Content Mill Founder Quits — Will Freelance Writers Follow?

A content mill founder heads off into the sunsetAre content mills going the way of the dinosaurs? There’s a lot of talk that one of the biggest and most successful mills, Demand Studios, may be slowly winding down.

Kicking off the most recent speculation about Demand’s fate is the fact that Richard Rosenblatt — founder and CEO of Demand parent company Demand Media — resigned abruptly last week.

If you write for mills, it may be hard to find a few spare minutes to learn about the behind-the-scenes business moves of one of the leading mills. But my advice is to pay attention.

Because Demand Studios is in trouble. And as goes Demand, so goes the rest of the content mills, including any other mills that you might write for.

Inside a content mill’s disintegration

Rosenblatt’s resignation seemed to take the company by surprise — they’ve hastily appointed a temporary CEO from the executive ranks while they do a search. Which indicates he likely up and left, rather than being forced out. Instigators of a coup would have had a new leader ready to go.

So Rosenblatt has bailed. He’s on a beach with the millions he made in Demand’s $77 million initial public offering (IPO) back in early 2011.

It’s no big mystery why he’d want to move on. Since going public, Demand’s stock has gone nowhere but down, in tandem with the sinking fortunes of its content-mill business, which includes eHow. Traffic at its sites began to sink soon after the IPO, as Google implemented a series of changes aimed at blocking junk-content, SEO-focused sites like Demand’s.

Why should you care if investors are abandoning Demand’s stock? They’re doing that because the mill business model doesn’t work anymore, so they don’t believe the company’s stock will increase in value in future. Lower stock prices mean Demand is worth less and can’t borrow as much money — and likely, that means less available mill work for writers.

Stuffing tons of SEO articles onto a website and making affiliate ad cash off the viewers you drew was a business model that seemed to have great promise, for a brief time around 2009-10. Then Google got wise to how junk-content sites were ruining the usefulness of its search results, and took evasive action.

Now, this business model doesn’t work anymore, and it will never work again. Traffic will continue to sink at mill sites as search engines roll out initiatives to screen them out of results.

Internet users are increasingly hip to avoiding junk-site links they see in search, too. After you read five different eHow posts and none of them clearly or accurately explain how to do the thing you searched about (like I have), you don’t come back.

Demand has responded to its shrinking mill audience by diversifying into other business types. It’s bought e-commerce marketplace Society6 and online-learning site CreativeBug.

They’re taking their IPO money and using it to buy into other businesses that work. They’re not using their cash to expand their content mill empire, because the sun is setting on it.

Follow the money…

Demand Studios has never been a big moneymaker — all the profit was always in the domain-name side of the business. Despite the pittance they paid writers, Demand could never figure out how to make a profit off your back.

In the most recent quarter, they squeaked out just over $1 million in profit on $97 million in revenue. They could get a better profit margin running a grocery store, which is one of the most notoriously low-margin sectors in all of retailing.

Pretty sad for a company that once boasted it would be bigger than the New York Times (and whose stock value, briefly, was larger than the venerable daily).

The company said that despite Rosenblatt’s departure, it is moving forward to split eNom off of its content-farm business and sell it off separately. Why? Because eNom is a valuable, profitable business. Being shackled to a content mill is dragging down its value.

Once eNom is spun out on its own, what will happen to the content farm side? My money is on its getting sold off for a pittance, scaled back dramatically, or shut down.

A key indicator: This week Demand laid off its entire research and development unit. Translation: there are no new twists or products or ideas coming down the pike to save the content mill.

Other surviving mass-content sites are casting about for new business models that might be profitable. A notable example is About.com, where the model is shifting to sponsorship as executives scramble for income.

What’s your game plan?

Given the declining fortunes of content mills, the question is — what will mill writers do?

Here’s hoping you’ll follow the CEO of Demand out the content-mill door. And not to sign up with some other content mill. (Though most other mills are privately held, it’s safe to assume their fortunes are in similar decline.)

If you rely on content mills for revenue, know that this is a shrinking opportunity built on shifting sands. Yes, new mills spring up all the time, but few achieve critical mass and survive. You can expect fewer mill assignments and less pay in the future. Debating whether mill X is better for writers than mill Y, or complaining about mill pay rates is a waste of your time.

Mills were never meant to be anyone’s full-time income, a fact mill owners were always the first to admit. If you’ve made the mistake of counting on them to pay your bills, now’s the time to change course and start marketing your writing to find your own clients.

Do you think content mills will survive? Leave a comment and share your reaction to Demand’s decline.

 

 

  1. Jon Patrick says:

    Thanks Carol, really nice post and you’re right – I missed that tidbit this week. Really love your analysis of the situation – and I personally hate eHow. A messy, ugly site that seldom answers my actual question!
    Is it the death of content mills, perhaps ones like Demand. There’s always mills that create content for a variety of niche sites as well. :)
    Jon Patrick recently posted..Make Lists, Earn Money

    • Carol Tice says:

      Yes, there’s always some new mill to try that seems to have a better approach…but in the end, they don’t.

      The bottom line is that mass creation of junk content isn’t a way to earn a living OR build a portfolio for writers…and in any case, the opportunity to do it is shrinking fast.

      I think many writers are turning to what I call “move-up mills” such as Skyword or eByline for a chance to write assigned content for daily papers and top companies through an intermediary access point. Pay is still not great — maybe $50-$100 an article — but better than most mills, and at least these type of clips are a portfolio-builder.

      The better answer, of course, is to start actively marketing your business and finding your own clients. That’s your shot at getting real pro rates.

  2. Daryl says:

    Of course content mills will survive.

    There will always be a place for cheap content – both on the part of those who can’t afford to pay for more expensive quality content, and for those who are happy to have a relatively steady and easily available stream of work, even if they do only get a penny or two a word.
    Daryl recently posted..How to Magnetically Attract Freelance Writing Clients

  3. Mark Brinker says:

    I feel the same way, Carol, about eHow.com. Their “solutions” never seemed to solve my problem.

    But I agree with Daryl, though. There’s probably always going to be a market for cheap content. Kind of like the “Dollar Store” for writing.

    You get what you pay for. ;-)

  4. Anne Wayman says:

    Great catch, Carol… I missed this one too… it’s been a long time since I’ve paid much attention to content mills.

    There always have been folks who tried to get writing for free… this went on long before the ‘net… it just wasn’t as obvious or as common. The content game is changing… and it will be interesting to see what’s next.
    Anne Wayman recently posted..The About Freelance Writing Ebook Giveaway Sweepstakes For Freelance Writers

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Anne!

      The business-reporter side of me loves the public disclosures that publicly held Demand has to give us, so I do like to track what they’re up to. I know so many writers rely on them for income.

      I think writers who rely on mills need to know where this sector is going so they can plan and not end up in money trouble…and Demand can serve as the visible tip of the mill iceberg for us.

  5. Halona Black says:

    Thanks for the update on Demand Studios. When I started writing fulltime in May, I was writing for a small content mill. I figured that $18.75 per article was better than getting a part time job where I had to pay for transportation and work side by side with people that got on my nerves. I wrote day and night for a few months until the work dried up all of a sudden and I couldn’t pay my bills. Fortunately I learned early on that I had to proactively market my writing in order to stay alive.

