On content farms

It looks like Google has taken action against content farms, low-quality sites that publish articles about anything and everything quickly, and try to make money from the ads.

I can’t tell yet if this has really affected my traffic any–my traffic can drop or jump 20 percent on a daily basis for no apparent reason. But I support the change.
Back in 2005, when I was looking for ways to make some extra cash, I tried my hand at writing for such a content farm. I spent about 3 hours each writing those pieces, so I could do some fact checking and a little editing for clarity and brevity. I was paid $12 for one piece and $10 for the other.

A fair market price for those articles would have been four to ten times that.

That should tell you all you need to know about the quality of these farms. For a writer to make $20,000 a year writing for one of these places, he or she would have to crank out about six articles per day. That’s 60-90 minutes per item, total. It’s difficult to research anything worthwhile in that length of time, let alone write and research.

These sites aren’t attracting professional writers. They’re attracting people who need a fast $12, and selling plasma isn’t an option for whatever reason.

These sites don’t seem to be looking for quality, and they certainly aren’t paying for it.

Occasionally you can find some helpful material on these sites. I actually find myself reading home improvement tips on some infamous content farms sometimes. But there’s good home improvement content all over the place. Chances are much of what’s on the content farms was cribbed from other places. What you don’t find on content farms is good highly original content.

I actually found one article on a content farm telling how to build an electronic e-unit for a Lionel train. That would be extremely useful, given that the circuit board in modern Lionel and similar trains is the part most prone to fail. A home-brew board with discrete replaceable components would have lots of appeal.

The problem with that article was that the circuit diagram was completely unreadable. It was hand-drawn and shrunk down to about 200×200, reducing the words on the diagram to indecipherable solid squares. There was no way to actually build what the article was telling you how to build.

But most of what you find is content that’s superficial or obvious, like the oft-cited article titled “How to make friends in college” that suggests readers consider joining a fraternity or sorority.

Just in case there isn’t a similar article out there about making extra money, let me suggest looking under your couch cushions if you’re short on cash. I usually find more money there than the content farm probably paid for that advice.

I’ll admit to using Google searches as inspiration for topics, which is the main tactic these sites use. The difference is that if I can’t write something on a topic that I would actually want to read myself, it never shows up here.

Some of what I write definitely has a use-by date on it. But when I look in my logs and see what people land on from Google searches, there’s nothing there that I’m ashamed of. More often than not, it’s the story of a problem I solved, and by sharing, I’ve helped other people do the same thing.

It troubles me that these sites seem to be profitable–one of them is run by a $1.9 billion company–while so many publishers of quality content are still trying to figure out how to make anything. The New York Times isn’t a $1.9 billion company anymore, and the NYT actually publishes useful content day after day. It also pays its writers a living wage. The world wouldn’t be any worse off if these content farms disappeared overnight, but it would be if the New York Times did.

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3 Comments

  1. The Times is getting close to setting up a paywall. I’m ambivalent about paying for their site – I know it’s worth money, that I benefit from it, and that there are real, direct costs involved. Now it will come down to a choice – is it worth my money (amount unknown right now) to keep up with a good news-gathering organization with a worldview that slants different than mine does?

    I think it will come down to how much they charge and how positive my cashflow is at the time they flip the switch.

    So you say I can get rich writing for content farms, eh?

    • Dave Farquhar

       /  March 4, 2011

      The difficulty with trying to find a paper that matches your worldview is, well, most won’t. I’m more liberal than the Washington Times, but more conservative than the Washington Post. And the Washington Times is owned by the Moonies, who really don’t match my worldview.

      About the best I can do is look for publications that subscribe to some code of journalism ethics, support those, and ignore those that don’t. There’s one magazine that should be right up my alley (I won’t name it) but it’s so thoroughly corrupt in catering to its advertisers that I refuse to subscribe to it, buy it on the newsstand, or even read it on the newsstand for fear of being tempted to buy the worthless rag.

  2. And of course the comment system stripped off the end-sarcasm tag I added at the end. It’s one of those days . . .