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  1. Branka wrote on

    Enjoyed the post Glen – but maybe I see things from a different perspective… The internet is a big place. There are soooo many poorly written websites out there and so many people offering ‘expertise’. Anyone who knows the slightest thing about the importance of having a good copywriter won’t even bother searching mediocre portfolio sites, let alone sites like these in the quest for a copywriter. Those of us who know our worth wouldn’t even work with the types of clients who reference these sites as authority on copywriting…And they wouldn’t work with us. So really, no money lost since it wouldn’t have worked out in the first place.
    (And one day, when they finally realise their competition is kicking their ass because they’ve got killer copywriters who test the cr*p out of their copy, we can talk about how the money will come pouring in ;) )

    1. Glenn Murray wrote on

      I agree with you on a couple of points, Branka: 1) The good clients aren’t going to search sites like these for a copywriter; and 2) Eventually things will get better. But my point isn’t that clients will look for copywriters on these sites, but these sites give people the wrong impression about what’s possible.

  2. Sarah Mitchell wrote on

    Hi Glenn,

    I think you’re spot on here. And, yes, I do think the wider content community benefits from internal censure.

    Kevin Cain (@kevinrcain) wrote a post at the Content Marketing Institute today and made the point that any action your target audience takes is a conversion. That’s why we see so much garbage out there, people are chasing low-hanging conversions. Kevin goes on to say the ultimate goal of content marketing is to convert your audience to paying customers and that’s where these sites and lazy bloggers fall down. It takes a sound strategy and a whole lot more finesse to create revenue on the back of content.

    As you rightly point out, the consumer can smell junk a mile away. It makes it harder for all of us when we have to cut through so much content garbage. I don’t know about you, but ‘cut through’ is becoming a major request from my clients.

    Keep ranting, Glenn.

    1. Glenn Murray wrote on

      Oh definitely, Sarah. Conversion and cut-through have always been issues with vanilla content. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped people using it because they saw it as a cheap way to boost their ranking. Fortunately that’s a dying trade now.

  3. Susan Oakes wrote on

    Does that mean I shouldn’t take up the email offers of quality articles only $1 per article??

    Even those well written are in an echo chamber, which is why cut through is getting harder. And although not all can identify quality writing, I somehow do not think your potential customers would be a regular reader of those sites.

    Like your rant and maybe it is time for a nice cup of tea or beverage of your choice.

    1. Glenn Murray wrote on

      Haha! Yeah, perhaps the $1 articles aren’t the best option… ;-) No, I agree potential customers won’t be regular readers of these sites, but the point is these sites are the rule, not the exception. And they all teach customers they can attract big audiences with drivel. So we copywriters spend hours every week fending off prospects who think they can get us to write posts for $10 a pop. We shouldn’t even be part of that conversation.

  4. Diane Kamer wrote on

    Don’t these joints pay peanuts? That’s why I remain a wage-slave instead of quitting my day job and freelancing: The content farms pay so little it’s insulting. No wonder so much of the content stinks. You really do get what you pay for.

  5. Mark Ragan wrote on

    5 reaons this blog post could be helped by the lame advice on Ragan.com

    1) Your headline sucks. It’s too vague. I have no idea what you’re trying to convey. A great headline sells the benefits of the story —instantly. And you never tell the reader how our lousy content is costing copywriters money. Or, if you do, it is so poorly stated that your point goes completely unnoticed.

    2) Learn the basics about sub-head writing. What’s up with the weird and redunant sub-head in blue? It’s confusing, and — to use a David Spark term — “annoying.”

    Journalism 101 states, “never repeat in your lead what you said in your head or sub-head.”
    But don’t fret, Mr. Divine Write: We have run many “vanilla stories” explaining these basics, in case you want to brush up.

    3) Did you really use the word “props” in the story? Come on, you can do better than that. Are we to expect an LOL or “hat tip” from you soon?

    4) Proofread, proofread and proofread. Did I really read this, “I don’t mean to take a cheap shot at Ragan, but sites like this set a bad example…”?

    Tsk. Tsk. I think you meant, “sites like these.”

    5). Don’t be an arrogant asshole. “The trouble is, these generic/vanilla sites target a vast audience of geographically dispersed, largely undiscerning readers.” Wow. How high you sit on your throne!

    Ragan serves 1.2 million readers a month. These readers range from rookie PR graduates to experienced professionals.

    Sixty percent of those readers are returning visitors to our site, so they must be getting something out of our inane “vanilla” content. And by the way, here’s a bonus tip:

    6.) Kill the buzzwords and trendy shorthand. A good writer avoids easy adjectives like, “vanilla.” These are words that only lazy writers use because they can’t come up with anything more clever.