    But yes, I do think that content mills will survive as long as people are willing to write for next to nothing. I see some people writing legitimate blog posts of 600+ words for a whopping $2. I will never write anything for $2, but 1) there are others who just don’t have the self confidence or the know-how to market themselves, and 2) I know of many businesses that use writers from other countries who are willing to write for pennies.
    Halona Black recently posted..3 Steps to Creating an Author Platform for Your Healthy Brand

    • Carol Tice says:

      This is exactly the problem — writers come to rely on mill income and then one day — poof! — it vaporizes. If you’re only writing for mills, that means ALL your income vaporizes. It’s just not a safe strategy for a freelance writer anymore.

      I’m not so sure they WILL survive forever. The problem is there is less and less CALL for junk content — it’s not drawing eyeballs, it’s not getting ad clicks, it’s not drawing us to business sites, because Google is not ranking it anymore. So while Third World writers might be willing to keep writing them for $2, I’m not sure that offer will be around much longer.

      But I agree with you — I wrote about this a long time ago in 7 Reasons Why I Won’t Write a $15 Blog Post and Why Writing for Free is Better Than Writing for $20.

      Enjoy those!

  6. Irene Ross says:

    …And everyone please remember that a company doesn’t need to be officially deemed as a content writing mill to still follow that business plan–and try to get away with purchasing cheap, keyword-stuffed, junk articles. The reason they get away with this is because people let them.

    • Carol Tice says:

      True enough — and I do believe there will never be a shortage of writers with low self-esteem and/or enough desperation to take super-low paid gigs. But I would expect most businesses that commission dirt-cheap junk content to also become disenchanted with this marketing strategy as they see it no longer gets results.

      • Irene Ross says:

        You’d think, wouldn’t you, Carol–but I’ve been seeing so much of this over the past year–companies trying to model after the content mills. I had that experience just last week–you wouldn’t believe how many people have tried to get me to write their website on a (very low) page-per-fee, rather than my hourly rate. Happened just last week–and the person kept coming back over and over again to try to wear me down-”I’m sorry, but I really cannot go any lower,” I finally said.

        • Carol Tice says:

          I find plenty of businesses have heard about the rock-bottom rates. Then, they try getting their content developed for $10 a post. Then, they call someone like me and commit to developing content that will get them some actual traffic.

          More and more businesses go through this process and eventually discover you really do get what you pay for, and that paying $100 for one great post a month is going to be better than paying $10 for ten useless ones.

          This is why when I got lowball small business clients, I’d always send them away politely with, “I’m sorry your current rates are well below my floor. If your marketing budget or approach ever changes, feel free to contact me again.” Every once in a while, one of them would. Most seem to need to learn it the hard way, but after getting back crap they have to repeatedly rewrite or discard altogether, they often change their attitude about writer pay.

  7. Well, this is exactly what you are signing up for when you are starting to create content for sorting algorithms, not for readers. These people always amazed me. Thinking that you can get to the top of Google results and stay there forever with a bunch of sloppy texts. Hello? Anybody home? One of the main tasks of Google is to filter spammers like you out. That’s one of the key pillars of Google’s success. Now tell me more about “will pay 1$/100 words. need quality content for seo”.

    Anyway. Great post, Carol! While I bet that something equally nasty will replace the mills soon, I’m glad whenever these people and businesses bump into hardships. It is exactly what they deserve for exploiting writers.
    Joan Anderssen recently posted..Personality in Blogging: Good or Bad Idea

    • Carol Tice says:

      Yeah, it’s hard to not chortle with glee as you watch those who paid squat to writers flounder…in the end, they got what they paid for, too.

      There are certainly always scams out there waiting to take advantage of insecure writers, but I’m hoping Google’s changes are driving the market toward better pay and better quality assignments. Things people want to read, rather than just stuff for search robots to index.

  8. Carol Tice says:

    Just have to pop in quickly to leave this great link to traffic charts for MANY big mass-content sites, so you can see graphically what has happened since Google’s most recent update — read the writing on the wall here, mill writers! This is a vanishing earning opportunity.

    http://pandalized.com/

  9. I hope with all sincerity that content mills will fade into obscurity and never return. I’m happy that Demand’s demise seems imminent in the meantime.

    I wanted to leave a quote that an investor shared with me yesterday Carol:

    “Writing is now more important, yet journalism erodes. The catch: one has to *pair* writing with another activity. The pairing creates lift.”

    In other words, writing paired with another valuable offering (such as education, like you offer via the Freelance Writer’s Den) is the way to go.

    I’m a writer who works in the B2B software world, so I have a bit of a bias, but I really think the role of the *online* writer will definitely shift in this direction.

    Thoughts?

    –Greg
    Gregory Ciotti recently posted..How to Be Happy (Research)

    • Carol Tice says:

      I agree, Greg. Useful content rules the Internet…which is something a lot of bloggers don’t seem to understand.

      I hear a lot of “I want to write about my musings each day, or my struggles…” not realizing that no one cares about your struggles…EXCEPT if learning about them will help ME. If you can cast what you want to say as actionable, practical info readers can use to make their lives better, you’re onto something.

      • Nice quote! It exactly reflects a lot of my takeaway from being at Content Marketing World this year.

        Basically, I saw a lot of examples of people who had formerly worked in industries where the content was the product, now embracing work where the content is used to sell another product. It’s really indicative of the shift in how businesses are viewing the value of content.

        The businesses turning to former journalists to write blog posts know better than to think $20 for a 500-word article can cut it. Now we just need all the businesses that haven’t learned better to catch up.

        On a side note – I always appreciate the articles I come across of yours, Greg.
        Kristen Hicks recently posted..5 Key Takeaways for Freelancers from Content Marketing World 2013

        • Carol Tice says:

          You’ve hit it on the head — it’s a shift from content BEING the product to content being used to SELL other products. Real products and services, in the real world. As opposed to fantasy ad revenue.

          That is the big shift, and once businesses realize blog posts are all really sales copy for their products, they’re willing to pay more. The more closely writing is tied to sales, the more it pays.

  10. Samantha says:

    In what way is Google filtering them out? Half the first page of search results I get always seems to be Demand stuff, or about.com (which I also hate). I agree, it’s really irritating to have to work your way through the list of dross looking for the good stuff. I wish Google would do a better job of it. I hope you’re right that the mills have had their moment, Carol.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Are you clicking on those? At this point, the only reason you’d see them would be if Google thinks those are the kind of links you use. There’s a great Demian Farnworth post on Copyblogger today about how Google indexes now — http://www.copyblogger.com/hummingbird-compelling-content/ — and it includes “your world,” the context of what you’ve done in the past in search.

      It’s been ages since I saw junk content come up in my search results, personally. Stop clicking on eHow results just because you want to gawk at how unhelpful they are and hopefully your Google results will start to screen them out.

  11. Steve Maurer says:

    Hi, Carol.

    I agree with you that content mills are on the way out. I used to write for TB. Back before I quite writing for them, there were always two or three thousand jobs available for their level 4 writers.

    I realized a week or two ago that I still had an account there. I went back to delete my account. Just for giggles, I gave the job board one last look. I was shocked (although, not really) that there weren’t 2000 jobs available to all levels combined!

