Web Content: from Fabulous to Frankenstein

Whether or not a business does well in the web economy is very often determined by how highly the company’s web sites rank in the search engines for chosen targeted search phrases, so it’s very important to have a site full of highly ranked pages of quality content. Unique and original web content is usually rated higher by search engines — but only if that content is extensive, authoritative and interesting. This is evidenced by traffic numbers, search engine clickstream data and popularity feedback from Google and Alexa toolbars.

There are basically four sources of original web content, which vary widely in quality, desirability and value.

  1. professional, well paid and talented web content copywriters
  2. knowledgeable business owners writing for attribution and links
  3. shockingly poorly-paid writers exploited by savvy content resellers
  4. content thieves distributing article compilations, permutations, "Frankenstein Pages" and "Private Label Rights" articles in violation of copyright laws

This article aims to explore all four types of content in an effort to help site owners ensure that they get what they pay for, and are able to protect the content they own.

Top of the Content Food Chain: Professional Writers

Professional writers of web content abound and those who are able to pay for truly original, unique and focused content can pick and choose among the better authors.

Well-known web content writers such as Nick Usborne and Gerry McGovern produce polished and effective web content for Internet-based companies with substantial budgets. Nick Usborne is author of "Net Words – Creating High Impact Online Copy", is well regarded, and has valuable insights to offer his clients. Gerry McGovern, author with Rob Norton of "Content Critical: Gaining Competitive Advantage through High-Quality Web Content" routinely speaks at conferences and teaches organizations about quality content.

Web copywriters make a decent living writing custom, focused and original web content, with emphasis on different aspects of copywriting for the web:

  • sales copy emphasizing conversion and calls to action
  • SEO copy intended to rank well in the search engines while clearly and effectively communicating to prospects
  • technical copywriting to give clarity to complex tech issues

All are highly valued and relatively well compensated forms of writing.

Large, legitimate content creation companies have been launched specifically to manage the creation of unique and original content for the web. One such company is InfoSearchMedia, which announced its launch in 2004 by sponsoring the Search Engine Strategies show in San Jose that year. They continue to sponsor search industry conferences to promote the value of unique content to attendees. I often recommend to clients that they consider adding dozens of topic-focused pages to their sites in order to increase their ranking and have used InfoSearchMedia to provide that quality content for clients.

InfoSearchMedia content can cost about $150 per page as part of a package of purchased written pieces of relatively short copy consisting of 250 to 300 words per page. The writer, in my personal experience, was a freelancer subcontracting to the company, and was professional and pleasant to work with. The client was satisfied with the work after limited edits and minor rewrites on several pages. This is a commonly used option by high-level companies, usually corporate organisations, with funding coming from marketing budgets.

The Free Alternative to Expensive Custom Content

A surprisingly valuable, yet free source of quality content follows right on the heels of the expensive professional writers — smart, business savvy, knowledgeable experts operating their own web businesses who use a technique called Article Marketing.

These experts distribute their own thoughtful, well informed and worthwhile content to sites that are willing to follow limited terms of service guidelines and respect the copyrights of the authors. Those savvy business owners distribute their articles through long established content distribution partners and some, in operation from as early as 1999, are web content pioneers.

The top sources of this free content are well known by web veterans as credible and respected providers of expertly penned articles. The grand-daddy of all content providers is Ezine Articles, run by Chris Knight, a respected ezine content guru. EzineArticles has well over 100,000 quality articles submitted by over 20,000 authors in hundreds of topic categories. Another longstanding and well known article site is GoArticles, a member of the Jayde online family of pioneering Internet sites.

Content delivery from both of these free content leaders is available via RSS feed or email notification, and you can narrow the matches on the basis of author and/or content category. Dozens of smaller players exist in the free content niche, including topic-specific archives focused on niche industries.

While this type of web content won’t serve to describe products, present as sales letters or or define an organization, it does provide excellent resource material on hundreds of topics that site visitors may be interested in, and serves to increase search engine ranking for both those web site owners who use them and the article authors, whose contributed work carries links back to their web sites.

Writing Sweatshops

A national news item from a March 1st Wall Street Journal article illustrates the high demand for "Original Content" for the web when WSJ "Portals" columnist, Lee Gomes, discussed his experience writing "Original Content." He bids through a freelance writers site to write content at an estimated 15 cents an hour!

