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Three Disjointed Thoughts of One Freelance Writer–Residuals, Content Mills & Fun

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Disjointed thought #1: Marketplace Reviews Update

Lately, I haven't had any marketplace reviews for you, so I thought I'd at least let you know what's going on with my research. Here are some future articles for that series and a little information about them:

The Associated Content Residual Earnings Test: Last week, I read an article by Jennifer Claerr about how she made $573.26 in one month on one article she wrote for Associated Content. She made the money through residual earnings, something I have spoken negatively about many times. One of the reasons I don’t like residual earnings is that I understand the time value of money and that dribs and drabs of change over a long period of time are less effective to your financial bottom line than one large upfront payment allowed to accrue interest or pay down debt (thereby reducing interest charged). But earning $573.26 within 30 days of writing an article is actually a good example for residual earnings, so I started experimenting with the process using Jennifer's article as a guide. I’d hoped to have some results for you this week, but I don’t have enough data yet. But I can tell you a little something about it: I'm having fun.

Guru.com: Why won't anyone accept my bids? Please tell me I do not need to pay for the membership in order to actually get something here.

GetAFreealncer.com: Yeah, .05 per word is really out of line. You are sooooo right.

Disjointed thought #2: What is a Content Mill?

This week I read Carson Brackney’s article on his commandments about writing for content mills. In reading his article, I began to believe that his idea of a content mill and mine differ. I see Demand Studios, Textbroker, Break Studios and other sites that have pre-determined titles they want written and offer upfront pay as content mills. Having worked in a factory when I was young and supple, I get the concept of a mill. There are eight million widgets that you need to string onto metal bars, and that’s what you do all day. I see the title lists available on Demand Studios, Break Studios and Textbroker as the widgets coming at me on the conveyor belt. I’ve got my timer and my counter and I’m ready to string those widgets onto my bar, scrape off the metal flakes that don’t belong, hit my counter and start another. In the mill, I’ve gotta be fast in order to get paid.

I do not see sites like Associated Content, Examiner, Helium and other user-inspired content sites as content mills because they allow you to submit your own work on your own topics. While they do offer lists of titles like content mills do, they request them written either on spec or on a residual basis. To me, these sites are more like a flea market that a factory.

How do you define content mills?

Disjointed thought #3: Try It--Maybe You'll Like It

One of the readers who commented on Carson's post mentioned that she had been avoiding content mills because of all the bad stuff she’s read about them (I’m paraphrasing here). This surprised me because I thought, “But what if you tried one and you liked it?” Don't get me wrong, I love reading blog posts that caution me against something but reading those cautions do not often make me decide not to try something myself.

Think about your spouse for a minute. Your spouse has flaws, right? Your spouse isn’t perfect in everyone else’s eyes, correct? There are even some people who might’ve met your spouse and, based on that meeting, would tell you that you should not have married him or her. Should negative feedback about your spouse before you started dating have really stopped you  from dating them or, eventually, marrying them? Of course not. You had to get in there and decide for yourself.

All Freelance Writing is a place for you to develop the habits you need in order to get a better career and meet your definition of success. It is not a pass/fail place. We are not Clinton and Stacy and we don't develop fashion rules for you to follow. If you don’t do those things that the blog posts advise, you are not guaranteed to fail—and if you do do them, you are not guaranteed to pass. This is a place for the experience and opinions of people who have been where you are. That’s it.

So go out and have fun. Try a little bit of everything. Use a pen name if you think you are doing something that could impact your career negatively and then give feedback on blogs about your experience. The more dialog we have, the more informed we all get.

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14 thoughts on “Three Disjointed Thoughts of One Freelance Writer–Residuals, Content Mills & Fun”

  1. In the AC thing, it sounds like all she really did was use the old bum marketing method (nothing wrong with that, but nothing really new either). I can, however, attest that Halloween really is a good topic if you get things up in time. I’ve seen it perform on various sites even much better than bigger holidays as far as earnings go. That said, they perform so well with contextual ads that I have to wonder if you wouldn’t be better off publishing it on your own site with those ads present. The thing about these stories is that while something might sound good on the surface, it’s really not if you could have done much better with another method — comparisons are important. I might have missed it, but I also didn’t see anything mentioning if she put any time into promoting the article. What would be interesting is to see a breakdown of exactly how much time went into the keyword research, writing, editing, promotion, etc. compared to the total pay so far. As you said… the pay now is what matters most, because you can put it to work for you earning more or saving more immediately.