    Google’s Hummingbird update, as with Panda before it, is sniffing and snuffing out bad content.

    Mill workers, I mean writers, need to get up, get some training and get busy marketing their skills if they intend to make a living writing.

    Steve
    Steve Maurer recently posted..When the Writer’s Block Just Won’t Come

    • Carol Tice says:

      So how many jobs were listed now, Steve? Be curious to know.

      I actually think models like Textbroker may stick around the longest, because they only pay on results. You get 5 cents because that is all your cut of the ad revenue is on your pages. You earn CRAZY little, but Textbroker is not overspending on writers like Demand.

      I know, it seems nuts to say Demand pays too much…but if you look at their financials you can see that from a business perspective, they do. They’ve never been able to make a profit on the $15-$25 they pay you…because they needed to pay 5 cents, like TB.

      • Charles Gray says:

        Some types of content mills will continue to exist, because for many clients, the main desire is to have something new on their page that isn’t obviously machine generated. But the question rises, what will happen if there’s another change in Google search techniques? Let’s face it, 99 percent of content mill clients are asking for material to help improve their rankings. If that ever changes, content mills could be facing some very hard times.
        Charles Gray recently posted..Hubpages and the Writer

        • Carol Tice says:

          And I can guarantee there WILL be more Google changes. Google knows it has to continue to make search more useful to users or it will lose out to new browser contenders.

  12. Lin says:

    Good article Carol. I wrote for Demand Media Studios for a while years ago to stay afloat during a bad time. I always questioned how the company could make a profit by stuffing sites it created with short, “evergreen” articles that were mostly how-to or brief essays on a topic.

    I couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t want to go to the original sources, which is where I went to get the information I had to boil down. However, many topics didn’t really lend themselves to that kind of treatment. Even when they did, DMS hired horrible editors who would often introduce gross errors into the article rendering it worse than useless.

    One of my neighbors, who is a published book author, also went through a rough time financially, needed ready cash and wrote for DMS for a while. We laugh about the fact that they fired her because she argued with editors who introduced errors into her article. I don’t know where they got their editors. But they often didn’t know AP style, which supposedly DMS used, and many editors there introduced grammar errors too. I wrote under a pen name for DMS. They wanted me to post my biography online with the name of the university I graduated from and any awards I had won. I left out the awards and using the name of the college I graduated from was crazy when I was using a nom de plume. I was annoyed at DMS. They weren’t paying me enough to have a right to use my credentials.

    However, I’m sure that Rosenblatt made a small fortune for himself before resigning. He just didn’t come up with a business model that made money for anyone else. But I imagine he doesn’t care about that.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Yep, that’s the magic of a stock offering — if there’s a moment of buzz about a company, the founders can make their mint from investors who buy shares, and then sail off into the sunset while the business goes down the tubes.

      Demand’s saving grace is eNom, which is a completely legit and highly profitable business, so they’ll be looking to maximize that. But that leaves writers out in the cold.

  13. jordan clary says:

    Great article! I think there will always be something similar to content mills, but I also think one of the things that happens when places like Demand collapse is a greater appreciation for professional writers.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, let’s hope so. That would be a great side effect!

      I think when junk content doesn’t work anymore, some businesses will get hip and start hiring pro writers for real rates, because they see that is the only way to use a content marketing strategy to drive traffic.

      And others will stop using content-driven strategies, I’d bet. They’ll place more online ads, or attend more conferences, or something else. The era of mass junk content as a viable marketing strategy is over…so they’ll all need to figure out what they’re going to do instead.

  14. Sandra says:

    Haven’t kept up with this so thank you for the update. I don’t see most of these mills surviving because keyword-stuffed, irrelevant pages are already suffering. And with so much information being published every second, I think Google will continue to streamline and penalize those who think they can outwit search engines.

  15. Sylvie says:

    Ho mY G++. This is a sign of times to come. Ever since Google came out with the change called Hummingbird that focuses more on a symantic search. I’m certain that this change heralds the end or a change in content mills and how they opperate.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Ha, love your OMG variant!

      It will be interesting to see if content mills can morph into something new that will still get them pageviews…I know I’ve got a front-row seat for that.

      I consider it part of my job here on the blog to see where writing opportunities will be and how things are evolving, so I can help writers find good paying gigs! So I’m definitely watching closely.

      • sylvie says:

        There will be other opportunities. There is an incredible trend report on toprank blog that shows writing will be in demand in 2014. If we look at all of the new bits of technology, mobile, variations of the ipad, and now the I watch writing to influence and persuade will be paramount.
        I believe that content mills took a serious hit with “hummingbird.”

        Thanks for updating us on this. I had to hold my screen when I saw that title! That’s why the Ho mY G++ variant came out. Could not believe it! But the discussions make sense.
        sylvie recently posted..Independence day In the USVI.

  16. Annie says:

    Wow, this is good news. I hope your prediction is correct, Carol and that this marks the beginning of the end of content mills – which have not only paid writers peanuts but served to drive prices down in the writing trade.

    I also heard there was a shake up at lawyers.com and they laid off pretty much their entire sales force. Which might also be good news for enterprising writers who write legal content – lawyer’s clients will probably be looking for new sources for writing and website design.

    LOL – maybe there really is justice in the world after all.

    Cheers,
    Annie
    Annie recently posted..The Good Old Days of Blogging

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’m sure any site that’s been churning out quickie content is shaking it up and looking to change their strategy. And I hope you’re right — that it creates opportunity for freelancers to get better gigs with better pay.

  17. Margie says:

    I don’t know what exactly your ire is with content mills. I am sure you make a very nice living without trashing them at every opportunity.

    This said, I also despise them. BUT – I wrote for Live Strong (owned by DS) for about a year when they were paying $25 per article, and I can tell you while I myself never was fast enough a writer to produce at most 3 a day, there were others who spewed them out like linked sausages and were able to pay their mortgage and put food on the table for their kids, consistently, month after month.

    The fact that you say “writing for free is better than writing for $20 a pop” speaks of an ideology that hasn’t yet seen desperate need to make ends meet. Easy for someone who has a cushioned bank account and a husband’s income to fall back on to claim you’d not rather cash $20 bucks per article. I would too, in your shoes!

    To broaden your horizon, read more widely. There is an interesting piece currently New York Times that I would recommend. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/27/opinion/sunday/slaves-of-the-internet-unite.html?src=me&ref=general

    Oh, and by the way, Demand Studios, even though just about everything about them sucks, has – at least when I was there – journalists with degrees and 20+ years of experience under their belts writing for them. What do you know that they don’t?

    Again, I direct you to the NYT article. Don’t blame content mill writers, at least not solely. The employers are to blame too who want to pay their fabulous writing jobs with this incredible “exposure” instead of cold hard cash. Writers dying of exposure, indeed.

    Also, have you been to elance lately, or any of those ridiculous sites where hacks, including good hacks, compete for jobs?

    All this said, I respect your work, and your website, and I know you do help people, but your griping about mills gets to me. So one-sided….

    Besides, if every writer who now gets paid peanuts or even nothing, were to get paid a decent wage, there wouldn’t be enough work to go around. The companies that need content would just pay the staff that’s already on their payroll, for an hour or two overtime and have them write this crap. We are not talking about long form journalism here, but “content.”

