Confessions of a professional clickbait writer

I had no idea what SEO was when I was hired by a Silicon Valley healthcare startup in 2018. But it wasn’t long before I saw the value higher rankings in search engines.

About 75 percent clicks go to the first three search engine results. To put this into context, I run a student advice website with one of the top-ranked articles for the question “How much do college students spend on food?” In 2019, my article was the number one search result for this query. This year, 35,339 people have read it. In 2021, my article fell to the bottom of the first page, where it hovered between points eight and 10. The page only received 8,470 views last year, a drop of 76 percent.

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

Today, more businesses than ever rely heavily on SEO to introduce their products to new eyes. Since this is a long-term growth strategy, companies invest more resources than never in SEO. Here’s why it’s troubling: Companies that have access to expensive SEO AI tools and the funds to pay freelance writers often outperform true experts who lack such resources. It’s a numbers game: the more an entity is willing to spend, the more likely its information, accurate or not, will end up at the top of search engines. Ask yourself: how often do you search for the answer you are looking for on the second page — or even the bottom of the first page — of the search results?

Getting to the top of the first page on Google, like life in many American cities, is becoming less affordable every day.

The trick of SEO

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

When clients ask me to do research before writing an article, the instructions are usually quite simple: “Look at what the best articles do and do it better.”

“Better”, I have come to understand, does not mean more factual or presented with more compelling statistics. The client wants me to reiterate what the top ranked websites have already said. By spicing up topic-related terms that people might search for, it’s not hard to make poached words sound like mine.

I seriously try to create original and well-sourced content. Still, I’d be foolish not to select page ideas that Google thinks win the ranking game. I don’t get paid to write beautiful prose; I get paid to grab the eyeballs.

But for freelancers working for SEO content farms that produce a dozen or more articles a day, the search standards are much lower. It is a salary. A Google spokesperson told me that the search engine identifies and penalizes spam and scraped contentcorn I regularly spot reworded phrases, or even 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 background of the agency’s Google Analytics page, the marketing manager clicked on a company whose website was getting around 100,000 monthly views.

“This article gets about 20,000 clicks every month,” he boasted of a post written by a freelancer but bearing the CEO’s signature.

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

That’s another thing about SEO. Companies get a great return on investment by paying an unknown freelancer to write an article with the CEO’s name on it.

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

The fact is that many companies do.

To sum up the SEO one-upmanship game: freelance writers, cheaper than real experts, are paid to write things that come out of their wheelhouse. If they follow the basics of SEO, their articles — especially those with a well-known person’s name — can rank high in search engines.

The catch is that the reason people invest in SEO in the first place — to drive new visitors and potential customers to their website — may soon be gone. Consider Google’s snippet feature that previews answers and the accordion FAQ box that appears 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, companies that pay for SEO-optimized content are losing money. Once the information intermediary, Google turns into an information landing page. This is one of the reasons why you often have to scroll through so many ads before you get to the information you are looking for. Google’s revenue from search advertising was $149 billion in 2021.

A cog in the SEO machine

For some time I don’t feel very good about the work I do. I may spend my working day writing, but I don’t write for artistic expression. I sell my words to a search engine. In that sense, I’m more of a literary salesperson 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 shoddy, unaccountable information online, I wonder if SEO is harming us in other more subtle ways. It’s entirely possible that America’s mental health crisis is being exacerbated by our efforts to solve life’s complex problems with the practical “Seven Simple Steps” articles. Even though many of us know these bulleted formats are superficial, they are great for SEO.

I used to think of Google as the information highway – an unbiased resource where you could find the best answers to your questions, ranked in terms of quality. That’s not to say that Google turns a blind eye; the spokesperson said the company believes it has halved the number of “irrelevant results” on searches over the past seven years. Nevertheless, I’ve 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 this concern.

While having lunch, I wondered about something. Like most of us, I googled it. I clicked on 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 photo of my face. The article said “Written by Ben Kissam”.

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

Ben Kissam is a writer and comedian from Denver. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @benkissam.