The Incentives to Publish No Longer Reward the Web’s Creators

It’s been almost two months since my last post here. For those of you who pay attention to the digital marketing world, the infrequency of updates may be missed, but it’s likely familiar. Many, many web creators (those who publish, in any format, on their own sites rather than big tech’s platforms) who historically published content with great frequency are doing less of it.

I think it’s no coincidence that as the major social, discovery, and amplification platforms have reduced the value of externally-published content, the quantity of published material from historically active creators has declined.

Let’s break down what’s happened over the last five years:

  • Google dramatically reduced the visibility of organic links in favor of paid advertisements and Alphabet-owned properties/instant answers. They’ve simultaneously gone from the high 80%s to the mid-90%s with their monopoly control of the search landscape.
  • The major social players have all either:
    • prohibited external links (TikTok)
    • reduced the reach of anything that includes an external link (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – indirectly by reducing reach* of posts that include “link in bio” or similar)
    • encouraged user cultures skeptical of external links (Reddit, Discord, YouTube, Pinterest, Quora)
    • and killed or never allowed referral tracking so creators can see where their traffic comes from (Instagram, Discord, WhatsApp, Google Discover, and others)
  • Meanwhile, no major new platform has risen to benefit creators who publish on their own sites. Google Discover is the possible exception, but since it hides referral traffic, supposedly reporting on it only in Search Console, it’s intentionally hard to determine or trust)

In 2016, creating amazing content that people would want to consume and share was a powerful way to build a brand on the web. In 2021, that same content is unlikely to get 10% of the reach or clicks it received just a few years ago.

In 2016 (heck, in 2018, even!) some 10X content in B2B might earn its publisher hundreds of shares, retweets, posts, and links. In 2021, Twitter is trying hard not to amplify the reach of tweets that contain a link. Very few communities on Reddit or Quora will upvote a post with an external link. Facebook’s news feed algorithm torpedoes the reach of posts with external links. LinkedIn’s does likewise. Instagram has never let you link out in posts, but should that post contain a reference to a link in your bio or an external URL, it, too, will sink in feed visibility. And since social media is a major way that new content is discovered, engaged-with, and linked-to, this social malaise leads to an inability to rank in Google search, too.

The incentives for content creators is clear: make stuff for our platform. Native video. Native images. Native text posts. Don’t you dare link out. Or we’ll crush your reach. We’ll end your engagement streaks. We’ll bury you so far down the feed no one will see you.

Conduct and publish amazing research on your own site. Crickets.
Publish it as a tweet thread, a native LinkedIn article, a big graphic of text on Facebook, a photo series on Instagram. Likes, shares, visibility, and the dopamine hit of social validation are yours.

I’m exaggerating. But only slightly. Incentives govern behavior.

Algorithms that optimize for engagement train creators on how to behave, what to produce, and how to share it.

Content marketing has changed. Social media marketing has changed. SEO has changed.

They’ve changed because the platforms moved the goalposts, or rather, replaced how “goals” could be scored. It’s not just the crowding of creator opportunities, it’s the systems and incentives.

What’s a Creator to Do?

I think our options are pretty simple:

  1. Play to the platforms’ incentives and earn branding, following, engagement, and awareness (rather than traffic), then find creative ways to benefit from that platform-
  2. Use the “lots for you, a little for me,” methodology to optimize for engagement, then draw traffic with an occasional link
  3. Focus on the much-more-highly-engaged value of email subscribers, and less on raw reach (as I often say, I’d rather have 1 new email subscriber than 1,000 more followers on Facebook)
  4. Invest in the digital channels that still earn high relative engagement: publishing or earning visibility on other people’s well-followed platforms (podcasts, YouTube channels, industry publications, email newsletters, etc), digital PR, press, etc

What about search/SEO you might ask?

I have some thoughts, likely best expressed through this advice I recently gave a fellow founder (in the B2C software world):

I still talk to a lot of folks in SEO, both on the consulting and in-house sides, and what I hear is this:

  • It’s harder to rank than ever, because of more competition, more need to build brand and brand preference in order to earn rankings, more difficulty in getting people to pay attention to great content, and Google’s bias to showing paid ads and their own properties/answers in the SERPs
  • If a new brand is trying to rank, it makes sense to target a few keywords with some content that’s useful for other reasons, e.g. they need it for existing/potential customers, it’s viable to amplify on their social or email channels, it’s valuable in the sales process, etc.
  • But beyond that, it likely pays to grow brand and focus on other channels for multiple years before expecting SEO to kick in significantly
  • And, sadly, a lot of SEO work has shifted to helping already-established brands optimize what they’ve got, move up a few positions in an already-competitive set of results, and fix technical issues rather than helping new players get traction

I’m sure there are outliers and exceptions. But it’s hard to argue the landscape’s unchanged.

Here’s what I should probably do: ignore the platforms. Write regularly. Don’t stress about making everything I publish 10/10. Aim for 6/10. Be OK with some 4s and 5s. Let email, word of mouth, PR/press, and the small bits of social media amplification the networks still allow to do their work.

But, when the incentives are so frustratingly against you (and, frankly, when investing in primarily product marketing has driven such incredible growth for SparkToro these last few months), it’s hard to get motivated. I’m sure I’m not alone.

* In some experiments, like this one from AgoraPulse, adding “link in bio” on Instagram reduced avg post reach by more than 30%! However, this experiment from Hootsuite found no statistically significant loss in reach by adding that text. Unfortunately, the scale of these tests is fairly limited, so it’s hard to draw unassailable conclusions. All we know for sure is Instagram tends to drive very little external traffic (and it hides the referral string on the visits it does send).