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’m not griping, Margie — just reporting on what is happening with content mills, so writers can be aware.

      I started this blog in 2008 because writer exploitation makes me angry…and nothing’s changed there. I’ll do anything I can to help writers avoid sand traps like mills and find better pay.

      You make some assumptions about my life in your comment…and we all know what happens when you assume.

      My husband is still figuring out who he wants to be when he grows up, thanks! I’m a working class woman with no trust fund or cushy corporate gig in the family to fall back on. Just me here, supporting 3 kids, including 2 with special needs. I’ve got my own personal struggles. I’ve moved back in with my parents. I’ve taken side jobs.

      For most writers, mills become a starvation trap that’s hard to escape. You’re always broke and have to write constantly, so you can never do your own marketing. I’ve worked with literally thousands of writers who needed to get out of this cycle…and I’ll keep doing what I can to prevent writers from getting started with it.

      While in the past some writers WERE able to race like gerbils and cobble together at least a subsistence living on mills by writing very fast, that’s not going to be an option in the future. That’s the point of this post, to make sure writers know that, so they can plan ahead.

      Not sure why you’re sending us to this NY Times piece, which essentially says, “Don’t let yourself be exploited!” Seems to be agreeing with everything I’m saying. I’m no big fan of writing for free either, beyond to get a few portfolio samples to get started. And tell writers to stay off Elance all the time as well — hope nobody’s getting the idea I’m advocating race-to-the-bottom sites as a better option.

      Trained journalists write for mills because they were never taught how to market themselves or function as a business in J-school! It was expected they’d all get a job out of school with a daily paper and then write for magazines, until retirement. And now that that avenue has dried up, many are adrift, confused, and desperate. I know, because I get their emails, every day. This is the education gap I’m trying to fill with this blog.

      Going to keep telling writers to learn to market their business and find their own stable of diverse clients, because that is the most reliable ticket to a stable, lucrative freelance writing income. Sorry if that annoys you.

      • Margie says:

        Sorry to seem assuming about your life. I also have 3 children, one with special needs, so, hello, fellow traveler.

        The reason I sent you to that NYT piece is that what comes out loud and clear is that writing, and creating in general, is seen as a commodity that has no cash value. It is taken for granted that writers and other creatives don’t mind being underpaid or not paid at all. That’s what was so revolutionary about “The Well Fed Writer.”

        In fact, The Atlantic online had an article earlier int the year that was quite interesting, written by one of its editors, lamenting its their freelance budget.(http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/03/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-digital-editor-2013/273763/) That’s when I realized all the writers of all those articles I consume there every day don’t get paid!

        In fact, today there was a response by Derek Thompson to the NYT piece, but his argument doesn’t surprise me because I now know he doesn’t get paid either, so he is basically justifying his existence at the Atlantic. (http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/10/writing-for-free/280918/)

        I am not a business writer, that’s why these kinds of discussions for those kinds of magazine and blog writing fascinate me, but it also means that I do realize the kind of writing you do, Carol, isn’t something anybody would be expected to do for free. You have an expertise that is obviously worthy of cash.

        Maybe that’s the answer: Specialize! Or is it?

        Where I live, for instance, retirees who used to write for pay when they were younger, now write for free, because it fills their days until … there are no more days to fill. Why would anyone pay for something to be written if they can get even native speakers to do it for free?

        I would say this is at the very best a conundrum that we are in. And I don’t see how to solve it. I just know that writing for free sets a bad precedent all around.

        • Carol Tice says:

          Specializing is critical.

          So it not buying into the endless whining and negativity that says writing has become a useless commodity. There are plenty of magazines and businesses who can barely get anyone to write at their level of sophistication, even offering top rates. Your job is to find your place in THAT pool of writing needs.

          I just had yet another writer email me today to ask, “Which sites should I avoid?” If you’re talking about bid sites, or content mill platforms, the answer is…all of them.

  18. Carol,

    Another super-informative and helpful article.

    Thank you for that.

  19. Willi Morris says:

    I’m so sad, I was awake at 3 a.m. thinking I would see your post and then I ended up not coming back to your site until now. (Folks, I’m not even subscribed to Carol’s list any more. I just *come to her site.* That’s how good she is, LOL.)

    Carol, I’m impressed you’ve inserted your business writing and research expertise into this story. I had no idea Demand was producting content on EHow. That makes a lot more sense. I did some content writing for EHow earlier this year, and it was abruptly cut off after a couple of months. They were paying pennies, of course. I was angry at myself for even signing on. Sad, really.

    I was viewing Society6 as sort of “Etsy-esque,” and really loving it, but I’m afraid for its future if Demand has its hands on it.

    Good riddance, I say.
    Willi Morris recently posted..3 Reasons Writing Every Day Can Be a Useless Snoozefest

    • Carol Tice says:

      I don’t think they’ll change these other businesses — the whole point is they need to latch onto functional businesses so they can leave the mill behind.

      And…what are you doing up at 3 am?

  20. I’ve always worked on a Quality over Quantity basis, even with my website. I can’t tell you how many SEO sites have contacted me and tried to tell me how they could boost my ranking with their wonderful algorithms. As I tell them, ranking high in Google doesn’t matter if no-one comes back to your site. I also know I’ve lost freelance jobs because I quote on the higher side, but 15 years experience in journalism and editing has to count for something. Besides, I always figure if someone baulks at paying you a decent amount for your time, effort and skill, then I probably wouldn’t be happy working for them in the long run anyway.

  21. I disagree about Demand Studios. Since I started writing for DS about 8 years ago, the emphasis has steadily grown on providing better content. It is now rather difficult getting past the editors with anything but a good article. Yes, there was definitely a lot of garbage that got through in the past. However, I see some good steps being taken that will no doubt increase the quality of the articles. It is by no means the greatest offender in the SEO-focused content mill area. I would guess that part of their problem has been with the generation of titles. They are much better now — actually useful and not just keyed to search terms. A big improvement. Of course, there are still a lot of content mills that turn out key-word heavy articles that mean nothing. Fluff. And part of the reason Google has changed its search. I wouldn’t write-off Demand Studios just yet …

    • Carol Tice says:

      I do know Demand has been trying to steer into the better content arena…but so far their financials and their steadily sinking traffic indicate it’s not paying off. And if it doesn’t pay for them, soon they won’t pay writers to do it, either.

      And fewer, better articles mean fewer writers who can use that platform to earn, even if that does pan out.

      Don’t in any way think Demand is the worst mill out there for content quality…they’re just the one who made the biggest brags that they had it all figured out. Except they don’t, as their numbers prove.

      • Carol, you make your money off content, right? Content is a driving force on the Internet and it will continue to be so. DS is actually one of the higher-paying companies, and I like it because unlike lots of other individual content buyers, it actually pays. Not always the case elsewhere … Relative to Elance where a good writer is up against competition from the ultra low-cost bidders from other countries, it is a reasonable deal for the writer. Also, for the content buyer, it represents articles that are not laughably badly written.

        • Carol Tice says:

          Victoria, as a freelancer I’ve had a range of paying gigs, from blogging for magazines and businesses, to writing for print magazines, to writing informational web copy for corporations and newsletter articles.

