Trying to stand out in a sea of content is getting harder and harder. With generative AI increasing content production, maintaining a thoughtful, helpful, and exciting content calendar is actually becoming more challenging. It seems that everyone is publishing more content — so how can your voice shine amidst the word soup?
And what about AI in search? How will that impact what content gets seen?
Right now, we’re in the beginning stages of this revolution. There are no clear-cut answers, but there are some helpful ideas that can help you create a new strategy or evolve your current one so you can stay ahead of this seismic shift.
And it all starts with information gain.
I believe information gain is the differentiating factor you need to inject into your content to maintain a foothold and even increase your search visibility. Let’s talk about what’s happening in the world of SEO content right now and what information gain could mean for your content plan and processes.
The Rise of Copycat Content
Every content marketer has probably heard of the skyscraper technique. And I’m sure there are a bunch of other names for it, too. It’s all about doing what the competition has done and trying to do it better. Did your competitor do a 1,000-word post on staining a deck? Write a 1,500-word post on staining and maintaining a deck.
A lot of content writers focus on existing content that’s ranking well for their desired keywords and simply recreate it for their own sites. They may change the wording and the formatting, but the seeds of the content are the same. They haven’t added anything and every top-ranking article parrots the same points. This actually leads to a poor search experience.
And Google has caught on, as we’ll see below.
AI & Copycat Content
Generative AI has made huge waves. First, there were concerns about how Google would handle AI-generated content (no worries here, just make sure it’s accurate, helpful, and aimed at readers). Now we’re in a deluge of AI-generated content. We can all become content machines if we so wish and continue to add to the unending sea. But is it really serving us — and more importantly, is it serving those whom we’re trying to reach?
Right now, AI is turbo-boosting copycat content online. AI’s inability to create anything new — since it’s a predictive algorithm trained on existing content — means that ChatGPT’s launch in Nov 2022 has led to thousands of derivative content pieces that fail to bring something distinct to the conversation. Some AI writing platforms even take subheadings from top-ranking content to create content outlines. This is just begging for copycat content!
Does this mean you need to eschew AI tools and stick to human-generated content?
I don’t think it does. There are plenty of useful ways to integrate AI into the content creation process to help you consistently deliver quality pieces that educate and entertain your audience. Finding that balance isn’t easy, but it’s well worth it.
What this does mean, though, is that we need to be mindful of our reliance on AI. Every AI-assisted piece needs to be touched by a human (and often reworked) so that it brings something new to the conversation.
But What About Word Count?
At some point, word count became a guiding principle for content creation and the skyscraper technique. The idea was that you had to have at least the same word count or more than the top-ranking content pieces for your desired keyword. This has led to increasingly longer pieces — and in many cases, it doesn’t make sense. When Google started favoring long-form content, we went wild writing comprehensive pieces that covered a topic from every conceivable angle — even if the keyword didn’t merit it.
One area where this wordiness is obvious is on cooking blogs. If you’re hungry and want to find a recipe, be prepared to scroll through a lot of text. You’ll find everything from the history or origin of the different ingredients used in the recipe to every possible substitution or variation for the recipe to reminiscences of when the writer used to eat or cook the recipe. All in the name of word count.
Google employees have repeatedly said word count doesn’t matter. And yet many SEOs and content writers use word count as a baseline. We’ll look at the word counts for the top-ranking posts for a particular keyword and try to match or surpass it. SEO tools mention word counts as if they’re critical measures for understanding content.
While I do believe that understanding the average word count of the top-ranking pages can be helpful for determining how in-depth of an article you’ll need to create to compete with those pages and reach competitive parity, it doesn’t always correlate with quality content. Looking at average word count can also help you see what Google is currently valuing as quality content for a keyword, but it doesn’t help you determine what Google will deem worthy in the future.
Rarely has focusing on word count made content better. Nor will it help content rank in the future. Shifting focus to information gain allows writers and subject matter experts to share their expertise and unique viewpoints, providing real value to their audience.
What Is Information Gain in SEO?
In SEO, information gain is the idea of providing details that others aren’t. For example, let’s say I’m writing about keyword difficulty. Plenty of SEOs have covered the topic, so if I want to create a helpful piece that can outrank existing content, I have to go beyond regurgitating what’s already been published. I need to bring something new to the table so readers walk away having learned something — like how to determine what keyword difficulty they can rank content for. That’s information gain.
Google and Information Gain
In a 2018 patent titled “Contextual estimation of link information gain,” Google described the process of prescribing information gain scores to content as a way to determine what pages may provide more value to a searcher, especially if they’ve already looked for similar content. The idea is that by providing links to content with unique information, they’re increasing the chances that a searcher will find what they need.