Gomes mentions in his article that he agreed to write fifty 500-word articles for $100, for which he’d be required to crank out 25,000 words for that unheard of rate. He had agreed to such a ridiculous rate of pay in order to find out what the "Original Content" buzz is all about and, presumably, to gain access to someone seeking that undervalued written text in order to interview them for his Wall Street Journal article.

After delivering his first article to his contact on the requested popular topic of "bird flu" he is asked to provide more on the subject and is given several articles to rewrite — articles that he discovers have been taken verbatim from the World Health Organization, WebMD, and New Scientist web sites. Gomes didn’t complete his writing assignment after being asked to rewrite copyrighted works. He told his client that he felt uncomfortable being asked to do what was obviously unethical and illegal.

Unfortunately, there are many hungry English-speaking writers who don’t, like Gomes, have a well paying day job at a national newspaper. Those struggling authors appear to be willing to write and rewrite at 15 cents an hour, even if the work is copyrighted and has been illegally lifted and repurposed. Those toiling in writing sweatshops have little incentive to search out the inevitable original uses of the material provided to them. Few could be expected to prove copyright infringement and then discard the work (and income) they need so badly.

But, as in all cases where something is highly valued, there will emerge abuses and distortions that are designed to take advantage of high demand. Content abuses descend even lower than greedy content resellers taking advantage of hungry writers willing to work for peanuts. Even though free web content is available from multiple well-known free content sources, some consumers of web content are so insistent on using only "original content" that they will resort to any means to create unique content.

Software Generates High-ranking Gibberish with Stolen Content

"Frankenstein Pages" are an emerging abuse of original content that were given this monstrous title by Barry Schwartz in a post to his SERoundtable blog where he points to a HighRankings Forum thread discussing this insidious new web content abuse.

This imaginative title is assigned to articles stitched together from pieces of multiple articles. The Frankenstein content thread is five pages long at highrankings as of this writing, with SEOs, copywriters and article authors quite rightly upset about new software that pulls sentences from multiple online articles and reassembles them into new, so-called, "Original Content" articles.

Webmaster blogs and forums are buzzing about "original content" abuses and copyright infractions, but little is offered in terms of a solution other than filing formal Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) complaints with service providers to have copyright-infringing sites taken offline. Another solution is to effectively have the infringing site banned from the search engines by filing those DMCA claims, and then notifying the search engines of that claim, requesting that the infringing site be removed from the search index.

A "mashup software" author (one of many software products making this offensive practice possible) is participating in the HighRankings forums, defending the value of his (free) article theft and sentence-stitching software. He claims (wrongly) that all uses of less than 400 words fall under the "Fair Use Doctrine" of copyright law. He has promoted his software via unsolicited emails to SEOs as a way that they might avoid paying for "original content". That software pulls content from free article sites, based on keyword phrases found in sentences in those articles, then randomly creates a new article using those keyword-focused sentences.

Those articles are often nonsensical and unreadable. And they’re often posted only as fodder for Google Adsense or YPN (Yahoo Publisher Network) contextual ads on sites that have no other purpose than to provide blocks of keyword-focused text in which to place those ads. These sites hope to attract visitors who then click away via the Adsense or YPN ads, thus generating advertising income for the site owner who hosts those "Frankenstein Pages". The software may also be used to add pages to a site simply to increase the number of pages on a particular topic so that site is seen as a solid resource with lots of valuable content in that area. While that may dupe the search engine spiders, it would never work for human readers who spend the time to read those automated assemblages of stolen content. Yet many believe that the software may help to increase the ranking of a site in search engine algorithms in some instances.

Anti-plagiarism site Plagiarism Today has a page that references one of the "Frankenstein Pages" membership sites. Here, the concept is discussed in depth, and references are made to both pro and con views.

Content Spiders and Scrapers and Bots

Copywriters and article marketers universally find the use of article "mashup software" offensive and argue that all "fair use" under U.S. Copyright law would require quoting and naming the author, and linking to authors’ sites (as required in terms of use required by the vast majority of authors writing for free distribution). Imagine the number of links the resulting "mashup" articles would carry if usage agreements were followed as required by authors. A standard four-paragraph, 500-word article would end up with between five and ten citations of author sources and links to each.