          It’s sad to note that $25 an article is ‘better’ than so many other offers you might get online…but that doesn’t mean it’s a living wage, or that you’ll be able to keep writing for DS in the future. That’s my warning — if you’re getting comfy writing for DS, don’t. Because things are going to keep changing in their model as they try to figure out how to make it profitable.

          And as a blogger and paying content market, I pay twice what DS does per post…though I have far fewer assignments available. ;-)

          • Hannah S says:

            Well, that’s just it. As far as rates go, DMS is actually quite a good place to be. No marketing, no querying, etc. If your experience and knowledge fits well with a section where there are a lot of titles available (mine does) and you are a fast writer (I am), you can average between $60 and $90/hour there. I don’t know of too many freelance writers who make more than that when you consider the time spent searching for work, which isn’t necessary at Demand since you simply log in and choose a title to write.

            DMS is not my sole source of income. It’s not even my main source because I have written for mills long enough to know that it’s either feast or famine when it comes to titles. People have been predicting doom and gloom for Demand for years now. I think the content side of the business will eventually go under, but not anytime soon.

            The bottom line is that for a lot of writers, there simply isn’t enough time in the day to earn a living without filling in with mill writing. It’s true that there are many clients and businesses out there that will pay $1 or more per word, but if I’m only getting one project from them every couple of months, it’s not paying the bills. Of course, that’s why diversification is important, but for many people, myself included, it just gets tiring and sometimes impossible. We can’t all create a business out of selling our knowledge about finding writing gigs. You note that you’ve had hard times, had to move in with parents, etc. For some of us, that option doesn’t exist. We either write to pay the bills or we’re on the streets. There is a place for content mills in the writing world, and it’s not all bad when it comes to Demand, at least now because the writers are experienced and/or educated in their topic areas and the content is much, much higher quality.

            • Carol Tice says:

              Hannah, I earned a full-time living entirely from freelance writing from 2005-2010 and for another 5-year stint before that. I have a lot of experience supporting a family of 5 purely from my freelance clients. And I never wrote for mills, mostly because they didn’t exist on my first go-round, and the second because cranking out quickie SEO copy just never appealed to me.

              You sound like one of the few writers who’s been able to get a good hourly rate out of writing for mills…enjoy that for as long as you can.

              But you might want to plan to learn how to get better clients that give you more ongoing work, for the day when even half-decent mill pay is gone. The financials tell us it’s a failing model, so the writing is on the wall. Before mills, that is how every freelance writer sustained themselves — by hustling more and finding better clients. I believe those times will return.

              The bottom line for a lot of other freelance writers is that we couldn’t imagine writing for mills to fill our downtime, when with a little marketing effort we could go out and get another lucrative and challenging publication or business to write for. Mill writing has come easily and paid well for you, so I can see why you’d fall back on it. But for many, many other writers I hear from mills are increasingly unreliable.

              Your insurance policy against the uncertainty in the mill sector is a strong writer website and social media presence, and a strong marketing plan to keep prospects coming your way.

  22. I think one of the sad results of content mill writing is that it ruins many writers who could be good ones. When you start writing half-ass articles for pennies what does that do to your skills and self-respect?
    Joseph Rathjen recently posted..How To Communicate With Your Spouse In Seven Words Or Less!

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’ve always considered that the other side of the mill trap…the psychological one. I meet writers who’ve cranked out hundreds of pieces for them, and are wracked with doubts they could ever write for a better market. I think cranking out SEO copy is HARD, especially at speed like you have to to earn from mills. The problem is, it’s not a skill that pays off.

      It doesn’t seem to be a confidence builder for many…though I do know some writers who said it gave them a place to build a little confidence, and then they quickly moved on. Not sticking around for too long seems to be key.

    • Kristina says:

      I think some of you are full of shit. Honestly, I just joined Demand, and I’ve made $500 in fewer than 10 days. I have found that their editorial standards are higher than the job I just left at a NYSE, Fortune Top 500 corporation. I suspect some of you have never been journalists for real newspapers or worked in communications for major companies.

      • Carol Tice says:

        Enjoy that while it lasts, Kristina…Demand has fewer and fewer assignments available. Journalism has never been a requirement, though maybe they’re steering more in that direction.

        But Demand’s bottom line is that they barely make a profit, and the content side of their business doesn’t break even. That means it’s only a matter of time before it either changes or shuts down. I’ve seen many past mills close their doors…so don’t count on this as a perpetual opportunity. It’s more of a limited-time offer, for the writers who can work with all of their requirements.

      • “When I first started this blog, my thought was I could get all writers to quit mills. Writers of the world unite! And then the mills would all collapse.”

        With all do respect Carol, this comment is framing your thinking regarding this segment of the freelance market.

        I have been freelance writing for exactly 15 years. I have worked with leading publishing houses on a large variety of projects. And I have written, and enjoyed writing, for DMS.

        Unless you are writing for them, how do you know exactly how many assignments are available? How do you know their rates? How do you know the credentials of the writers? How do you know the expectations of the content curators? How do you know all the content is junk?

        Keep in mind that much of DMS content answers specific questions. Answers the readers wanted to know. This advice-seeking, question-answering model can be a viable part of a freelance business model. This steady stream is similar to passive income many expert writers generate through advice books, columns, webinars, seminars and speaking engagements. Same model. People have questions. They want to know answers.

        Instead of fearing the content mills (or any type of content streamlining), why not investigate how it can contribute to a viable freelance business model.

        • Carol Tice says:

          Not afraid of mills, Suzanne — they’ve had no effect on my ability to earn more each year since 2005, to the point that I now earn twice what I did as a staff writer at a newsweekly. My interest is in helping other writers grow their earnings who are stuck in a low-pay trap.

          At this point, I have coached hundreds of writers who have come out of writing for Demand and moved on to better incomes as freelance writers. So I get pretty constant updates on how things are evolving. I get the reports about how titles are drying up…one writer related that his ‘system’ to stay afloat financially as a mill writer was to get up at 2 am before others woke and all the titles were taken! All this for a big $25.

          Keep in mind that Demand answers questions…in a low-value way that no one is going to find any more, because Google is screening them out of results.

          Financials don’t lie — mass content has not proven to be a viable business model. If Demand can’t make it work with the masses of pageviews they were getting, I doubt someone else is going to figure out a way to make it a cash cow. Low-value content doesn’t earn well. Mill writers need to understand that this mode of earning from writing is going away, so they can plan their next steps.

          I’m quite sure all the content is NOT junk. The problem is, that’s the reputation of mills, so your great work gets treated the same by Google as the junk someone dashed off in 10 minutes.

          As a market that pays twice what Demand does, I feel I’m doing my part to contribute to building better freelance earning models. Proud to have encouraged quite a few other blogs to pay decently as well. The writing I solicit is high-quality stuff — just like all the other better opportunities out there.

          I’m very glad you enjoy writing for Demand. All writers who do should keep right on doing it, for as long as they keep it open.

          I’m here for the writers who don’t enjoy writing for mills, and want to learn how to find better gigs and pay.

          • Carol, you provide a good respected service.

            And, I do agree if you are only using one client source for a freelance model, you are vulnerable. This is true for a corporate client, content mill, freelance site, or even family friend.

            So, yes, diversifying is part of any solid economic model. None of us can project exactly what turn the Internet will take. Google is now going into healthcare with Calico. Who knows where that will go?

