Why Google’s New Focus on Content Farms Will Mean Better Work for Writers

Last night, I read two posts that got me very excited. The first was this one from Business Insider, and the next was this post on the official Google Blog. Go ahead, read them. I’ll wait. If you are a freelance writer, you can’t afford not to read them. If you’ve only got time for one, pick the Google Blog.

If you really want to put them off for another time, here’s the gist; Google has fired a shot across the bow of cheap content mills. They aren’t pulling any punches about it either. The Google post’s most interesting paragraph is this one:

“…people are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content. We take pride in Google search and strive to make each and every search perfect. The fact is that we’re not perfect, and combined with users’ skyrocketing expectations of Google, these imperfections get magnified in perception. However, we can and should do better.”

And it is painfully true. If you’ve done a Google search for anything in the past few months, you’ve probably noticed how you have to click over to page two, possibly even to page three, to get a site that is at all relevant and isn’t produced by a content farm or Yahoo Answers. I’ve turned mostly to Twitter and Google News if I have a high level term that I know will be spammed to death with poor search results, and I suspect I’m not the only one using search workarounds.

Google has gotten the message loud and clear and while they don’t promise specifics, they promise some kind of action and specifically mention content farms in the post, so it isn’t a broad assumption to think that they’ll be changing their algorithms to look for what we writers produce: quality.

Why should I care as a writer?

As writers, one of the most requested items we work on is web content. Right now, this is for companies that “get it”, and we don’t have to spend a lot of time selling our services. If you have well written content on a site, people are more likely to buy your product. It’s pretty simple.

However, the game is changing for internet marketers and companies that relied on cheap quality content. While some of these people will  turn to other methods, some of them will realize that good content is worth paying for. Especially when they start seeing their search engine results fall after Google introduces quality control changes.

Do I want these clients?

In a word, yes. They’ll have researched the rates and will have accepted them before they call you, for the most part. They may try to work you down on price a little more than previous companies you’ve worked with, but in the end will pay your rate.

Will the content mills start paying more money?

If and when Google starts making the changes they infer in their blog post, the content mills may slightly raise their rates. But not to what they should be. Their entire business model is predicated on not paying writers what they are worth, because the goal is cheap content to start with.

They have tried to increase their quality by making pitches to hire professional writers and editors in which they promise way more money than they actually pay, but the results on those campaigns have been short-term as pros sign up and quickly abandon the effort after seeing how much work they are doing for a tiny amount of money.

A content mill’s business model is not sustainable if they start paying writers what they need to, or even twice what they are paying them now, which still wouldn’t add up to an industry standard of any kind.

When will this happen?

Google is pretty fast about implementation, and they seem to realize that this is a big problem for their company, not just a minor line item that they need to deal with in the next update. I’d look for changes to start happening over the course of the next two to three months at the latest, if not a bit sooner.

Site owners will take a bit longer to come around. Most will only look at changing their practices when their site takes a hit or two, and when that happens they’ll start looking for help pretty fast. If Google follows through on their promise in a decent amount of time, we’ll likely be looking at more business around the second quarter of 2011.

How do I position myself to take advantage of this?

Make sure you are aligned with web professionals and web designers, because when search rankings start to fall, they’ll be the first ones to get phone calls. You won’t be, since most won’t make the automatic connection between dives in search engine results and writers, especially if they’ve been used to buying cheaper content in the past that has worked for them.

If you haven’t focused a lot on web content yet, pick up the Yahoo Style Guide. In the end, there are no great tricks or secrets, just a different style of writing and an awareness of how readers are approaching your copy online. I wouldn’t recommend picking up any spammy “LEARN WEB WRITING NOW” e-books – everything you need is really in the Yahoo Guide, and also in any usability tips you can find on useit.com.

There’s going to be a lot of speculation until Google actually takes action on what they’ll do and when they’ll do it, but as writers we should expect something to happen in 2011, and we should make sure we’re ready for that business when it comes in.

5 Responses to “Why Google’s New Focus on Content Farms Will Mean Better Work for Writers”

  1. After hearing and reading your post, I felt compelled to comment. As I am just a few years deep into my writing career. I find that the content mills are great practice for real writing assignments and after I paid my dues I am now gladly, freelancing for higher quality clients. I hope this moves those type sites and networks to the back of the bus, to negate their overall impact on the internet.
    I cringe now seeing networks of 500+ writers and hundreds of thousands of poorly thought out work. When you need samples, do them for yourself! One good client is worth more than any content mill.

    January 22, 2011 at 11:55 am
  2. Very enlightening, Angela. Most freelancers are aware of these low-paying markets (sometimes referred to as content mills) but still writers (or wannabe writers) flock there. Often it’s because they don’t know that they can make a decent wage writing for clients who appreciate the value of well-written content.

    As writers, it’s become our job to educate people about the value of hiring a good writer. With the Internet and blogging and social media, everyone’s getting into writing, but 140 character spurts or brain dumps about what to make for dinner, well, it really isn’t writing.

    Writing is a profession that takes hard work and energy and learning (you are always learning to make your writing better). Those of us who make our living by the written word are reaching out to new writers to teach them the value of the work they do and helping them understand what the going rates are for the work we do, and that isn’t 1 cent a word. In many cases our words help million- and billion-dollar companies make more money. Why would you take $20 for writing a marketing letter that has the potential to make thousands of dollars for your client by landing one new customer for them?

    If you are a freelance, or staff, or part-time writer, using your words as a means to support yourself as your income, or as supplemental income, please get the word out to writers who undervalue their services and let them know that settling for less than minimum wage makes it difficult for those of us who write for a living to earn a decent wage.

    If you are a writer who currently undervalues your work by taking very low paying gigs, please aim higher. We all will win when we offer our incredible talent and abilities to clients and publications and are paid a decent wage for the important work that we do.

    Then there’s the issue of Rights for Writers…but I won’t go there right now.

    January 22, 2011 at 3:09 pm
  3. admin #

    I should mention that Luigi Benneton’s post of the article in question gave me the idea for this article – thanks Luigi!

    January 22, 2011 at 3:26 pm
  4. Diana #

    Excellent info – thanks for directing us to these posts, Angela. (And um, giving the quick gist to those of us too lazy to read the posts!) I especially like the point about networking with web designers and professionals. Most of the high quality, truly professional web firms I’ve worked with recognize the value delivered when the rate goes up. Some quote me the “going rate,” which is often below what I’m charging. I’ll be happy when I hear that the “going rate” is in fact going up. 🙂

    January 24, 2011 at 8:17 am


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