[Names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.]
I’m an independent freelance copywriter. I cultivate the English language and tend to my farm of words.
Freelance copywriting isn’t easy. Part of your daily administrative duties is to network. You must continuously apply for writing gigs that you feel are a fit. When you land a contract, you dive in with both feet and totally commit. That’s what we writers do. Then the contract ends, and the cycle begins all over again. You win some, you lose some, and life goes on.
But I want to work now. Everyday. I want to feel like I contribute something of value at the end of the week other than well-written cover letters. And get paid for it. I have an indefatigable need to pay mortgage.
So I Signed Up With A Content Farming Company
Our recession and the ubiquitous “Content is King” metaphor has produced many SEO content farms. The main goal of this relatively new industry is to publish content that attracts users to websites. Content farming organizations do this by publishing copious amounts of content (driven by SEO) throughout the digital stratosphere. Legitimate moans and groans over the bastardization of the English language and the amount of really bad content abound.
Before now, I’ve never worked a content farm. Can I sustain snarky badinage with discerning copywriters about these horrible companies, without proof? How do I know exactly what they do, how they do it, and how they treat their copywriters?
I wanted empirical data. The company I chose was W-, and they are owned by B-.
W’s exact pitch:
- W- is a freelance writing website, where you can write as little or as much as you like. You are paid per piece, $20 for 400 words, and $40 for 600 words. You will be able to pick your own topics and write at your leisure! Payments are made via PayPal.
This is how I figured it… I thought that it could be possible to develop an article in 30 minutes. I knew it would be a challenge of sorts, but I’m a good writer. I’ve been around the block. I figured I’d love the adrenaline rush by nailing an article, and beating their lousy payment system, while waiting for the real writing jobs.
And if I produced two articles in an hour, that could be $40. So working for the Devil wouldn’t be so … painfully hot. My initial theory was that W- couldn’t be expecting high standards, just “good enough” standards. I thought I could write copy quickly that was written as good as good gets for an SEO content farming organization.
So I signed up, sent in my 1099, proved that I had a PayPal account, took a test, and was accepted.
Okay. Let’s get started, I yelled!
Not So Fast
Here’s how W- works: You browse for available topics, they give you a key word, they tell you what country, sometimes they offer special considerations (worth zero), and they assign a vertical.
Here is a sample:
- Keyword: tank manufacturers
- Country: Canada
- Special Considerations: Client manufacturers truck and trailer-mounted tanks for hauling
- Vertical: Industrial & Marketing
Here is another sample:
- Keyword: root canal
- Country: United States
- Special Considerations: none
- Vertical: Dentist
You are given absolutely nothing else. Let me repeat – this is all you get.
Now, get writing!
Alright, I’m game.
This minimalistic approach further convinced me that what was required was a relatively decent article incorporating industry standard SEO tenets.
Something to drive potential users to a website, and not have the users feel cheated when they get there.
I took this one:
- Keyword: carpet cleaning
- Country: United States
- Vertical: Cleaning Services
I figured, I know dirty carpets! I have dogs. I’m kinda messy. I can bang this out in 30 minutes, for sure.
Well, that didn’t happen. It took me 50 minutes.
I had to research carpet-cleaning competitors, read 3 articles on the subject, and then develop my own unique article. Then I had to conduct a quick review and edit before hitting submit. Even a “good as good gets” article must be done with a certain amount of pride.
So my $40 an hour for two articles has immediately turned into $20 an hour. Not such a good beginning. Especially after I received the following request 5 days later.
- Remember, the reader’s first impression of your article (and whether or not they decide to read on) is based largely on your title. The title should be able to answer the reader’s question, “What will I gain out of reading this?” Your title, “Carpet Cleaning For Home & Business” doesn’t contain enough of a promise about what the article entails (in this case, it seems to be about why carpet cleanings are important).
- Please provide citations for the following information: “A female flea can lay up to 50 eggs a day.”
