A Year in the Basement: What Content Farms Taught Me About the Value of My Writing

In the Basement

One aimless drifter’s experiences working for that most dubious of online labor endeavors, the content farm.

Never begin an article with ‘there are’.” – content farm copy editor

There are many reasons to get into online writing, and there are many reasons not to get into online writing. Even before the paradigm shift in the late 90s to Internet content, publications across the country were being downsized and reporters were being bought out. And in the 2000s, once most folks had the Internet in their homes and pockets, there was no chance of ever going back. Then, with legions of out of work journalists and stay-at-home moms on the hunt for work, folks flocked en masse to the Internet looking to become writers and bloggers. And the content farms and mills sprang up to meet demand.

A Race to the Bottom

It isn’t necessary to name names concerning which farms are better and which are worse; they all operate under a single principal: a race to the bottom. This is seen not only in a business model on par with a Bangladeshi sweat shop, but also in a “take the money and run” mentality evidenced by plummeting stock prices and bailing CEOs. And never mind the fact that no writer, no matter how debased (and there are more than a few of us out there), can get by on what content mills pay.

All this and more has been covered by numerous publications and news outlets, but Carol Tice of Make a Living Writing has published some fine in-depth pieces on the subject. Those who truly are new to the world of online writing and would like some useful advice and informed guidance would do well to take a look at her blog.

Plus, anyone who writes even tangentially on the subjects of marketing and SEO knows one thing: search engines are no friends of the farms. Google spends quite a bit of time subverting the efforts of content farmers in the form of sophisticated updates such as Panda and Hummingbird. In fact, many of the biggest mills are moving away from content altogether because the search engines are foiling them at every turn.

Again, this isn’t a treatise on the cons of working for a content mill; those fine points have been covered ad nauseam elsewhere. Instead, it merely aims to underscore the point that by moving away from the mills for good, each writer does his or her part to hasten the demise of this ignominious industry and relegate it to the dustbin of online history. More than that, and this gets to the heart of matters, it shuts one door leading into a basement and shatters open a wall-sized window leading out to the horizon, to great, fertile expanses of opportunity. To Barranquilla, maybe.

In the Barrio of Barranquilla

Barranquilla, Colombia

In the spring of 2010 I traveled from Medellin, Colombia to the coastal port city of Barranquilla. To the uninitiated, Barranquilla is like a combination of San Pedro, California and Flint, Michigan – without the romantic reputation those cities enjoy. Caribbean in name only, it’s the type of place you visit if you like smoggy views of industrial warehouses and third-degree sunburns.

I was hired by a couple lawyers turned online entrepreneurs who heard from a guy who knew someone who had a barber who once read somewhere that Barranquilla was going to be the next big thing in global industry and tourism. So they decided to do a tour site and needed travel content. I came across their ad, and since I seemed to be the only native English speaker in the whole of Colombia at the time, I got the job.

One overnight bus trip later and I was gathering information on glitzy five-star hotels while staying in a shoebox in the worst downtown barrio in the city. While not a haven for druggies, per se, this tiny motel could certainly be characterized as crack-like. My life during that three week stay was all burning sidewalks and crowded chicken buses – all for $.04 a word. Yup, four cents. And I couldn’t have been happier. I covered Barranquilla’s Carnival celebration (biggest outside Brazil), met fantastic people and was welcomed into homes like I was family. Plus I was travel writing, albeit on a modest scale.

But am I worth more than four cents a word? Absolutely. I personally feel the only writers who are worth less then even 10 cents a word are commenters on cable news websites. By charging my clients over that rate, they are guaranteed something very valuable in return: a solemn oath that I won’t spew poorly spelled invective in their content and/or toss racial slurs around.

There Were Worse Options

After the job finished, I left the city with almost no money and zero prospects. I wound up sinking to the lowest content level, bouncing around from mill to mill for about nine months, eventually settling on one of the more egregious options. It was the type of place that somehow manages to deal in fractions of cents as a means of payment. Three months of that and I defy anyone not to toss their laptop out the window for good.

Reprehensible pay, bizarre and contradictory editorial guidelines, a firewall between client and author (to prevent writers from working with clients directly and thus earning a halfway livable wage) and the arbitrary writer ratings systems that have become a mainstay of farms everywhere. In other words: soulless. Untenable.

