The content commodity trap

Content exists on a commodity spectrum. When it's easy to replicate, you have a problem. When it's differentiated, it's a business moat.

The content commodity trap

Protocol, a company that belongs to POLITICO, recently published an article titled "Tech keeps trying to ‘fix’ recipe sites. Food bloggers wish they’d stop." about the classic issue with recipe sites. A quote by Nicole Taggart brings it to the point:

"Look, I get the issue," she said. "People want things faster and faster. So they don't want the life story." She's changed her writing style over the years, writing shorter entries and adding that "jump to recipe" button in order to make the site more navigable. "I started blogging years ago, back when people read blogs," she said. Now, the classic industry in-joke — that a food blogger could confess to murder and not get caught because nobody reads the posts — feels a little more true every day.

Before seeing the actual recipe, users have to scroll at least halfway down the page. In part, that leads to more ad impressions. In part, it seems to still help with organic rankings. Now, I don't own a food site and only worked with a few, so it's hard for me to judge how big of an impact that story at the beginning still has on rankings. However, we can all agree that it would be much harder to rank with just the bare recipe.

Content can be a commodity

If all recipe sites had just the actual recipe, backlinks and UX would be the only sets of signals Google could rely on to find the best site for the right recipe. What that tells us is that most recipes are a commodity. There is no differentiation.

Marx explained commodities as "From the taste of wheat, it is impossible to tell who produced it, a Russian serf, a French peasant or an English capitalist." In other words, take away the recipe sites' name, logo and story around the recipe, and you could barely tell who made it.

Hummus recipe results on Google
Hummus recipe results on Google

Stories at the beginning might be nice for the few who read them, but that doesn't differentiate the core product, which is the recipe. The same applies to dictionaries, quote sites, breaking news, stock sites, and any other website that serves content that's easy to replicate. No blog, whether personal or SaaS startups with huge funding, is exempt from that.

One exception is recipes from celebrities like Martha Steward, Gordon Ramsey, or Jamie Oliver. Their brands are so strong and distinguished that users would seek them out even if they provided the same recipe as everyone else.

Funny enough, Gordon Ramsay's recipes on his own site don't come with any stories at all. They're just barebones recipes.

Gordon Ramsay's hummus recipe page
Gordon Ramsay's hummus recipe page

Though Ramsay's site doesn't play in the same league as full-blown recipe sites, the /recipes/ subfolder has been growing well over the last two years.

SEO performance of /recipes on Gordon Ramsay's site

The Content Commodity spectrum

This leads us to a couple of conclusions. First, we need to think about content as a product. The key feature for recipe content is... you guessed it, the recipe!

Second, if the key feature is easy to replicate, you have a problem. You have a commodity; you're one choice of many. Commodities compete heavily on price and cost. As a business, you have to weigh the cost it takes to create the product against the returns it brings. Are you in a stronger position when you compete with minimal advantage for a small share of ad views?

Third, content lives on a commodity spectrum. On one side, you have faceless, replicable content. On the other side, you have a piece that stands out from everything else, is memorable, and unique in the universe. Guess which side you should aim for?

The content commodity spectrum

Fourth, monetizing through an ad model when you deal with a commodity is playing a game you will certainly lose at some point in the future. When you can't differentiate the key product, you need to provide a better service or experience. People interested in commodity content, especially when they come through Google Search, rarely care about service. They want the content. But they might care about the experience! And what's the biggest hazard to a good experience? Interruptions, a.k.a. ads.

In defense of recipe bloggers, I agree that the goal is to build a destination. Instead of going to Google to find a recipe, you want users to come to your site directly. However, you don't achieve this with a subpar experience and fluffy stories. Here are some ideas to get there:

  1. Don't bank all your money on one horse. Diversify your traffic channels beyond Google (TikTok, Youtube, Instagram, etc.).
  2. Ruthlessly optimize your core product feature and weed out any underperforming content.
  3. Minimize or avoid ads altogether and monetize through affiliate or product sales.
  4. Make consumption as easy as possible (optimize for time to value).
  5. Bundle your product with complementary products, e.g., "buy the kitchen tools you need to cook this."

Content can be a growth driver

Today, you either have some of the best content, or you're redundant. You don't get there by simply summarizing what's out there. In Content-Market Fit, I explain how content needs to top your target audience's expectation to build a content moat. Especially as an Integrator, you need to live and breathe this economic principle.

You either aggregate content or integrate it into your business. In either way, you need to maximize the value of the content you aggregate or self-create. When you get this right, content can be a huge growth driver. But there is no middle-class. It's either the best content or nothing.