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.