Increasingly the content marketing is growing from a glint in the
copywriter’s eye to a fully fledged marketing beast, rampaging through
budgets and upsetting marketing manager’s neatly planned timetables (We
even run a course about it).

Someone, somewhere finally figured out that
if you have a lot of compelling content, then you’ll get more readers
hanging out on your site. Of course, the trick lies in making people aware of all that fantastic
content in the first place.

It’s fair to say that users are often creatures of habit, visiting the
same blogs and sites on a daily basis, so while link building and guest
blogging have major parts to play in a detailed content strategy,
occasionally the only way to get in front of those cloistered users is
to market articles directly to sites they are already visiting.

It’s an age-old strategy that any budding copywriter will recognise, but increasingly businesses are turning to article marketing sites, directly submitting content in the hope of finding new audiences.

I’ve seen quite a few articles recently about the best sites to submit content to, but none of them listed any actual results so I decided to carry out a quick test to see whether article marketing is really worth your time and effort, especially compared to aggregators and social networks.

I chose two recent articles from the Econsultancy blog, designed to appeal to broad and niche markets respectively:

I then submitted these to five of the top ranking article sites, and recorded converting traffic from each. First, Here’s a quick run down of the sites and the submission process:

1: Ezine Articles

ezine logo

A truly massive site with articles neatly divided into categories, which ranks authors depending on the number of submissions.

This raises a flag immediately as many ‘expert’ authors have in excess of 20,000 articles on the site, and many of the top posts consist of advertorials for body butter and Canadian meds. Still, the sign up process is easy and a top 100 Alexa rank must mean they are doing something right… right?

Sign-up may be easy, but submissions are not. 

Many legitimate businesses won’t have time to write original features for these sites, so will be looking to repurpose blog content, so surely a simple copy and paste feature with an html or WYSYWIG editor for links would be best.

Oddly though, Ezine actively discourages linking out, limiting you to just two links. I understand this is in place to stop every word being a spammy link, but surely five links in a 2,000 word article isn’t excessive?

The editor also bans any ‘above the fold’ links, but neglects to mention what exactly counts as ‘above’ or ‘below’, refuses links to source (so feel free to tell people that you personally authored War & Peace) and Insists On Capitalising All Titles.

I should also mention the suggested keywords: “donrsqout” is obviously ranking highly on Google these days:

keys

 
Finally, if you do wade through all this and find you’ve made a mistake, you’ll need to fill out a lengthy form with technical reasons before you can delete an article, and wait up to seven days before your article is reviewed and approved for publication.

2: Squidoo

squidoo

On the surface, Squidoo looks a lot slicker; it has a fast, fun interface that’s extremely intuitive.

It’s quick and easy to easy to get started, with topics divided into ‘lenses’. Each user creates a topic-specific ‘Lens’, and can add any and all content they like, in effect building a mini aggregator that others can follow.

Unfortunately the site doesn’t easily recognise RSS feeds, and as rank is built on content ‘Freshness’, you’ll need to put in lots of time and update your Lens manually every day. On the plus side, this is quick and easy to do, and there are some nice nods to socialization. 

On the downside, the site is utterly awash with spam, people flogging ‘I can get you 20,000 twitter Followers for $9.99’ packs and articles promoting auto-follow tools, and there’s no requirement to verify posted content as original.

Good for entertainment and those taking their first steps into the world of blogging and curation, but as a marketing channel it’s sorely lacking as Squidoo’s goal is clearly to create an embedded audience rather than redirect traffic to you. 

3: Article Alley

dogs in hats!

Scores early points based purely on it’s Dogs In Hats (!) banner, but it’s offer of “Free content for your website or blog”  sets alarm bells ringing. 

Once inside, you’ll also quickly discover that nothing is free here. If you want custom content, you’re paying for it buddy. There’s a sliding scale price guide:

  • One article =$35
  • 2-5 articles $30
  • 6-10 Articles = $25

You get the idea…

The whole thing screams poor quality content at you from the start.

There are also problems submitting. The topics are varied but there’s a lot of crossover, I browse sections on e-marketing, marketing and sales, business, blogs, SEO… the list goes on.