            I do know that DMS has plenty of work and has increased content channels. I would not dismiss them completely.

            • Carol Tice says:

              I’m just reading the income statement here and telling folks what it says. It’s my experience after 20+ years covering business that businesses that don’t make money tend to go out of business. Sometimes takes longer, sometimes shorter, but sooner or later, the party’s over. Something all mill writers should bear in mind.

              When a company is talking about spinning out the part of the business that makes money and leaving the unprofitable part to stand alone…well, I shouldn’t have to draw you a picture of where that’s headed.

              I’ve heard from many other writers that DMS no longer has ‘plenty of work’ so maybe you’re one of the lucky few who’ve managed to make it in their system.

  23. Carol, thanks for the update. As an HR professional and writer, content mills are a very intriguing concept to me. I’m glad you do what you do—before I began reading your site, I’d never heard of a content mill, although I’d been solicited by one. Your handy tips helped me escape the trap!

    Between these darn mills and another workplace bugaboo, the unpaid internship, writers trying to make a decent living have their work cut out for them. However, it can be done if we don’t sell ourselves short!
    Crystal Spraggins recently posted..Condé Nast Makes an Announcement, and Another Unpaid Internship Program Bites the Dust

  24. Great information Carol!

    I haven’t personally dealt with any of these content mills but through all the reading I’ve done on your blog and others alike it’s very clear to myself if you want to make a proper living out of freelancing they should definitely be avoided unless it’s just to get a few early on clips and nothing more.

    Also I found it quite funny that some people in the comments felt that it was like you were “attacking” them and their choices in regards to writing for content mills like DMS.
    (She’s literally just trying to help and give you some foresight guys!)

    All I can say is thanks for a great read and business insight (love that stuff) and I hope every other writer who potentially writes for these companies thanks you enough for the heads up so they can rethink their marketing strategy as a writer and ensure they aren’t fighting for the $2 scraps when places like this go bottom up because as you said it’s just not profitable for them to continue and their numbers prove that.

    Have a good one Carol,

    Cheers!
    Jackson Anderson recently posted..The Path of Success – What BMX Can Teach You!

  25. Zoe says:

    I did write for a content mill, so much appreciate your post here, very to the point. One of the advantages to writing for mills, though, is a relatively “safe” place to practice.

  26. Lisa Baker says:

    GREAT post, Carol! I read it this morning but had to come back to see the comments…I knew this was gonna spark some conversation. ;)

    I wrote for Demand for several years, but its impending demise comes as no surprise to me. I knew from the day I signed up that there was no way the model was sustainable. It was fun for a while, and it was nice to see them attempt to improve. I had a little bit of experience as a journalist so I never got caught in the psychological trap…I always felt like I was better than Demand and I would move on as soon as I wanted. But I stayed a lot longer than I planned – it really is hard to escape the hamster wheel when things are turning and money is flowing. I was actually relieved when Panda made the titles dry up. That was what gave me the motivation to look for something better that led me to the Freelance Writer’s Den. And – wow, I only just realized this! – but I don’t think I’ve written a single mill article since I joined the Den a year and a half ago. Wow does that feel good to write! Income’s way better now, too.
    Lisa Baker recently posted..How Separation Anxiety Can Make You Feel Like Supermom

    • Carol Tice says:

      That is awesome, Lisa. One of the highlights in the 2+ years of operating the Den to date was when you told me the Den trainings had helped you make enough freelancing to pay for your family vacation and start contributing meaningfully to paying the bills for the first time. ;-)

      And as you point out…maybe the decline of the mill model will be a good thing for more writers like you, who know they have skills and deserve professional rates. Maybe this will be the kick a lot more writers need to go out and build a more stable and lucrative business.

  27. Rob says:

    Very interesting! I got a “we want you back!” email from Elance just the other day. It included a long pitch about how new and improved the site was, but the message I got was that they are losing members and doing whatever they can to get them back.

    I read a post on LinkedIn by a journalist who was laid off and was appalled by the poor pay she was being offered for freelance work. It was followed by about 50 comments, many of them by others in her position. Some were very vitriolic about bloggers-turned-writers who were stealing what they believed to be their rightful jobs.

    Obviously, there are big changes happening. Traditional journalism is dying, but so is the market for cheap and nasty content. I suspect the fad of freelance writing is on the wane as people discover it’s not an easy way to make a living and look for employment elsewhere. It will still be highly competitive, but it will be a competition for quality and reliability rather than a competition for the lowest bid.

    In my opinion, having a 20 year career as a print journalist does not prepare you for today’s market. There may not be a magic formula for freelance success, but you do seem to have your finger on the pulse. Some of those experienced journalists should go back to school and catch up with the times.
    Rob recently posted..The Lighter Side of 9/11

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, not back to traditional school, which unfortunately seems to be lagging far behind what’s happening in the marketplace!

      But agree with your assessment of where longtime journalists are at. Many are almost starting from scratch with a lot of new things to learn — social media, online writing/blogging conventions, and marketing most of all. The good news is you CAN learn new tricks, and I’m the ultimate example.

      I started freelancing in 2005 after 12 years as a staff writer, not ever having really marketed my business — my first freelance stint way back was all easy-peasy, winning contests and getting gigs from referrals. And not happening during a major economic downturn, either.

      But if you approach our brave new world of freelance writing with a can-do attitude…there’s a lot you can do. ;-)

      PS — I get those increasingly desperate-sounding “You should sign up with our platform!” emails all the time, too. I hear the sound of chairs scraping across the decks of the Titanics…

  28. Emelia says:

    Carol, thanks for this informative piece. I always find your posts encouraging. I am a Media graduate and started freelancing early this year. The reality is content mills can be discouraging. Someone told me last week that my bid of $20 per 500 word was too high. I don’t believe that $20 per word article is fair. But i bid with that amount because i know that people are used to paying crap on content mils. Ever since i started freelancing i learnt that quality takes time (for research) and a lot of creative thinking.
    And i agree with you when you say that writers in the mills get used to the cycle of being paid crap. I was trapped in that cycle until months ago when i signed up for your blog posts. I launched my blog last week. Of course, i haven’t got a client yet but i don’t regret setting it up and paying a host for the blog. I would advise new freelancers to go to content mills just to get start-up capital so start they can be able to host their blogs.
    Thanks
    Emelia recently posted..Your Online Freelance Writing Career Is Doomed If You Don’t Adopt These Writing Ethics

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, the problem I find is most mill writers can’t ever save UP any money because it’s such a subsistence living. Congrats to you for getting that done and getting up a pro hosted blog!

      Put a Hire Me tab on there and you may be able to attract clients through the blog, too, especially for paid blogging gigs.

  29. I am new to freelancing, and I was tempted to try out one of those content mills until your articles persuaded me against such folly! As I learn my way around this business, I have begun to believe that there will always be a demand for cheap writing. I, for one, am not going to fall prey to such bad business. This guy may have folded, but others will take his place. It is up to us not to let them take complete control, however.

    Thanks for your insightful and straightforward articles, Carol.

    • Emelia says:

      I agree with you Kate. We are the ones who know how much hardwork it requires to create great content. It is up to us to claim our worth!

