Automated software and algorithms are being used to generate articles.

Can robot writers produce compelling content?

I was on Twitter the other day when something leaped out of the torrent at me. “Create unique article on any topic in just a click,” the tweet said.

Could this be for real? Could a robot do a better job than I — a professional freelance writer — could?

Considering that writers and content creators like me are doomed if so, I figured I better check it out.

Trying out the word-o-matic

So I clicked and landed here , a somewhat dodgy looking page that said Unique Article Creator “is the best article generator tool to generate SEO friendly unique articles from your keyword.” The unidentified people behind the site say the tool finds fresh content and then rewrites it to be unique and have stronger search engine optimization (SEO).

Already, I was ready to dispute their claim of offering article creation because the tool needs fresh professional content written by someone else to start with, but I’ll set that aside for now.  I figured I’d take for a test drive and see what happened.

I plugged in the keywords “software as a service” and got a spun version of a press release about a Silicon Valley company getting $18 million in funding.

Can software produce great content?

Can software produce great content?

While that could be a worthwhile subject in the right niche, the text didn’t live up to the site’s promises of providing a quality article on the keywords. It was just a rehash, similar to several articles I found on the press release.

Can a robot tell a good story?

I was surprised, however, that the language was fairly natural. Clearly, the robots are getting smarter.

It’s not news that traditional writers and media are endangered, and there has been a quest for many years to create automated software that can write books and articles.

So writing faces a threat much like other traditional industries – outsourcing to cheaper wage countries then automation. Content creators could become just another casualty of the technology explosion.

The New York Times wrote more than eight years ago about Philip Parker, who developed algorithms that cull public information, crunch it through 70 computers and compile the data into books. He has generated more than 200,000 books this way and claims to be “the most published author in the history of the planet.”

“Tufted Bathmats” – bedtime reading, anyone?

Given that his titles include The 2007-2012 Outlook for Tufted Washable Scatter Rugs, Bathmats and Sets That Measure 6-Feet by 9-Feet or Smaller in India,” I feel safe in saying that his system isn’t much of a threat to Cormac McCarthy, J.K. Rowling or even little old me.

Although an artificial intelligence program co-wrote a novel with a human that made a good showing in a contest in Japan, so who knows what’s possible?

Mirko Tobias Schäfer via Flickr

Mirko Tobias Schäfer via Flickr

There are a few other software companies working in this area, and their results are making me a little more nervous.

One of them, Narrative Science, calls its artificial intelligence-powered system “natural language generation,” which can turn data into narratives. Its 70 customers are companies like insurer USAA, MasterCard and the U.S. intelligence services.

They use its software to create content that interprets numbers for things like investment commentaries and regulatory reports. It even has a tool that will explain your Google Analytics data in plain English for free.

The company says it can match your tone or produce tweets in just seconds. I hunted around for examples of the company’s writing and didn’t find much. But I found a sample of a baseball report  the software produced.

Best with numbers, personalized content

I picked a paragraph at random, and at first I thought wasn’t too bad if a little stilted. But then it turned into a train wreck in the third nonsensical sentence: “The Manalapan Braves Red tacked on another four runs in the second. The inning got off to a hot start when Bullen singled, bringing home Cappola. That was followed up by that scored Pellecchia.”

Clearly, the robots are not yet master storytellers. An important limitation is that the software can only work with data as its source.

Clearly, the robots are not yet master storytellers. An important limitation is that the software can only work with data as its source.

Another robot writing company, Automated Insights, has a similar restriction. Its site gives some enlightening examples of how it goes from data to text on crime trends, election results and real estate descriptions. The legendary news organization Associated Press is even using it to produce news items on quarterly earnings announcements.

One thing these programs do well is develop personalized content like personalized Fantasy Football recaps, Contently says.

In sum, I’d say these tools only are useful if you need to churn out a lot of reports on uniform sets of data. I was curious to know how much users pay, and found one Quora post that suggested Narrative Science charges in tiers from about $70,000 to $175,000 a year.

So unless you are compiling a product catalog or daily horse racing stats, I don’t think the software is a silver bullet for generating fresh, original, insightful content inexpensively.

The imperatives of content marketing today

These days, the key to engaging an audience is providing content that is genuinely helpful, comprehensive, unique and interesting or entertaining. The reality is that the days of parroting popular pieces or stuffing your articles with keywords are over. Search engines penalize that now.

These days, the key to engaging an audience is providing content that is genuinely helpful, comprehensive, unique and interesting or entertaining. The reality is that the days of parroting popular pieces or stuffing your articles with keywords are over. Search engines penalize that now.

But to make this tour of robot writing tools complete, I had one last stop. I had never delved into the seamy underbelly of article spinning tools since, well, the very idea is anathema to a writer.

I was stunned by how many of these tools are out there. I saw at least a dozen. Some of them are hard to distinguish from content mills including one site that says it offers unique 500-word articles for under 2 cents using some sort of automated tool to generate them.

The risks are high

The site had a message on it that it is “closed to the public” so I wasn’t able to test drive it. If you are tempted by such sites, remember the potential to be penalized for blackhat SEO, spam or plagiarism is high.

In fact, one of the tools captured very well the basic problem facing artificially generated English content.

“At this point in time, it is not possible for any software program to produce content that is engaging,” said Small SEO Tools

So before I finished I decided to try one of the tools and see how it did on spinning the first few words of “A Tale of Two Cities.”  I plugged in: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It came back with: “It was the most effective of times, it was the worst of times.”

I plugged in: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It came back with: “It was the most effective of times, it was the worst of times.”

Charles Dickens, I think you’re safe. Hopefully I am too.