reproof

v. to proofread, again

What you shouldn't write
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

by Matthew Guay · February 14, 2022 · #writing #honesty

There are some things best left unsaid—something oft-forgotten in a world that moves at light speed. You could publish anything on your site, make the boldest claims and grandest promises. You could take down your competitors, write with a pseudonym and libel your competition. You could lie and cheat your way to the top.

You shouldn’t.

It’s easier than ever to publish. It’s also harder than ever to establish your credibility. When a publisher took on your book in the traditional literary world or a newspaper ran your column, you borrowed the publisher’s credibility. They put their name on the line for you, and vise versa. Even then, credibility wasn’t such a gamble—unless someone read today’s paper or bought your book, they’d never see what you’d published. Your prose fell in a forest with no one to hear it, before the internet.

The internet never forgets. Google remembers everything, resurfacing it later when you least expect. Your reputation online isn’t based on your publisher; look at now-disgraced legacy publications whose magazines stood for something, yet their online publications do not. Reputations are built one post after another, as over time you win people’s trust and build a following. They stumble across something you say once, find it interesting, come back again, and again, until they learn to trust your opinions. One ill-informed, slyly dishonest piece can splinter that trust into a thousand shards you’ll never put back together again.

See, you could publish something half-baked today, stretch the truth a bit to make your product sound better than it is. You could let the article sit, do its work, get you a few more customers the easy way. Then you could delete the page and go back to being an honest and upright citizen.

But all it takes is Google’s cache, the Wayback Machine, or a screenshot of your post before you deleted it, and your words will come back from the recycle bin. Seldom can you put the genie back in the bottle.

Or imagine the best-case scenario, where your trickery works and it brings in customers who otherwise might have passed on your product. Those customers you got by being less than honest won't be happy. You may get a dollar from them today, but are far less likely to get one from them or anyone they know in the future. Imagine the most basic bait-and-switch: You run a restaurant that sells burgers, but add every food category imaginable to your description on Google Maps. When people search for steak or sushi or anything else, your restaurant comes up—and for a time, you get more business as people walk in off the street unawares. It's a slight fib—you don't directly say you sell sushi or steak, but those keywords make your shop show up in more searches, bringing in more money today. That is until people start reviewing your restaurant and giving you 1 start for not having what they wanted. You'll seldom get a second chance to rebuild the trust your content lost in an instant.

Yet you see it all the time:

  • Roundup articles written by a product’s team about their own category, mentioning other products only to try to steer readers to buy their own product.
  • Comparison tables that mention only their product’s pros and their competitor’s cons (like an early Amazon Fire tablet comparison table that showed Prime Instant Video and the Kindle library as a pro versus the iPad—when the latter could have the same features if you downloaded Amazon’s apps).
  • Blog posts about features a product doesn’t support, like a tool writing about what HIPPA compliance is to capture Google searches for their product’s name plus HIPPA, when their product still doesn’t support it.
  • Integration directories that mention products that aren’t currently supported, just to capture Google searches.

These and more led me to a rule on every editorial team I’ve worked on: Don’t mention the competition. Don’t review competitors’ apps. Don’t write roundups about your product’s category. You’ll always look biased at best, deliberately misleading at worst.

Along with that, whenever possible, I’d try to write positively. If there’s nothing good to say about a product, perhaps it’s not worth covering. So we’d treat the stuff we did cover as being recommendations. Wirecutter’s similar stance is to feature the stuff they recommend, then list all the others at the end to show the work behind picking the best. You avoid making enemies, keep things positive, and help readers know what to use instead of only what to avoid. (Along the way, I’d learn that often there are no worst products, either, that everything involves tradeoffs, and even products that I wouldn’t recommend are often an integral part of someone’s workflow. Your tastes aren’t everything; all the more reason to be nice.)

There's a better way than to insult and fake your way to the top, a slower, more challenging way to build trust one quality post after another. Be yourself, be honest, publish things you would personally want to read. That's how to build a lasting brand online—or anywhere.

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