A Few Lessons I Learned About Online Writers Down on the Content Farm

Until earlier this year, I wrote for several of the organizations now lovingly known as content farms (I know, booo, hiss!). For a long time, the revenue share pay model was attractive; it added another fairly steady source of income for my writing business. In addition to writing manuals and copy on contract for companies, selling e-books, and ghostwriting for authors, writing for content farms added a residual income stream that seemed to grow each month until Panda.

I want to share a few of the lessons I learned that have stuck with me. It might help some understand how content farms grew into the monsters they became, who contributed to the problem, and why we shouldn’t let it happen ever again.


Content Writers Have Their Rights Trampled on a Daily Basis and Are OK With It

Well, not all of them are. But the great thing for content farms is that there are many more wannabe-writers waiting to replace the ones who pack up their toys and head home. This also applies to contract writers who solicit services online through marketplaces like Elance.com or Guru.com.

Writing for the web isn’t like traditional journalism; in fact, those who seemed to have the toughest time adapting came from print journalism. They knew writing as a profession and understood what their rights had been outside of the Internet. Many also struggled to learn keyword research and SEO as it applied to content writing and couldn’t fathom why optimized titles and subheadings outweighed quality writing.

I wrote my own contracts for years with private clients and had already learned a few lessons the hard way: specify deliverables and payment milestones, always get each party’s physical address and real contact info, use escrow when possible, set up a dispute resolution process before it happens, and assign intellectual property rights on condition of payment, to name a few.

This gave me an advantage over many of the writers down on the farm. At least I knew what I was getting into, for the most part. Writing for revenue share was a choice I made because of the earning potential; I had already cut my teeth in Internet marketing and was able to draw high CPC ads and rank well in the SERPs. This is NOT the experience for most.

With no upfront payments, a straight revenue share is a rip-off for writers outside of popular, high-CPC topics. But the content farms won’t tell you that.

Until early this year, content farm-type sites positioned themselves as the experts in everything and needed warm bodies to crank out that content on every topic imaginable. Unfortunately, there were few actual experts at the wheel.


Many Web Writers Don’t Understand Intellectual Property Rights or Copyright

Content farm writers’ contracts vary from site to site, but most of them go something like this: “We, the Content Farm, hereby grant ourselves the irrevocable right to publish, distribute, syndicate, give away or set on fire, everything you submit to us from this day forward, amen.” With little exception, they are heavily biased in the company’s favor, absolve the company of any and all legal responsibility for the content, and give the company a period of exclusive publishing rights (I’ve seen everything from one day to one year).

What many writers don’t realize is that the carefully crafted writing contracts, prepared by the company’s legal team, may give the company the right to publish it on other sites or license it out to other publishers, without any additional payment to the writer. After the period of exclusivity, the company still owns usage rights and can continue to use the piece, sometimes for life.

Why would that matter, you ask? After Suite101 tanked this year, several of the writers tried to resell previously published articles at Constant Content. It’s a small site that sells full rights and limited usage rights articles for use online or in print.

Say you own a real estate brokerage in a small town and need content for your monthly newsletter. You could purchase previously published articles at a site like Constant Content, directly from the writer, at a price they’ve set and for which they receive 70 percent (the site takes 30 percent). Win-win.

Unfortunately, Suite101’s contract prohibited our reselling our articles after the exclusive publication period – something most of us were unaware of. In ambiguous and hard to decipher legalese, what writers thought was a one-year term of exclusivity was actually one-year exclusive and online exclusive for life.

The only exception is if the site that reprints the article links back to Suite101.com (and I hope people aren’t that stupid, after Panda). Since we can’t guarantee the unknown buyer from another site will only use the article in print or link back to the farm, anything published there – which was to draw income “for life” – is essentially useless anywhere but there.

Note: The terms described above would apply in a revenue sharing payment model like Suite101 or Associated Content. Other well-known content farms, like Demand Media, offer a one-time payment – ranging from a few dollars for short answers to upwards of a whole $25 or $30 for longer articles requiring specialized knowledge and research. In this scenario, the company buys the rights to the content on acceptance of the piece and there is no ongoing royalty.


There Are Four Distinct Breeds of Web Content Writers

It takes all kinds, it’s true, but content farms became notorious for letting anyone and everyone “Become a Writer and Make Money in Your Pyjamas!” I actually met many great writers at Suite, Associated Content, Demand and other sites, but they became fewer and farther between as the flood gates continued to widen and quality increasingly became less of a factor. Looking back, I remember four distinct groups:

  • The Elitists. I didn’t meet many of these down on the farm and the ones I knew prior to that thought I was a sell-out for aiding in the dilution of writing as a serious profession (a thought that has often crossed my mind since). 
  • Professional Writers. These people were journalists who beat the online learning curve, published authors, business writers, etc. They understood that writing is a skilled profession and expected fair compensation for their work. If they found it in content farms, they stayed and wrote quality content. They were also generally most successful at finding a balance between writing for income and writing for readers. 
  • Income Writers. They wrote for the money, period. Some had a tendency to keyword stuff to the point of destroying the piece for human eyes, but they went after topics like insurance and mortgages to get the highest CPC and ranking. Whether they had any passion for writing, I can only guess, but it didn’t show. 
  • The “I Want to Be a Writer” Writers. I’m going to make a huge generalization here, but understand that it’s just reality and is based on my own experience on at least 10 sites you would consider content farms. They couldn’t have exploded and destroyed everything in their path the way they did without the help of stay-at-home moms, retired seniors, struggling artists, unemployed workers from other industries, and others who bought into the content farm mantra: you can be a writer. Some did it just to get published, others for the money. Sadly, without proper training and strict editorial guidelines, this is also the reason most content farms were targeted by Google.

From what I’ve seen, the income and want-to-be-a-writer writers were hit hardest by Panda. Content farms prey on these people with ads promising residual income and guaranteed publication. A good chunk of them get sick of earning pennies per month per article and leave jaded.

The effect of this happening thousands or hundreds of thousands of times over, though, has left the Internet littered with trash content and diluted the industry of writing to the point that some gladly accept those pennies because it’s better than nothing.

Writers Need to Stop the Race to the Bottom, Cutting Throats Along the Way

There is hope; we saw the worst of this trend between 2004 and 2009. More companies and Internet marketers seem to realize now that with web content, like anything else, you really get what you pay for.

If the $5 articles you bought don’t rank or even make sense, and you’ve had five or six cheap scam artists run away with your money, you have to wonder if the price was worth it. An e-book you commissioned for $200 might sell 100 times for $49, but 50 percent of the buyers want their money back. The same book at a fair rate to a professional writer could sell 10 times more and people might actually like it.

Content farms took advantage, tried to game the system, and got burned, along with thousands of writers they had lured in, half-trained, and let loose to rain their opinions, recipes, and how-to’s on the world. Google’s Panda update seems to have taken away much of the incentive for this top-heavy business model to work and I, for one, hope it stays that way.

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