If Half of Web Traffic Is Fake, Good Content Marketing Is Even More Important

In December, New York Magazine dropped an atom bomb on digital media. And no, I don’t mean this story on Snapchat filters for dogs.

The day after Christmas, tech reporter Max Read analyzed and synthesized reports from the Justice Department, a New York Times report on follower factories, one of many lawsuits against Facebook, a list from MarketingLand, and takedowns of YouTube, Instagram influencers, and deepfakes, all to conclude that digital metrics are fake and overinflated. We’re all just soaked in a seven layer dip of made-up, falsified baloney.

According to the article, roughly half of traffic and engagement is fraudulent. As if that wasn’t damning enough, Reddit’s ex-CEO Ellen Pao shared the article on Twitter, adding, “It’s all true: Everything is fake.” For many of us who make a living analyzing web metrics, it was a confusing time. I stopped checking Twitter for a full week, sitting in my kitchen like Dr. Manhattan on the moon, asking myself why I didn’t just go to law school.

You remember that panel from Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen, right? Actually you shouldn’t, because just like half of the internet, from viewer statistics to monthly uniques to Twitter followers, it’s fake. It’s a Frankenstein, hack-job meme that many people just assume is a panel lifted from the comic because it’s so ubiquitous online. Freaky, right?

Now that I’ve had some time to reflect, I realize that great content marketing only becomes more important to the online ecosystem if most vanity metrics are so bloated. Let’s say that Pao is correct, and most sites like Reddit know that the number of mobile readers they attract every month is vastly inflated. And let’s assume that brands and publishers with thousands of social followers are actually posting content for an audience that’s full of bots and underpaid employees at Chinese click-farms. Those brands are houses built on sand, and the brands that rely on false metrics will never see conversion. Eventually, they will disappear.

However, when a company invests in content that actually resonates, they’re protected from the empty engagement. It all comes down to valuing trust over reach. Sure, having a big audience looks great, and it does carry some value, but honestly, your most important signals of success are the metrics that lead to action. Stats like newsletter sign-ups, webinar attendees, downloads, and lead generation. These metrics further your relationship with an audience instead of just boosting your ego.

Focus on telling good stories and building actual relationships, because that’s where the value of content is hard to fake. Anyone can chase clicks or jump on a relevant news story, but brands that invest in good content can rise above all that.

There are dozens of success metrics that you can point to, but this story was an important reminder to take some of them with a grain of salt. I’d caution any content marketers who blanched at the whole “the internet is fake” thing to take a breath, remind yourself of your mission and purpose, and aim higher than vanity metrics. Deep down, you’ll know if you have a real connection with your target audience. They’ll engage with you in a way that a bot never could.


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