Information Gain Scores
As part of their patent, Google described a way to assess the relative information gain that a piece of content provides by assigning it an information gain score.
An information gain score is a measurement of how unique content is when compared to other content indexed (or shown to searchers) for the same query.
The goal is to assess the content that a user may encounter for a query and determine what page will likely provide new information that the user hasn’t encountered before so Google can serve it up in search results.
The abstract for the patent states:
“Based on the information gain scores of a set of documents, the documents can be provided to the user in a manner that reflects the likely information gain that can be attained by the user if the user were to view the documents”
Thus: Google may use information gain scores to rank content, if it isn’t doing so already.
Remember, for the most part, Google keeps its ranking factors under wraps. SEOs have uncovered several by running tests, but since Google is constantly tweaking its algorithms, one of the best ways of discovering changes is often digging through patent docs like the one quoted above.
Eagle-eyed readers will notice the patent mentioned above is from 2018 — so why are we talking about it now?
Not only does it take Google time to implement its grand ideas, but:
With AI-integrated search, information gain scores may take on a new level of importance. And I think content marketers need to take note.
Information Gain & AI Search
SGE, or search generative experience, is the integration of Bard into Google search results. While currently in beta, adult users with a personal Gmail can access SGE and begin receiving AI results right in SERPs.
Google uses top-ranking posts to generate AI responses at the top of certain queries. While we don’t know exactly how this will impact the future of search, Google’s patent seems to indicate that providing unique information may improve your chances of ranking well — which may then make it more likely that your copy will be used in an SGE response.
Since Google is now incorporating citations in its AI-generated content, this feature could lead to additional traffic to your website.
Google also specifically mentions the use of machine learning models (MLMs) in its patent as a way to generate information gain scores.
It seems an easy leap to take a process for an MLM to assess and rank information gain and use it to teach a large language model like Bard. With so much copycat content, ensuring that SGE is providing a positive experience and truly meeting the search intent of queries may lead Google to rely on information gain scores to assess how SGE should formulate responses.
Even if you aren’t concerned about showing up in SGE queries, information gain also works in tandem with the helpful content update, which has implications for how well your content ranks.
Information Gain & Helpful Content
Google introduced the helpful content update in August 2022 with the goal of providing more valuable search results to users. Spammy and poor quality content took ranking hits, while quality content written for people increased in search visibility.
Information gain, which by virtue is both helpful and people-first, aligns perfectly with the helpful content update and offers content teams a path forward for creating quality content that ranks well and provides value.
So how can you improve your content and switch your focus to information gain instead of word count?
How To Write for Information Gain
Now that I’ve kvetched, let’s get down to business and discuss making excellent content that truly helps your target audience and can rank well on Google.
1. Build on What’s Already Out There
Before you can create something new, you need to dive into what already exists. Look at ranking content and brainstorm ways to add value beyond what’s already covered. At this point, you’re not focused on covering all the same points, you’re searching for ways to differentiate your content.
Can you provide “next steps,” elaborate further, provide new examples, go into more detail, or provide more nuance? Does your experience provide you with a unique perspective that you can share with your audience? Approach each topic with a critical eye to help you identify what you can bring to the table.
2. Think Outside the Box
If everyone has jumped on a bandwagon, what can you say that’s different from what’s out there? Can you take a completely different stance or show why the commonly accepted way of doing something isn’t the best way? Nuance matters — share why something isn’t as clear-cut as it seems and highlight those factors.
3. Use Proprietary Research
One of the best ways to provide information gain is to use your own proprietary research to power your content. This can sound like a monumental task, but it doesn’t have to be. You can repurpose case studies to create new pieces that showcase your services in action or to help illustrate a point. You can quiz your employees, customers, or professional network on topics relevant to your industry or run a survey or study to generate your own research to share. You can share how your company achieved certain results or how your products helped someone do XYZ.
4. Bring in Experts
The subject matter experts you work with are a treasure trove of information! Even if you’re writing an article on a topic that’s been covered time and again, presenting their viewpoint or a quote can breathe life into your piece.
Connect with your team members to see how you can best glean insights from them. Some may prefer to add comments on your working doc, while others will happily make you a video with some great quotes you can use. Implement a repeatable process to integrate this type of information sharing into your workplace culture.
Revamp Your Process With a Content Writing Partner
It’s time to stand out with stellar content that brings something new to the table every time you hit publish. If you want to start evolving your content away from prescriptive word counts, our SEO content writing services can help. Reach out for a free consultation to learn how our team can help you enrich your existing content and create valuable new content that outshines competitors, brings value to your audience, and works toward your business goals.