Dang, I thought. Why didn’t they just go ahead and edit it themselves? And we all know fleas are rapid reproducers. Now I’m negative $20 an hour. But I didn’t begrudge the edits, and completed them, thinking I was done.
And then, a day later, I get the following. W- writes:
- The idea in your sentence doesn’t transition well. “Vacuuming your carpets and rugs yourself will certainly help, and remember to dispose of the vacuum cleaner bags immediately in an outdoor trashcan.”
- Per our guidelines, don’t write in first-person POV: “Many reputable health sources claim that our toilet seats are cleaner than our carpets” and “We love our cats and dogs. But we don’t love these creepy crawlers that often hitchhike on your pets for a ride into your home.”
- Also, while we can verify this fact with a quick Google search, you may want to consider adding a link to “Many reputable health sources claim that our toilet seats are cleaner than our carpets” as it would add credibility to your article.
If people don’t clean their toilet seats more often than they clean their carpets, then perhaps my article will urge them to do so. Clean their carpets and their toilets. Win-win.
I was surprised by W’s demand for extra-particular excellence. And my hourly wage was slowly being depleted. My blood began to boil.
Why Was I Getting Mad?
I had a mission to accomplish, some data to collect, and I wanted to see this through.
This time I chose:
- Keyword: personal injury lawyer
- Country: Canada
- Vertical: Law
Okay – I’ve got it now. Maybe carpet cleaning wasn’t my thing. I can write emotionally from my title: When Do You Need a Personal Injury Lawyer? And then follow up in the subhead with specifics: How Can a Personal Injury Lawyer Help You? (Long-tail and short-tail covered here, for you SEO nuts.)
I surmised that everyone has felt a grave injustice at sometime in their past. Everybody has thought of hiring a lawyer. The goal was to assure these potential clients that they could possibly have a case without maligning the legal profession itself.
It had to be positive, thoughtful and convey empathy toward the process of getting compensation. Obviously.
It took a bit over an hour to write. And it was good enough. Trust me, or go read it yourself.
W- surely wouldn’t be expecting an article written by a lawyer with expertise in personal injury lawsuits.
W- rejected it. Here’s what they say:
- The first half of the article seems to address a different topic and audience from the second half. In the future, when you feel like your article is divided in two like this, pick the more interesting section and see if you can develop it more with more actionable details. Focus on a specific need of your target demographic and ask yourself why someone would choose your article over another.
At this point I was confused. Demographic? Specific need? Actionable details? I was given one key word. Surely the goal was simply to drive people to a law firm’s website with the hope that someone seeking legal advice would poke around, get to know the firm, and hopefully pick up the phone.
By now I’ve put in two hours+ on the carpet piece, and one hour+ on the legal piece. And that dear reader …
… is roughly $5.71 an hour. That’s $12,000 a year.
Isn’t this against the law?
W- goes on to say:
- We hold high standards for our content, so we can maintain the trust and satisfaction of our clients. If this is one of your first rejections, we encourage you to try again. Please be aware that repeated rejections will restrict your activity in the W- community.
These editorial comments could make me feel lousy, if I didn’t know any better.
W- demands quality work. Their clients expect it. They have a trustworthy relationship with their clients. I think that’s great. We should all hold ourselves in high esteem.
“Content farms are treating wordsmiths like migrant workers just eager for a morsel of work.”
– S. Todd Anthony, Executive Creative Director at Pinwheel
Let’s call a spade a spade. Companies like W- want something for nothing. They have no qualms or remorse at manipulating the current recession and paying subpar wages for a decent day’s work.
Shame on them.
Sadly, this is becoming a standard for the American workforce. The corporate SEO industry is weeding out good copywriters.
So, I did it. You don’t need to. I worked the content farm and proved to myself that these organizations are exactly who we thought they were.
I take comfort in the fact that the good companies far outweigh the bad companies. There are many, many organizations that will pay solid wages for a solid day’s work.
I should know. I work for them.