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How to spot content marketing in search results

The web is full of content marketing. Here's what that actually means.

By Justin Pot · June 17, 2021
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Hi. I'm being paid by a very profitable tech company to write this article. Does that make you question my motives? 

It should. An important part of media literacy is understanding who's paying for what you're reading and how that should impact your interpretation of it. And the reality of the 2020s internet is that a good chunk of what comes up in search results is written by people like me, who are paid by businesses to write stuff. It's called content marketing.

There's so much information around media literacy when it comes to things like fake news or social scams, but not a lot about content marketing. Most articles about content marketing that do exist are written for marketers. The result: there is very little public consciousness about what content marketing is, what motivates it, and what that means for readers. 

Which is odd. Content marketing is everywhere, and learning to recognize it is an important media literacy skill.

What is content marketing? 

Content marketing is people creating useful, entertaining, or otherwise engaging things in order to attract attention for a company or brand. These things could be a blog post, a YouTube video, or even a joke on social media. The point is to get that attention organically by offering something worthwhile. 

Most people hear the word "marketing" and think of ads. Advertising is still an important part of most marketing strategies, but the internet changed things. You can still pay for advertising (and how), but you can also create things that people actually want and post them on the internet. The goal in either case is to get attention, and to turn that attention into money. 

Here at Zapier, we publish a lot of "best apps" lists. I spend hours researching and testing software, then publish articles with titles like The best to do list apps or The best calendar apps. These articles rank highly in Google search results, which means tens of thousands of people end up on our company's website every day. 

I'm proud of these articles: I sincerely believe I'm helping people find the best software, which is my top priority while researching and writing them. We don't add apps to the list because someone pays us or is a partner or asks us nicely—we add them because they're excellent apps that we think people should use. 

Having said that, our blog isn't a charity. These articles exist because my employer, Zapier, wants people to sign up for our service, and having articles that rank highly in search results helps with that. If an app does integrate with Zapier, we give some examples of what that looks like, then provide links to learn more. Some people click those links and sign up for an account, and some of those people become paying customers.

Even if you don't sign up, though, Zapier is getting brand recognition. I write a lot of essays like the one you're reading now, which don't have direct links to our signup form or much of anything to do with our product directly. The idea here is a little more slippery. You read an article on the website, and if it was useful, there's a chance you'll have a positive association with Zapier. That might make you more willing to sign up for an account later on if you ever find yourself looking for the service we provide. 

I sometimes feel guilty about leaving journalism to work in content marketing, but that really doesn't make sense when I break things down: the economic model isn't that different. In journalism, the site I worked for made money if someone clicked an ad. At this job, there are no ads, just the occasional prompt to sign up for Zapier. That is, in many ways, less intrusive for the reader.

But I advocate internally that our top priority on the Zapier blog should always be helping the reader. Because content marketing, in an ideal world, means there's more useful information on the internet than there would be otherwise. 

Sadly, that's not always how it works out. 

The bad kind of content marketing 

I was recently updating our list of the best team chat apps. Part of my research process is reading similar articles, to see if there are any commonly recommended applications that I've missed. Search for "best team chat apps," though, and a lot of the results are...dubious. 

There are a few results on the first page from tech blogs and other third-party reviewers, which is pretty standard. Pay attention, though, and you'll notice that a few of the results are articles published by companies selling team chat apps. These articles have the appearance of being neutral—they're written in a tone that sounds like Wirecutter, and frequently include a lot of good information. But every one of these posts ranks their own service as the best in class, above industry standards like Slack or Microsoft Teams. And many times, they don't even acknowledge that they're the ones writing it.

This, to me, is the bad kind of content marketing—the kind that pretends to be neutral while serving a very specific agenda.

I've recommended Zapier products in our best apps articles, but only when I sincerely think they're among the best tools for the job (and it's been in precisely two of our over 100 best apps roundups). In those cases, I also make sure to mention that we're talking about our own product.

It's a fine line. I'm sure some media critics would call my Zapier blog posts deceptive in a similar way, and I don't think that's necessarily unfair. I just think this line is something readers should be aware of, so they can think critically about how to interpret the information offered. 

Know where your information is coming from 

So, now you've got an idea what content marketing is—but how can you spot it? The first thing is to pay attention to the URL you're looking at. For example: imagine you're reading an article at Zapier dot com. 

A URL bar

Do you know what Zapier is? If not, consider looking into that. Visit the homepage of the company. Google it. Look into what the organization providing you with information does, and how it makes money. 

There's nothing shady about organizations trying to persuade you—that's no small part of what humans do. But you can make better decisions if you're aware that persuasion is happening. Researching where your information is coming from, even if that's just a quick Google search, gives you more context on what it is you're reading. That can help you think critically about it, which can help you make better decisions. 

Boring things can be important 

"Content" and "marketing" are among the least interesting words in the English language. Combined, they can make any sentence hard to get through. I'm going out for some content marketing and ice cream, if you want any.

I'm betting you stopped reading that last paragraph halfway through, skipping to this one (welcome). You probably didn't even notice I offered to get you ice cream, which is too bad because now you don't get any. 

The point: content marketing benefits from being obscure. Most people don't know it exists, and I think that's part of why the bad kind of content marketing is as effective as it is. 

Which is too bad because some of us really are trying to make good, helpful stuff. So I think we need to talk more openly about what we're doing, why we're doing it, and let readers decide whether they should trust us.

Thank you for taking the time to read this—I hope you found it useful. Sign up for Zapier, if you want. I bet my bosses would love that.

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