Workin’ on a Content Farm

I finally did it, I wrote my first article for the Demand Studios content farm site, eHow. I wasn’t playing the part of a content farmer, though, but rather a farm worker, writing an article for little pay (compared to other rates I have earned as a professional writer).

I signed up for Demand Studios a few months back. There is a company called Pluck here in Austin that was acquired by Demand Media in the spring of 2008. What drew me to them in particular was not only the local connection, but also a fascination with turning search engine optimization on its ear. I first learned of these methods for content creation from this Wired article, The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model. Basically Demand Studios analyzes what phrases are searched for and then enter an article request in their database. There are currently 15,000 articles waiting to be written in their system. The pay for those articles is from $15 to $7.50 or less, and there are some assignments that offer profit sharing based on the numbers of views, apparently.

As a pro writer, I was dead set on following the style guide, knowing that attentiveness to the guidance given is part of the battle in producing good content. In their system, when I “Claimed” the article, it wasn’t immediately apparent which template I would be writing to, which made me a little nervous about attempting it in the first place. After clicking the article to claim it, though, I found that it was the About template. The guidelines were very clear – the About type required five sections with one-word section headers and the first section had to be titled Overview and contain about 75 words. The rest of the sections could contain more than 75 words but at least 50 words were necessary, and overall the article was targeted for 400-500 words. Quite structured.

The web-based authoring forms were easy to use, though it did not include a word count. I found it easier to get word counts in Textpad and then copy/paste the text into each section.

They’ve also very recently introduced an image library that you can search for images, the use of which is encouraged. You could add an image to each of the sections if you wanted. To my poorly trained eye, they seemed adequate but not too glossy, and none of my searches found quite the perfect image, but I included two anyway. They intend to allow people to upload their own photos, which I would have done in a heartbeat as I had one or two that would have been just right.

To my relief, the article I submitted by noon on a week day was approved by early morning the next week day.

It took me about 2.5 hours to write a 500 word article, I’m not proud to admit (or perhaps I should be proud of the quality that comes at that speed?) So my hourly rate for the article was right around $6.00 per hour. At least I didn’t have rewrites (she says sheepishly.)

To reflect back, I did the article because I wanted to see what the authoring system was like, and experience for myself the process of writing in such a system. To be sure, it’s easy to demonize such a system when you’re accustomed to higher pay for content creation. There’s a great interview on ReadWriteWeb by Jay Rosen, who talked with Demand Media founder and CEO Richard Rosenblatt, and it offers both sides of the issues surrounding content collection and the future of the web. I don’t want to take sides by sharing my experience. I just wanted to collect information based on the writer’s experience.

What do you think? Are content farms cluttering the web and driving down writer’s pay? Or is there an entrepreneurial opportunity here that offers a low barrier to entry for content creators any where to earn pay for  populating the web with content that’s already being searched for?

16 Comments

  • February 17, 2010 - 11:34 am | Permalink

    Wow… difficult question to answer. On one hand, I’m concerned about ‘giving it away for (nearly) free.’ But on the other hand, I can see a steady income stream from such work albeit perhaps not enough for the mortgage and car payment.

    I’m intrigued. I’ll have to do my own research.

    Thanks, Anne, for a thought-provoking post.

  • Cat
    February 17, 2010 - 3:53 pm | Permalink

    In my experience, when you don’t pay for writers, you don’t get writers. You get marketers.

    The town I just moved from (Fort Collins) is full of opportunities for writers to “guest blog” for local organizations in exchange for exposure and experience. The resulting blogs are full of real estate advice (Now is a good time to buy, by the way), weight-loss tips, etc.

    As I recall, eHow is also full of self promotion and marketing thinly veiled as information. I find most of it lacks credibility.

  • February 17, 2010 - 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Patty, glad you found it thought-provoking!

    Cat, “Now is a good time to buy” cracks me up. Many people complain about eHow and sites like it cluttering the web (and using much more vehement language and imagery). The MIT Center for Collective Intelligence says a person’s motivations are either love, wealth, or glory, or some combination of those pursuits. I suppose all three can happen in real estate markets. :)

  • February 18, 2010 - 11:46 am | Permalink

    Sad to say, I was drawn to Demand Studios because they paid roughly twice what I’m able to scrape up per word at Elance. Plus they pay fairly reliably, unlike Elance, where you can easily get stiffed for good work and you do get stiffed every so often no matter how hard you try to avoid it. Like you I liked that DS provides very specific editorial guidelines and that they pay weekly if you meet those guidelines.

    Having used DS sporadically for six weeks or so now, I see that it comes down to that constant productivity trend you see in corporate call centers and the like. No one can be productive every second without burning out fast, but corporations don’t care. They can always replace you with fresh flesh. If I focus, I can knock out two or three 150 word DS ‘fact sheets’ for $7.50 each in an hour, giving me (in theory) an hourly rate of between $15 and $22.50. In practice, I can’t maintain that pace hour after hour. Most of the topics posted are highly technical and all require 4 non-commercial references.

    I’d love to find a *real* job, either as a writer or sandwich maker. Right now, in Michigan, they are scarce as hen’s teeth. I think that a lot of these folks making money by paying writers almost nothing to ‘create content’ will be gone in a year or two. There are too many ‘writers’ and too much ‘content’ already.

    I’m so sick of profit without product, customer service without service, and content that has no content. Sick to death of it all. Great blog post.

  • February 19, 2010 - 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing your story – storytelling brings all your hard-earned experience to life to for me. I really appreciate it – there’s a harsh reality out there and you let us all walk in your shoes. Thanks.

  • Cat
    February 19, 2010 - 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Pgrundy wrote: I’m so sick of profit without product, customer service without service, and content that has no content.

    I’ve used this line twice since I first read your post yesterday. That’s one for Seth Godin. Thanks!

  • February 19, 2010 - 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Hey you’re welcome! Anytime. :)

  • February 24, 2010 - 10:18 am | Permalink

    So does working on a content farm make you a tenant farmer or a sharecropper? ;)

  • February 25, 2010 - 12:00 am | Permalink

    Hee hee hee. I don’t know but I think I got dirt under my fingernails.

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  • February 28, 2010 - 4:08 pm | Permalink

    I’m mostly indifferent about this. As a professional writer, my expertise and ability are worth WELL more than $6 an hour. Maybe writing these articles works for some folks. That’s fine. It’s not for me, though.

  • February 28, 2010 - 4:09 pm | Permalink

    And by the way, thanks for posting your experience, Anne! It was very interesting, even if this type of content creation isn’t my thing.

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  • March 14, 2010 - 11:58 am | Permalink

    I’ve been writing for Demand Studios for a few months now and you get used to their template and take much less time to write an article. Also, some people are quicker at writing different formats, so you have to find what works for you. I couldn’t keep up the pace necessary to make a living at it, but it’s a reliable source of some income. With other, more lucrative writing, there’s a lot of up front work (sending pitches, etc.) and you I’m not at a point where I’m getting regular assignments. I’m changing careers to writing from technology, so I don’t have as much experience as other freelance writers. Experienced writers might get better financial returns from more traditional outlets. But for me, it’s a relief to have a little money coming in while I edit my novel and submit work to publications.

    I don’t think content farms are driving down writer’s pay across the board. They specialize on How To articles and Lists and About. It’s not like they’re paying $15 for a story you could pitch to a magazine, such as an author profile. And they have higher paying articles–you just have to write for them for a while to be eligible for them.

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