What it's like to write for content farms,
from Brooklyn to the Philippines
In the latest installment of Hopes&Fears'
anonymous interview series, we spoke with two writers for content farms. These freelancers generate large amounts of text content that exist solely to promote products or brands and incorporates popular search terms and topics to get their posts at the top of your search results.
Writer A is a recent college graduate living in Brooklyn, New York. Writer B lives in the Philippines and has quadrupled her income to help support her husband and daughter since becoming a content creator.
Author, as told to
WRITER A: Before speaking with you, I hadn’t heard the phrase
"content farmer." I looked it up and I realized that there is a negative connotation to it, but that’s not the way I look at it. For me, these resources are great. There is no reason I shouldn’t be using the Internet to get my name out there as much as possible.
It wasn’t always the plan
WRITER A: Throughout elementary, middle school, and high school, English was always a subject that came easy to me. I was never into math or science. I was an overachiever so I made sure I did well, but English was my favorite. Before writing, the goal was to go into PR. But in my third year of college, I took a news writing course, and I realized that I could have a career in writing. I had always just assumed it was a pastime, or maybe something only a small handful of people were lucky enough to do as a profession. Growing up, I thought the only kind of writing gigs were in magazines, and that if you wanted to be a novelist that was something you did on the side while you worked your day job. I never really [thought] that I could write for a living while doing more creative endeavors on the side.
I got into the online editorial world in the same way that many do, through internships and working [for] a few start-ups. Early on, I was lucky enough to spend some time at Rolling Stone, writing for their website and social media platforms. There was no byline, but it still felt awesome to be technically writing for Rolling Stone. That’s when I realized that this was for me.
The dream, then, was to get into online editorial but making the dream a reality was difficult. I [freelanced] here and there, but nothing was sticking as a full-time gig. Some people do that one internship, get welcomed aboard on staff, and continue to work up the ranks, but that didn’t pan out in my case.
So I started experimenting in the copywriting route, which has been great. There is a lot of stability in it. You may find yourself thinking that you are doing content for a marketing agency or a publishing company, and that it will be boring, but it is actually a lot of fun because they don’t have the time to be creative; that's where you come in handy. As a copywriter, or really any kind of writer, you are selling something, whether that is a product or a story. Your job is to get people excited, to talk to them on a level where you are not shoving it down their throat. Right now, I'm happy that I switched over to copywriting.
Professional writing vs. writing
WRITER B: I don’t really consider myself a professional writer, but I have been involved in content writing since 2010. I am not considered an employee of any single company, so it is just how I view it. It is a full-time career, so you can consider me a professional if that is how you would like to see it. Prior to that, I was working in a call center in a BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) type of setting. During my time at the call center, I began to write on a part-time basis to help supplement my income until I was able to build enough clients to transition it into a full-time career.
Working at a BPO call center is a very stressful career, so, on top of earning a better living, writing has allowed me to escape that type of environment. I did, however, become more confident with my writing through working at the call center, by being able to practice English in conversation through the calls. It was actually a former colleague of another call center that introduced me to my very first client, a local Filipino writer who was delegating her tasks to other writers.
My husband still works for a call center, but he is currently on leave, which is very common. We call it “pahinga mode,” it is a temporary leave to relax from the stressful call center work. But it's ok, and we are able to survive. We're cheapskate folks. We don't spend much except for the bills and sometimes eating out or travel, which means we can survive on my income alone. In U.S. dollars, I can earn around $24,000 or above, since earnings vary. That is a lot of money for me because the cost of living here is several times lower than the U.S.
I don’t think that my persona as a writer is an important thing for people to know about, as long as they are able to get something from the content. I am more interested in sharing useful information than showing people who is behind the information. Most of the time I write content for other writers. Who I am, behind the content, is not really important. At least for me it isn’t, but I am not sure what other people think about that. I know some people want to see their name on an article so that others can recognize that it was their work. That is not necessary for me as long as I get the job done.
