The Fallacy of Iphigenia’s Sacrifice

Jul 9th, 2024

This article was originally featured in Issue 13 of Benchmark Magazine, Titans of Search. 

Myth: amending your site after a Helpful Content Update requires too much effort to have a worthwhile effect
Reality: Google’s algorithms and regulations are constantly changing, and updating your website content to reflect this can help you flourish

If you’re familiar with the story of the fall of Troy, you may remember the fate of Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon. Agamemnon was the leader of the Greek armies who had come to besiege Troy, and he’d ordered these armies to come together at Aulis, a rocky outcrop where there was plenty of room for the fleet to gather.

While they waited for the rest of the armies to reach Aulis, the early arrivals entertained themselves with song and dance and, most importantly, hunts. It was on one of these hunts that Agamemnon himself rode out and killed a fine stag which, unbeknownst to him, just so happened to be sacred to the goddess Artemis. Enraged, she becalmed the fleet at Aulis so they couldn’t sail on to Troy.

The goddess issued an ultimatum to Agamemnon via his prophet, Calchas. If he wished the winds to return so he and his armies could lay siege to Troy, he must sacrifice his only daughter, Iphigenia. With little choice, Agamemnon did so. In some stories, Iphigenia dies as you’d expect, and in others she is saved by the goddess and spirited away to another town – but in all of the stories, the sacrifice of Iphigenia appeases Artemis and allows the winds to return.

Like many Greek tragedies, the story of Iphigenia has a hidden lesson that we can learn from, and apply to our modern day lives. So what lesson can be extracted from this? And more importantly, what parallels can be drawn from Greek tragedies that can help us enhance our digital marketing, more specifically Organic Search (SEO) efforts?

The kind of straightforward ultimatum in Iphigenia’s story may sound appealing – once you get away from the idea of human sacrifice, of course – but unfortunately, it’s one myth of Greek legend that doesn’t translate well to SEO.

In reality, Google can be harder to appease than Artemis – but not if you’re willing to put in the work.

So, what can you do to help your site recover after a helpful content update? Well, there are lots of things that can affect the E-E-A-T of your website, helping raters to decide whether your content is helpful or not. Things like authorship, social profile links, and accreditations can be useful – but the biggest impact is likely to come from the content itself.

Let’s take a look at the most common different forms of unhelpful content and how you can rectify them – with a little help from Greek mythology, of course.

First, we begin with the stories of Echo and Narcissus, a pair of characters who are rarely separated in the myths for reasons you’ll come to see.

Echo was a mountain nymph who had many sisters and cousins, all of whom were very beautiful. They frequently attracted the attention of Zeus, king of the gods, who was well known for his promiscuity. Because of this, his wife, Hera, was suspicious whenever he would go off alone. On this occasion, she followed him heading down to a mountain, but instead of finding her husband, she found Echo.

Well aware that Zeus was nearby with one of her sisters, Echo distracted Hera; in some stories, she lied outright when asked where Zeus was, while in others, she merely gossipped and chit chatted until the goddess grew bored and left. Either way, when Hera discovered this betrayal, she cursed Echo so that she could only ever repeat what was spoken to her, never able to say anything for herself.

Occurring in parallel to this is the story of Narcissus, a young man famed for his beauty. This caused him to become incredibly vain and conceited – a trait which earned him a curse from the goddess of vengeance, Nemesis. The next time he saw his reflection, he would immediately fall in love with it.

And so he did, during a hunt on the very mountain where the newly-cursed Echo lived. When she met him, she adored him for his beauty, but she couldn’t say a word of her own to him, and he could love nothing and no one except himself.

These paired stories might seem a world away from digital marketing, but they succinctly display four types of unhelpful content. These are:

  • Factual inaccuracies – represented by Echo lying to Hera
  • Irrelevant fluff – represented by the alternate version where she distracts the goddess with meaningless chat
  • Content that adds no value to what’s already available – represented by Echo’s curse
  • Content that favours self-promotion over helping the reader – represented by Narcissus’s vanity and eventual fate

Helpful content aims first and foremost to educate or assist the reader in a way that is relevant to your brand. If any of the above characteristics sound familiar, you may need to audit your content to make sure it’s all accurate, relevant and useful to the reader. Then check that you’ve included additional insights or information to help your content stand out amongst the rest.

Our next type of unhelpful content is brought to light in the myth of Autolycus, a cattle herder and son of the god Hermes. As well as being the messenger of the gods, Hermes was known for being something of a trickster, and his son Autolycus inherited his flair for thievery. He lived near King Sisyphus – the one who ended up pushing a boulder up a hill for all eternity in the afterlife.

When he was alive, King Sisyphus was very rich and had a great many strong, healthy cattle. Autolycus one day decided to steal these cattle, just a few at a time so as not to arouse suspicion. But Sisyphus was suspicious when he discovered his herd was becoming smaller – he believed Autolycus was the thief, but he couldn’t prove it.

Or could he? In the end, Sisyphus had his cattle marked on their hooves – somewhere Autolycus wouldn’t think to look. Then, when he demanded to inspect Autolycus’s cattle, he found they bore the mark of his own herd and Autolycus was finally caught.

If it’s not already clear, the kind of unhelpful content shown here is stolen or duplicated content. This applies to duplication within your own website – for example, similar products that have identical descriptions – as well as duplication of other sites.

You might think that so long as you are not copying other people’s work, you’ll be fine. However, this is an aspect in which SEO diverts from the myth. While King Sisyphus was able to prove that the cattle belonged to him first, Google can’t tell which example of the content is the original. Therefore, all versions of it will suffer.

So, finding out if your content is duplicated is a clear priority. You can use a plagiarism checking tool such as Copyscape to detect any duplicate content on your site – and if you find any, you should rewrite that content to be more unique and add greater value for the reader.

Many of us have heard the tale of Icarus flying too close to the sun as a metaphor for pride, but were you aware that it’s actually a pretty good metaphor for backing up your content’s claims as well?

In the myth, Icarus and Daedalus attempted to escape captivity by flying across the sea using wings made of feathers, a wire frame and wax to bind the two together. Daedalus, who had designed the wings, warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun because the heat would melt the wax and cause the wings to fall apart. What’s less well known is that he also warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sea either, because if the feathers got wet then the wings would be too heavy to keep him in the air.

Icarus’s pride and Daedalus’s warnings can be very useful reminders for content writers everywhere, but particularly for those writing on Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) topics. It’s one thing to be proud of your company’s expertise, but backing up your claims with relevant, reliable sources is a great way to show that you know what you’re talking about – both to Google and to interested readers.

But just as Icarus should have remained between two extremes, so do content writers. On the one hand, making sweeping claims that can’t be backed up with evidence is clearly a bad choice. On the other hand, it’s also unhelpful to only cover topics at a very shallow level.

In order to provide the most benefit to your readers, you should aim to cover topics in depth while remembering to back up important facts that might affect your readers’ health or finances with reliable sources.

The task of editing your content to help your site recover from a helpful content update might seem Herculean, but it’s well worth the effort. If you leave unhelpful content in place, your site will continue to suffer in search results, which will likely result in a loss of conversions and revenue. But with hard work and a good eye for detail, you can turn your site back around and return to those golden days of flourishing in search results.

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