How to Curb Copycat Content: Can We All Stop Writing the Same Thing?

Articles don’t have to be copies of SERPs

Rows of identical blue chairs
Photo by Jonny Clow on Unsplash

Why do all pop songs sound the same?

The lyrics are different and the keys may vary but yet each one seems like you’ve heard it a thousand times.

That’s because you have. Each pop song follows a formula. It’s safe and it works so no one questions it.

Similarly, a large amount of content mirrors others. Articles that top the front pages of Google give the same information with different phrases but it’s still so hard to tell one apart from the other.

Yes, we’re all targeting the same keywords but it doesn’t mean we’ve to write the same thing.

The content most writers create for the web is guided by stifling SEO guides and vague instructions to make good content.

Most of the information we get is from existing content. This is because writers do not always write about things they “know”. We research to fill in our knowledge gaps. When done well and thoroughly, an article will look like it was typed by an expert.

But it’s hard to do that when you’re overworked, stretched for time, and paid low content mill rates. Or just lazy (try and dig deeper than the first 5 articles included in the SEO briefs). Which brings me to the problems with SEO writing.

Sometimes visibility and not the quality matters more in content marketing. We pay lip service to good content but the unspoken truth is that we write what fulfils the client’s needs to be seen. 5,000 words when 2,000 words would suffice. Awkwardly placed keywords. Hardened structures that demand strict adherence.

Disclaimer: Not all briefs are bad. But most can be better. John Maxim’s You’re Naked Without A Brief shows how to write one.

This is not every writer’s reality. Some clients do know about the existence of copycat content and tired formulas. They are ready to take risks to avoid sounding like everyone else.

It was in search of writing for clients like this that I found a way to differentiate my content.

The first clue was in an article by Ryan Law. In Copycat Content: SEO Tools Got Us Here, Humans Will Get Us Out, he identifies the problem plaguing the content marketing space;

“They’re fixating on their keyword research tools and SEO briefs at the expense of originality and personality. They’re curating other people’s work, instead of creating their own. They’re choosing to make content longer, instead of better.”

To solve this, he suggests

  1. Using or creating unique data
  2. Offering a contrarian view (grounded in expertise)
  3. Sharing unique experiences related to the topic
  4. Leveraging on your network’s experience
  5. Providing expert opinions

This is great advice but not all of it is practicable for all freelance/new writers. Many topics we write on are on things we learn about from research. We may not be experts that can offer contrarian views or have networks with the right people to interview.

I thought all hope was lost until I read another article. This time by Devesh Khanal. In Why Your Content Needs “Originality Nuggets” to Be Effective, he proposes differentiating content with originality nuggets. Originality nuggets can be

  1. Light

Small adjustments to content structure and attention to detail that makes all the difference.

2. Medium

Get a unique angle by interviewing someone who knows the topic well.

3. Heavy

This is right up there with Ryan’s suggestions. Longer/better content that is based on original research or data.

The idea of light and medium nuggets excited me. I realized that there were simple ways writers could create content not just recycle tired bits into a bland composite. I had been doing some of these without even knowing it.

Here they are:

Watching videos helps me process foreign concepts better. Research has taken me to Youtube, where I watch anything ranging from explainer videos to webinars. Through these I was about to find new angles, most articles have not explored.

Listening to what experts have to say has never failed any writer. Podcasts are a goldmine of expert opinions waiting to be explored Guests on shows are usually industry leaders or people who are exceptional at what they do. These ideas are not your own so it is best to reference where they come from.

A screenshot of podcast guest who is also an author.
A screenshot of podcast guest who is also an author.
Image source: Author. Author + podcast guest = Jackpot

Reading a book to write an article might sound like overkill. But it is a great way to glean from years of experience and knowledge. Sometimes, you might not have to read a new book, relevant information from a book you’ve read in the past comes in handy too.

If you do have to read a book, you do not need to leaf through all the pages. Summaries from Cliffnotes are helpful. I once referenced Ben Horowitz in an article about workflow management. And it was a friend who pointed me to a phrase in a book he was reading at that time.

Another way to find the words of people who have experience is to ask them. Not for an interview (we will get to that part later). Marketers and writers use Quora and Reddit to find out what people are asking. Why don’t we ever use it to find answers for ourselves?

These forums have authors, founders, entrepreneurs, and people who are very knowledgeable about their industry all waiting to give answers to questions. While writing an article about huddle rooms, I asked a question on Quora and I got several helpful answers.

PS. make sure you check out their credentials before using the answers.

An answer to a question asked on Quora about huddle rooms.
An answer to a question asked on Quora about huddle rooms.

There are groups and forums for pretty much everything on earth. From twitter conversations to communities on Facebook, you can find information no one else has used in places no one bothers to check. Researching on how SaaS companies can leverage social media led me here to a community board for founders. The website also had an expert section that allows you to access experts for answers.

LinkedIn is also a good place to go to. Sometimes, I type in a topic just to see if any professional is talking about it.

An expert giving his opinion on copywriting frameworks on LinkedIn
An expert giving his opinion on copywriting frameworks on LinkedIn
Image source: Author

Also, asking to talk to an expert within your client’s company is an option too. Although I’m yet to try this one, doing this can give you an extra advantage. You’ll get insights from an expert who also understands your client’s unique selling point.

Tweeting a question can get you unique replies. People are usually happy to share their opinions. If these are grounded in experience and expertise, you will have an angle no one else has used yet.

A writer tweets a question about social media management
A writer tweets a question about social media management
Image source: Author

Speaking of opinions I asked some other writers how they differentiate the content they produce.

Josef James explains that differentiated content has the brand’s beliefs at its core. This is what sets it aside from the competition. Understanding the client’s brand to a T is how he sounds unique. But not all clients have this sorted out. In cases like this, he helps them work on it.

More conversations like this need to happen. Working with enlightened clients makes it easier to create meaningful articles that have their brands well-positioned as the solution. It is up to us to convey the brand’s uniqueness. Ask yourself, “Why are they any different?” “Why should anyone care about this?”

Oluwafemi Oyelola suggests, “Asides from using all the sources on the web and approaching from a unique angle, interviews seems like the next thing to do. You can get unique quotes from industry experts or interview one of them and get their thoughts on your subject topic. Also, you can leverage your personal experience, it doesn’t have to be from an expert standpoint.”

Telling stories and creating analogies that are relevant to seemingly unrelated concepts is an art. And the best thing about art is that it is original. A prime example of this is What Gordon Ramsay Taught Me About Copywriting.

The last one is popular.

Ryan Law suggests that we look at popularly accepted truisms and try to take them apart (objectively of course). Most commonly accepted “facts” never receive a second glance. But more eyes will be drawn to an article that deviates from the well-trodden path.

He also recommends using proprietary data. Information no one else has access is sure to set content apart. Not every client will be happy to give out such information so you might have to coax this out of them.

It’s time to address the obvious issue. This will not work for everyone. If you are an underpaid writer working with impossible deadlines and guidelines, it will be hard to take time to do these things.

But if you have the time and are getting paid to do a good job for your clients, you can do better than sounding no different from the 5 blogs you’re trying to outrank.

Content Marketing Manager at Animalz. Part-time Otaku and occasional poet.