The Internet has not only altered the method of delivery for a variety of media—including text-based, audio and video—but it has also redefined the publishing industry’s business model. Traditional content creators, such as established print magazines and newspapers, have historically had difficulty competing in this new digital realm. This is evidenced by a number of dismal statistics. For example, according to the Newspaper Association of America, newspaper print ad sales fell by a record 29.7 percent in the first quarter of 2009. Meanwhile, online ad sales for newspapers saw a historic 13.4 percent drop for the same period. Magazines failed to avoid a similar fate, with 367 magazines shutting down in 2009 according to MediaFinder.com. Although the rate of magazine closures has slowed since—74 magazines folded in the first half of 2011—the industry appears to be far from healthy.
But despite the current state of the publishing industry, there is money to be made in content creation as evidenced by the development of a new type of media entity: the content mill.
Content mills, also known as content farms, have been in existence in one form or another since the late '90s, but suffered a setback in growth due to the dot-com bubble of 2001. There is no consensus on a definition for the term "content mill," but in general, these types of sites share certain common characteristics, as described in part by Jennifer Williamson of CatalystBlogger. These characteristics include:
- Low hiring standards for freelancers
- Low pay for freelancers
- Large stables of freelancers
- Lack of an editorial process/insufficient quality control
- Extraordinarily high volumes of articles
Examples of sites that have been labeled as content mills include Associated Content, Suite101, All Voices and, most notably, Demand Media, which recently launched an initial public offering on Jan. 26, 2011.
Unlike traditional content creators, which strive to attract unique visitors to their digital properties by developing high-quality content targeted to a niche audience, content mills attract unique visitors by publishing an extraordinarily high volume of articles across a wide variety of topics and employing search-engine-optimization (SEO) techniques to boost their placement on search-engine results, such as Google and Bing. These content-mill pages may sport digital ad space that the mill can sell for revenue, and/or they may host Google ads related to the content on the page, which pay the content mill per click.
In light of these facts, the content mill revenue model generally works thusly. The content mill hires a high volume of writers and/or editors of questionable skill level and pays them drastically low wages—often anywhere from $3.50 to $15 per article. The mill then generates thousands of article titles based on keyword and keyphrase search statistics. Writers then select article titles to write from this voluminous database. They write these articles using a template within the mill's content management system (CMS). The writer relies on secondary sources to research the article topic, often with a heavy reliance on online resources. The writer then submits the finalized article for a fairly rudimentary editorial review (note that some content mills lack even this level of oversight). If approved, the content is published to the Internet. Because the content has been optimized for search engines, it is often fairly high up in result placement, increasing the likelihood that an Internet user will click on it. This then increases the value of the content mill's ad space while also increasing the likelihood and frequency that Internet users may click on Google ads.
Consider Demand Media. According to an article in Wired published in October 2009, Demand Media was publishing an estimated 1 million items per month. Furthermore, according to the Boston Globe in an article published in August 2011, the company's websites receive more than 45 percent of its traffic from search engines. Google ads represent more than one-third of Demand Media's revenue. The company's total revenue for the first half of 2011 equaled $158.97 million, a 39 percent increase from the first half of 2010, according to Folio Magazine. These numbers stand in stark contrast to the statistics of traditional media outlets, where revenues are on a seemingly endless decline and titles fold by the dozen each year.
Although the content mill business model may currently appear to be financially promising, the paradigm has come under significant ethical scrutiny.
One of the most frequent critiques of these sites is the quality of the content they deliver to readers. Because writers and editors for these sites often have questionable credentials or little expertise in the areas about which they are writing, the resulting published content is questionable in factualness and professionalism. In fact, there is an entire site devoted to spotting absurd and factually incorrect articles written through Demand Media called "Worst of eHow." (eHow is one of the titles Demand Media publishes.) In an article published by MediaShift in July 2010, a Demand Studios writer goes on record stating, "I was completely aware that I was writing crap. I was like, 'I hope to God people don't read my advice on how to make gin at home because they'll probably poison themselves.'" She went on to say, "Never trust anything you read on eHow.com."
This raises the question what ethical duty, if any, do content mills have when it comes to ensuring the content they create and publish is well researched and accurate. It would seem that if the site purports itself to be an expert resource, then this duty definitely exists. For example, eHow.com's tagline is "Trusted Advice for the Curious Life." This claim of "trusted advice" seems to contradict the comments of the above Demand Studios contributor. If the trusted advice could potentially lead to poisoning or blindness, then the information would seem far from reliable. And if one article among millions is questionable in accuracy, it is certainly a reasonable assumption that thousands of other articles are inaccurate as well, especially when taking into account the fairly lax editorial process.
Traditional content creators, such as newspapers and magazines, often operate under a strict ethical code that is essential to the journalistic profession. After all, the cachet of a particular publication is directly proportional to its credibility. Without credibility, the content creator ceases to hold much use for the reading public, However, utility and revenue are not necessarily directly proportional when dealing with a business concept driven by volume and visibility. This leads one to believe that in terms of priority sites like eHow.com place article quantity well above article quality.
The other major criticism lobbied at content mills is the treatment of their freelance talent. Depending on the geographical market, type of publication and scope of project, a freelance writer will usually charge anywhere between $30 to more than $100 an hour for his or her services. However, content-mill sites often at best pay their writers $15 per 500-word article. Granted that a well-researched 500-word article takes a minimum of two hours to research and write, the writer in essence is making about $7.50 per hour. Keep in mind that the content mill does not provide benefits, and the writer is technically an independent contractor, which means all wages paid are pre-tax. This brings up the subject of whether content mills have an ethical responsibility to provide its freelancers with wages that more accurately reflect those of the average freelance writer.
First, one can argue that the issues of writer pay and article quality are intertwined. It is reasonable to assume that low writer wages are likely one of the main contributors to low-quality content. Consider that to increase their hourly rate, writers may attempt to submit poorly researched, hastily written content. With a lax editorial oversight, some of these articles are bound to get published, which increases the writer's hourly wage but decreases the quality of the content mill's editorial output. Additionally, many credentialed freelancers would never work for such little pay, which gives weight to the assumption that many of those contributing content to these sites likely have little to no professional experience.
Second, it could be argued that paying writers an inequitable wage harms the entire writing profession. Content mills attempt to commoditize the art of writing. If writing does become viewed as a commodity executed by relatively unskilled or inexperienced individuals, then those with a relatively high degree of skill or experience may be viewed as overqualified. Furthermore, if the trend in writers' wages expands beyond the scope of content mills and affects the general writing profession, then becoming a professional writer will no longer be a financially sustaining option for many.
The world of digital content is in a constant state of flux. Increasingly, newspapers and magazines are erecting pay walls around their digital content, providing a possible new revenue lifeline. The belief is that readers actually do care about content quality and are willing to pay a premium for trustworthy, informative and entertaining material. Meanwhile, Google recently dealt a heavy blow to the content mill paradigm with changes to its search-engine algorithm that deprioritizes content mill material in search-engine results. The effects of Google's actions on the content mill industry remain to be seen, though Demand Media predicts it will negatively impact revenue by six percent throughout 2011.
In the end, it is likely that the invisible hand of the market will dictate the winner and the loser in the battle between content mills and other content creators. If the reading public votes for vetted, quality content by frequenting traditional news and information websites, content mills may have to shift tactics in order to survive. Likewise, if freelancers refuse to lend their talents to these sites, there may cease to be a talent pool to support the mass amount of content these mills need to generate for financial viability. Of course, there is always the possibility that content mills may change tactics out of a newfound sense of ethical responsibility to both readers and writers.
Keith Ecker is a Chicago-based blogger and writer.