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I remember learning about commodities in my college econ class at Indiana University. I learned that a commodity is a tangible good that’s defined to the point of standardization, is fungible and has an established and agreed upon market value. A classic commodity is a barrel of oil: When you buy a barrel of oil for the fair market price you know exactly what you’re getting, and you can’t tell your barrel from the next.

Oil DrumsWhen you buy content from a writer as if it’s a commodity, you have little idea what you’re getting because its ultimate value can fluctuate wildly once it’s published. The value you can derive from great content can be astounding: increased traffic from search and social, increased brand recognition, sales and lead conversions and more. But paying for content by the word has a very loose correlation to this value creation and, in some cases, may even be counter-productive to creating value. It’s common sense that writing has more impact when it’s concise and succinct. This reminds me of Mark Twain’s famous quote:

“I am sorry for such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

I blame this content commodity marketplace, at least in part, on my industry. For some time, the SEO industry has preached that winning at search means producing the most content possible with little focus on quality. But this strategy is blown apart when you factor in social’s ever-increasing impact on search results, and the fact that content is almost useless if it doesn’t drive some form of conversion. If content doesn’t drive social and conversion, it’s likely just SPAM—my second favorite four letter word.

With SPAM around every corner, just a fraction of the immensity of content produced on the web each day drives significant business value, and it’s extremely difficult to standardize and define. Content like this has its own soul that resonates with its intended audience, and it’s unique as you are. You may get content like this every once in a while by paying by the word, but it’s a crap shoot.

I don’t have the perfect answer to this SPAM-producing conundrum we’re in right now, but I ask that businesses and writers alike start opening their minds to post-publish compensation based on traffic, social shares, conversions and other variables that denote real value. Even a mix of compensation, with some up front and some later, makes far more business sense. I know this type of compensation is difficult to measure and delays gratification, but I fear what may happen if we continue to incentivize writers by the word.

I promise Panda isn’t the only update Google will release that focuses on content quality over quantity. I believe social media relevance search algorithm updates will have some of the most dramatic impacts on quality over quantity in the near future, and they will have nothing to do with word count. Let’s start treating content as unique and limitless in its value when done right. It can’t be one-size-fits-all.

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