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True confessions: I wrote for an Internet content mill

Discussion in 'Copywriting & Sales Persuasion' started by Asif WILSON Khan, Jul 14, 2015.

  1. Asif WILSON Khan

    Asif WILSON Khan Executive VIP Jr. VIP

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    They are the queries we type into Google at our lowest ebb, our souls screaming into the search bar:
    "RETIRE WEALTHY"
    "how to get a girl to like you"
    "how to deal with divorce"
    "male sexual enhancement"
    "weight management Indianapolis"
    "instant loans"
    The list goes on; it's seemingly infinite. Such search terms offer insight into both our fears ("how bad is caffeine during pregnancy") and desires ("bronies"). And thanks to thousands of poorly paid freelance writers looking to pick up some extra cash or toiling for wages, the results we?re served in these vulnerable moments are often hastily scribbled, poorly written, ungrammatical filler text. This old world relic represents a time when getting to the top of Google rankings wasn?t dependent on the quality of information you supplied but how many people linked to your site.
    This kind of text?the equivalent of fast food or hangover-friendly TV?is the preserve of content mills, an Internet subculture where for-hire workers are tasked with writing vast amounts of online copy for a pittance. Today, when more media outlets and self-publishing tools exist than ever before, such word factories somehow continue to exist.
    How do I know? I used to contribute. Between September 19, 2011 and February 24, 2012, I wrote 533 "articles" for an online content mill. And recently, for Ars, I took an exploratory return trip. While I wanted to see if I could still hack it at the pace required for a passing wage, my content mill comeback carried an ulterior motive. Why, in a world where everyone is keen to broadcast their opinions on many topics at various lengths for free, do we still rely on poorly written and paid filler text?
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    / Are you an expert in "forage California," "cortese womens tennis socks," or "christian book store new haven ct?" We have an opportunity for you...
    Chris Stokel-Walker
    How to create the content

    My six months in the Internet salt mines were spent with a prominent mill: MyAMS. Run by London Brokers, a self-professed ?leading provider of online freelance writing jobs," the site claims to provide thousands of articles per month to clients on almost every topic you can think of. Much of the content produced by MyAMS goes to Unique Article Wizard (UAW), a backlink-building service used by online marketers. UAW then pushes out the articles to 20,000 or more websites online, some of which link back to customers who pay UAW to increase their search rankings.
    My original assignments varied. One moment I could be tasked with 300-word short outbursts on inane topics (the first one I wrote was on "handi lift," a wheelchair elevator for home use), the next moment I had to tackle 1,000-word yarns on video poker or some other topic. The most complicated assignments were 300-, 400-, or 500-word stories on a topic that would require two other rewrites for a total workload of up to 1,500 words. Some of the most entertaining articles were the self-referential ones: stories with topics as vague as "submit artilcles" [sic] and as damning as "Why some believe that Search Engine Optimization is a scam."
    All told, I wrote 386,550 words over the course of 158 days. There were barren periods where I wrote nothing?in total, 65 days during my mill tenure?but otherwise I churned out an average of 4,156 words a day. That's around one-and-a-half times the word count of this story, but on a per-word basis, writing this story pays 44 times better. With MyAMS, I essentially earned enough each day to buy an Olive Garden main course, dessert, and soft drink.
    As with any other online employment opportunity, earning more is possible. The mill cajoles its writers with the aspirational story of Ellen Jackson, who made $300 a week when she wrote this 34-page guide on how to overcome writer's block. While some contributors certainly reach that level of success, I didn?t. But circumstances mercifully changed: I soon got legitimate writing work for major publications. It paid better. I realized I no longer had to spew out several thousand words for little recompense, and I stopped.
    So did Rob Turner, a 32-year-old who spent five years or more writing articles for the mill. The English and Media graduate only stopped a few months back: ?I found other clients and in all honesty for the amount of money you get and the amount of time it takes, it just wasn?t worth it,? he admits. As to whether someone could actually make $300 a week, he feels the same way I do. ?I?m sure there are people who can probably grind it out and have nothing else to do?those annoying people who say they can get by on four hours' sleep," he says. "I?m sure they can do it and will probably have a breakdown in three years' time. Good for them if they can do it, but I value my free time.?
    Other people still haven?t stopped, and more join the production line each day at MyAMS or other sites like it. One particularly slick current enterprise is TextBroker, which pays anywhere from 0.7 to five cents a word for articles. Though there aren?t specific figures for the size of the online on-demand writing market, online staffing at large is a billion-dollar industry. It's growing at a rate of more than 40 percent per year, according to analysts at Staffing Industry. These companies keep producing, churning out content and spreading it all over the Internet. The people might change, but the system seemingly hasn?t.
    Clocking in