    • Carol Tice says:

      When I first started this blog, my thought was I could get all writers to quit mills. Writers of the world unite! And then the mills would all collapse.

      Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. There will always be desperate writers and writers who don’t have any idea what professional rates are and what they should be earning. They confuse the mill Underworld of freelance writing with the whole freelance marketplace, which it most certainly is not.

      But in the end, mills are collapsing of their own weight, sort of like the Soviet Union did. They are failing because they are corrupt — a system of writer exploitation based around the promise of ad-click revenue that mostly never arrived.

      They didn’t deliver anything valuable to Internet readers, so they are losing their audience. A lesson we can ALL do well to bear in mind as we develop content for our clients and our own blogs.

  30. You always manage to really hit a nerve with these posts about content mills. I really have to stop reading comments now and get back to work, but I understand why they inspire such passionate responses.

    Although it’s not happening for me quite as often lately, I do still sometimes encounter businesses thinking they can pay content mill-level rates for blogging and I have to explain that there’s just no practical way for writers to produce good work at that rate.

    The less businesses out there providing this option, the less small business owners will assume that writing can (or should) come cheap. Good for Google.
    Kristen Hicks recently posted..5 Key Takeaways for Freelancers from Content Marketing World 2013

    • Carol Tice says:

      I know as someone who does a lot of Internet research for articles, I am sooo grateful not to get a bunch of eHow, Answers.com and other junk responses at the top of my search any more. Big timesaver!

  31. The comments on this post are almost as interesting as the post itself!

    I make my living as a ghostwriter (primarily for professional trainers and financial advisors who want to put out a book). Someday I hope to make my living off of my own name. Every day I write about food and my relationship with it for free.This path works for me because it doesn’t require putting out anything I wouldn’t want to read. Content mill work takes all of the art out of writing and turns it into something much more like accounting. What writer wants to do that?

    I know an awful lot about the choice between integrity as a writer and making a living. It’s one I make on almost a daily basis. I refuse to write for content mills for the same reason I buy books from living authors new: if you want people to support your work, you must support theirs.

    If I’m going to work for minimum wage (or less than), I’d much rather flip burgers. Good writing is hard work. I don’t understand why anyone would do it if neither passion, nor a nice paycheck is on the table.
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  32. Writing4Luv says:

    After writing 4 Demand for a couple of years I found that I’ve lost confidence in my writing. Do you use software such as grammarly or another writing software? I’ve signed up for the Writer’s Den but I’m on the waiting list. I’m hoping you reopen soon because I would really like to forget my days at DS and move on to bigger and better days. What tools do you use to improve your writing?

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Writing — I don’t use Grammarly or any other tools like that.

      I’ve only used one tool to improve my writing: Writing a lot, and working for great editors who helped me improve.

      There is a good new book out though called How to Not Write Bad by Ben Yagoda that I can recommend. ;-)

  33. Hey Carol: Yes,my wife and I wrote for demand at one time. This is an interesting development but I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. It appears to me that the whole authorship piece is about being a center of influence and the Demand model is contrary to that. As far as being a freelancer, it filled a need at the time, and I can’t be mad at them. I learned to do better once I knew better as my old Pastor used to say.

    CT

    Read Good Things..Write Good Things
    Charles Terrence Harper recently posted..9 Essential Selling Skills for Consultants – Audio Presentation with Mike Cooch of Kutenda, LLC

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Charles — great to see you here on the blog!

      I’m with you — authority and influence is what matters and what companies are trying to build…and junk content a la Demand can’t accomplish that. Yet another reason the Demand model is fading out.

  34. Writing4Luv says:

    Thanks Carol. I’ll check it out.

  35. I have to say I wrote a few article for a content mill. I am kind of embarrassed now, but back then I did not know what a content mill was. I was just happy they accepted my article and my next and my next.

    Then I realized they were accepting just about everyone.

    I know advise my clients to write for their readers and consumers. The content is more interesting and less robot like!

    I am new to your blog and I love it! Thanks for all the great advice and stories!
    Shelly Drymon recently posted..What Is The Goal For Your Website Content?

    • Carol Tice says:

      Glad you’re enjoying the blog!

      I think many writers have the same experience you did — they’re brand new, blunder onto a content mill, and get excited about seeing their work out there. Sometime later, you realize you’re associated with a site with a bad reputation so it’s no great shakes to be on there, and that you’re starving. Then, many writers are ready to move on.

  36. Except for 2-3 articles on Helium, when I first started online 3+ years ago, and a few pages on Squidoo (where I actually began to learn how blogging, html, and the like work, ’cause I knew nothing of the kind up to then),

    I feel blessed to have had a natural aversion for all such sites. It was all that you said so many times: if a writer wanted to make some money on them, (s)he had to work hard while raising the value of OTHER PEOPLE’S assets. Yikes!

    All in all, after these lastest developments, I don’t have to worry about any (passive??) income sinking, LoL LoL
    Helene Poulakou recently posted..Know Thyself: Foundations of Successful Niching

    • Carol Tice says:

      I know too many writers who told me, “I’m creating retirement income on this revshare site!” only to see that site simply cease to exist one day.

      As you say, you’re building someone else’s asset on these kind of platforms. Writers should all be doing some building of their OWN platform along with their freelancing.

  37. James says:

    A fine piece of writing, but I think it misses the key problem. Even absolutely independent freelance writers are pressed to provide content for distant and often email-averse clients. I end up producing content-mill content simply because my clients don’t feel like answering questions, can’t be troubled to be interviewed by Skype, and aren’t interested in socializing. And I say that respectfully, meaning I know that many of them are truly upstanding, even outstanding business people, employing engaged, thoughtful and helpful people.

    I should really learn to better navigate the profoundly email-averse, but afterall, it’s the writing that they really don’t want to do, and where I make my living.

    The difficult part is still to elicit enough blood from a rock to be able to actually create something worth reading.

    Cheers

  38. Kalen says:

    Hi Carol I am a bit late finding your post but wanted to chime in. I used to write for DS in 2011 and hated every moment of it. By week 2 I was planning an exit strategy. I don’t see any loss here. The site didn’t pay their writers enough to inspire them to write good content. Most even had a system for looking for the easiest topics and doing the bare minimum. I don’t think that anyone should do that for a client, but a company shouldn’t be surprised when they pay their writers $15 for an article. They wanted to earn a decent living and would need to pump articles out in half an hour to do so at that rate. I was grateful to get out and work with better clients two months later (it was a very painful two months because the topics were not anything I wanted to write on and the editors were clueless). I feel for anyone still there, but my suggestion to them is to see it as a blessing in disguise. They will be better working for real clients than these shoddy content mills.
    Kalen recently posted..Writing My New Ebook For Aspiring Guest Bloggers

    • Carol Tice says:

      I hope they will, Kalen.

      Google’s changes that are killing traffic at mills also spell HUGE opportunity for writers. Businesses need truly quality, unique content now! The days of SEO-driven article-stuffing are ending.

      As I saw James Chartrand’s blog note recently, if 1% of all the blogs out there decided they needed help with content from a pro writer to help them build authority in the face of Google’s changes, that would be something like 9 million gigs up for grabs.

      Some writers won’t have the chops to write the assignments that will be more plentiful in the future, but for those who do and want to work on meatier projects that make great writing samples, there should be boom times coming in online writing.