    I do have to disagree on the “try a little bit of everything” comment. That’s called taking shots in the dark. It’s what a lot of failed freelancers do. They try one thing. It doesn’t pay out well enough quickly enough. They quit. They try something else. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Then a few months to years down the road they wonder why the hell they’re still earning crap wages and struggling to make ends meet. Try new things? Absolutely. Test new markets? Sure. But I’d caution against dabbling just for the sake of dabbling. Do the market research. Crunch the numbers. And make sure whatever you want to try fits in with your long-term goals and what you need to get out of your career financially and otherwise. Just my $.02.

    As for us not developing fashion rules for freelancers to follow… we should totally do that. 😉

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  2. I also think it’s interesting re: the AC article that she mentioned rewriting her Demand Studios content. Since their contributor’s agreement requires full rights on submissions, that would be a derivative work and a copyright violation to reuse / rewrite it once sold to Demand. Just saying….

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  3. 1. Yes, same old same old keywords, etc. But for someone like me who doesn’t do a lot of SEO work, her parameters have been nice to follow. I also would not have thought about researching the competing articles on AC itself.

    2. Yes, it is always better to write it for your own site. You own the content forever and you can monetize it forever. But with AC’s higher PR, I knew that my content would rank better on Google immediately. Also, I don’t want to own a bunch of domains. Short-sighted, yes, but I’m lazy.

    3. It’s not taking shots in the dark when you read about the experience of others and try to make up for mistakes that they’ve made. Also, this is more of a personality leaning than a tactical maneuver. I am just one of those people who doesn’t want to take anyone’s word for it. I want to try stuff on my own. It can end up costing me time that would have been better spent elsewhere, but I get the satisfaction of KNOWING exactly where my opinion comes from rather than assuming it–and for someone like me who has a LOT of opinions, that is important ;-P

    4. Yes, I believe you are right on the DS front. That’s one of the reasons I decided that Carson and I had a different definition of content mills because he suggests repurposing too, and DS has a code of ethics and TOS that’s really restrictive.

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  4. *GASP* No. No. No Yo! Please tell me it isn’t so! Did you just use the dated “higher PR site = better search rankings” argument? I need to go cry for you. And then we will have a deep heart to heart about the irrelevance of PR (the pagerank variety)itself in relation to rankings in the SERPs. We will get through this. Somehow.

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  5. Seriously, I don’t know much about this stuff. I know to look for keywords that are highly searched and have little advertiser competition. That’s it for SEO. I thought PR was still a factor–if not then why nofollow links?

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  6. Nofollow has to do with whether or not Google follows a link on a site / counts it as a backlink. That applies to both calculating rankings and PR, but a high PR doesn’t necessarily equate to high rankings and high rankings in the SERPs don’t necessarily equate to high pagerank. That’s super-simplifying. All you need to know is that even Big Daddy G says “chill already and stop taking PR so seriously.” (well… I’m paraphrasing)

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  7. I’m with you, Yo. Content mills are little assembly lines of content – topic, slap word together, deliver. There are some big mills, but there are quite a few small mills as well I know with a clever marketer grouping together some cheap writers and delving out work to his “team.” I consider that a mill, too.

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  8. I don’t know if I’d say there’s a clear cut definition of what I’d call a content mill. It’s more of a “I know it when I see it” kind of thing. Some of the main factors for me include:

    – Is it more about quantity or quality (and not just what they say publicly, but in how they actually behave)?

    – Do writers have to churn out a shitload of quick content on a very regular basis to earn a true livable wage after taxes, expenses like benefits, etc.?

    – Do the majority of writers have any kind of authority status in the niche they’re writing on or can just about any writer write about anything they want? (Like when Suite101 moved to letting people write about anything at all if they thought they could earn more ad revenue from it, and how that’s very different than a site like About.com having specialists for each subject area — not that I “like” About.com or their model in any way, but I’d consider them a more traditional content network than a content mill.)

