Swimming Through Mud: The State of Publishing Online

Publishing online today is like swimming through mud—difficult, unclear, tiring. Any print publisher of any stripe—book, news, magazine, school, corporate, etc.—looking to put content online is quickly overwhelmed by a mudslide of large, and sometimes esoteric, questions:

  • Free content or paid?
  • How do we prevent rampant piracy?
  • Is SEO still a thing?
  • Flipbook- or blog-style?
  • PDF, ePub, iBook, or Mobi?
  • What’s this about social media…Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, SnapChat, Google+, Bloopt…?
  • Do we use a CMS? WordPress or Drupal or Joomla or something proprietary or should we just build something in-house?
  • Do we need a blog? If so, how many? How often should we post?
  • Do we need videos?
  • What the s#$! is content marketing?

Unfortunately, the final question a responsible publisher will ask is: Is putting content online even worth it? No one would blame any publisher for electing not to drop the whole company into the digital mudslide.

Let’s step back for a moment—away from all the noise. Living silently at the heart of publishing is a primary goal that is simple and pure and honorable: Distribute valued content to an interested audience. The reach of the Internet, therefore, is a tremendous gift to publishers—instant global distribution. Good idea? Click. Boom. Worldwide.

Unfortunately, we humans need food, shelter, education, and other things that ground-breaking news, insightful articles, or “ripping yarns” can’t buy on their own. And, therefore, in order to sustain that primary goal, publishers must have a secondary goal: Earn enough money to sustain the primary goal.

This is where the waters get muddy.

By why is it so much harder online? How’d we get here?

Problematic Expectations…and the Wrong Solution

The Internet! The digital Wild, Wild West! A free-for-all! Content on the early Internet was free—free as in both “free speech” and as in “free beer.” This was due, in part, to the fact that the Internet was not developed by a commercial entity, and, in part, to the fact that software developers are a notoriously idealistic crowd and worked to keep corporate hands off their free medium. (A battle still raging today.) The result of this “free” Internet was that, for the better part of two decades, when people opened up their web browsers for anything other than shopping for physical goods, they were not asked to open up their wallets. We, as content-producers and web developers, effectively trained the digital-content-consuming people of the world that content delivered through the browser was free.

Unfortunately, in order to deal with the audience’s ingrained expectation of free content, early content providers chose not to combat the misguided expectation head on by charging consumers fair prices for valuable content, but instead to sell advertising—mostly in the form of 468 x 60 banner advertising, sidebar advertising, pop-up advertising, and so on. This decision split a publisher’s loyalties (as had been true in print, of course, for a long time). The people who paid the bills were not the people consuming the content.

The Result is Clickbait and the Degradation of Content

Publishers were paid for this advertising space in two ways: per click (CPC or PPC) and per one thousand views (PPM). Unlike some more traditional advertising payment schemes used in print and elsewhere (per month, per issue, etc.), the Internet’s technology made possible a new degree of advertisement tracking. Advertisers could now see EXACTLY how effective each piece of content was at pushing their advertising—both in terms of views and conversions (clicks). This new technology linked page views (or content views) to a publisher’s online revenue.

The priority for publishers, therefore, devolved from producing quality content to producing tantalizing content. The “best” content produced clicks, not enlightenment/entertainment/education for the reader.

Once clicks became paramount, optimization became a necessity. Before Facebook and Twitter and social sharing, people found content online in two ways: as a referral from a friend (usually via email) or through a search engine. And, because gaming the search engines was MUCH EASIER than producing content worthy of sharing, people began pouring money hand-over-fist into search engine optimization (SEO). Attaining the top spot on Yahoo!, AltaVista, WebCrawler, or AOL became holy grail of publishing online because it translated to view, which translated to clicks, which translated to advertiser dollars. So, what might have been otherwise quality content was “optimized” and mangled to make room for trending keywords and link-trading schemes. A few sites and publishers did this well, and made a lot of money. Everybody else, however, was confused by the dark art of SEO, questioned its legitimacy, and reluctantly tried to play catch-up.

Google entered the scene and struck an initial blow for the purity of content by flipping early search engine technology on its head. Google did not rank a page based on the page’s own content (goodbye keyword-bombing), but rather the words used in, and number of, links to a page from other sites (hello Google-bombing). SEO experts quickly figured out new content-manipulating tactics to game the Google system and a few people made a lot of money again. Then Google would block the SEO tricks. And the SEO experts would figure out some way to twist the content to their advantage, and a few people made a lot of money.

The Google vs. SEO war bounced back and forth for a decade with each side having the advantage at different points. That war is over. Neither side won (Google just eliminated the battlefield by going “social”), and web content emerged broken and twisted from too many manipulations performed under the guise of “optimization.”

