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At some point in your freelance writing career, you’re likely to hear the term “Content Mill”. It’s important to know what a content mill is – because quite likely you might be writing for one and not even know it!
When I first started freelance writing over a decade ago, I didn’t know what a content mill was. I was desperate for writing work so took the first things that were available to me. Only later did I realize that I was writing for content mills and they were hugely taking advantage of me.
Today I am going to talk about what content mills are, the characteristics of a content mill so you can spot one from a mile away, and help you weigh the pros and cons of writing for one.
What are Content Mills?
Content Mills are online companies that produce or sell mass amounts of content, typically in the form of blog posts or articles. Also known as content farms, these companies rely on volume and pay very little to writers so they can charge low rates or publish a lot of content to make a profit.
Think of content mills as the sweatshop of the writing industry. They don’t pay writers a living wage and they don’t care so much about quality as they do about quantity.
Why do content mills exist? Because content is what makes the web go round. If you do a search on Google, thousands of articles will pop up in the results. Content mills are big business, as they constantly try to feed the demand for fresh and original content.
There are two types of content mills: Individual websites which publish a ton of content by multiple freelancers and writing marketplaces where they connect the writers who can create cheap content with independent online publishers.
Many content mills are disguised as legit freelance writing marketplaces. After all, you do get paid to write! But the rates that they pay are often measly (as low as 1-2 cents per word) – and most of your work will be published anonymously as a ghostwriter for these large websites.
While it makes good “business sense” for websites to publish a high amount of content for a low price, it’s not necessarily a good thing. Both the writers and website owners can suffer as well. Let’s look at some of the main problems with content mills to understand why.
The Problems With Content Mills
There are a lot of problems with content mills, not all of them being obvious to most writers, especially if you’re not in the business of internet publishing.
Understanding these problems will help you make an informed decision if you choose to write for content mills or not. I think these pitfalls are also important for internet publishers to know about, because they may be unknowingly supporting something they don’t agree with without realizing it.
1. Low-Quality Content Rife With Plagiarism and Copycats
The name of the game with content mills is to create content that is going to rank in search engines. This means the goal is to produce something that will outrank what is already written and appearing in search engines.
While it’s true multiple people can have many different viewpoints on a topic and therefore many different articles could be written on the same subject, the reality is most work written for content mills is merely a rewritten copycat of what already exists. It’s plagiarism to the highest degree.
These articles produced by content mills are typically very low quality with no original content. They don’t add fresh or original viewpoints and they don’t do anything besides pollute the internet with noise.
Here’s a real-life example: 7 years ago I wrote and published a completely unique article on a subject that wasn’t covered at all in the search engines. No one had ever written about it – it didn’t even have a name yet! Well, as my article grew in popularity, so did the number of copycats who hoped to write something that would compete with my article in search engines.
The problem is, none of these other writers drew on their own experiences or did any research farther than rewriting my own article. They didn’t even cite my article as a source. Sure, they might have used a thesaurus or changed the order of words around, but it’s still blatant plagiarism.
Plagiarism is defined as “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.”
It’s a major problem with content mills because these writers are typically not experts in their field, so they simply search in google and then rewrite what is already there.
To put the seriousness of plagiarism in perspective, as a student it can get you kicked out of college.
Publishing plagiarized content on your own website can also cause you to eventually lose rankings in search engines. Search engines such as Google are always working hard to fight plagiarism because it is such a rampant problem.
The worst possible consequence is the original content publisher could come after you and sue you. Take a look at these notable plagiarism lawsuits – I bet you recognize a lot of the people involved.
Content mills overlook a simple fact: The person who wrote the original article is going to suffer. They might manage to steal some or all of your visitors, which can result in a substantial loss of income from your writing.
This is just the first problem of content mills – let’s cover some more!
2. Writers Are Not Paid Fairly
Now, we can argue that someone who churns out poorly written plagiarized content shouldn’t be paid very much, but the sad truth is that most of these writers don’t know they are doing anything wrong. Most of them don’t realize they could be making a lot more money writing on topics they are actually passionate about.
The average content mill pays only 2 cents a word. If your income goal is to make $4000 a month from writing, that means you have to churn out 200,000 words of content, or roughly 200 1,000-word articles.
Most people cannot write 200 articles a month. Even if you can, that doesn’t mean you should! There can be serious repercussions to your physical and mental health from writing that much content. (See why you shouldn’t write a book in 30 Days.)
