Confessions of a professional clickbait writer

I had no clue what SEO was when I was hired by a Silicon Valley health startup in 2018. But it wasn’t long before I understood the value of ranking higher in search engines.

Approximately 75 percent of clicks go to the top three results on search engines. To put that into context, I run a college-student tips website with one of the top-ranking articles for the question “How much do college students spend on food?” In 2019, my article was the number one search result for that query. That year, 35,339 people read it. In 2021, my article dropped to the bottom of page one, where it hovered between spots eight and 10. The page received only 8,470 views last year, a 76 percent decline.

If I sold a product or service through my website, dropping even eight spots on Google would have lost me 26,869 potential new customers. I’ve seen search engine updates affect a company’s search rankings so much that they effectively destroyed a five-figure monthly online business overnight.

Today, more businesses than ever before rely heavily on SEO to get their products in front of new eyes. Because it’s viewed as a long-term growth strategy, companies are investing more resources than ever in SEO. Here’s why this is troubling: Companies that have access to expensive SEO artificial intelligence tools and the funds to pay freelance writers often outcompete true experts who lack such resources. It’s a numbers game: The more an entity is willing to spend, the greater the likelihood that its information — accurate or not — ends up at the top of search engines. Ask yourself: How often do you look for the answer you seek on the second page — or even the bottom of the first page — of search results?

Access to the top of page one on Google, like life in many of America’s cities, is becoming less affordable every day.

The artifice of SEO

Being an SEO writer is an exercise in imagination. I’m a city dweller who’s never owned a home, yet I pay my rent by writing home improvement articles. I once wrote a Christian book review right after writing about language hacks that men can use to pick up women. I’m a former physical education teacher with expired personal training credentials, yet from 2018 to 2021, I wrote hundreds of health articles.

When clients ask me to conduct research before writing an article, the instructions are usually pretty simple: “See what the top articles are doing, and do it better.”

“Better,” I’ve come to understand, doesn’t mean more factual or presented with more compelling statistics. The client wants me to reiterate what the top-ranking websites have already said. By peppering in terms related to the topic that people might search for, it’s not hard to make poached words sound like my own.

I try in earnest to create original, well-sourced content. Yet I’d be silly not to cherry- pick ideas from pages that, according to Google, are winning the rankings game. I’m not paid to write beautiful prose; I’m paid to grab eyeballs.

But for freelancers working for SEO content farms who churn out a dozen or more articles per day, the research standards are far lower. It’s about a paycheck. A Google spokesperson told me that the search engine identifies and penalizes spam and scraped content, but I regularly spot reshuffled sentences, if not outright plagiarism, on the first page of Google search results.

Recently, I attended an SEO Lunch and Learn Zoom call for a marketing agency I write for. Showing us the back end of the agency’s Google Analytics page, the marketing director clicked on a company whose website was getting about 100,000 monthly views.

“This article receives about 20,000 clicks each month,” he boasted of a piece written by a freelancer but bearing the CEO’s byline.

“[He] doesn’t even know his company has a blog,” the marketing director said, referring to the CEO and laughing.

This is another thing about SEO. Companies get a great return on their investment by paying an unknown freelancer to write a piece that the CEO’s name will go on.

“Author authority is good for SEO,” you’ll hear. But if that blog has 100,000 monthly readers and the CEO hasn’t written any of its content, is that really author authority? What if everyone did it that way?

The thing is, many companies do.

To sum up the game of SEO-upmanship: Freelance writers, cheaper than actual experts, get paid to write things that are way out of their wheelhouse. If they follow basic SEO principles, their articles — especially ones bearing the name of someone well known — can rank high in search engines.

The kicker is that the reason people invest in SEO in the first place — to get new visitors and potential customers to their website — may soon be gone. Consider Google’s content-snippet feature that previews answers and the FAQ accordion box that pops up before the first search result. With each of these tools, Google tries to answer your question before you even have to click on any of the search results.

If you find the answer to your question without ever leaving Google, the companies paying for SEO-optimized content lose money. Once the information middleman, Google is morphing into an information landing page. This is one reason you often have to scroll through so many ads before you get to the information you’re looking for. Google’s revenue from search-related advertising was $149 billion in 2021.

A cog in the SEO machine

For some time I haven’t felt great about the work I’m doing. I may spend my workday writing, but I’m not writing for artistic expression. I’m marketing my words to a search engine. In that sense, I’m more of a literary salesman than a writer, using industry-standard sentence structure and similar tactics to sell Google’s algorithm on my product.

In addition to the spread of low-quality, zero-accountability information online, I wonder if SEO harms us in other, subtler ways. It’s entirely possible that the mental health crisis in America is being exacerbated by our efforts to fix complex life problems with “Seven Simple Steps” how-to articles. Even though a lot of us know these bullet-pointed formats are superficial, they’re great for SEO.

I used to think of Google as the information superhighway — an unbiased resource where you could go to find the best answers to your questions, ranked in terms of quality. This is not to say that Google turns a blind eye; the spokesperson said that the company believes it’s cut in half the number of “irrelevant results” on searches over the past seven years. Even so, I have come to believe that Google’s primacy as the default search engine comes at the expense of quality information.

Something happened recently that put a finer point on that concern.

While eating lunch, I found myself wondering about something. Like most of us do, I Googled it. I clicked the top result and read the majority of the article, only to be completely shocked when I reached the bottom of the page and saw the image in the author box.

It was a picture of my face. The article said “Written by Ben Kissam.”

I’ve written so many articles on topics I’m not qualified to write about that I accidentally learned something from an article I wrote.

Ben Kissam is a writer and stand-up comedian in Denver. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @benkissam.

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