    When I returned to MyAMS, my account appeared cryogenically frozen, ready to restart just as if it were February 2012 again. All it took was a quick login to reclaim my place. Behind the curtain, everything looked the same. The only difference was that there was no content to write.
    It took a couple of days of pestering the site?s online support staffer, Dayniel, but stories eventually turned up. When I checked at 9am on a Saturday morning, 100 urgent (for which you?re paid a 10 percent premium upon completion) and 100 normal articles awaited me on the bulletin board. These assignments carried inspiring titles such as "labradoodle puppies texas" and "swedish singer and song writer."
    Overwhelmed by the choices, I picked the first available article: a UAW 500 article on "NY traffic."
    UAW articles are unique to MyAMS, ultimately requiring you to write 1,500 words as opposed to just 500. The site?s support documentation explains how it works: ?First you write a normal original article. Then you make two rewrites of it. All three articles (PDF) must have the same number of paragraphs and each paragraph of each article must have about the same meaning.? This is because the end product is cut up, chopped, and changed to create even more alternative stories. In the content-producing machine, the sausage is just the start of it?that's ground up and made into meatballs, meatloaf, and a million other products.
    ?In effect what they were doing was try to squeeze out more articles from what you?d written,? explains Turner. ?You could tell when they?d tried to do that. You?d see an article very similar to something you?d written, but the syntax was off in very odd ways and didn?t make sense. It was the equivalent of playing a Japanese [translation or knock-off] video game where you get what they?re saying, but it?s slightly off. Because it?s writer for hire, they could do that. You can?t get too precious about these things.?
    When writing at volume, time is of the essence. In journalism, 1,500 words of well-crafted, in-depth reporting can take several hours at best. But in the content mills, you must churn stuff out quicker at the expense of quality. For my assignment, I was lucky that I?ve been to New York before and know something about the traffic. I didn?t have to spend any time consulting Wikipedia. I got right to it.
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    / This content mill CMS is as glorious as its product.
    Chris Stokel-Walker
    The first sentence was on par with Hemingway: ?As one of the world?s biggest and busiest cities, NY traffic can be very busy.?
    It took 10 minutes and 15 seconds to conjure up eight paragraphs on traffic (four paragraphs on traffic and four paragraphs of filler) in New York. After clicking submit, you?re taken to another screen where what you?ve just written is carved up into its constituent parts. Next, you must rewrite the same paragraph to have roughly the same meaning?only with different words.
    ?New York City is known worldwide as a popular tourist destination and one of the world?s meccas for business, culture and arts.?
    This pass took 9 minutes 49 seconds?quicker, largely because I wasn?t required to have any original thoughts. Another click of the submit button, and the same screen pops up for the third rewrite.
    ?Known across the world for its stunning architecture, its individual people, and its bustling, hustling nature, New York City is an incredibly popular place for locals and tourists alike.?
    After only 9 minutes and 2 seconds, the third rewrite was finished. I delivered 1,500 words to my editor. If approved, $6.60 was mine for 30 minutes of work.
    $13.20 an hour isn?t a lot of money. It?s just over half the current average hourly income?$24.87?for private sector workers in the United States. The average hotel worker earns more. Those comparisons don't even paint a complete picture, as it's probably difficult (verging on impossible) to keep up that level of labor for a full day, never mind a full week.
    Now, maybe a Singularity-ready human sentient will eventually sign up for MyAMS and significantly increase the average pace of writing. What took me 30 minutes might eventually take 20 minutes, so the resultant hourly pay would increase to just short of $20 an hour, in line with the typical retail worker. Whether or not writing eight hours non-stop was feasible, this projection would require someone to tap out 36,000 words a day.
    Me? I was barely 3,000 words into my first day back and struggling to make sense. Faced with a screen full of complicated topics (who can write 1,500 words on "hsk 63f," a tool holder for a milling machine?), I picked next what I thought was an easy keyword phrase: "corn maze."
    Initially I thought this would be fun. I thought the title was a typo?something that sadly is more common than you?d think?and I figured I could write 1,500 words on corn maize and the variety of ways it could be used as a foodstuff. But one quick Google search later, I discovered that mazes made of corn are a thing elsewhere. After moving 358 words into my description of corn mazes?and having written the phrase ?the corn maze manages to combine the intellectual challenges of puzzle games with a natural element??I froze up. It took a serious think and various meaningless sentences (?Making nature conform to planned architecture can be difficult?) to limp across the 500-word finish line. Rewriting the story twice more took yet more effort. In the end, I submitted such fine platitudes as ?In the end, a corn maze is a sight to see.?
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    / Hm, needs more "corn" (1.34 percent density) and "maze" (1.15 percent density).
    Chris Stokel-Walker
    Here?s the thing: I don?t enjoy writing bad copy. I assume most writers don't. I didn?t even enjoy writing bad copy three-and-a-half years ago when I first tried out the content mills. Today as a full-time journalist, I take pride in being able to find, report out, and tell stories with enough skill for readers to spend a few moments with my work. The goal is to produce something of enough quality that it stands out and warrants attention among the billions of other words put out daily by professional writers, unpaid bloggers, tweeters, story tellers, and slashfic writers.
    With content mills, your motivation is the exact opposite. The only challenge is writing legible English. Spam content doesn?t have to be grammatically correct. In fact, sometimes the keywords you?re given to write around mean you actually can?t?try putting ?mudjacking colorado springs? into a sentence without squeezing a few prepositions in there. These assignments don?t even necessarily stick wholly to the topic at hand. Corn mazes can include a two-paragraph diversion into classical mythology and the popularity of maize as a foodstuff in the United States, especially because the original topic can?t sustain 1,500 words. Put simply, people aren?t really meant to read what you write. Content mills make product to fill a page, creating the impression that something is there. It?s the marshmallow fluff of content.
    ?It was mainly SEO, especially with the keywords,? Turner explains. ?I think it seemed mainly to get people?s attention, even sometimes jamming in keywords in ways that were very awkward. Because it was quite automated, you had to.?
    At his peak, Turner wrote five 1,500-word stories a week, usually between jobs. ?In effect, the structure of the article was fairly consistent: advise the reader to phone up this person, get references, talk to them, point one, two, three, conclusion. Very structured. This is what people expect. These were instructional things, and if I was looking up how to find someone to paint my fence, that?s what I?d want, in fairness.?
    More speed, less haste

