The "Content is King" Quote Meaning – It's Not What Think

Peasant in the field holding some grain

You have probably heard the “content is king” quote a hundred times already. Did you ever wonder abut the actual meaning of it? It’s not what you think!

In the era of “content marketing” everybody needs to become a publisher it seems and focus on content creation.

Big media moguls love content. They don’t create it themselves though these days.

Large corporations tend to make money off other people’s content in the twenty first century. Both Google and Facebook do it that way.


The History of the “Content is King” Quote

It’s not a new phenomenon though. Just take a look at who said “content is king” in the past long before every blogger:

Yet when you research even further you will find out that the phrase “content is king” has been used in 1912 already by historian A. Wyatt Tilby in his book British North America, 1763-1867. There he writes:

“[Those] who visited the colony during these years were more surprised at the poverty of the farming than edified by the faith of the farmers. Yet the wants of the inhabitants were few and simple. They knew not the need for larger crops, and the consciousness of poverty cannot enter where content is king.”

Of course in this content is an adverb, stressed at the second syllable. Content stems from contentment here. Also linguistically the word content is derived from constrained.

During colonialism to keep poor farmers constrained and ensure they do not rebel you needed to make them content with their dire situation. The British colonists in what was to become the United States later were kept at bay this way. The quote is much older than you might have expected.


For Google Content is King but NOT the Way You Think

Google will tell you to “create great content” all the time. Do you need the content or does Google and other media corporations need it?

When it comes to Google search you still get ranked mainly by links. Just check out the highest ranking pages for the search term [seo]. Analyze them using a tool like SEOquake.

You will notice that most of them not only have “great content” but mainly rank because of the numerous incoming links that lead to them.

Actually “content is king” for Google because they make money by putting ads around other people’s content they index.

Yet even in 2020 many if not most people assume that to show up on top of Google results content is the most important ranking factor:


The Content is King Meme

By now the “content is king” mantra has been adopted far and wide and people are repeating it all over the place without even knowing whom they quote. Heck, even I have to repeat it to make my point here.

The “content is king” metaphor is the oldest Internet meme it seems.

It’s clear that you need a whole team of people to actually practice content marketing.

Content marketing can be costly but you know it better than I do. That’s why you still most likely engage in SEO not just in content creation, marketing or strategy. Yet even for SEO you increasingly need content.

  1. The pressure rises while everybody seems to agree on the value of content.
  2. More and more clients will ask you for content instead of SEO services.
  3. Demand for SEO has peaked in 2009 and flatlined for many years ever since according to Google Trends.

A post of mine I have written in 2011 for a client even ranks in the Google top 10 for [content is king] in 2020 along with three copies of the Bill Gates essay:

Top 10 rankings for [content is king] on Google in 2020. My article from 2011 is between two copies of the Bill Gates essay from 1996.

When you listen to fairy tales or watch fantasy movies you are probably identifying with the heroes, the medieval knights, kings or queens.

You’ll notice some ugly peasants around but they are either victims or really invisible as people, they are part of the background. There aren’t many stories of poor peasants toiling all day on the fields.

We have been reading a lot about so called “content farms” before the Google Panda updates.

These algorithm changes allegedly targeted mass produced low quality content. One of the main sites used as an example of a content farm was Ehow from Demand Media back then.


How Google Demoted Content Farms and Fueled Content Marketing

Do not touch warning sticker.

Ehow had been optimizing its thousands of articles for Google by selectively targeting keywords and interlinking content.

Ultimately they succeeded by adding a large quantity of low quality content to the site and optimizing it for Google. Writers earned just a few dollars per article.

Many other sites had to give up ever since but Ehow is still the biggest example of a content farm. They had lost some traffic initially but quickly recovered according to independent observers. Yet over the years their value dropped continuously.

The general approach to content has also shifted from quantity to quality

afterwards though. Many SEO firms even rebranded as content marketing agencies. Other create long-form content to get Google traffic.

