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When You Go Online To Look For Answers, Always Remember the Source

02/05/2015 12:12 EST | Updated 04/07/2015 05:59 EDT

I've been freelancing as a writer for about two decades and it used to be a decent if less stable alternative to a full-time gig in the publishing world. That old world of print, as we all know, is shrinking as we speak of it and it's more than just a change of venue so to speak; writing on the web offers lots of work opportunities, but it's a whole new ballgame.

Now, anyone and everyone can be a publisher. Businesses understand that more words on their website, the more search engine hits they get. Everyone wants more words... but they want to pay less. Much, much less.

Your employer is no longer someone who knows, cares about or values writing or publishing. It's all SEO baby.

Words no longer have a poetic soul. They're content. They're fodder for voracious search engines looking to lure clients/customers/businesses to click and to buy. And as such, their value has decreased. It no longer matters whether you can string them together elegantly or not -- only that you can string them together fast enough and include the right hooks (aka keywords) to net the passing poissons of the web. They don't care if you're an experienced writer or if you just got out of high school. If you can type English words, that's good enough for them.

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The parties doling out the work range from Mom and Pop websites to the titans of the internet. Perhaps not coincidentally, it's actually the smaller businesses where you can work out decent arrangements where the pay is worthwhile.

Enter the so-called content mills. These companies take on contracts to produce mass quantities of written materials. They in turn contract out the writing to writers who often number in the hundreds. Doing time in the content mills is now seen as the way to get into the business.

At least, most content mills do pay regularly, and as such can be a crutch for old vets like me. But I've been bounced from such projects for asking too many questions (literally -- that was the critique) and for failing to meet quotas -- due to glitches in their terribly glitchy system. Emails go unanswered and no one can be bothered when they're dealing with teams of 100 to 200 writers per project.

Content mills design the pieces -- the work assignments -- around internet searches. They strive to be the answer to any question anyone would ever think to ask online. Some, like Demand Studios, probably the best known of them, create proprietary sites and content that is then used and sometimes repackaged and resold. Others fulfill work orders for high volume websites that require content.

The pay can range as high as three to five-cents a word. And I did say, "as high as". That means if I can complete a 100-word assignment in about 10 minutes, I can make about $20 an hour. Fair enough. But the assignments are often generated from user data, unfiltered and unedited. Many are obscure and highly technical in nature. The strict criteria for source material and formatting means that just getting the pieces together can often take 10 minutes or more. The rate per hour dwindles lower and lower.

Other websites like Elance.com operate on a bidding basis. The concept of bidding for jobs by itself isn't necessarily problematic. It's that you're trying to compete in an environment of globalism gone mad. A real job I saw posted: to write 100 articles of 800 to 1000 words each over a ten day period. Your prize for spewing out a minimum of 8000 words a day for ten days? A whopping $100 total.

You're not only competing with people who may live somewhere where it may be feasible to earn $10 a day, you're competing with the tens -- hundreds -- of thousands of novice writers desperate for those first published clips.

It's a system where you can't do your best work because you will be penalized financially and no one will notice or give a damn if you do anyway. Quality doesn't matter. And that's just damn depressing.

And it's not like fiction writers have it any better either.

I can't think that this system is sustainable. People do care about what they read on the web -- and so does Google. Last spring and summer the internet community was abuzz with a big fall from grace by eBay -- specifically the gateway pages it had created with "bhp" in the url. These were designed solely to capture Google searches and were purportedly informational in nature. The problem? The pages were thin with real content and stuffed with ads. Google takes a dim view of such shenanigans and reports say they manually penalized the company for that strategy - 120K worth of pages were bumped from Google searches and 90K of it was bhp pages.

In other words -- even if nobody else seems to think so, at least Google views poor quality content badly.

The thing is, it's not just the plight of me and my fellow freelance writers that matters. It's about anyone who reads on the web.

Next time you go online to ask a question, consider the source.

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