    That’s it for now. There is so much more. For example. you might want to write, “Ragan and Co.” rather than “Ragan and co”. I know this seems picky, but these AP style rules are used for a reason: They bring clarity to writing, which results in easy reading.

    1. Glenn Murray wrote on

      Hi Mark. Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your time. I’ll address each of your points, individually:

      1a) You don’t like the headline? That’s a shame. I’m quite fond of it. Each to his own. But I don’t think you can call it vague. “Copywriters: eHow, About.com, Ragan and co are costing you money.” How much more clear can you be? It addresses its intended audience immediately and directly. Then it tells them, in no uncertain terms, that 3 specific websites are costing them money. Definitely not vague. As for the promise, well, not all headlines have to promise something, although I agree it helps. In any event, mine does. The promise is implicit: That I’ll explain how those sites are costing copywriters money. And for the record, there’s also a seed of curiosity there…

      1b) I’m sorry you couldn’t follow the argument. Some concepts require more than a scan read to follow. But I understand you’re a busy man, so here are the key bits:

      “Most of Ragan’s writing articles are superficial re-hashes… Yet they still have a lot of readers … It suggests you can attract a lot of readers with superficial content… So business owners and marketers go out and try to emulate Ragan… Step 1: Find a copywriter or journalist who can churn out hundreds of vanilla articles, for peanuts. And that’s why… ‘… No one wants to actually *pay* for quality content.”’

      Right or wrong, it’s pretty straight-forward logic.

      2a) I’m quite conversant with sub-heads, thanks. I think you’ll find mine summarise the sections they introduce, and also allow the reader to scan the post and still get the guts of the story. Is there one in particular that annoys you?

      2b) My post’s head and lead say completely different things. Take another look. Yes, the sub-head and lead say similar things, but there are two reasons for that. Firstly, I don’t like to assume everyone will read the sub-head, especially when it follows on directly from the head and feature image. Those readers who don’t would find it a bit jarring if I launched straight into, “Not that the author wrote…”. And secondly, I wanted to link to the post in question, and if I’d linked to it in the sub-head, my blog theme would have performed a little happy dance with the formatting, and my biz partner would have had my head.

      3) Dear me, when did “props” become a no-no. I must have missed the memo. Did you understand my meaning? Let me know if you’d like me to explain.

      4) “These sites”? I think you may have misread something here. Would you really want me to write, “I don’t mean to take a cheap shot at Ragan, but sites like these set a bad example…”? Ragan is a singular. Why would I refer to it as “these”? Grammar 101… ;-)

      5) “Don’t be an arrogant asshole.” My favourite of all your gems of constructive criticism. Props to your passion, but what did I hear you say about lazy writers and easy adjectives? Surely you could have come up with something more clever? ;-) But back to your point. 60% of your readers are returning visitors? But how many of them are reading your writing-related posts? And, of those who are, how many are experienced professionals? And of that subset, how many are disappointed with what they get? And how many are, like me, using it as blog-fodder? I suspect if you were able to get your hands on these statistics, you’d find that very few experienced professionals are really reading these vanilla writing posts. I stand by my assertion that you’re targeting undiscerning readers with them. Are they rookies or graduates? Maybe, but it’s beside the point. No experienced professional will want to read them. I bet you don’t.

      6) Is “vanilla” really a buzzword? I wouldn’t have thought so. It describes, very succinctly, most of the writing-related posts I read on Ragan.com, and just about everything I’ve ever seen on eHow and About.com. Would you prefer “boring, clichéd and uninformative”? I suppose I could have said that, but I learned in Writing 101 to say only what’s required to convey my meaning, and not 1 word (or 3) more.

      7) “Ragan and Co.” Please accept my humble apologies for my gross and unacceptable oversight. I’ll issue a press release immediately. Don’t want people wandering around all confused, now, do we?

      Having said all of that, I’m certainly not here to tell you my post is without error. (You found 1, after all!) I wrote it quickly, as client work was calling. We all have a living to make. Which is why I don’t condemn you for getting your comment headline wrong: 5 reasons? You actually tried for 6. 7, if you include the AP style comment.

      Nope, we all make mistakes. But I, for one, would much rather read an original, thought-provoking post with a few mistakes, than a dull – but completely error free – rehash (like this http://www.ragan.com/WritingEditing/Articles/47430.aspx and this http://www.ragan.com/Main/Articles/47446.aspx and this http://www.ragan.com/Main/Articles/47459.aspx and this http://www.ragan.com/Main/Articles/47461.aspx).

  6. Gary Matthews wrote on

    Excellent rebuttal, Glenn. It’s going to be interesting — and for some of us, a bit nerve-wracking — to watch how the tsunami-of-bland plays out.