Lately it’s about sheer size as some prominent pundits advocate “big content” to rise above the noise by being the loudest signal. Where does all the noise from? It’s all the people joining the content marketing bandwagon and producing lots of “great content”.

It’s maybe not cheap or even automated anymore but the large amount of it is overwhelming again. It’s too much for the readers who get more selective each day. Who wins all the time while you are working hard to be able to make your content fields grow enough to feed you?

It’s the large corporations again that profit. It’s Google and Facebook among other gatekeepers..

As a small business owner, an SEO or even a startup you wouldn’t engage in large scale quality content production unless Google and others demanded it from you. Your customers don’t want all the content either. They are perfectly satisfied with your products in many cases.


Consider the Attention Economy

Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones showing a large scar on his face

Content creation is mainly a tool to get more people to find you and stay with you in an ADHD attention economy.

People are fickle. They take a quick look and move on fast to check out another dozen items similar to yours elsewhere.

How do you reconcile your goal of earning more money by selling your products and services with the demands of large corporations controlling the content distribution? Think

  • Google
  • Facebook
  • Amazon

How do you stop the vicious cycle of creating more and more content to compete with more and more small business people like you?

It’s not about creating more content, it’s not about creating bigger content, it’s not necessarily about content at all.

Focus on the attention people have less and less of and help them to sift through the piles and piles of noisy and big content from everywhere.

Content curation is one direct way to deal with the onslaught of articles, images, ebooks, videos etc.

Don’t just create huge list of even more items to check out though. Make sure to reduce the actual number of items and to summarize them. You readers will be glad to save the time of doing it themselves.

Of course content curation is just another way of toiling on the fields of large latifundistas like Google. Ideally you want to return to SEO in the sense of focusing on the outcome not the process.

The outcome of SEO is getting links, ranking high and getting relevant traffic historically. Content is just a means to get there. Content is not the only means to get there.

Your products or services are good enough by design ideally to get the attention needed.

Sometimes you need to help them a bit to get it by giving them away. In the music business it has been done for ages.

Clothing brands have been giving away their products to musicians for free to wear publicly.

These days bloggers get inundated with freebies. That’s OK but won’t suffice soon either when more people adapt this strategy.

Not all business owners are even able to give away their products and offer their services for free to get attention.

Content optimization is going where the attention is then. It’s an ages old marketing tactic: branding in sports arenas has been around as long as mass media have provided images from sports events. Nowadays attention waves are faster.

Content is King 
quote by
Sumner Redstone
Bill Gates
Rupert Murdoch


How to React to News Events that Are Unfolding

News events are often huge attention waves. While many brands fail miserably trying to piggy-back on negative headlines others provide useful solutions for these occasions and go public at the right moment.

It’s not about hijacking a hashtag on Twitter when tragedy unfolds. It’s about providing an ad hoc resource for those in need of help.

Helping people speaks for itself and many more than those you helped will remember you for it. It’s more than marketing but it also works as such, on the Web and beyond.

A great example of riding such an attention wave was when Google announced to kill its Reader service and Feedly stepped in right away.

Instead of being the peasant toiling all day on the content fields focus on the attention. Go beyond mere events. Look at larger trends and adapt.

Feedly replaces Google Reader - the Web seems to agree.

Feedly was prepared when Google finally dropped Reader. The writing was on the wall much earlier. SO they were building their own infrastructure early on.

Find out where the attention waves appear regularly by using a tool like Exploding Topics and ride them by providing solutions for the people impacted.

A high profile study also shows that social media users like to share positive news. Don’t tell everybody how disaster strikes but how you help out. Climate change is old news but how to deal with on personal level?

We’re living in a democracy. Luckily the times of kings and peasants are long gone. Don’t mimic them in the digital age. The people choose those who are leading by example.

Provide the content when needed by your preferred audience but don’t just create it to cater to business models of large corporations that don’t align with yours.

“When Content is King You Are the Peasant” was originally published in April 29th, 2013. I rewrote, updated and republished it on January 9th, 2020.