3. Content Mills Don’t Allow You to Grow as a Writer
When you write for a content mill, your work usually remains anonymous. It’s published to a website in the form of ghost-written content – the publisher gets all the credit (and profit) from your work.
If you want to succeed as a freelance writer, you have to be able to build your reputation. If you work for a content mill and publish 200 articles, you’re still unknown. You have nothing to show for it.
Meanwhile, a legit freelance writer will get an author bio on the websites they write for. This helps them build authority and establish themselves as a professional.
There’s another way that content mill writing can stifle your growth as a writer. With content mills, you are writing for SEO – basically writing for a computer algorithm. You aren’t writing to inspire or help people, and you definitely don’t have much room for creative freedom.
4. They Don’t Care About You
Content mills attract hundreds of thousands of writers. To them, you’re completely replaceable – just another wheel in the machine.
Because they don’t need you and don’t care about you, they can do all kinds of things to screw you over. They might even go so far as to not pay you or even crazily enough sue you for violating some term of their contract. They may hit you with all sorts of fees.
Content Mills and the publishers who use them only care about one thing: money. They don’t care if you have kids to feed or if you develop carpal tunnel syndrome from typing out a ridiculous amount of content.
5. It Depreciates the Value of Writers and Content
There are a lot of “starving artist” writers out there, and one of the biggest reasons why is because content mills devalue the work of all writers, not just the ones they barely pay.
It’s a simple supply and demand problem. If you can get thousands of articles at only 2 cents a word, why on earth would you pay more?
This causes a big problem for writers who are trying to make a living wage from their writing. It makes it hard for them to get fair-paying jobs.
The sheer volume of content being produced by these mills also has made the business of online writing almost absurd. Content that once was valuable no longer is.
It used to be you could write a 300-word article to do well in search engines. Then that number bumped up to 500 words. Now we’re looking at a minimum of 1500 words for a single article and some articles might even be as long as 10,000 words!
Fortunately, Google changed its algorithm to try and get a handle on this. People don’t need 10,000 words to get an answer – if they do, they should buy a book!
Google has also introduced a number of search features, such as frequently asked questions and featured snippets. You don’t need to scroll through 5,000 words to get an answer anymore – Google will take you directly to the most relevant part of the content that shows in the results.
Neil Patel has a great article about this – and he shows you exactly how he went from 500-word articles to 10,000-word articles and now back to a balanced amount of writing.
6. You Are Always Riding a Fine Line on Ethics
Can you write a product review for something you’ve never used? Probably, especially since it’s as easy as plagiarizing the real reviews on the internet.
The lowest point in my life as a freelance writer was the day I wrote a post about the French green bean slicer.
In the eyes of SEO optimization, it was a 2500+ word masterpiece. I carefully crafted a few hundred words just on the history of the French Green Bean Slicer, along with in-depth explanations on the different features that would be helpful.
The irony of it all? At the time, I didn’t even know what a french green bean slicer was. I’m not sure I even remember what one is now.
I do vaguely remember french cut green beans being skinnier than plain old regular green beans. Hmmm, maybe I should Google it…
Truth be told, I have the cooking skills of a caveman and was vegetarian while an article I wrote ranked #1 for three years straight for “How to Grill Baby Back Ribs”.
I should be ashamed of myself. I was a journalism major in college. How could I forget about the Journalism Code of Ethics?
Ethics is one of those things I’ve always sort of taken seriously. If you don’t have ethics when writing, who are you?
Probably a very good person who happens to also be desperate at that moment. #willwriteforfood
Bottom Line: If you’re writing for content mills, ethics is something you will wrestle with daily.
Now that we’ve covered the main 6 problems of content mill writing, let’s look at some tell-tale signs that a company is a content mill so you can learn how to identify one. While it’s not necessarily a horrible thing to use them – you should know what you’re dealing with if you do.
How to Spot a Content Mill a Mile Away: 4 Obvious Signs
So now that you know what a content mill is and why it can cause a lot of problems, let’s go over some tell-tale signs a company is a content mill and how you can identify a content farm from a mile away.
1. The Pay is Terrible
The quickest way to spot a content mill is to realize they only pay 2-4 cents a word. If you’re desperate, this can be okay for some fast work to fill the gaps in your income, but it’s never going to allow you to earn a real income from writing.
Some websites only pay .005 cents a word. Ouch.