    – Is the main purpose of the site to game search engine rankings in order to pull in contextual ad revenue? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing keyword research to see what your targeted audience really has an interest in. But if search engines and ads come before real readers, I’d say that puts a site closer to “mill” status. Frankly, they’re almost on par with splogs in this sense sometimes.

    – Are writers compensated based on these things (traffic and contextual ad revenue — which they don’t fully control) or based on their credentials, experience, and the quality of their work?

    – Are they willing to invest large sums in their execs, marketing to suck in new writers, etc., but not in the writers themselves (especially if they make claims that they offer high quality writing when they’re not willing to pay for what they promote to readers).

    – Do they publish extremely similar content solely to target similar keyword phrases (like slight alterations on titles) without offering any new information of actual value to real readers? (Clearly the emphasis on readers is a recurring theme with me.)

    Those are just the main points / differentiations that come to mind.

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  9. I was one of those people who’d sworn off content mills, but your series got me interested. So I tried out AC and DS. I put up 4 articles on AC, got paid a total of $12 and decided it was definitely not for me, waaay too cheap.

    Then I tried DS. I hate to say it, but I kind of like it. I’d never try to make a full-time living there, but it’s nice pocket change that I can go spend at Forever 21 and DSW.

    I write topics I already know about, so it’s not like I spend a huge about of time doing research. Actually, the work is a lot easier than some of my more serious client work and definitely easier than trying to monetize a site of my own. I might even call it fun since my next meal is not dependent on whether I clear out my queue tonight.

    DS isn’t making or breaking my freelance career, so I show up, slap together a few widgets, collect my paycheck, and go back to my real job.

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    • Just don’t forget about the long-term implications like the image it can portray to some higher paying clients who won’t touch mill writers. It might not affect you immediately since you already have clients, but if you were to lose them for any reason and have to find new ones, it might be more difficult than in the past.

      Demand’s always been fine for people just looking for a few bucks here and there. The questions and criticisms of the company here have always been about issues like them billing themselves as a more serious career option, them using paid mouthpieces to reach out in sometimes premature and misleading ways, and their bullshit marketing (like the recent continued claims of Demand not being about journalism as they advertise specifically to recruit journalists and their own site says they want journalism degrees and / or journalism experience). They don’t come across as a terribly ethical company, and for me that alone means I would never associate my name with them.

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  10. Content mill, content network argh! I don’t know how to define it. At my About.com site, I defined “content mills” in a very vague way….Which is it? I don’t know! Is it DS AND Ac? Is it just DS? Just AC? Is it all? See, I would vary from you because I would say, well, DS guarantees you an upfront and doesn’t lean as heavily on PVs, so it’s “not” a content mill, or not as mill-y as AC is….

    Also, I use the term “content mill” a lot, but I don’t necessarily mean it negatively. It is what it is.

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  11. @Jenn. I definitely thought about that and made sure to write under a pen name. But it’s funny how some great singers are discovered at dive karaoke bars, while good writers are shunned for the equivalent.

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  12. Allena — I’d go the opposite way. DS is a content mill because they actively recruit huge numbers of writers to churn out the precise content they want to manipulate contextual ad networks over creating content for visitors. On the other hand, AC doesn’t require much of anything. You decide what to write about. You decide what rights to give them. You also get to influence whether you get an upfront payment or solely residuals based on the rights you choose to give them. AC wouldn’t constitute a “mill” for me, because there’s an immense amount of freedom for the contributors, they don’t pretend to be a reputable publication and serious portfolio piece the way some folks make DS out to be, and frankly a writer could almost use them as an article marketing tool getting paid for marketing time and non-exclusive work without it ever affecting their billable hours. I’m not a supporter of AC by any means. But I think there’s a big difference between that and sites like Demand. I’d lump AC almost more with HubPages and Squidoo (downright marketing tools). It’s not a perfect fit, but to me it’s a bit better than lumping it in with networks and mills. Then again, they’re a bit different than most of the others, so maybe they should have their own title. Anyone feeling creative?

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