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In defense of content farms, sort of

On Friday of last week, Demand Media filed for an IPO.

For those unfamiliar, Demand owns eHow, Answerbag, and a handful of other sites that offer content and advertising. Sounds like a newspaper or magazine, right? Well, not exactly. The content on these sites is determined by what people are searching for, and is populated by people who can do a modicum of research and can string a couple of sentences together.

Danny Sullivan explains a little more about their revenue streams, but basically the way this works is that you search for something like "how to string a tennis racket" and Demand Media's computers say, "We could own that." So, "How To String A Tennis Racket" gets added to a list of articles available. It gets assigned a type of article and site, and based on those, a price point they'll pay for the article.

Someone who has been accepted as a writer says, "Hey, I could write that," and does. The article goes to a copy editor, the editor accepts the article or sends it back for rewrites, the writer either gives it up or re-writes it; if the article is re-written, the editor either accepts it or rejects it. If the article is accepted, the writer gets paid.

You may have guessed by now that I've done some writing for them. I'm not particularly proud of that writing, and don't generally include it in portfolios or writing samples because it's really mediocre work – the whole model revolves around the articles being relevant to searches, rather than enjoyable, in-depth writing.

But by and large, if you're asking how to string a tennis racket, you want to learn how to string a tennis racket, and if the piece is good enough to get that done, frankly, it's good enough to get it done.

I'm writing for them because they pay, and if you know how to do the research, they pay well. While $15 for a 400-500 word piece (call it 3 cents a word) is far less than a good publication would pay, it's far more than their competitors (Textbroker, for example, pays about a penny a word to its most highly qualified writers, and about a half-cent to its writers who demonstrate mediocre grammar skills).

I type in the neighborhood of 90-100 words per minute, which means that I can do the actual writing for an article for eHow in under 10 minutes. If I add 10 minutes for the research, I just made $15 for 20 minutes worth of work. Grab 3 or 4 articles that can be written on the same research, and you can clear $50 an hour for working for Demand. That's pretty good by any publication's standards, even if you're not racking up a portfolio you can be proud of (let's face it, even quality publications need someone to write up unremarkable content, and they do it for more like $8-$10 an hour).

So yes, you're definitely losing some quality in exchange for relevance, but that's been a problem on the web since before someone thought up the content farm idea. Journalism itself has fallen victim to the search engines to some extent. But frankly, if I want to know how to file for a copyright, I don't need to be wowed by the prose. Just tell me what to send where and how to figure out how much it's going to cost me.

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4 Comments

  • Monica
    Posted 09/08/2010 at 15:46 | Permalink

    FYI, Textbroker’s highest paid writers – those who are at level 5 – earn 5 cents per word. If you can achieve that level and snap up enough of the all-too-infrequent assignments, you can earn a pretty decent living through the site.

    • Posted 10/08/2010 at 07:20 | Permalink

      Monica, I’ll have to give Textbroker another shot — I was given a level 4 when I first signed up a year ago, and I’ve never written anything for them, because I haven’t seen anything available for writing over $4.50.

      Mitch, after the first 20 articles or so, I got very comfortable with what Demand is looking for, and even if the topics don’t thrill me, I spend a morning a week writing and an afternoon a week editing to ensure I can eat and drive my car for another week.

  • Posted 09/08/2010 at 22:28 | Permalink

    I’m not sure if you know that I’m not a fan of Demand Studios, nor any of the other article farm sites. I did some writing for them last summer and I had problems with them and decided it just wasn’t worth it. There is mediocre money to be made, but some of what they end up putting you through just isn’t worth it, especially when you can’t find any topics that are worth writing about anymore.

  • Posted 10/08/2010 at 18:56 | Permalink

    That makes some sense, Josh. By the way, in checking back on this post, I can now say that I’m not getting any email notifications when you or anyone else comments on your posts after mine. Now I have to check your other posts to see if maybe you responded and I never got anything.

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