creativity and critical faculties of a real human being. They’re best used for evaluating the currently-ranking content, and finding ways to create new, novel angles on the same topic—matching unserved “gaps” in search intent, and answering questions that the current articles don’t address.

Instead of collating content, we can create something completely original. Instead of wrapping articles A, B and C into a lazy “Ultimate Guide,” we can create something completely original, with new data or a new perspective (article D).

2. Length Isn’t the Only Differentiator

Longer content generally performs better—up to a point. Today, SERPs are so crowded with 10,000-word articles that long-form content is no longer an effective differentiator.

There was a time when “skyscraper” content—creating an article longer and more comprehensive than its competitors—was a smart play. It was convenient for the reader: instead of clicking-through a dozen articles, they could read a single definitive guide. It helped with SEO too, since longer articles can rank for more keywords, drive more traffic and often acquire more backlinks.

But skyscraper content is no longer a niche tactic. Everyone does it. It’s become the de-facto strategy for unseating incumbent articles, and it’s created an arms race. In the past five years, average blog post length has increased by 42%, from 808-words to 1,151-words. When you compete solely on length, articles become bloated and unwieldy, and it’s the reader that loses out.

Source: Orbit Media

Length is only one way of competing with existing content. Arguably, it’s also the worst. Instead, choose a better dimension of differentiation:

  • Data: What unique data do you, and only you, have access to? Product usage stats, surveying your audience, you name it. If your company lacks proprietary data, is there a unique meta analysis of existing data you can create?
  • Opinion: If you have a good grounding in a topic, you're uniquely positioned to offer a contrarian perspective. Which "best practices" are wrong? What mistakes do you commonly encounter? What will change in the next year?
  • Experience: What lived experience can you share on a topic? Your experiences can't be emulated by other people—anchoring your article in a real-world story provides a novel dimension for even the most tired of topics.
  • Network: What lived experience can people within your network share? If you're networked with well-known brands and people, all the better—you have additional non-search distribution built-in.
  • Expertise: What are you uniquely good at? What "expert" insight can you offer that other content marketers can't? Draw upon your personal interests, qualifications and education.

Instead of relying on other people’s hard-earned work, great search content brings something new to the table—harnessing the skills and perspectives that that company, and only that company, can provide.

3. Great Content Requires Experimentation

The surest way to rank for a target keyword is to copy the existing content. After all, you’re using a proven format. The article you’re emulating already ranks for your target keyword. Crucially though, this “low-risk” content offers low rewards.

Most SEO content is a commodity. It offers useful information, but it’s provided without context or perspective—it looks and feels like every other article out there. It might rank for a bunch of keywords, but what use is it if no-one remembers your brand, or becomes a customer?

Over time, the situation looks bleaker. As copycat content becomes less interesting and more commonplace, it becomes high risk and low reward. Readers get bored of the same tired old format. Once interesting brands become more and more homogeneous. Search engines get better and better at extracting information from “ultimate guide” style articles and surfacing it directly in the search results—stifling your traffic in the process.

The inverse applies to novel content formats. As the SERPs become saturated with “7 ways” listicles and “ultimate guides,” it’s the original, experimental articles that stand out from the noise—those that challenge the status quo and offer unique perspectives and experiences that Google can’t turn into a rich snippet. With every copycat article published, novel formats become less risky and more valuable. Soon, they’ll be the only type of content that’s worth a damn.

These articles are perfect examples. Each company took a risk with a novel stance on a well-worn topic. In each case, it paid off, generating hundreds of thousands of visits from organic search, without a skyscraper in sight:

It’s easy to assume that the current SERP represents the best strategy to match search intent and rank for a target keyword. It doesn't. It represents the best strategy so far. Seeing a search dominated by round-up articles might mean that round-ups are the optimum way to meet the search intent—it may also mean that a better type of content simply hasn't been tried.

Combating Copycat Content

Writing copycat content yields, at best, small improvements over the existing search results. We’re not adding anything new, just collating existing information into one place. As content marketers, we shouldn’t settle for that.