The internet has a reach that's unparalleled by any other form of media, and it has become the No. 1 resource for consumers when they're looking for information. Pew research shows that more Americans are getting their news from the internet than radio or newspapers. Consumers go online to find content about politics and entertainment, technology and health, culture, and science. They interact with friends and make new connections. And most of the time, they depend on search engines like Google to narrow down their searches about different topics.
All of this has contributed to the dilution of search results by SEO-savvy content marketers. Content farms haven't disappeared with Google's updated algorithms -- they've evolved. Careful keyword placements, powerful backlink strategies, and other promotional tactics are bringing sponsored content to the tops of search engines and leaving objective journalism behind.
Sponsored content is one of the fastest-growing ad segments today, having grown 22 percent in 2013. More often, consumers are finding articles in newspapers and online publications that aren't clearly labeled as sponsored. This is just the beginning. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of B2B marketers say that they're creating more content than a year ago.
The consequence is that when people search for information on topics, they're just as likely to find commercial content as they are editorial or academic content. The distinction isn't clear -- take, for example, Google AdWords. Many people don't know the difference between paid and organic search results -- one study discovered that 40 percent of consumers are unaware that AdWords are paid advertisements from companies.
An alternative to search
When it comes to content optimized for search engines, the line gets even blurrier. A search result today is likely to yield a number of articles based on the same original source because so much content has been repurposed for the sake of content marketing. By favoring backlinks and keyword placements, search engines don't favor the original or unique; they favor the popular -- the posts that have been marketed the best.
The truly relevant sources that are highly specialized fall to the wayside for the sake of vendor sites that are more or less writing about the same thing. This negatively impacts a consumer's browsing experience and discredits a brand's content and solutions. The best way to have your solution validated is by authentic and unbiased, third-party content. That's what consumers want to find when searching for topics, and it's ultimately what helps them make purchasing decisions.
But Google, Bing, Yahoo, and others only deliver the sources that are best optimized for discovery, not the sources that are the most relevant and credible for the topic. Google's latest round of algorithm updates, Penguin 2.0, didn't seem to change much about the placement of sponsored or commercial content and objective content in search results. Yahoo and Bing are no better.
The real risk of this content marketing saturation crisis is that the roof will cave -- commercial content will overwhelm objective content, making it impossible for consumers to find unbiased articles about products and services.
Reinventing the browsing experience
The search engine model, whether relying on keywords or social popularity, has limitations. No matter how many times users search, the results are rarely responsive to individual needs and preferences. Consumers have accepted this, but businesses that can offer an alternative to the tried-and-true search model could very well find a new way to become thought leaders to customers, prospects, and industry peers.
Companies already engage in this practice by becoming purveyors of specific information on social media channels. On Twitter, people follow brands because they expect the brand to offer a very industry-specific type of information. But social media is still, at its core, a distribution platform, not an engagement platform.
The future of search lies in a search engine that learns as individuals use it. Businesses that are able to provide consumers with real-time, relevant information from original sources can establish communities and thought leadership like never before.
Gary Griffiths is the CEO and co-founder at Trapit.
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