Have you noticed sloppy, even grossly inaccurate writing on “how-to” Web sites? Or on travel and food sites? How about oddly similar articles showing up on multiple sites? Or enticing headline links for articles that entirely disappoint when you click on them?
There’s a reason. A new animal recently emerged in the online world: content mills. They are brokers of online content, and they’re quite uncaring about writing quality, let alone writers. And every self-respecting writer is outraged by what the mills claim as “fair pay.” So self-respecting writers won’t work for them. And that’s why you may have become disenchanted with so much of what you see online.
What kind of writers are producing this muck?
The only writers actually writing for the mills are the desperate kind. Writing, after all, is a lonely, cerebral, isolated profession. That fact alone seems to have made us ripe pickings for this mostly Internet-based phenomenon. Some examples of mills are Associated Content, examiner.com, Demand Media, Elance, and Seed. They all follow the same business model: pay as little as you can for words to fill up online pages.
What exactly do they pay? Demand, for example, claims to pay $5-15 for 500-1,000 word articles. Consider the fact that it takes a decent writer 2-4 hours to do a decent 500-1,000 word piece. So what do you do if you’re only making $2.50 per hour? You rush, you “borrow,” you plagiarize. Your mission in life becomes writing as many articles as you can, as fast as you can, so that you’re making slightly more than $2.50 per hour.
Hence, we have “mash-ups:” material grabbed from all over the Web and “re-purposed” for an article. Associated Content and examiner.com are even worse – they only pay writers by the click. So writers have to become promoters of their own sloppy writing to make anything.
Do mash-ups equal plagiarism? In many cases, yes. When the original author isn’t even given credit, what else can it be?
What should writers be paid per word?
The average good-quality magazine article pays $1-2 per word. So a decently written1,000-word article should pay $1,000-2,000. Not $10. But before you think of dashing off 1,000 words and looking for the $2 per-word market, you should realize that to get to 1,000 really good words for the really well-paying markets, a writer typically puts down 4-5,000 words, then works, re-works and polishes their material. And that can take 20-40 hours.
So, how can writers survive working for the mills? We can’t. And that’s my point. The mills don’t actually care about writers because quality has nothing to do with what they’re after. They only care about selling content, whatever it is. The business of the mills is to stockpile random content to sell to sites that need “stuff” on their pages. All kinds of sites and publications buy that stuff just so that you and I might be attracted to visit … and just possibly click on the ads there.
Where might you read some of this paltry-paying stuff? Demand Media lists eHow.com, LIVESTRONG.com, Cracked.com, Trails.com, Golflink.com, Answerbag, Mobile, and Impact Stories as some of their content. And here’s what Associated Content says about how they pay their “contributors:” “You earn money for every one thousand page views your content generates (PPM™ rate). The baseline PPM™ rate is currently $1.50 – meaning if you generate 30,000 page views, you’re paid $45.00 in Performance Payments.” That means that you only get paid if you drive the masses to click on your articles. So you’re not only paid peanuts for your work, you have to work pretty darn hard to get paid the peanuts.
What does this mean for you and me? The quality of online content is rapidly and clearly declining. But you may have noticed that.
The valuation of content over quality.
This really is a David and Goliath scenario. The mills are extremely well-funded and some of them are owned by some of the wealthiest people in the country. So even though the Web has brought a great many boons, if you’re a writer, globalization and content mills have become your foes. There is likely no stopping them. But a growing demand for quality may set them straight.
Jaron Lanier wrote about this very thing in his book, “You Are Not a Gadget.” He sees similar ills in the rise of aggregation of data with total disregard for the human element. In other words, many of the factors driving the growth of the internet are not based on what you and I really want. It’s based on getting those ads clicked. Period.
If writers were like other trades – teachers, police, electricians, carpenters, firefighters and so on – we’d be talking to each other, getting angry and starting to organize. But we’re not like other trades. We’re largely solo enterprises, and some of us truly hit the wall looking for work. Those of us who have reached that level of desperation actually bow down to the demon and start writing for the mills. None who do like it. But they think they must.
A similar phenomenon occurred around 30 years ago when stock photography came into being. It pretty much killed professional photography. Ad agencies and magazines that used to pay thousands of dollars for photo shoots began paying $1-200 for stock shots instead. As the stock houses grew in number and strength, photographers bowed to them and turned over their images. That only helped drive the nails into their coffins.