    Content mills appear bleak to outsiders. It's easy to perceive what they do as disingenuous or manipulative, to say nothing of being exploitive. However, after some time in and out of the system, a dark secret becomes clear. These content mills aren't entirely different from legitimate content creation, once known as journalism.
    At their essence, both trades invoke the notion of Johannes factotum?Jack of all trades, master of none. Journalists who don't have a specialism can be given a news story, a topic, or an angle in the morning and produce a widely read, explanatory piece that is treated as the story of record by lunchtime. Of course content milling and journalism are separated by a decent distance, but they exist in this same (large) ecosystem. The Johannes sector also encapsulates freelance work bidding sites such as Updesk, the new name for Elance-oDesk after the two big beasts in per-job freelance hiring merged in December 2013. This is the game Amazon targets with its Mechanical Turk website, which allows individuals to earn money on Human Intelligence Tasks, or HITs. Odd jobs, which include writing 50-word product descriptions for $1.25, are available by the thousands.
    The differentiator is that although things move quickly in online journalism, writers (freelancers included) are given enough pay to ensure they research the story. They read academic literature; they consider their topic. The legitimacy of a news outlet allows them to call up anyone in the world and pick their brains for a half-hour. Then and only then, once a writer has the best knowledge possible, do they begin clattering fingers against keyboards.
    At $2 for 300 words, you're not afforded that luxury. You can?t talk to a quack doctor, never mind the person with the most knowledge in the room. In order to make the sheer volume of work you're expected to produce economical, you simply have to write. A quick glance at Wikipedia might work, but nothing more. (In fact, most writers at such content mills would probably just rather copy and paste Wikipedia content, which is why sites like MyAMS have built-in word matching software to prevent you from doing so.)
    Even the shortest of journalism articles gets crafted with care. In 300 words of spam content, there may be a sentence of actual information. Unless the writer has the accountancy skills of a six-year-old or lofty ideas above his or her station, most of any given passage will be variations on filler and obvious statements. "Cars are a great method of transportation to get around local areas in a convenient way" wouldn't make it past any self-respecting professional editor, but it's five percent of your word count filled right away.
    With great search ranking comes great responsibility