So how did I gracefully make my exit? By dressing down a bewildered representative of the company via email to the point they cut my privileges. I was brazen, harsh, confrontational — out of line by any professional standard. I didn’t use profanity or all caps (the blogger’s version of a temper tantrum), but I did burn that bridge. No, I didn’t just burn it — I cauterized it.

I did this knowingly, with a cool hand and in premeditated fashion. Why? Because I didn’t even want the option of farm work to be on my table anymore. I was never going to go back to that world, and to this day, I never have.

Choosing Better

Better Writing Options

I realized the choice came down to writing for next to nothing in that dark and windowless basement of iniquity, with its low ceilings and no way out, or writing in the outdoors, in the sun, with at least a way forward – also for next to nothing. Because in this world of diverging equity, the only thing that will make the downswings worth the time and effort is writing about what you love in a halfway professional scenario, with no intermediaries, where you are treated as a legitimate employee. I had that in my crack-ish hovel in Barranquilla; I didn’t have that at the farms.

We all have tough choices to make about where we want to go as writers and what it will take to get there. And as much as the farms would like to pretend otherwise, there are plenty of legitimate freelance options in cyberspace. Multitudes of high-profile online publishers are looking for quality content penned by the deft hand of a professional. SEO companies and blog owners always need sharp posts as well. These are high-end options that pay accordingly; the trick is searching them out.

What ultimately might help writers to find these greener pastures are the farms themselves – by ceasing to exist. If the writing on the wall is to be believed, it’s sundown for them anyway; there’s no longer any market for keyword-stuffed junk content, and search engines and social media are just waiting to sound the death knell.

Make no mistake: social media is already a fierce ally to marginalized online writers everywhere. Useful, quality content gets shared, raising the profile of the writer, and thus their rates go up. This all conspires to put that brick directly in the writer’s hands. It’s up to him or her to smash the big window and walk outside, away from the basement, into the sun.

Image credits 1, 2, 3


Christopher McMurphy is a freelance blogger and writer specializing in the areas of travel, SEO and online marketing.

Tagged with:
Posted in Creating Content, Writing Better Content
4 comments on “A Year in the Basement: What Content Farms Taught Me About the Value of My Writing
  1. Mike Sobol says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Chris. It’s very true that writers have to choose to put content farms behind them in order to help hasten their demise. Writers deserve better, and so do readers.

    When the premise of content-driven marketing model starts with the need for an article that costs just a few bucks, the premise is wrong. Over the long run, there is no model that can depend upon cheap, thin and uninformative content, while also giving a website, a brand, or a writer any kind of lasting relationship with an audience. A handful of clicks and a little bit of link juice just aren’t enough anymore.

    Both search engines and readers are turning a blind eye to stuff that isn’t worth reading, which means the cheap stuff isn’t worth writing.

    • Chris says:

      You’re right that the writing is on the wall. And although it may have taken a while, marketing firms are starting to realize that, although the notion of paying someone five bucks to write an 800-word blog post is certainly an appealing one, you ultimately get what you pay for.
      Whether it’s buying a futon or hiring a writer, quality should always be the goal. Maybe we’re about to reach this brave new world were both futons and online writers alike receive proper acknowledgement for the services they provide.

  2. Amie says:

    I can tell you are a devotee of Carol Tice and have swallowed her kool aid. Just because you can’t figure out a way to make content mills work for you, don’t think no one can. I make decent money with guaranteed payment at the mills. I have had too many private clients screw me over, and I’m sick of wasting my time writing on spec. I’d rather write for a little lower rates and know I’m going to get paid than to let an article sit and sit for months with no income at all. The best paying freelance writing jobs are on topics I can’t write, like online marketing, SEO and high finance. I will never be able to crack that market, and I am happy making what I need in the mills. Oh, and I have NEVER written for fractions of a penny anywhere, and never will. Don’t need to. No, I don’t make 10 cents a word, but I know what my paycheck will be every week.

  3. Chris says:

    And you capitalize out of anger and frustration. The true mark of quality.

We'd love to hear your comments...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s