Man reading on his phone.

Why I stopped publishing end-of-year most-read lists

In previous years, I used to publish a “Most Read of the year” listicle (“list article”) around the holiday season. It let me take a break from writing and still generate lots of traffic to the featured articles. People still need things to read during the holidays, you know. However, I stopped publishing these a few years ago after learning of an unintended consequence.

All of my most popular articles kept appearing on other websites! Either in their original or a slightly rewritten form; most in English but sometimes translated. For years, I failed to spot an — in hindsight completely obvious — pattern for which of my works got plagiarized.

Almost all the plagiarized articles had appeared in one of my end-of-year most-read lists. Other publications were mining and replicating my most popular content, and almost universally out-competed the original article on search engine result pages.

I can only guess why the copies performed better in search rankings. My best theory is that their ranks are inflated based on bot activity on Twitter. I found hundreds of accounts that exclusively posted links to articles published on the offending websites.

Roughly one-third of the copies set their (re-)publication dates to about a week before the original publication dates. As far as I know, modern search engines don't trust the publication dates, and instead use the date when they first discovered the page.

I only noticed the pattern after investigating one publication that had republished eight of my articles in a short time. My articles were plagiarized verbatim except for a modified byline and significant changes to exactly every fourth paragraph. The website had published a few dozen articles between each of my articles. However, my articles appeared on their site in the same order listed in the previous year’s most-read listicle.

I then took a closer look at some of the other plagiarists. Lo and behold, others were doing the exact same thing. Some only copied the top or top three articles, but some had helped themselves to the entire list. I could even identify a few repeat offenders that did the same trick every year.

It’s painfully obvious this would happen when I look back on it. Of course, people would mine these listicles to find new content that’s already proven to be popular. Why waste time writing something new when you can get someone else’s best-of list and copy their work?

I’ve got a general rule for deciding on what to write about. I try to only write about new topics on which I can’t find existing quality information. At the very least, I want to have something new to add to the topics I cover. I simply couldn’t identify with someone who’d want to “borrow” other people’s ideas and completed works.

So, yeah. I decided to stop publishing the end-of-year most-read listicle in 2018. I also deleted all the previously published lists. I’ve seen a significant decrease in the number of websites that plagiarize my articles. Specifically, I’m seeing fewer plagiarized works where someone has made an effort to appear less blatantly like copyright infringement. There are still automated bots scraping exact or machine-translated copies of my work, but these generally don’t outperform the original on search result pages.

I now get to monopolize topics that no one else has realized are popular yet. Newer articles in my back-catalog outperform the articles from the yearly most-read listicle era with a sizeable margin. It turns out it’s easier to maintain top search engine result rankings if you don’t blab about what they are; thus don’t invite someone to come along and steal the spotlight — and your writing.