We write about everything
WRITER A: For Demand Media, who I continue to write for, I get a lot of assigned online quizzes. It’s the whole BuzzFeed interactive and entertaining content thing that they are looking to have integrated with whatever product they are trying to sell. It’s a way of making their advertisements more human through word association, outcomes, or "What type of person are you?" types of pieces. I’ve written articles like “What kind of holiday shopper are you?” to “Which landmark would you be?” I find a lot of people are doing that kind of work, to give more character to their service.
I do it because I love it, and it allows me to make a living writing. That is the goal, but it's not always ideal. You do run into problems. You know, "Oh, am I going to phone this one in?" or "Is this one going to be fun?" But at the end of the day, everything you work on represents you and down the line you don’t know if the project might catch someone else’s eye.
Quiz writing seems to be very popular as of late, you know, quick and engaging content. I've also written things like Twitter scripts for sponsored parties, which are minute-by-minute tweets of what's happening with hashtags and all the current social media lingo. The writing process for this type of work does require a little research, but it's important not to get stuck there for too long. You're writing for the everyday person mainly, so the language is very relaxed and natural. I do get bored with it. Sometimes, especially with the quizzes, I feel like I'm writing about the same content incessantly, but that can just be the complexity of being a writer. You may never think your stuff is good enough, but other people think it's great. That's just how it goes. I think that if you stopped thinking your stuff was bad, then you're done being a writer. You're always trying to get better and better.
In this line of work, you always have to show that you are well rounded. I’ll do beauty work or copy work for social engagements. I’ve written for Samsung, USA Today, wine companies, etc. Sometimes I feel trapped and feel like I am starting to sound one-dimensional, so I seek out new opportunities. I’ve written about tech; I’ve written about lifestyle and travel. It’s good because it allows me to build a diverse portfolio. A [good] writer can write about pretty much anything.
WRITER B: I write on a wide range of topics. These can vary from technology to entertainment to pretty much anything that a client’s business is involved with. My main concern is always on the SEO (Search Engine Optimization) part of their content, so regardless of their business or requested topic, I can always write it in a way that is geared towards a maximal SEO perspective. Unlike regular content writing, in SEO-driven copy the goal is to incorporate certain key or target words. The problem with some SEO-driven content creators is that they lose sight of the quality of content. They are just looking to place key words that will interact well in search engines. I still make sure that there is always something to get out of my content. I base my work on [content] as well as SEO.
Since I've learned the ins and outs of how this job works, there are projects that are simply not worth taking. I'm not being money-driven; I'm just being practical. The average article I accept can be written in about 30 minutes, but there are pieces that need more time to finish due to greater research (up to 4 hours or so). These are especially topics that are new.
I will and do write about anything that I can get assigned. Since I am a member of a Protestant church, I wasn't originally comfortable with adult-related topics but, after awhile, I just got used to it. It no longer bothers me to accept this work, and now I occasionally write content for e-commerce sites offering adult toys and similar products, and I also wrote content for the adult site Chatroulette.
“Competitors have crowded into the market, where companies are expected to spend nearly $2 billion on sponsored content in 2014, according to an eMarketer report,”
Advertizing Age reported.
“Digital content is projected to account for 87 percent of growth in spending in the entertainment and media (E&M) industry over the next five years,”
according to PWC.
SEO means survival
WRITER A: There are still a lot of places out there that want to take your work for no money, or ten bucks an article. You bust your ass and you go nowhere fast. It’s easy to feel like [you are walking in circles], working all hours to get out this content and then you have to hound the people to get paid, it's ridiculous.
Whether you consider Demand Media a content farm or not, they are going to find people who are reliable because they have to answer to these major brands. It is a business, so it depends on how serious the writer is. I’ve had a great experience with it. I am always paid on time and they have reasonable deadlines, and whether or not the company ends up using my work, I still get paid. So I’ve never had a problem or felt exploited by them. As a writer, I know what I'm worth. I’ve been through it. I’ve done the assignments just to get the byline and [to get] my name out there, and eventually I hit the point where I feel like my name [is] out there and [I] deserve more [for] assignments.
