Lure of the content mill--should you bite?
Published: July 27, 2010
Professional writers normally aren’t kind when asked about the value of content mills, large websites where almost anyone can post a story after signing up. I have yet to meet an established freelance writer who has a single good comment to make about these websites that run on energy usually supplied by inexperienced writers or by people who are writing for a hobby.
Kay B. Day
The hobby writer is not uncommon—perhaps a person teaches in a university but wants to write about social issues or to advocate for a cause. Or an author may blog for free or for small change in order to promote his or her book.
It’s the platform that’s really the lure with content mills. At the moment search engines are kind to these sites because the number of backlinks is astronomical. If you have thousands of people posting content, even if those thousands have only a few supporters who link to each post, you will outpace independent sites most of the time.
|I try to explain this to aspiring writers in simple terms. The search engine is basically pretty stupid. That engine relies on rules established by its creator to look for certain attributes like quality backlinks. An example of a quality link would be a URL ending in .gov or .edu, traditional institutions that the search engine perceives as ‘trustable.’ The search engine cannot tell if you are a good writer and nor can it determine whether you’re telling the truth. So for now, search engines are a content mill’s best friend.|
Michael Arrington, writing at Tech Crunch, sums it up by describing the success of one company. “The company is paying bottom dollar to create ‘4,000 videos and articles’ a day, based only on what’s hot on search engines. They push SEO (search engine optimization) juice to this content, which is made as quickly and cheaply as possible, and pray for traffic. It works like a charm, apparently.”
Most mills hook the writer by promising a platform—you will build an audience and you will get those readers you covet.
In truth you are not likely to build an audience that counts. In my opinion if you’re planning to work for free or for pennies, you’re better off simply setting up your own website and making a little revenue from third party ads.
Arrington likens content mills to “the rise of fast-food content.”
I recently wrote for a content mill, both as an experiment and for another selfish reason. In my hometown, there’s a thriving music community. I’ve met many talented musicians through my daughter who is a musician. But there are few avenues for them to get exposure. So I selected an entertainment topic and wrote away—approximately 4 dozen articles. I made about $40 over a 3 month period. Having completed my experiment, I walked away.
Almost all mills rely on page views and traffic to calculate your pay, although some do pay a flat fee as well. Some pay nothing.
Among the top-brand content mills are Associated Content (now owned by Yahoo!), Helium, Examiner, Gawker and The Huffington Post. Examiner does require a background check for writers, but that still doesn’t earn the various columns credibility in citations. When I did wire-desk work for a news service, I stayed away from using content mills as sources. Another blogger may cite your little known blog, but chances are he’s as low on the ladder as you are, so not a lot of rank is going to come your way from that citation.
If you’re trying to build a reader base, you may decide that even small amounts of pay are worth investing time and creative energy. But bear in mind you will likely be held responsible for any claims or litigation that arise from your content, and you also may be giving up permanent rights to your content. At the least your rights may be encumbered, which is one reason you don’t want to give a mill your best work, especially if you might republish it elsewhere. It’s so important to read the contract and make certain you print a copy and keep it for your records.
The lure of a content mill can be strong. I don’t like to tell writers an option is taboo, but I do like writers to go into an agreement with eyes wide open. Part of that clarity should rest on the fact you may not find many editors impressed with any credits you cite from one of these mills.
Arrington was blunt in his assessment. “These models create a race-to-the-bottom situation,” he wrote, “where anyone who spends time and effort on their content is pushed out of business.”
If you do bite on that lure, do so with the full realization you may get bitten in return.
Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International, The Florida Times-Union and Sky News. To learn more about Kay Day, see www.kayday.com. To read Kay's other Web Savvy columns about writing for the Web, click here.||