    I’m thinking that in the very near future — couple of years, maybe — software will be able to read thousands of articles that are online, then digest, paraphrase, and summarize them into completely new, original expositions. They’ll have impeccable spelling and grammar. They may or may not need a quick run-through by a human editor.

    And they’ll be about as compelling as the plain-vanilla postings from which they’re derived.Then the engineers will start working on algorithms for inserting “stuff that doesn’t sound like it came from a computer”. Not sure what comes after that!

  7. Gary Matthews wrote on

    Glenn, something else about Mark Ragan’s comment was bothering me, and I just caught it. He writes:

    Journalism 101 states, “never repeat in your lead what you said in your head or sub-head.”

    Anyone who would say that hasn’t taken Journalism 101. It’s nonsense. Here’s why:

    In traditional journalism — by which I mean, news reporting — headlines aren’t written in advance of the copy, or even at the same time as copy. They aren’t written at all by the same person who actually investigates the story and composes the article. They are written after the article, based on what the article reports.

    News reporting differs, in this way, from composing ad copy, a blog post, a book chapter, and the like. When I write for my own blog, I may well craft the headline first and then create text to support it. Ditto ad copy. But if I’m writing an article for a traditional newspaper, I have no control over the headline, which is written by an editor to summarize the article, and also to make it fit graphically within the context of other articles and photos. The same is true with a news magazine — perhaps especially true.

    Furthermore, news reporting relies heavily on “inverted-pyramid style”. That is, I as reporter should tell the most important news element in the first sentence, or at least the first paragraph. Ideally this will summarize and encapsulate the whole report — everything that follows being a fleshing-out of details. We do this because readers skim, and most won’t read beyond the first paragraph.

    And the headline is supposed to do the same thing, except in larger type: It reports the main point, ideally capturing the whole gist. For the same reason: Many readers will see only that.

    Thus it’s almost inevitable — and its certainly desirable — that the headline and the lead say the same thing. (Exact wording may differ, typically because of space and design constraints.) And yes, there are exceptions, but that’s what they are: exceptions. What Ragan says journalism should “never” do, is in fact the journalistic norm.

    1. Mark Ragan wrote on

      I don’t care who is writing the headline, whether it’s the reporter or the copy desk.
      Only amateurs would write a headline and then repeat the same words and phrases in the lead, to wit:

      Headline: “Earthquake destroys village in China”

      Lead: “An Earthquake destroyed a village in China”

      Do I really have to argue this point here? If you need more convincing, just toggle over to the New York Times today and show me a headline where the same words and phrases are repeated in the lead.

      So here is the headline in the above post:

      “I was surprised when I read a great post on Ragan.com”

      And here is the lead:

      “Recently I read a great post on Ragan.com. And I was surprised.”

      This smacks of incredibly lazy writing. Take the time to offer something different in your lead. Otherwise, readers will suspect that a computer program is writing this post.

      But again, you can find posts on these rules over at Ragan.com if you need to brush up.

      Now, to some other observations:

      The newsrooms you describe are changing rapidly. Reporters are now being asked to write both stories and headlines. This increases the chances that embarrassing formulations like the headline and lead in Divine Write’s post will occur more frequently. In the old copy desk days, the headline writer would have applied my rule above and avoid repeating the same words in the lead.

      Again, this is pretty basic stuff.

  8. Mark Ragan wrote on

    So let me get this straight.

    The post below contributes nothing to PR pros looking for advice on press release copywriting? It’s dreck; not worthy of your greatness and erudition?

    http://www.prdaily.com/writingandediting/Articles/15476.aspx

    The six people who read it and praised it, well, they’re part of the “undiscerning” and “ignorant” masses? Is that what you’re saying? Remember, you issued a blanket condemnation of my site and suggested that our traffic numbers couldn’t possibly stem from readers thinking it useful. Or, what was your other brilliant theory explaining our success? Oh yeah, that we were once a great site but that we have slipped?

    So this case study on brand journalism at Coca-Cola, shared by more than 200 readers, is “say-nothing content” that shed no light whatsoever on the emerging trend of branded news sites. Those 200 readers who tweeted and liked it are obvious dolts.

    http://www.prdaily.com/Main/Articles/CocaCola_unveils_brand_journalism_website_13153.aspx

    Or, how about this post on use of apostrophes.

    http://www.prdaily.com/writingandediting/Articles/12989.aspx

    It was shared more than 1,100 times on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social sites. But it offers nothing useful to my corporate writing audience?

    Or if it does, according to your reasoning, this only means that my readers are untutored morons. How could it be otherwise?

    Or this article about corporate writers who patronize employees, a piece shared 100 times on Facebook. Nothing there to spark a conversation or thought?

    http://www.ragan.com/Main/Articles/46668.aspx

    Finally, Alexa.com puts our global site ranking at 24,000.