Everybody is still learning about the digital space. It is changing every day. There are moms out there now blogging and earning a full-time salary from their computers. There are just so many different branches to explore. The only downside to it is that you have to make sure that you are not being taken advantage of. There are so many people out there who will try and take advantage of you if you let them. You have to fight for how your talent is going to be represented.
I have been treated well by so-called content farm companies like Demand, but I have had bad experiences getting work through opportunities you'll see on Craigslist or other editorial sites seeking writers. Most people pay very little. I've written and edited articles for $10 a pop, or for nothing at all; just a promised byline and that's it – you know, “build up your portfolio.” Can you believe that or imagine any other industry out there expecting this? It's like saying we'll give you a business card, but not pay you. You'll have the title, but no pay to credit your hard work. It makes it difficult to be a writer, especially if you're determined to make it your full-time profession. I have friends who are writers as well (living at home or with loads of roommates), working for some really nice publications, and the rates for an article really aren't anything to marvel at, maybe $50-$150 a piece. I mean, can you imagine how many you have to write to earn a decent salary?
WRITER B: When I started writing, it wasn’t unheard of to be paid less than a dollar per article. But in those cases, it was often locally based clients located in the Philippines. Since I didn’t know anything about writing online or how I should be compensated, I accepted the low fees. When I discovered that you could earn a lot more, I was able to start getting better rates. I began being able to directly connect with clients, as opposed to being connected to a team. Cutting out the middle [man] allowed me to earn a higher rate. So I raised my rates as far as I could get away with, but, at a certain point, I realized that there is too much competition in the industry and that I had to settle with lower rates to keep working. There have been numerous instances where clients settled for another writer who [had] a lower rate. The main problem keeping the rates low is still competition. There are too many people offering the same skills. The only way to increase your rates is to learn additional skills that are related to content writing, like SEO, social media marketing, and Google Ads. The industry in the Philippines is growing by the minute because, while we aren’t native English speakers, we can speak and write in a manner that is readable.
Most of our clients are from the U.S. and other English-speaking countries like Canada and Australia. It’s not good, per se, when we think about outsourcing because people from the U.S. are not getting the jobs. I read the news. I know how difficult it can be that jobs are being outsourced. But, from our perspective, it is a good thing, because we are able to earn a decent living. I am earning 3 or 4 times more than I was getting when I was working in the call center. Although it is a pretty common scenario in the Philippines, I am not supporting and extended family. It’s just my husband, my daughter, and myself, and doing this work allows me to [help pay] our bills.
Google Panda is a change to Google's search results ranking algorithm that was first released in February 2011. The change aimed to lower the rank of "low-quality sites" or "thin sites," and return higher-quality sites near the top of the search results.
CNET reported a surge in the rankings of news websites and social networking sites, and a drop in rankings for sites containing large amounts of advertising. This change reportedly affected the rankings of almost 12% of all search results. Google's Panda has received several updates since the original rollout in February 2011, and the effect went global in April 2011.
This kind of work has become very common in the Philippines. Based on some reports that I have read, there are almost a million Filipinos working in some kind of online writing capacity, but the categories vary. Virtual assistant and data entry work is more common than writing and SEO, although VA and data entry entails written work as well. I really see no problem with the range of pay that I make. I can typically make between $5-$10 per hour and can usually finish at least an article an hour. Since there are so many people willing to do this type of work, it has become common to offer much lower wages, anywhere from $5 all the way down to $1. It does look like most writers are being taken advantage of due to the minimal pay. But even $1 an article can go a long way in third world countries like ours, so we are still indebted regardless.
The worst, in my opinion, is not getting paid at all. I've been doing this too long to not know all the warning signs. Things like asking for a free sample or test article, asking for too many revisions, or having unrealistic demands and asking you to be available at their whim. There were also clients who simply vanished after receiving my submitted work. A lot of these “scammers” are actually other freelancers who are delegating their own projects in order to get paid for it without having to do any of the work.