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Monday, August 21, 2006

Content writer expertise...Considering the source...

This is another post related to the question of whether it's better to work with a writer who specializes in a particular area or a generalist (see: Choosing a writer based on topic expertise.., Mixed reaction...). This time, it's more about the actual qualifications of a writer than simple writer or client preference.

I read an article by Shari Thurow at ClickZ entitled, "When Content Isn't King in SEO" that presents an interesting critique of third party content providers.

Thurow raises some strong arguments with respect to quality and originality, with which I agree completely. Her distate for content plagiarism and misappropriation is well-placed. However, when addressing the issue of quality she states:

"The problem with these so-called high-quality content providers is the content is neither unique nor high quality. If I want tips on purchasing an ergonomic chair for lumbar support, I want to read tips from an ergonomics professional or a chiropractor. I don't want to read an article by a college student who needs beer money."

As a third-pary content provider (read "freelance writer"), I thought that observation deserved a response. I've heard and read others who have said the same thing, and although there is some truth to the argument, I think it also overlooks some important considerations.

Obviously, I would maintain that there are quality content providers and not every supplier is engaged in rip-offs or churning out garbage. That's probably something with which she'd agree, too.

Thurow's implied argument that content should be provided by experts within the field isn't particularly compelling, however. I think her utopian vision of online content suffers from a few problems.

It assumes that there are experts who are both willing and able to produce content for buyers and that these experts are readily accessible. It isn't quite that easy. In fact, in the fast-moving, bottom line conscious world of online commerce, it is very difficult. One could find a chiropractor willing to write the material, but the cost would be through the roof, the turnaround would not be as quick as one would like, and there is no guarantee that the expert's knowledge will translate into quality written material.

There's a good chance, in fact, that the buyer would be forwarding the chiropractor's article to a professional writer or editor to repair it and to make it readable. When one considers that the content will probably perform better if factors like web usability, keyword density, etc. are considered, it seems even less likely that you could find a ready and willing chiropractor who could get the job done.

Her example of the chiropractor really caught my eye, because I recently finished a few pieces on a very similar topic. Let it be known, by the way, that I am not a back pain specialist or an expert in chiropracty. Nonetheless, I think I was able to produce unique and meaningful copy for the buyer.

It required a great deal of legitimate research and a willingness to learn a great deal "from scratch." Though I am not an ergonomics expert, I learned enough from qualified experts to reach some well-documented and supported conclusions. I was able to comb through the research materials and combine that learning with well-honed writing skills to produce quality content.

I recently mentioned author and journalist Gregg Easterbrook in a forum discussion. Easterbrook writers for many big name publications doing feature articles on everything from Harvard admission standards to global warming. He's written a humorous novel and a book on religious texts. I've seen his work in everything from Wired to the NYT to The Atlantic, and he has tackled just about every issue under the sun. I don't think he's an "expert" in all of them in terms of credentials, but he is able to combine good research and good writing to get results.

I am not necessarily comparing myself or what I do with Easterbrook's daily regimen, but I do think that's a very real example of how a focus on expertise can be misplaced.

I once had a Content Done Better client approach me about doing a series of articles on shoes. He asked me what I knew about women's shoes. I told him he didn't need a shoe expert. He needed an expert writer who could learn about shoes and convey that information to readers effectively. I've applied that same outlook in other situations (one of which, I believe is mentioned in one of the past CDB blogs referenced in the first paragraph).

I know Thurow was concentrating on risks and not on the content writing barrel's better writers, but I do think it's important for people to realize that not everyone plying this trade is a kid just trying to earn a few bucks for beer. There are many of us who take a great pride in doing good work while providing truly original material.

I don't need to be a shoe expert to turn out a great shoe article. Gregg Easterbrook doesn't need to be a climatologist to write compelling articles on global warning. You don't need the dean from the College of Chiropracty to provide tips for selecting ergonomic office furniture. You can produce the desired effect by utlizing a talented writer with strong research skills and a commitment to excellence.

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