Redefining “Unique Content”

During the “Ultimate Q&A” session at MozCon 2013 last month, I was asked the following question:

“I work for an enterprise level ecommerce company. I’m looking to scale unique content. What are some of the top strategies you would recommend?”

This is a great question and one that I’m sure many marketers have had to contend with and ponder on a regular basis.  My answer was something along the following lines:

“To do anything effectively at scale, you need at least two of the following: time, money and talent. Assuming you’ve got those, there are a few hacks which will allow you scale things effectively. For example, if you’re creating a load of product videos, you can transcribe those videos and use the transcription text as additional page copy. Reviews and ratings are an obvious way to use UCG to increase unique page copy and if you have a desirable, aesthetically pleasing product, such as furniture or clothing, you can seek user submitted images of the products being worn/displayed. If you’re lacking time or resources in house then you can also find freelancers to create content for you as long as you provide a decent brief.”

Initially I thought that was a reasonable answer to the question, however, upon introspection I’ve become more and more uncomfortable with it. The problem is, all of the activity I recommended could be done effectively and professionally, yet still provide a lack of tangible value for the business in question. And, I postulate that the problem concerns the ambiguity of the phrase “unique content”. The Oxford English Dictionary offers three variant definitions for the word “unique”:

  1. being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else
  2. belonging or connected to one particular person, place, or thing
  3. particularly remarkable, special, or unusual
In terms of content marketing, I think most people have accepted the first of these definitions in its most literal form and therefore speak of content as ‘unique’ when it is “different from everything else out there”.

The litmus test for “uniqueness” is then to Google a string of text in quotation marks, and see if only a single result is returned.

“Different from everything else out there” is a necessary, but not sufficient aspect of ensuring your content provides value to both users and search engines. Simply having created content to differentiate yourself from the competition and your pages from one another in the eyes of the Google algorithm will not dramatically help your search marketing efforts going forward.

So why do we say “unique content is important?”

I think half of the problem has come as a consequence of a shallow understanding of Google’s Panda algorithm. While Panda does work by actively punishing sites which have very little unique content according to definition 1, its overarching goal was not to punish duplication. If you look back to the inception of the Panda algortihmn and the questionnaire that influenced its creation - it’s clear it was created with the goal of rewarding high quality sites and punishing low quality sites, as determined by users. Non-unique and duplicate content was found to correlate extremely well with these low quality sites, but really the goal was separating the wheat from the chaff.

As Google iterates improves its algorithm, Panda (and/or other signals aiming to achieve the same thing) will get better at deciphering “quality” and “unique” in the proper sense of the words, rather than just seeing things as “different from what’s already out there“. Simply having content that is different from everything else, without ensuring that it’s remarkable, special or specifically belonging to your brand, will not save you from the next generation of Panda algorithms. As such, if you’re creating content simply for the sake of adding positive algorithmic signals, you’re likely to be looking back in 12 months time realizing your effort has been wasted.

Back in 1995, if you had a website, you were ahead of the game.  In 1996, if you had CSS, you were ahead of the game. If you had done online video by 2004, you were ahead of the game. In 2008, if you had a site that worked responsively across mobile devices including tablets then you were ahead of the game. In 2010, if you had created content specifically designed for audience retention and customer acquisition you were probably ahead of the game, but now, in 2013, it’s mandatory. If you think you’ve created unique content but it’s not returning value for you, then your content isn’t unique enough.

value of content

Just as companies require a unique value proposition that defines them as better than the competition in some concrete way, so does content. Therefore, I propose that we need to consciously shift our conception of ”unique content“ away from being something that is just different from other things out there and towards a definition which encompasses the true nature of content that will provide both algorithmic value for SEO and value for users. To do this we must be normative about what different should mean.

Unique content, redefined, really matters.

Rather than simply taking the first OED definition of unique, ”being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else.“, I suggest we encompass the other two as well: ”belonging or connected to one particular person, place, or thing“ and ”particularly remarkable, special, or unusual“

This means to be unique under our revised conception - content must be different from other offerings, exceptional in at least one core way and aligned with the brand in question.

How can you test if your content is unique is this sense?

Ask yourself the following question:

Could this content have been created by anyone else?

If the answer is yes, It’s not unique.

This is a useful test because being truly unique requires you to determine whether or not your business USP has been applied to your content effectively.

