Content Farms: Dispatches From the Trenches

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Article ImageSince the emergence of the internet, journalists have grappled with adapting their craft for an online audience. In a virtual world where space is unlimited, gratification is instant, and anyone with a computer and a few basic tools can become a publisher, the traditional roles of print content producers and subject matter experts have been turned upside down.

Somewhere between unknown, independent bloggers and traditional publishers with well-respected reputations are the sites known as content farms--websites that generate a large quantity of content specifically designed to rank high in search engine results. They range from local, content-driven sites such as AOL's Patch and Examiner.com to how-to sites such as Howcast and Demand Media's eHow.com to topic-focused sites such as Suite101 and Associated Content.

As these sites grow in number and popularity-Demand Media, for instance, ranked No. 18 on comScore, Inc.'s Top 50 U.S. Web Properties for July 2011 with nearly 57 million unique visitors that month-the business ethics of such sites have been called into question. But that hasn't stopped them from popping up all over the internet landscape like subdevelopments on once-pristine farmland. Despite the criticism, some writers have managed to parlay their association with these sites into success off the farm.

Quality Control for Digital Content

In November 2010, the Internet Content Syndication Council (ICSC), whose members include such traditional journalism giants as The Associated Press, Thomson Reuters, and the Tribune Co., released a set of proposed quality-control and best-practice guidelines for the creation of online content. In a press release, the ICSC stated that the guidelines were in response to "an issue that is causing concern among its members: the rising tide of poorly produced informational content, specifically designed to score high on search," which seemed to take direct aim at content farms.

"The proliferation of low-quality, search-based content is threatening to reduce the utility of the Internet for users, content creators and advertisers alike," said Tim Duncan, the ICSC's executive director at the time. "The industry needs to come to grips with this issue, and we are posting these guidelines to further the dialogue."

Additionally, in February, Google announced on its official blog that it was launching "a pretty big algorithmic improvement to our ranking-a change that noticeably impacts 11.8 percent of our queries." The search engine juggernaut went on to state in its Feb. 24 blog post, "This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites-sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites-sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on." The announcement prompted a wave of media coverage declaring that Google was specifically targeting content farms with its algorithmic improvements.

Content Farms and Writer's Pay

Quality isn't the only controversy at the heart of content farms. In order to produce huge amounts of content, the sites typically employ large numbers of writers and editors, often on a freelance basis, and generally pay them relatively low fees. For aspiring or unemployed writers, it can be an easy entry into a role as a freelancer or even as an "authority" on a particular topic.

At Demand Media--which, in addition to eHow.com, owns a variety of other online properties including LIVESTRONG.com and Cracked.com--writers are paid approximately $15-$20 per article and copy editors are paid about $3.50 per article to edit them. According to Demand, it employs "over 13,000 highly qualified freelance content creators" to produce articles as well as videos and has "hundreds of thousands of available assignments."

Patrick O'Doare, a writer for Demand Studios-Demand Media's freelancer hub-for the past 3 years, started the site DemandStudiosSucks.com in 2010. In addition to blog posts contributed by O'Doare and others, the site has a forum for Demand writers to connect with one another and discuss related topics. O'Doare says he knew there was a need for "a place where Demand writers [could] go to blow off some steam. It's kind of a frustrating system to work under."
Despite the negative connotation of his blog's title ("I quickly discovered that negativity sells," says O'Doare, who originally named the blog "Make Money With Demand Studios"), O'Doare has some positive thoughts about his employment with the company, which he pursued "as a way to make some extra cash."

Among the positives, he says that Demand writers have the flexibility to write whenever they want and are paid cash (via PayPal) two times per week. As far as the amount of money he's compensated for this work, "I only do articles that are worth $16 or more for Demand Media," he says. "If I can write one article in an hour, that's what, about $12 to $13 per hour after taxes? If I can write four articles in an hour, that's around $50 per hour, which isn't too shabby. So I feel that I'm being compensated adequately, but only because I'm a fast writer." Still, he doesn't hesitate to add, "Now, Demand will probably make $50 to $100 over the next few years on each article. So that part sucks. Nothing I can do about it though."

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