Back in the mid-1800s, gold rush fever was epidemic in America. Hopeful amateurs packed up their worldly possessions and headed west, braving uncertain weather, unreliable maps, and the occasional attack by Indians who weren’t crazy about a steady stream of gold seekers invading their land, breaking treaties and such.

We tend to think of the gold rush as a California thing, but anybody with a shovel, a pan, and a parcel of land practically anywhere across the Northwest was looking for gold. Some struck it rich; most struck out. Prospectors in Nevada, for example, didn’t find a lot of gold. They cursed the “damned blue stuff” that clogged their equipment.

Turned out the “damned blue stuff” was silver.

These days, the really valuable stuff on the Internet isn’t gold or silver. It’s content. Every day, it’s┬ábecoming clearer that content is what drives traffic to your website. You don’t have to look much further than The Huffington Post or The Drudge Report to see that it’s true. These sites are crammed with enough content to make your eyes bleed.

Is the content valuable? The Huffington Post just sold to AOL for $315 million. So: yes. On the web, great content equals gold.

So what makes it great? Much of the content at The Huffington Post is not produced for The Huffington Post: it’s content that’s aggregated from other web sources and curated by the sites’ editors. It’s valuable because an editor has deemed it to be so–and presents in a way that makes it (relatively) easy for you to find.

That’s one answer, anyway. An even better answer is that it’s valuable content because people want to read it. (And, perhaps, because advertisers will pay to support it.)

Like gold, some content is stuff people will look for. Last week, we were all looking for stories about Charlie Sheen. This week, we’re all looking for stories about Ethan Canin. (Not really. I just like Ethan Canin and it would be cool if he were as popular as Charlie Sheen.)

But most content is more like silver. It’s stuff we happen across when we’re looking for something else. As my partner Scott Woolgar is fond of pointing out, “No one ever got up in the morning and said, ‘I think I’ll go look for some great content.'” (Also not quite true. Normal people don’t do that. Bloggers do it all the time.)

Silver content is the story you saw on The Huffington Post when you were reading about Charlie Sheen. Silver content is the link that catches your eye when you’re researching something else. Silver content is the stuff find when you’re skimming.

So how do you make sure your silver content is valuable, and isn’t perceived as that “damned blue stuff”?

First, know that there’s no difference between “gold” and “silver” content. Content can be valuable it’s searched for or stumbled across. The most important thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter what you think is valuable–only what your audience thinks is valuable.

You know what people don’t like? Advertising. You know what they spend time and money and effort trying to avoid? Advertising. You know when they get up to go to the bathroom? When the ads are on.

So why do so many content creators continue to think they need to load their posts with special offers and sales pitches?

Mitch Joel, president of Twist Image and blogger at Six Pixels of Separation has the right idea. Joel says, “The company must accept the fact that they are no longer just Marketers. They must accept the fact that in a world where consumers have an expectation of finding content, you must think like those who create the best content. The best content is not created by Marketers. The best content is created by Publishers.”

So, Joel continues, you have to think like a publisher. Create content people will seek. Create content people will find interesting if they happen across it.

Don’t think you can fool people into finding your promotional content. Google is continually refining its algorithms to help people find high-quality content as quickly as possible–so the SEO consultant tricks that work today probably won’t work tomorrow.

And don’t be so worried about selling stuff. Attract people to your site with great content, and you already have them in the store, where they have the opportunity to buy what you’re selling. You don’t have to be constantly poking at them like an annoying salesperson. On the Internet, customers have all the control. They can wander off to the next place any time they want.

So: think not like a marketer, but rather like a publisher. What do your customers want to know? What will they find interesting? What can you share that will attract them? What can you do to make your content interesting and relevant to people who happen to find it? If you’re trying to pass off a bunch of marketing copy as valuable content, you’re only fooling yourself. It may be silver to you. But to everybody else, it’s just a load of damned blue stuff getting in the way of the search for gold.