Is Writing For Search (Alone) Without Value?

UPDATE: See the leaked AOL business plan at Business Insider for some very revealing (and disturbing) information on how freelancers are being dealt with.  

It's been a quickly changing world for freelancers.  Sites like AOL, Yahoo, and others have consolidated with previously high-paying media outlets and have turned to their existing pool of freelancers to keep them in content.  For someone like me, who has happily worked for freelance site AOL Seed and similar others, I thought that this could be a good opportunity to pad my earnings with some straightforward SEO pieces that could be fun to write.  What I didn't expect is the new trend of offering practically nothing to the reader and writer in exchange to many words and click-throughs.

Let me start by saying that some freelancers may not mind being put to work for what are essential content mills (or content farms, as they are more recently being dubbed.) You have to start somewhere, and it can be a great way to get some practice and experience.  I would not look forward to making a living wage with the new SEO project however.  Here is why:

  • Many of the new SEO projects are vary rigorous.  They are not your usual run-of-the-mill SEO fluff.  Some require 3x the writing, product testing, recipe preparation, photos, and/or videos in place of the articles that used to just require 400-600 well-written words and some carefully placed links.
  • Some of the articles developed for search aren't articles, at all (in my opinion.)  They are templates, dictated by the editor, filled in with terms specific to the search key words, and allowing very little deviation from the skeleton.  Some words are repeated with every article in a batch.  It's like Mad Libs, but with full sentences being (inserted here.)
  • The pay is weak.  Yes, some of these projects are abysmal excuses for real work.  I'm not talking $20 - 40 for a 500 word piece with research.  I'm talking $5.
  • The benefit is to the media site, alone.  The reader learns nothing, the writer receives little to nothing, and sites like Google have to sift through the hundreds of thousands of pieces of online content to rank them.
Is there a place for content like this to live?  Maybe.  But I'm getting a bit burnt out by having the first 3-4 results of any search term bring back what are essentially landing pages for keyword ads, not useful information.  I've even started to skip over the top half of the page whenever I do a search, as I know that it will be a waste of time in many instances.

While there may be little we can do to jack up the quality of articles being written by those that vomit thousands of new pieces a day onto the interwebs, there is a short list of things you can do to keep from contributing to the plague that is mass content production:

1.  Write for search, but give the searches something that will make them say "Wow! I'm so glad I found this."  Make them remember that sites written by real, authentic humans with only a healthy concern for SEO are superior in many cases to the spam sites that are ruining content search (and many freelancers lives.)

2.  Don't feed the bears.  By all means, don't link to sites that are pushing the trend away from decent pay and content that is worth reading.  Instead, be diligent in linking to at least 2 or 3 sites besides your own that represent good, old-fashioned informative posting.  If we all did this regularly, our small efforts can go a long way.

3.  Ask Google to skip the content farms. Fast Company recently announced a new Chrome extension that allows users to submit or blacklist sites that they deem to be spammy in their search results.  Google will use this info in their battle to keep content farms from creeping up the rankings.

What are your thoughts?  Do you write for sites like Demand Media, Ehow, or Seed?  If so, do you have any moral or ethical issues with contributing to the massive amounts of content clogging up the search engines?  How would you address the problem -- if there even is one? 


Angie - The Work at Home Wife | February 21, 2011 at 5:25 AM

This is something I have been following rather diligently. Not because I write for any of the "content farms" much anymore, but because I do have several sites online. I personally don't know if the constant regurgitation will cut it in the long run.

One other thing that Google has let us in on is their continued addition of social networking results into the SEO algorithm. I think that can be a good thing. The better the content, the more it gets passed around. This is going to help our search results going forward, I believe. I also think that will bring down some of these content farms built around profits and not around people.

I don't know what will happen in the long run. It has made me take a second look at some of my own sites and places I have content. I do have some that I don't care to build a social network around to survive. They may die a slow death. I can accept that. They were built for profits, not "passions". My mistake. I'm also not willing to spend a large amount of time marketing a site another owns when I could be marketing my own sites. It will be interesting watching things pan out, to say the least. :)

Linsey | February 21, 2011 at 10:31 AM

Nice point with how social networking has been brought into the search results. I'm very happy to see that content will be "rewarded" with higher rankings based on how influential it is, as well as the page rank of the site it is on.

As far as your approach to marketing your own sites: You go! I also have taken a step back to reassess how I'm using my online influence these days. Yes, I'll market others' sites -- within reason -- specifically if they are a client, colleague, or can otherwise help a group of us grow our businesses. I'm no longer tossing out freebies for sites I write for unless there's a measurable ROI, however. Sites that pay per article, with no bonuses for writers will probably not see the social media "buzz" they desire, unless it's 1) in the contract 2) or I can leverage my byline to draw attention to my business as a whole.

Starting 2 more sites this year wasn't a coincidence, Angie. I, too, was getting burned out on building other's empires instead of my own.

Thanks for you always awesome comments.

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