    When you're writing 500 words on "corn maze," the fact that you're blasting out words is fine. But a significant chunk of the content churned out by mills like these strives to be perceived as meaningful. Unresearched, hastily written prose is harmless when filling up the Internet with garbage on most topics; 500 poorly considered words on cancer isn't.
    According to Unique Article Wizard?s FAQ page, many of its articles are submitted to websites like ArticleCity. And a cursory look at ArticleCity?s health section shows posts on cancer and heart disease. While these might not contain incorrect information, they?re far from the opinions or knowledge of a medical expert. Similar stories can be found in the legal section of the website, where an article on illegal immigration reads more like an opinion piece and one on finding ?a good accident lawyers [sic] in Denver? has information but is written to fit around the keywords the author was required to use.
    Thankfully, the Internet has evolved since these practices started and came into vogue. While stories of e-mail phishing campaigns may never go away, Internet users are (theoretically) learning to better distinguish between substance and spam. Additionally, the content mills are?thankfully?being outmoded. Google continues to become more rigorous in how and what it decides to present as search results, and the amount of legitimate journalism embracing the Internet continues to grow. That combination could eventually make words-as-packing-peanuts as rare as animated hit counters or the <marquee> HTML tag. Until then, these mills trudge on and produce content at fractions of a cent per word, rates even cheaper than the nearly 7,000 article writers listed on Upwork who charge less than $10 an hour.
    ?Nowadays I think people want a bit more. Because of the rise of social media, you want something people can share and will go viral,? Turner says. ?You need something that captures people?s imaginations. The kind of stuff we were doing, I don?t think would capture the imagination.
    ?I think the problem with backlinking and the SEO thing is it focuses too much on the numbers without figuring out what those numbers mean,? he continues. ?In effect, they?re going for the short term gain without necessarily thinking what it will do in the long term. Yes, those numbers can look impressive, but ultimately those numbers will be meaningless if that person doesn?t buy from the affiliate or do the action you want them to. More people are likely to do what you want them to if you do something that engages them or gets their attention, and the problem is it?s difficult to do that now without having the content to back it up.?
    Despite the new reality, some mills continue to search for even better solutions. Today, a handful of content mills circumnavigate the need to have any humans involved at all. These aren?t backstreet backlink marketeers, either: outlets as big as the Associated Press have cut some costs by employing (or deploying) robot journalists to write up quarterly earnings stories on companies like Krispy Kreme. This kind of robotic software can take a bunch of statistics such as company results?or baseball and basketball scores?and create content. A company called Automated Insights created this automated writer fleet, and the firm?s robotic authors produced more than a billion pieces of content last year (likely for a fraction of the price that even the cheapest content mill can get away with paying). Compared to the shoehorned-in keywords that sometimes cause mill writers to mangle sentences in ways Shakespeare would blench at, Automated Insights? work could be in contention for a Pulitzer.
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    Flickr user: Luke Chapman

    Still, perhaps the best case to be made for not having algorithms write our daily news stories can be made by content mills. ?He Added That Second Ring To My Finger In Key West Florida At Our Beach Wedding? is one odd title that turned up in my job queue on MyAMS one day. I doubt it could have been written by an unfeeling, unthinking, logical robot.
    Though I?ve done plenty of searching, I haven?t been able to find any record of my interpretation of that story online. Two other versions, presumably written by someone else, exist. One byline belongs to Peter Estenoz, whose company probably requested the content from MyAMS. Compared to the clunky, cold copy that was churned out most of the time from the content mill, ?HATSRTMFIKWFAOBW? is something different. In fact, I?d bet the other uncredited authors behind it picked it for exactly the reason I did?the chance to cut loose from a lifetime of stories about auto repair and control underwear. This auto-assignment had a genuine challenge: incorporate that key phrase into the story that must, naturally, contain moments of humanity, imagination, and joy.
    ?As he added that second ring to my finger in Key West Florida at our beach wedding,? one story goes, ?I saw a new side to the man I had been dating for years. Without me realizing it, he had managed to get the perfect big day. I will never forget how perfect it was, and how well it stood our relationship for the future.?
    That mystery author stuck to the topic at hand, but future mill workers? They could definitely take the graph, break it up, and fit its poetry ("I saw a new side...") elsewhere. Maybe even into some story about the task at hand.
    Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance journalist, writing features for the BBC and The Sunday Times of London. He is based in the United Kingdom.