Further, those article distribution sites clearly post additional terms of use (see those at Publish101, GoArticles and EzineArticles), which prohibit the "scraping" of those sites with automated software of any kind, and each site employs methods of detection intended to stop "scraper bots" by denying them site access via automated means (IP address denial, access frequency "Captcha" image password forms). One tool employed by site owners is called, appropriately, Anti-Crawl. Each of the article sites also restrict the numbers of articles that can be used by any one site and the types of uses to which the pieces can be put (no warez, offensive, hate, or unsolicited commercial emails).

But, regardless of copyright laws, author usage restrictions or article site terms of use limitations, there continue even more abuses. The latest article content abuse to emerge is prepackaged article templated sites. Such sites comprise full databases of thousands of articles built into a "ready to publish" site. The pre-stocked content is openly scraped from the article archives mentioned above, plus many others. A little digging uncovers people selling article databases prepackaged with articles that were originally distributed to free article sites. The people assembling those packages don’t care that both authors and article archive sites specifically forbid such commercial use.

Private Label Rights make Illiterates into Authors

At the bottom of the web content barrel are content crumbs floating in a slimy, drippy morass of words known as "PLR" articles. "Private label rights" are an attempt to make recycled hashes of bad writing and encourage content hungry site owners to purchase awful article collections and apply their own names and site links to the bubbling morass of steaming wretch. Several PLR sources then encourage further "customization" of those reheated web content leftovers for resale to others!

Some PLR sites simply encourage site members and users of that rewarmed slurp to distribute it to the free article sites with their own names on it, which results in identical articles being submitted by dozens of named authors at article sites. This offensive practice has meant that legitimate article sites must adopt both automated filtering methods for duplicate content and the outright banning of some authors (often achieved using long lists of pen names used by single authors).

That "Original Content" is so highly valued by web sites means that illicit methods of content creation will proliferate, whether from poorly paid writers cranking it out honestly, poorly paid writers unknowingly rewriting copyrighted works, or "Mashup" software stealing sentences from authors without attribution, and reassembling "Frankenstein pages" and "Private Label Rights" articles out of stolen content.

There are hundreds of reputable professional writers who are capable of creating custom web content for those who are willing and able to pay professional writing fees. There are many thousands of freely available articles written by knowledgeable and experienced writers, which could be drawn from established article archives and used legitimately, with full author approval, if only the sites using those articles agree to the terms of use plainly stated by authors. But those who resort to "Frankenstein Pages" and "Private Label Rights" articles made up of stolen, plagiarized or "writing sweatshop"-produced work are perverting legitimate web content.

Legitimate authors and established article archive sites are hoping for search engine filtering that drops results from obvious "Frankenstein Pages" and "Private Label Rights" articles made up of stolen, regurgitated and rehashed sentences. For those who aren’t familiar with "exact match" searches, it is possible to copy a string of unique content from any text, enclose it in quotes and enter that text in the search box at any search engine to find that exact quote wherever it appears online. So if you’ve paid someone substantial fees to write new and truly unique content, it may be wise to perform searches for at least a few of the sentences in the finished works to see if they appear anywhere else on the web.

Copy Protection

Due to the previously mentioned content scrapers that trawl the web stealing content to re-use in different forms, services have sprung up to help protect copy online. The best known copy protection service is called CopyScape, and is available in both free and paid versions. The free version is simply based on a Google API that performs a Google search for your unique content. A paid version starts at $4.95 monthly and allows you to protect an entire site. You can have the tool monitor other uses of your unique text across the web, and send emails to notify you of infractions. The free version is available at http://www.copyscape.com, while the paid service is available at http://www.copysentry.com.

If you’ve paid for high quality copywriting and have invested heavily in your web content, you should consider preventative measures such as free anti-crawl software, which is designed to prevent automated theft by content scraping bots, and protective measures like CopyScape that alert you to thefts. DMCA claims to have sites shut down can be pursued once stolen content is discovered and the offending site refuses to remove it. Site owners who use your content without permission, and refuse to remove it, may respond once DMCA claims are made with search engines and their web site is subsequently removed from search results.

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