By paulgillin | August 14, 2012 - 8:00 am - Posted in Fake News

Sweatshop in Ludlow Street Tenement, New York via Wikimedia CommonsWe got a come-on from one of those content-farming services the other day, but instead of throwing it away in disgust, we decided to run the numbers instead.

The e-mail promised us the possibility of earning $80 per 400-600-word article! That’s right, that statement ended with an exclamation point. We’d normally be insulted at the prospect of being offered less than 20 cents a word, but when we took at look at the site we’d be writing for, we thought heck, one could actually make a living at this.

We can’t identify the site because our revenue from Adwords doesn’t permit the luxury of retained legal counsel, but there are plenty of services out there that provide low-cost, keyword-optimized articles for businesses that want to attract search engines. They all work pretty much the same.

The particular site we looked at is focused on a vertical B2B market. It publishes 12-15 articles a day from an impressive assortment of freelance writers. We’ve never heard of any of them, but most of the contributors write one or two articles per day for this site, and presumably also write for other sites supported by the content farm.

The stuff they write follows a predictable format: The writer reads three or four stories in an industry trade or business publications and summarizes what they say in a kind of a news roundup format. The more experienced writers may add a dose of their own opinion, but for the most part no one strays too far from quoting the industry pundits.

There is no original reporting to speak of. We scanned about a dozen articles and didn’t see any evidence of primary research beyond repackaged analysis from industry trades. In the new journalism, first-person sourcing is less important than linking to source material online.

Doing the Math

We figured a fast writer with a working knowledge of a vertical industry could pound out five or six such stories a day without breaking a sweat. Heck, we’ve sometimes posted 1,200 words to this site before 9 in the morning. So do the math: Five stories per day at $80 per story equals $400 a day. That’s $2,000 a week. That’s $100,000 a year. That’s a decent living.

What makes this possible is the near total lack of quality control. It doesn’t appear that anyone is reading the stuff these writers post. There were typos and formatting problems that would have been caught with even a minimum of editorial oversight, but the publisher doesn’t care. As long as the keywords are in the right place and the search engines are delivering, everything is fine.

What matters is speed. Frequently updated sites get more attention from search engines, and this particular site focuses on breaking news. The idea is to get something into the news stream while interest is high so you can get in on the page-view bubble. After a couple of days, most of the interest has waned, but the search engines are still paying attention to you because you post so frequently. Long-tail search typically delivers about one-third of the traffic to news sites.

We don’t mean to imply that the content on this site was junk. Quite the opposite: Some of the writers clearly follow the industry closely and chose their topics well. Considering that no one is editing them, the copy was impressively clean. For a business audience that is challenged to keep up with the news, you might even say the site is valuable.

These are the new economics of the working journalist: Pump out a large volume of keyword-laden stuff with minimal guidance or oversight. None of this work is ever going to win a Pulitzer, but it is enabling a few writers to actually sustain themselves by writing. And who knows, maybe they can do some serious reporting in their spare time, or perhaps someone at a name-brand publication will notice their work and offer them a job.

Either way, it’s a living.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 14th, 2012 at 8:00 am and is filed under Fake News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. August 15, 2012 @ 10:49 am

    What makes this possible is the near total lack of quality control. It doesn’t appear that anyone is reading the stuff these writers post. There were typos and formatting problems that would have been caught with even a minimum of editorial oversight, but the publisher doesn’t care. As long as the keywords are in the right place and the search engines are delivering, everything is fine.

    Sounds like an opportunity for an enterprising publisher to add editorial services.

    This is not a problem if you are organized to add a step and a short loop into the workflow stream where content gets reviewed and edited.

    Posted by msbpodcast
  2. August 16, 2012 @ 12:43 am

    @msbpodcast – it would make sense if the papers cared, but they don’t. The idea is to punk google so they’ll get page rank, which will (they think) get pageviews, which will allow them to charge more for that 728×60 or 300×250 placement.

    What really happens is traffic still decreases, because the quality isn’t there and readers know it. You can smell the stench when you accidentally click through to an ‘ehow’ (i.e., Demand Media) page. Good thing google allows search result site-blocking!

    Posted by Big Daddy
  3. August 18, 2012 @ 9:51 am

    The good news is that Google is targeting content farms like Demand Media directly and penalizing keyword-stuffing. Google is actually a friend to journalists because it’s on a mission to reward quality information created by human beings. In the long run, this will demand that anyone who wants to get search visibility will have to invest in quality.

    Posted by paulgillin
  4. August 23, 2012 @ 11:33 am

    These sites won’t be as prominent as they are for much longer…Google is going on a bit of a crackdown…I have laways wondered who actually reads these sites though? The answer, I guess, is probably no one…

    Posted by Joey Williams
  5. August 27, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

    Part of the problem is that advertising, which has paid the freight on the paper media side of the marketplace, is increasingly being perceived as a source of audio and visual noise and an interruption of signal. (I hadn’t heard an ad beyond the first time it aired/ran since the invention of the mute button.)

    The internet and the web are multimedia capable and advertising is capable of getting in your face and really interrupting the message and the internet readership/audience/viewer are getting increasingly intelligent about how to handle the disruptions.

    What we put up with on television we would riot and burn down the theatre at in a movie. (Imagine how the experience of a film like Lawrence of Arabia would look/feel like interrupted at various points with advertisements for cars, foot powder and ED medicines? [Actually, you don’t have to, do you? It happens on the small screen all the time.])

    We are becoming less awed by the production techniques (now that a kid with a computer and a video camera can put something just as visually compelling as a multimillion dollar studio [that’s why movie studios are only interested in multi-million dollar block-buster productions,]) and demanding true entertainment, (and ads aren’t entertaining after the n-th time you’ve read/heard/seen/watched them .)

    Posted by msbpodcast
  6. August 29, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

    Nice job, Paul. To what extent does this analysis of newspapers apply to magazines in general? Newspapers, depending on information, are of course toast. But magazines offer a related but broader proposition. A strong brand can embrace material and concepts that don’t lend themselves to being mashed up into a newsfeed. As such, new reading devices can accommodate a package that can charge an ad premium — not that anybody’s really tried yet.

    Posted by Don

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