    Source: http://arstechnica.com/information-...ng-4156-words-a-day-just-to-earn-lunch-money/
     
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  2. ronnelsantos

    ronnelsantos Newbie

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    Oh gawd my eyes! The paragraphs and lack of space in between is killing me!

    But thanks OP for posting this. It's an eye opener. I've written for content mills before. Most writers have, at one point of their life. Everyone starts somewhere. I guess it's progression, to move on to a content mill to something more established.
     
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  3. ghat6

    ghat6 Junior Member

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    interesting peek behind the curtain of these kinda companies. I can't imagine writers staying at a job like this for more than a couple years maximum. Thanks for the share OP.
     
  4. Jared255

    Jared255 Jr. Executive VIP Jr. VIP Premium Member

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    In other news, working where you need almost close to zero qualifications to get hired can be mediocre :p

    Jared
     
  5. antichrist

    antichrist Jr. VIP Jr. VIP

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    In Other Other News, lets just link this to everyone asking how to make 5 dollars a day so our forum stops getting clogged up.
     
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  6. Aluminium

    Aluminium Jr. VIP Jr. VIP Premium Member

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    I wrote for a porn company once.

    Felt good, man.
     
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  7. terrycody

    terrycody Supreme Member

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    Nice post!

    Thanks for always sharing some weird but valuable things in here
     
  8. Honest

    Honest Regular Member

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    Interesting post. I always love seeing behind the veil of companies. Reminds me my jobs I've hated weren't all that bad haha.
     
  9. cmthompson22

    cmthompson22 Newbie

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    There is always something that is bad about each job thatyou have. I worked for fast food restaurants for years, and while I got paidpretty well at the time, promoted to a manager by age 18, it was a lot of workand it was hard. But then I went and worked for a customer call center for acompany that really should be going under by this time, and I began to wish forthe days when I could go backwards and work at fast food again (despite beingpregnant and not wanting to be on my feet all day there). Writing has allowedme a lot of freedom, but there are always jobs that will want you to watch outfor so you get paid what you deserve.

    Of course, when I started out I did work for some cheaperjobs, just to get my foot in the door. I know many professionals say not to dothis, but these are the people who started out with good incomes from magazinesor other publications who had years of experience behind them with writing andcould bring up their qualifications and portfolio in two seconds. I on theother hand, as mentioned before, had just the fast food and the customerservice job. Not much in terms of writing before and so I, and others like me,need to work up a bit to get that higher pay. Of course, once you get to thepoint of having some good reviews and some work in your portfolio, it is timeto start upping the price, and I think this is where a lot of people fail.

    Finding freelance work is kind of hard at times, but I havebeen pretty lucky at getting it to work for me. I am really fast at gettingthings done and can usually finish a few projects a day, depending on the sizeand how good the kids are being, just during nap time and a bit of time aftersupper. This allows me to still make good money per hour, but since I get itdone so quickly, I can lower the price overall to my customers. I never workper hour. Most people who want per hour do not want to pay $30 or more eachhour, but they would pay a flat fee that would equal the amount of hours I spendon the project. You have to decide what you are worth and get out of the rut assoon as possible, and then you can make a good living on the side.
     
  10. Sammych

    Sammych Newbie

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    That was challenging to read without gaps, I copy and paste into wordpad and puts some spaces in there. Anyway, Wow, that almost gives me a headache just to imagine that writing scenario. Just shows that to become a specialist copywriter is so much more valuable, but then I never aspired to be a journalist because my writing skills never seemed to satisfy my criticism, hence writing didn't seem to be in my future profession. Thanks for your perspective though.
     
  11. wi11iam

    wi11iam Junior Member

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    Very interesting indeed. I too have done my time with a few content mills. During that time, I learnt that hitting the 'enter' key after each paragraph was a must to keep readers interested! :)
     
  12. IrisGee

    IrisGee Newbie

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    Now these type of stories makes me remember my odd but memorable first job. I always learned a lot from those so I am thankful I get to experience those.
     
  13. ChanzGrande

    ChanzGrande Elite Member

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    As a professional copywriter, I'm glad I don't have to slave away at the kinds of income levels these content mills can generate for their "authors." I think anyone buying from sub-par providers more than one time gets exactly what they pay for.

    I enjoyed the read nevertheless.