Let’s have a look at articles in the ‘Marketing’ section:

glasses
 

‘Types of Drinking Glasses’ eh? Not sure Seth Godin will be worrying just yet.

Against my better judgement I try the submission process. Sign up is quick enough, and then it’s just a case of copy and paste. No wysiwyg or linking however, so if you want credit you’re forced to copy bulky links in wholesale.

To its credit, AA does offer you a ‘copyright protected’ option and publishes straight away, but again this does encourage a lot of spam.

4: Go Articles

go hello For a change, Go Articles has a social side, but it’s unobtrusive, a small profile page –here I am in a hat – and bio, although the option to automatically tie in your Twitter account is a massive bonus if you write business related content but can’t be bothered with all this new-fangled ‘blogging’ nonsense.

The site benefits from a clean and simple format, distributing articles in plain text via email.

Of course, this again means no links and very little HTML formatting, so the impact and readability is questionable, but GA does have a large subscriber base (It claims to be “the web’s largest free article marketing site”).
 
There are also some good category choices that allow you decent targeting, although some (Web 2.0 take a bow) are a little outdated.

Again, submission is a straightforward copy n’ paste job. Add an author bio, click submit and we’re done.

The site also sends out a handy follow up email to let you know if your article has been accepted or you’re due a call from the FCC.

5: Hubpages

Finally, let’s look at Hubpages. A nice looking site, and again ridiculously easy to sign up.

Hubpages follows the Squidoo quasi-social model, with users setting up profiles and creating a distribution ‘Hub’.

So, what’s a hub?

In essence a landing page, with options to copy in yet more non-linkable content and RSS it around the place.

Because we’re feeling sensible we title ours ‘Econsultancy’s Digital Marketing Hub’ (Amazon Women of Venus was taken unfortunately). Unfortunately both of our posts have a number of links to source, so it takes quite a while before I find a format the site is happy with.  

Despite this, there are plenty of networking opportunities available including a Quora-esque ‘ask the author a question’ section and links to related articles and Hubs:

hub social

I should point out though that generally the level of expertise is pitched fairly low.

There are plenty of ‘What is SEO?’ articles, but a distinct lack of ‘How do I benchmark Northern Asian SaaS B2B’s?’

On the plus side, Hubpages is one of the few sites that allows accurate tagging, but there is a bit of a “here to be seen” digital marketing posse in evidence, studiously posting their own articles and ignoring yours, so expect relatively small view numbers and little, if any referral action.

So, I’ve spent several hours copying, pasting, removing HTML tags, rewriting links and creating profiles, surely there should be some ROI?

Two weeks on, I check into GA and see what my traffic is like.

Here it is:

traffic

A grand total of six direct visitors in a two week period (Hubpages also provided 2 visitors to other landing pages).

The return on my time? $0.

Squidoo and Hubpages topped the chart, and given their social layers I’m prompted to believe that regular engagement on the sites could build a larger audience and provide greater returns, but compare these sites to social aggregators that require similar engagement.

Despite its many recent failings, even Digg provided twenty times the traffic in the same period, while Stumbleupon managed more than 4,000 unique visits, with a faster, cleaner and more easily targeted submission system.

We tested these sites on the basis of traffic, rather than SEO, as any search related benefits may take much longer to appear.

 Also, we’re not convinced about the long term SEO value of these sites, due to some of the noise coming out of Google in recent weeks about penalising content farming sites. Based on these results, it’s no bad thing.

Content may well be king, but the vast majority of large article sites seem designed to harvest content and create their own entrenched audience, encouraging writers to submit free content while providing little value to the reader.

Although others may have had more success, it does seem to require an inordinate amount of time to create even a small return, so unless you are already a user then this may not be the path for you.

To be fair, some of the sites fair better than others: Ezine sent several follow-up emails after submission, and even provided a moderately helpful course with writing tips and advice so there is at least an attempt being made to build a community.

However, if you are going to invest time (and if you’re an employer, money) into content seeding then you need a solid ROI, and it appears that even the top sites in the field are woefully unable to supply it in scale without engagement that would be far better spent on cultivating your own blog and carrying out social campaigns.