  39. Robert says:

    Wow…first off, Carol, I think what you are doing here is awesome. I started freelancing this year and so far I only write for content mills. I come from what is considered a third world country so I can make do with the pay. That is not to say that I am happy. I keep telling myself that I will build a platform and start marketing my skills to businesses online and even land based for better pay. I intend to do that in the next two weeks. I still have some grammatical issues with my writing, so I need to clean that up first. But I definitely agree with you, content mills will be the death of good writers. They do serve a purpose. The problem is that purpose shouldn’t need serving. No ONE should be allowed to pay anyone else peanuts for something they actually love doing, free market or not! They say find something you love doing so much you could do it for free and you shall never work a day in your life. I don’t think they meant actually doing it for free!

    I am hell bent on seriously marketing my skills in a couple of weeks from now. So I will be scouring your site for valid advise that can help me a long. As much as there is tonnes online about how to become a successful freelance writer, most of what you read just isn’t that practical or doesn’t really apply to my region. What I’m trying to say is, thank you for what you are doing. Keep it up and content mills be damned!

  40. Deb says:

    As a writer for Demand Media, I can verify that conditions have definitely worsened in the last couple of years. Demand Media Studios (DMS) saw a major layoff known as “First Look” about 2 years ago that effectively shrunk the writer/editor work force by what seemed like at least half its writers — maybe more — while pretending to implement a content improvement program after the Google slam.

    What it came down to was a withdrawal of all available writing assignments for several months, then a gradual re-introduction of assignments visible only to those writers who steadily maintained a 4 or above on their writer’s “scorecard”. Those of us who made that cut got a “first look” at whatever came down the pipe, and the opportunity to grab a few pitiful titles before the unwashed masses with scores below the optimum were allowed a peek. Of course, with a few hundred writers scrabbling to grab half a hundred titles, the lesser beings were pretty much s**t-out-of-luck and finally dropped off for lack of work. DMS is cowardly and cruel. It would have been more professional to send pink slips.

    After dropping that excess weight, DMS began hyping its new and improved image to those of us who managed to hang on. Part of the “improvement” was taking away ALL our writing privileges and making everyone re-apply for each section that we wanted to write for (pets, gardening, science, legal, home decor, health, and so on). Many people with hundreds of articles under their belt in specific areas were told their qualifications weren’t good enough any more. More people dropped out for lack of work. (DMS cruelty is at least consistent.)

    Again, I managed to hang on — as did a couple hundred others. (That is a guess, by the way. I have no idea how many writers actually work for DMS — they are not known for sharing.) However, the articles we used to see in the tens of thousands, numbered only in the hundreds — most unwritable for one reason or another.

    Time has passed. It is now early 2014 and the article numbers are up to a few thousand (depending upon which venues an individual writer is privileged to be accepted for). Articles pay an average $25 each — which was one of the small (very small) real improvements after the shake up, BUT…

    Now there do not seem to be any editors. We write and then we wait.. and wait… and wait…

    The articles sit sometimes for two weeks or more before being picked up by an editor, then get thrown back at us for rewrite about 50% of the time. (Prior to this year, my rewrite percentage was around 8%.) After doing an edit, I often wait another week for acceptance. This from a company that used to edit and accept articles within 2 days regularly.

    Now (as of 25 February 2014) payments — which used to be as regular as clockwork — arrive so late in the evenings that many people don’t get them until what is for all practical purposes, the next day. This has happened 3 weeks in a row, so far. In fact, I am currently awaiting another late paycheck. This would not be particularly worrisome except that reliable, twice weekly pay was one of the few things DMS had going for it.

    Bottom line… I am worried I may soon be out of a job. Since this is one of the few gigs I can fit into a hectic schedule (I have a small farm with a lot of animals) I will need to scramble for other writing jobs to make ends meet.

    One little point I would like to mention in defense of DMS, is that despite the “content mill” reputation, they have never actually expected or asked writers to stuff keywords into their articles — or anything close to that. In fact, editors actually discourage overuse of specific words — sending back rewrite requests for repetitious phrasing or for using the same “action” word in subsequent steps for how-to articles. (For example, if I begin one step with something like “Cut the fabric in half…” and need to have readers cut the subsequent half in half again, I would need to say something like… “Divide each of the remaining fabric pieces in half…” in order to avoid repetition of the word “cut”.)

    Most of the writers still working with DMS are not novice writers, and the content, while not ideal, is not as bad as portrayed here. Much of what IS bad owes its faults to the restrictive nature of DMS guidelines rather than to the writers, themselves.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Thanks for the update on how Demand is evolving — and continuing to try to stay alive.

      As it happens, they just released public disclosures around spinning off their domain-name side of the business, which shows traffic at eHow and other sites they own continues to plummet — it’s less than half what it once was. Can’t be good news for writers.

      Once they spin off the cash cow of domain name registration, it’s unclear what will happen to the content half that remains. It has diminishing returns due to the traffic shrink, and they have to spend a lot on it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it fade away or be acquired…and then fade away.

      When you say “I may soon be out of a job” — this was never a job. Jobs have benefits, and a guarantee of X amount of income.

      It was one freelance client. Never have only one freelance client…hope you don’t have to find out the hard way why that’s a bad idea.

  41. Diane Kamer says:

    I just happened on this article, and I find it fascinating.

    For the past 14-plus years, I’ve been a full-time on-staff e-commerce copywriter at HanesBrands Inc. (yes, the underwear people). I used to write HanesBrands’ ChampionUSA.com website; now I work on their JustMySize.com site. (But a lot of the copy there was written by my predecessor…I haven’t been on the JMS team all that long.)

    I’m in my early 60s and planning to retire within a couple of years. But I wanted to keep my hand in, since I don’t think I could stand just gardening and volunteering when I retire. I’ve noticed that Panda and Hummingbird have spurred a lot of e-commerce companies to add content (especially blogs), so I thought perhaps I should build a little portfolio of articles via freelancing for Demand Studios. That way, I’d be ready to transition to content writing in retirement.

    But there is no way I’d ever be willing to write for $2. And I would never want to write keyword-stuffed JUNK anyway. I’d heard that content mills were horrible, but, for some reason, I vainly imagined that the Google updates were forcing them to get better. Talk about naive!

    So glad I read this article. Now I know to steer clear of these guys.

    Guess I’ll just focus on lobbying for a blog at JustMySize.com. And maybe gardening’s not all that bad anyway. :D

    • Carol Tice says:

      As a longtime copywriter, Diane, you ought to be able to find great freelance clients — the only choices aren’t content mills or talking one site you like that doesn’t have a blog into having one (which we find has low success). You’ve been working for a big-name company! Lots of smaller businesses in apparel would probably love to have you.

  1. […] Tice.  All of her advice is extremely valuable and I highly recommend perusing her site.  Her most recent post regarding online content mills is absolutely vital reading material if you are a freelance writer. […]

  2. […] Carol Tice about how Google caught up with content mills and their reality is very sad now. […]

  3. […] This reeks of a ship taking on water and the captain bailing before it sinks. […]

  4. […] model really hurts the profit margin once content quality is affected. This long-ailing strategy is now dying, and its death throes are visible to […]

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