While a few sites do eventually allow you to charge 6 cents to 10 cents a word eventually, you usually have to earn that through their platform. This means you might write 100 articles at 1 cent a word before you can even dream of making 4 cents a word.
2. The Topics Are for Bots Not Humans
Content mill writers only write content based on keywords the publishers want to rank for. They don’t look for think pieces or fresh ideas – you’ll be writing things like “Salmon Serving Size” and “Vinyl Flooring Near Me”.
If you come across an article like “5 Quick Tips for Keeping Your Socks Clean When You Travel”, you can almost bet it’s a content farm.
3. If They Aren’t a Marketplace, They Publish an Insane Amount of Content
While a lot of content mills are marketplaces, we also have content farms to think about. While the two words are interchangeable, I tend to refer to the websites that publish a ton of irrelevant content as content farms.
You might be surprised that there are a lot of big-name websites that are content farms. While sites like Forbes may vet their writers and even pay a little bit more than others, they in my opinion fall under the Content Farm model. Certainly, I can’t be the only person questioning why Forbes publishes potato salad recipes on their website.
Other examples of content farms include Ehow.com and the DotDash portfolio of websites (formerly known as About.com).
Early in my writing career before I knew any better, I used to write for a content farm called AssociatedContent, but they were bought out by Yahoo and later completely dismantled once Google started punishing these websites with its famous Panda update.
4. Plagarized and Low-Quality Content
If you are looking at marketplaces to hire writers for your own website, you’ll quickly be able to spot a content mill because almost all of the articles are plagiarized. Run them through free plagiarism checkers online and you’ll very quickly notice it’s not the original content you were hoping for.
Even if not completely plagiarized, you’ll most likely notice there are a lot of grammar and spelling mistakes. Run-on sentences, misuse of words, and phrases that don’t even make sense will be prevalent.
It’s easy to spot a content mill – and they do cause a lot of problems in the online publishing industry – but let’s look at the real question in depth: Should you write for one?
Should You Write for Content Mills?
We’ve covered a lot of negative things about content mills, but that doesn’t always mean you shouldn’t write for one either.
There are some big perks for writing for content mills.
It’s Great Learning Experience
If you’re completely new to freelance writing as a beginner, content mills can help you gain some valuable experience. Not that you’ll ever be credited for your work, but you will learn very quickly the ins and outs of SEO writing, which can be a desirable skill for many people.
You can also learn pretty darn quick why you shouldn’t devalue your work. When you’re cranking out articles for 2 cents a word, you’ll learn on your own that you deserve better.
It’s Quick Money, Usually
Maybe the only advantage of writing for content mills is that you get paid quickly. You won’t get paid much – but most content mills do pay you after you write a certain amount of content or after you’ve hit a threshold as low as $25.
If you’re in a financial jam, this can be a relatively easy way to make a quick $100-$200 a month. But it’s never going to replace your full-time income as you advance your writing career.
It’s a Very Flexible Schedule
If the typical 9-5 isn’t your thing, or you want to write around other commitments such as your family or your job, writing for content mills lets you set your own schedule.
You don’t have to show up for work at any given time – heck, you don’t even have to show up at all. I have accounts with marketplaces I wrote for when I first started years ago that I could just log in and start writing for again today if I wanted.
Recently I was surprised to learn I just made a whole whopping $18 from an article I listed on a marketplace nearly 10 years ago. I didn’t even remember that site existed!
You Learn to Be Very Productive
Content Mills only focus on quantity, which means if you hope to make any real money from writing for content mills, you have to churn out a lot of content.
This means you have to learn how to write faster. These productivity skills can serve you well throughout your entire writing career – for example, here’s how I’m able to quickly and easily write 2,500 words in one day.
I would never have been able to do that if I wasn’t writing for content mills when I first started writing online.
So should you write for content farms? If you are an online publisher, should you use content mills to source your articles?
In the end, it’s a personal choice for you. What’s right for you may not always be what’s right for everyone.
The important thing is you make an informed decision and you understand what content mills are and how they work. When you understand the problems they create, you can decide whether it’s worth the short-term return.
What are your thoughts on content farms and content mills? If you’ve written for them, what have your experiences been? If you are an internet publisher, what are your thoughts? Let’s start the discussion in the comments section below!
I do think the content mills are a clear evil here. They are both lowering the writer’s fees as well as flooding the web with copycat materials. Still, it is the best way to get started as a writer. Sad but true. Still, if you a have a side income, you can try blogging, writers groups and so on.