Monday, March 8, 2010

How to Spot a Content Mill

I occasionally get emails from people who want me to check out a certain site and tell them if it's a legit writing opportunity or a content mill. Content mills aren't hard to identify. Here are a few signs.

They have a list of topics: you just write the article. Many content mills operate like this. They'll post up a list of desired topics and all you have to do is write something that goes under that category. Legit news sources don't operate like this. To become a writer for a legit news source, you have to pitch them an idea that their readers will like, and editors are quite picky about topics. They don't just publish a list of very general topics like "home improvement" or "dating tips" and then let anyone who feels like it write and submit articles for them.

Their editorial process is nonexistent. If they usually "accept articles straightaway" with minimal review, it's a content mill site. Some sites have editors and do have some quality standards, but in comparison to a real news site it's quite low. If you're encouraged to submit articles directly without querying an editor, it's likely a content mill site.

Their hiring standards are low. Does it look like the site takes just about anybody? Then it's likely a content mill. Content mills are playing a volume game; they are trying to boost the amount of content on their site for SEO purposes and under that model, more (and faster) is better. They want as many people writing for them as possible. They're not trying to compete with legit news sources for quality and timely coverage. A legit news source will set the bar higher for freelance writers: you'll never see the New York Times actively soliciting people to write for them online; well-paid legit publications don't have to advertise for writers. If they don't have stringent hiring requirements for writers, they probably don't care how well you write as long as they get in the requisite keywords--and they're willing to pay that way.

Their pay is low. Some sites will tell you what they pay up front, others won't. But if you're getting paid something like $10 or $20 for 500 words, or if revenue is at all connected to how many views your article gets, it's a content mill.

How do you spot content mills and other less-than-ideal writing opportunities online?


Unknown said...

Wow - that's about as succinct a list as it gets. I think every writer should print this and paste it next to the monitor.

I worked for a place about five years ago and recently I'd been wondering if it could have been considered a content mill. However, the editorial process was detailed and yes, there was a lot of editorial oversight. The pay was low, but $200 is a damn sight better than $10 or $20. Still, it was too much work for too little pay, so I dropped it after two articles.

Great stuff, Jen. :)

Jennifer Williamson said...


Yeah, at $200 with strict editorial oversight I'd say it's probably not a content mill--that doesn't sound like the business model. Of course, that doesn't mean it wasn't underpaid for the type of work you were doing.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting article. I've been looking around for info on content farms. I applied for a position with a company I knew as a content farm, hoping to land a gig that would let me build up my clips and my online content writing experience.

Now, I wasn't coming at this as a newbie. I've actually published a number of books for children, and a few longer articles for an online database. I also have several years working as a book editor and recently finished an MFA in writing. Funny thing is, this content farm that pays $15 for 300 words? It turned me down. It made me wonder if competition is that fierce, that someone with proven writing chops and a willingness to work for cheap (at least temporarily) can't get hired at a content mill. I'm familiar with rejection, but I'm still confused about what that particular rejection means.

Anyway, thanks for a good article.

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Anon: rejecting anyone is unusual for a content mill. Even if this one did reject you (and who knows why? It's not really important especially if their pay is that low) the stigma is that they'll take anyone, so it's a very newbie-looking clip.

It's much better if you want to build an online writing presence to start your own blog, write copy for websites or volunteer to guest post on someone else's blog (the more high profile the better). A lot of bloggers will gladly take guest posts even if they don't pay, and if you can get in with a good blog that has a strong reputation and wide readership it will look much more professional than a content mill.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer, great advice. In fact, I've written several guest posts for a popular writing blog. After reading your reply, I'm definitely going to pursue more blog writing opportunities. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I also have written for these content mills as a newbie and not knowing any better. Once I developed the confidence I decided not to give away my time and/or ideas to help someone with rankings and what I view as keyword spamming. I now spend a great deal of time writing web content and blog posts for legit people and companies.

Thanks for helping me to identify what I knew just wasnt right. Why would anyone write for $2 per 500 word article (an offer made to me) We as writers need to remember that we offer something of value and should be properly compensated for it.

Carol Tice said...

Nice to see other writers who don't consider content mills a "legitimate writing opportunity!" Here's one of my recent posts on the topic: Content Mills: Why Aspiring Writers Should Avoid Them.

Nice list!

Carol Tice
Make a Living Writing blog

F.C. Boyd said...

Thanks for the post on being turned down. I too had the same experience...they are on to us!

B-Optimistic said...

The timing of this Blog is perfect. As a freelancer for a small monthly newspaper, I was looking for opportunities to enhance my portfolio and perhaps earn a little extra on the side. An ad with a posting for freelancers popped up yesterday via an RSS feed. The offered pay was low but I thought this might be a good opportunity to hone my skills and increase my writing speed. Then today I read your post. Guess what? It's a content mill!! Thanks for the warning! :>)

leena said...

Thanks !

I just came accross such website they pay very less $2 per article and I was planning to write for that site just to hone my writing skills guess what it is a content mill. Thanks for your article.

Kathleen said...

Well I am just reading this as of April 20, 2010. I was solicited by a San Francisco on-line newspaper. They only pay $1 per article. Yes I know... I decided to do it just for the experience and to hone my writing skills. However, after writing 12 articles in a month I haven't even reached the minimum of $25 required to get paid -- I mean I am putting blood, sweat and tears into my work - what writer doesn't.

While I was willing to continue this for a little longer, it is evident that I was new and even green to the "get paid for writing" thing and never heard of the term "content mill" until I read your article, so that in itself was so enlightening. Your information was timely. I am certainly worth so much more as I am a holistic health professional with 20 years of experience.

I do have my own blog and will follow some of your advice in your replies to others by writing copy for other websites or do guest posts.

Thank you Jennifer

Anonymous said...

I have been looking into expanding my freelance writing and did a search for content mills and this article came up. It was helpful, thanks.

I also found this satirical site It's funny, check it out.

Broodingboots said...

I guess this thread has gone cold... but need to write. I am working as a content writer for a midsize IT company, and I also write prolifically for a content mill. I write exactly the kind of SEO ‘newsy blogs’ (that’s what we call them) you are talking about. They are 130 word-long ‘articles’, and the rather long keywords (e.g. ‘Small business opportunities’) need to be repeated 5-7 times.
What I, and I guess other writers working on similar projects, do is look up Google News, copy-paste an article, just change a few words here and there, change the sentence structure, go off a tangent and introduce a new idea, and give a snazzy title to ‘article.’ It used to take me 45 minutes to write a single article, but then the editor told me that I should not try and write too well; he said that speed is what matters.
Now I churn out such articles at the rate of 4 per hour. I get paid a little less than a dollar per article (I’m in India ;-$...), so I earn just a bit more than 3 dollars per hour. I work real hard for 3 hours on such articles, knowing quite well that what I’m writing is utterly useless stuff, and it irks me.
But I thank god for SEO because it gives me a chance to earn some extra money. I’d obviously prefer doing quality work, but content mills are pretty useful when you are just starting out as a writer.

His Word said... = writing mill