Here’s an experiment: Go to any of your writer friends, especially any that have been in the game for a while, and ask what they think about content mills. I’d be willing to bet that what they have to say isn’t positive.

If you’re unfamiliar with content mills, or content farms, they’re essentially where businesses or other parties can go to get custom content for pennies on the dollar. Meanwhile, writers sign up — typically involving some type of “audition” process — and get access to an all-you-can-eat buffet of writing jobs, which would seem to be a pretty good deal for everyone involved, right?

The Trouble With Content Mills

Unfortunately, the writers are grossly underpaid for the amount of time they end up investing and the level of quality that’s expected. An article of 1,000 words could yield as little as $12 or thereabouts, which means that writers would have to write dozens of them to make a substantial pay that still wouldn’t be enough to sustain themselves.

Textbroker open ordersTake a look at this screenshot taken of the open order pool for four-star writers at one of the more popular content mills. You see under “keyword” what the client is wanting and under “deadline” you obviously see how long the writer would have to complete it. However, take a look at the figures under “Number of words” and “Possible earnings”. It might seem like $70 to $84 for one article is great money, but when you consider the fact that it’s more than six times the length of a standard blog post — which tend to be somewhere between 500 and 1000 words — it’s like the writer is writing six pieces for $12 dollars each.

Also consider the time that it takes to write a blog post. Granted, every writer writes differently; some writers take their time while others can write quickly. For me, it takes around an hour and a half to two hours to write a 1,000-word piece on a topic that I have written about before. So for a piece that could yield up to $84 and takes an estimated nine hours to complete (6,000 words at an hour and a half per thousand), a writer would make about $9 an hour. And keep in mind that I’m being generous with these estimates. Many of these “orders” have strict requirements for structure, usage of multiple oddly-phrased keywords, incorporation of high-quality sources, and other considerations. A 6,000-word order could easily take 12 hours or more when there are lots of criteria you have to consider, which will further reduce the hourly rate. It’s all too common for writers who write for content mills to make less than minimum wage.

But it’s not just the low pay. Another problem that writers are having with the content mills is that they market themselves to potential clients as being a way to get content at a much lower cost than they would pay a freelance (which isn’t always true), but it’s also encouraging them to disregard quality and rule out the possibility of working with freelancers directly.

Of course, there are always going to be print and web publications that wouldn’t be caught dead trolling the mills for content. For instance, it would be a cold day in hell before Forbes, TIME, or The New Yorker would turn to Textbroker or Demand Media Studios for their features. The issue is that there are less “entry-level clients” for freelancers starting out because the mills offer on-demand access to a pool of writers eager to write anything they need for a fraction of what a freelancer would pay even though the freelancer’s output would be of much higher quality.

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Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Then there’s the fact that anyone can be a writer for a content mill. Literally. Anyone. In most cases, all that’s required is U.S. citizenship and even the vaguest grasp of basic grammar and spelling. So not only are the most accessible clients getting their content from the mills, but freelance writers are now having to compete with people who may not even be actual writers.

And if it wasn’t bad enough, there’s another major issue with content mills. As you can imagine, it’s very common for the content clients get from content mills to be unsatisfying, occasionally even terrible. Part of the problem is the fact that anybody can start writing for a content mill, even those with no experience or knowledge of how to write marketing content. And when the errant freelancer with experience wanders into the mills, it’s not likely that they’re going to put a lot of effort into an article that pays them just a fraction of what they’re worth.

This means that the clients are paying for what’s essentially syntactical garbage, and the experience of paying for terrible content from a content mill sours them on the prospect of hiring any writer at all. Most of these clients aren’t fully aware of what content mills are beyond the fact that they can get content for super cheap, which means that they don’t realize that getting their content from a mill means settling for low-quality writing from inexperienced writers. They assume that they’d get the same thing from a freelancer as they would by going through a content mill, so why would they want to pay more when they could pay less? As a result, these potential clients end up thinking that the experience of getting terrible content from a content mill writer is the same as any experience they might have with a freelance writer.

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Is There an Upside?