More recently, search engines have incorporated social behaviors into their page ranking algorithms. The number of times content is “liked,” “tweeted,” “pinned,” or posted on Google+, now bears on that content’s placement in search. And, of course, higher ranking means more advertising dollars. The “crowd-source/social search ranking” concept has merit—it means actual humans must read, like, and share content in order for it to move up the search rankings. But, it also unfortunate side-effects. In an attempt to get weak/fluff content seen and shared by the largest number of people, article titles are being wrenched from actually-informative titles into sensationalistic cliffhangers—and are often accompanied by an inappropriate (inappropriate both to the subject matter and sometimes inappropriate for polite society) thumbnail images. This practice is known as clickbaiting. Some examples:

The Aftermath

The mudslide through which we’re all swimming today is made up of the painful legacy of free content on the early Internet. We inherited:

  • content revenue linked to content views;
  • an advertising-based revenue model users hate and have gotten good at filtering out;
  • the lingering (but now largely-defunct) content manipulation strategies from the SEO war;
  • social click-baiting;
  • and split loyalties that encourage the degradation of content for the sake of views.

Why on Earth would a publisher who respects their audience and their content look at the current online publishing mudslide and decide to jump in?! It’s disgusting.

So let’s not jump in. Let’s start over.

Nothing is Sacred, Save the Content

Now is the time for publishers to clear the decks. Let’s stop treating the symptoms and tackle the cause of the current situation head-on: the expectation of free. We need to retrain the majority of Internet consumers that the web browser is not a free-for-all. Hard work goes into creating, editing, and publishing quality content, and that hard work deserves fair compensation from the people who depend on it. People need to learn to pay for content. It’s the cleanest solution. And it’s possible.

Some great work, in fact, in this retraining effort has already been done by giant publishers such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and, though unsuccessfully, The Onion. And, although Apple, Google, and Amazon deftly avoided the issue by building non-browser-based digital marketplaces for their iPad, Nexus, and Kindle devices, their work still had the advantageous effect of pulling people into the habit of whipping out credit cards to pay for digital content. The groundwork has been laid.

It is time for the rest of the publishers online to join the effort. Our new mantra should be: Nothing is sacred, save the content. Throw out the rest of everything we “know” or have heard we should do online. Be loyal only to the audience. Focus only on the content.

The steps forward are straightforward and, I hope, come as a breath of fresh air:

  • ignore the entire digital mudslide (SEO, PPC, Clickbaiting, linking schemes, etc.);
  • focus on creating strong, clean content;
  • focus on building an enthusiastic audience;
  • charge for content.

Introducing Zeen101

As you may have guessed by now, we, here at Zeen101, are purists. We believe quality content is worth protecting and worth money. Our team has been collected from publishing, writing, marketing, software development, and business. Our goal is to build the tools that will allow the not-so-deep-pocketed publishers online to join in the fight to simplify how content is created, delivered, and monetized online.

We’re just getting started here at Zeen101, but we’ve already got some great tools to offer publishers.

  • Our IssueM plugin for WordPress allow the web’s most popular digital publishing platform to produce issues, instead of a steady stream of content. This return to issue-based publishing eases publishing schedules, creates new revenue possibilities, and decreases the apprehension readers have about buying content through a browser. (People are happier to pay for “issues” than they are for “access.”)
  • Our Leaky Paywall plugin for WordPress is an out-of-the-box solution for publishers looking to charge for their content, while remaining accessible to search engines, social sharing, and curious non-subscribers. The Leaky Paywall plugin is fully-customizable giving publishers the ability to set their own thresholds for subscription—3 articles per day, 10 per month, or anything else.
  • Our Issue-to-PDF extension for our IssueM plugin gives publishers the ability to sell PDF downloads of any or all of their issues.
  • Our support forums will help publishers with their technical questions as well as their marketing and revenue questions. There will be bumps in the road. We do not have all the answers. But, we have an excellent team of enthusiastic experts and we are looking forward to working with our community to solve any issues that arise.

Down the road we’ll offer Zeen101 how-to videos, a podcast, and monthly issues published digitally—all on the topic of elevating the quality of content online while increasing the money it earns. And, true to our beliefs, we will charge a fair price for our content. We hope you find that we’re worth it.

We started Zeen101 with the hope that we can help simply the landscape of publishing online. As I said, we’re purists and are fed up with the current slide online content is taking into clickbait. I’m Jesse, the newest partner here at the company, and along with Peter and Lew and Jeremy we hope our tools, support, community, and clarity of vision will give you the help and inspiration to take up this challenge with us.

Welcome to Zeen101 and thanks for reading to the bottom. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below.