    Your site is at 178, 669.

    But I understand now, after reading your post: Your audience is made up of the writing elite, not the unwashed millions. Ah, that explains it.

    And besides, great intellects like yourself care not a whit about popularity. In fact, our numbers merely prove your assertion that our readers are an undiscerning bunch.

  9. Jennifer wrote on

    I’d contend that these websites aren’t costing anyone money. If you feel your talents and abilities are worth more, then find someone willing to pay more for them.

    Remember, items, skills, talents, and other goods are only worth what someone is willing to pay for them. If no one is willing to pay for it….it’s monetarily worthless.

  10. Mark Ragan wrote on

    Hear, Hear Jennifer.

    And guess what? More than 3,000 corporate writers pay us $279 a year to receive access to our archives of miserable content. What dupes these feckless people be?

  11. Glenn Murray wrote on

    Hi again, Mark. Thanks for those links. Three are from prdaily.com, and thus outside the scope of this discussion. I do like the fourth link, though.

    On the question of popularity, you’ve clearly done a lot of things right, and for what it’s worth, I take my hat off to you, in that regard. With complete sincerity.

    But popularity, alone, doesn’t disprove my point. Most of the writing posts I’ve seen on Ragan are, in my opinion, unlikely to be considered genuinely helpful to most professional writers. They’re rehashes of basic advice and tips we’ve seen plenty of times before.

    So when someone looks at these posts, sees Ragan.com’s success, and joins the dots, they’ll come away thinking all they need to follow in your footsteps is publish basic advice and tips.

  12. Glenn Murray wrote on

    Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. It’s costing copywriters money because customers end up paying someone $10 per post to recycle a whole lot of basic tips and advice, when they should really be investing good money in quality content. Granted, a lot of these customers wouldn’t have the budget for quality content anyway, but many do, they’re just misguided. So their money goes to cheap, offshore providers who churn out dozens of posts a day.

    I’m fortunate in that I have a lot of repeat clients and I started out before the current content marketing glut. It really only costs me the time I spend replying to all the request for quotes. But a lot of younger copywriters are really feeling the pinch.

  13. Jeff Palmer wrote on

    First, let me say that I don’t believe that having an opinion and the willingness to share it qualifies anyone as an arrogant asshole.

    Second, as the original article in question points out it’s a new playing field today in terms of content marketing. It works like this: Whoever creates content that offers consumers the most value wins.

    If your content consists of basic, unoriginal or recycled information; whatever popularity you may have gained won’t last long. That statement is more important now than it has ever been.

    When a professional copywriter offers a critique of your content take it as an opportunity to make a genuine assessment of your material rather than as a personal affront.

  14. Julia McCoy wrote on

    Hi Glenn, Just discovering you and your blog now. Very interesting! I can relate to a few of your posts, including this one. I have never heard of Ragan, but I have encounters with sites like Ezine Articles where the quality is in the pits and one good article can barely slide in… For curiosity sake, I wonder how you pissed off PRWeb, but I’m not surprised, because my company may have as well when we picked PRNewswire after them. In any case, I’ll be following your blog. Neat stuff around here!

  15. Glenn Murray wrote on

    Hi Julia. Thanks for your kind words. Mark Ragan is CEO of both Ragan.com and PRweb.com.

  16. Simon Hillier wrote on

    My, my, an intriguing saga, indeed!

    You know the real problem with writing about writing? Any writer can do it.

    That’s why, less than 20 years since content was declared boss, it feels like every imaginable ’writing tips’ topic has been bludgeoned to death.

    On the flipside, I meet a lot of people who are new to writing (esp.online) through my Sydney Uni workshops e.g. budding copywriters, marketers, business owners, etc. They still get a lot out of general writing tips articles, because that’s where they are in the learning cycle.

    Of course, it doesn’t mean they can’t tell the difference between great and lame content. If something is average, they just don’t bother going back for more.

    Then there’s another audience. That disgruntled throng begging for something more. Glenn and Jeff, I gather that’s who you are talking about.

    Thing is, I’m just not sure too many writers can deliver more. On the downside, it will probably means lots more 7 ways articles. On the upside, it bodes well for those who do offer more.

    As for how it all influences clients in need of content outside the writing topics spectrum….sure, plenty still just want content for content’s sake, and don’t want to pay a lot for it.

    However, attitudes are definitely swaying. I’m working with more and more new and long-term clients who understand the value of content that stands out, and are willing to pay for it. It’s kind of exciting.

    Of course, this is all just my opinion, and you know what they say about opinions …

    PS Props to you, Glenn, for your grumpy crusade to get people thinking about the quality and impact of their writing.

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