I can’t say I’m very fond of the content mills myself. Like any other person, I don’t like being so grossly undervalued. But it’s more than that. The implications of the content mills — encouraging clients to value our work lower, judging all writers according to the performance of a few, making entry-level freelance gigs harder and harder to find — can make the prospect of being a freelancer seem bleak to even the most passionate aspiring writers. It’s almost as if the content mills are painting us into a corner, forcing us to either get on board with being undervalued to the point of being demeaned or choose another vocation.

But is there an upside to content mills? In a word, yes. However, it’s predicated on your ability to use them as a means of getting your foot in the door, which is what I did.

When I “went legit” about two years ago, I was of the opinion that since my college major wasn’t journalism, content mills were the only option available to me. After all, we’re always taught that if we want to be a doctor we have to go to medical school, or if we want to be a lawyer we have to go to law school. I assumed that since my major was psychology rather than journalism, content mills was the only way into the business and would likely also be as high as I’d be able to go, but I soon learned otherwise.

If I’d done more research, perhaps bought some books about getting started as a freelancer, I might have realized that I actually could set my sights higher than content mills.

As I mentioned, each content mill has its own application process. Most of them require some type of writing sample, which involves writing a brief piece based on a given prompt. I applied to a handful and had been accepted to each of them and was writing within about a week. It was kind of exciting at first. When my first article was accepted and I was paid (a whole $7), I remember feeling excited and thinking that that was the moment when I could call myself an actual writer. I’ve always felt that a writer couldn’t call him/herself that until writing had yielded some sort of payment.

From that point, I wrote as much as I could, trying to weave together some sort of reasonable income with what little I was getting paid writing for content mills. This is where I feel the content mills helped me.

Since I’d had zero experience as a writer, writing for the content mills provided me with a practice and adjustment period, allowing me to get my feet wet before I was putting articles, blog posts, and other types of copy out there with my name attached to them.

For instance, I learned how to manage my time as a writer, and that last bit is key. Being a paid writer requires a certain organization of time that’s different from writing papers for school or working on a novel. I had to think about the time I’d need to spend on research, structuring the piece, outlining, writing, and editing. With content mills, you have a finite amount of time to get an assignment completed and if it’s not finished by then, there were likely to be consequences. So if I took an article on Wednesday that was due Friday at 1:00 pm, I had to have it finished by Friday at 1:00 pm. And as I started taking more than one assignment at the same time, I learned how to ration my time between multiple different project, being able to bounce back and forth between them as needed.

There were also a lot of technique-related things to learn despite my already having a pretty strong background in writing. I was familiar with SEO (search engine optimization) as a concept, but I didn’t have any practical experience, so I had to learn how to write with keywords and anchor text for links and calls-to-action in mind.

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Photo courtesy of Kotaku

After about a month, I was starting to feel pretty confident in my abilities and had figured out how to pitch my writing services to potential clients. However, content mills tend to monitor contact between the writer and client if there’s even any communication allowed at all. This is to be expected since you’d be able to easily get a client’s contact info and cut out the middle man, but it made it all but impossible to query and get new clients on the mills. Even so, I’d begun developing one-time assignments into ongoing relationships, which meant slightly better paying gigs on a more continuous basis. And just a couple months into my content mill career, I landed my first real client.

Although I definitely wouldn’t recommend writing for content mills for any extended period of time, I feel that it really helped me to get started as a freelance writer. It gave me a much-appreciated practice run at freelancing, letting me learn some of the ins and outs of the biz before I really jumped in with both feet. Despite how devalued they make me feel in hindsight, I can’t help but feel like they were the jumping off point and why I’ve been able to grow my writing career as much as I have and as fast as I have since then.

So why am I writing about this? Well, I had initially wanted to point out the effect that the content mills could have and are having on the value of quality content and the people who write it. But then I got to thinking about the relatively short period of time that I spent writing for content mills, and I realized that I did, in fact, get something out of that time. Writing for the content mills prepared me to be an actual freelance writer and helped me to realize that I had enough skill to set my sights higher than just the content mills alone. And while I certainly wouldn’t write for them now, they were a great learning experience.

About the author

My name is Dane. I'm a writer at Android Authority as well as a tech journalist in general. As well, I'm a marketing guru, designer, and a budding web developer. My passions include portmanteaus, artisanal coffees, jackets, and the smell of fresh technology in the morning.