Ways in which your content can be unique:

1. Expertise

Many companies (including Distilled) survive and flourish based on the specific expertise of their employees; the USP that allows them to make money. If you work in a service industry, this is almost certainly you. In order to make your content valuable and unique, you need to harness that expertise in everything you write, record and produce. Particularly for consulting businesses, are the individual consultants and experts visible in all your content and communication? If not, this needs to change.

For an example of this done well - check out the video below from Seven, a content marketing agency in London.

It oozes ”expertise“. Not only does this video act, in and of itself, as an example of the kind of content they can produce - but it visibly shows who the experts are and what they’ve done before. It demonstrates logos (facts) in the examples of past work, ethos (trust) by showing the faces of those individuals who work at the company and (pathos) emotion through presenting a fast paced, engaging video with great rhythm.

”Expertise“ is not confined to the service sector however, seller’s of physical product may have unique expertise. No other company could have made Appliances Online’s superb product videos, because no one else in their space has invested in the training staff to be experts in their field as well as excellent presenters.

So - if your company product video would be applicable to any business in your niche if you just swapped over the branding, it’s not good enough. If you’re trying to sell the virtue of a company of experts without selling the personalities of those individual experts, your content isn’t good enough. If you’re not harnessing the specific knowledge of your experts to write your product/services page copy, your content won’t be good enough. If you’re therefore in a position where the experts in your business, those who deliver the monetized aspects, are unwilling or unable to contribute to the content creation on your site - this is something you need to work at fixing as a matter of urgency. This doesn’t mean you have to have lawyers, directors and consultants - high value employees - writing all your blog posts, but it does mean you need to be sourcing their input in the content strategy and finding time for them to advise on copy, videos and imagery.

2. Relationships

If you have partnerships, sponsorships or have generally built relationships which provide unique value for your business, these can be leveraged to provide unique value for your content. For Distilled, we have a business partnership with Moz, which means it’s very easy for us to leverage their experts to create content for us and co-market with us. Similarly, Will Critchlow and I recently created a video with Wistia talking about Video SEO — which is unique because of both our expertise and relationships.

All companies across all sectors will have unique relationships - be it with affiliates, suppliers, friends or partners. To succeed, you need to find every opportunity to leverage these relationships to provide value for your customers, qualify your sales copy with authority and find ways to position your brand as being connected and engaged with its target audience.

Check out this example from Prime Location, who used their sponsorship of the Ashes as an excuse to create compelling content, tangentially related to their product, specifically to engage those individuals who are not necessarily customers right now, but may be in the home buying market at some point in the future.

3. Exclusive offerings

Does your company create or sell something that no one else has access to? If your product is different, all copy should communicate that value which makes it unique and better than competing offerings. If your descriptions accurately reflect ”a“ product, but not the differentiator that makes it ”your“ product, they’re not unique enough. If your page titles and meta descriptions are written solely for SEO and don’t reflect the specific nature of your brand or product, they’re not unique enough. Do you offer tutorials, consumer advice and a hub for users seeking advice on your specific product rather than your product type in general?

Black Milk Clothing have a desirable, exclusive product - so have got their customers to submit product images for them. No one else could have done this, since no one else has access to this product.

AT AT Leggings   LIMITED   Black Milk Clothing

Are you suggesting we shouldn’t be outsourcing?

No. Outsourcing can be incredibly important in ensuring you have the required skills working on your content and it can help you scale effectively – however, you cannot outsource the entire process. We have an internal meme at Distilled, something we hold as one of our core principles:

”You can’t outsource giving a shit.“

This holds true immensely with content. Agencies and freelancers won’t understand your brand’s core message unless you communicate it to them. The key to success with outsourcing is writing superb briefs and retaining a hand in the management and delivery of the content. This can be done efficiently and without huge time investments but If your attitude is “out of sight, out of mind” you’ll end up with something, irrespective of the production quality, that could have been created by anyone else.


So ask yourselves, is your content truly unique, in all three senses of the word? Different is necessary, but not sufficient if you’re creating a video aiming for viral sharing to boost your brand awareness, does the idea really tie back into your brand in any way – or is it just funny and entertaining for its own sake? If it’s the latter, then it could have been created by someone else and therefore won’t provide any value for your brand (video views themselves, without a core brand messaging, are worthless.) Is your product description copy genuinely demonstrating unique expertise or understanding? Or explaining why your product is uniquely better than other offerings? Are your blog posts tied to a unique relationship or do they demonstrate unique understanding? Do the real world things that make your business unique also make your content unique?

Ask yourself the following question:

Could this content have been created by anyone else?

If the answer is yes, it’s not unique.