Another look at content mills

It’s been some time since I took a closer look at content mills for the readers of the blog. The last time I covered the topic here at the Complete Writing Solutions blog was back in January and February when I did the content writing experiment using a variety of sources to top out at 53 dollars an hour using sources that some people claimed paid “less than minimum wage” or “below a livable income”.

While I may be a bit behind the times in terms of catching content rates these days (to be honest, most of it is because I really don’t care to be bothered by anti-content-mill doom-sayers, because I make a healthy living working through such mills), one of the writing groups I am a part of made mention of this article, discussing the whole Mahalo thing.

The comment I left over at the group I’m a part of was this: if you look at the comments left within that thread, you will notice this claim: “The requirements for these Guide positions will be that they produce 25 pages, spend 12 hours a week in the workroom doing page updates and 10 questions or answers weekly. At 1300 a month, this work out to a little more than minimum wage for most, and with the self-employment tax, less than that.”

This is a direct quote from the article.

Now, before I even get into the math for the article, I’d like to note the following: read the comments on the thread. Most of them say “great reporting” or some varying degree of praise for the accuracy of the article. This is where I’d like to chime in.

1300 dollars per month, working 12 hour a week, or 48 hours per month, is 27 dollars per hour. Subtract the 15% self-employment tax and you are at 23 dollars an hour. That’s $44,000 a year (assuming a full-time position) against the median annual salary of 35-36k a year for U.S. citizens.

What’s federal minimum wage again? $7.25 per hour in 2009. Median wage for average U.S. citizen in 2009 was just over $18 an hour. Not my stats. These are the numbers released by the federal government.

So people working here, despite the recent cuts, are still making more than the average U.S. citizen, and 3 times the federal minimum wage. For this job to even approach minimum wage, the Guides would need to work a total of 180 hours per month to come to 7.25 dollars per hour. 180 hours a month…that’s 45 hours a week.

I’m not denying that what happened with Mahalo was sketchy. But what is also sketchy is the alarmist reporting that happens on the Internet today regarding content mills. The vast majority (not going to plug any actual percentages in here) of negative comments left regarding content mills are nothing more than Chicken Little voices, screeching that the sky is falling when in reality it’s nothing more than imagination.

Point in case? The article I just linked to. Shoddy reporting using exaggerated numbers that weren’t even remotely fact-checked before they were published, and plenty of readers on the bandwagon sucking the information in like sponges, adding to the hordes of other, uninformed and uneducated masses.

Here’s some real reporting for ya. Demand Studios, one of the largest and most reputable content mills on the Internet, pays their average writer 15 dollars per article. These are 400-500 word McWriting articles. They aren’t meant to have a lot of meat on their bones, they aren’t meant to win any awards, they are just meant to fill random web pages with content that Google can latch onto. It’s subcontractor work. Yes, I make more money working with my own clients (and so do almost all freelance writers who have regular clients). But the beauty of working with places like Demand Studios is that I can walk in with no skill other than the ability to string two sentences together, and they already have the work ready for me. That’s more than 50 percent of my job done for me. The reason why I make more money with traditional clients is because I have to spend the time drumming up work, negotiating rates, negotiating schedules, signing contracts, doing research, and eventually getting around to writing the article. Time = money. It’s a time-tested fact. Using content mills, half of my time is erased out of the equation by the company, so it is only natural that I write for them for less than I do for my own traditional clients.

With that being said, I decided to start doing some non-trade-related articles at Demand Studios recently, to see how I would fare with actual articles where I didn’t already have 15+ years of experience on hand to use as a reference against. I’ve spent the past two weeks pulling articles about health and fitness topics, backpacking and hiking, car maintenance, and random How To and other types of articles that are on topics I have written about extensively in the past 2 years, but am not necessarily an “expert” in, according to the Studio. I am referencing travel articles based upon my 10+ years exploring and 2.5 years living in Bulgaria, as well as extensive health and fitness projects (including over 200,000 words for one client) in particular.

If I type by hand, it’s taking me about 30 minutes per article. That’s 20 minutes of research to make sure I’ve got credible sources, to scan the articles for the information I need, and about 10 minutes to actually write. If I use Dragon Naturally Speaking (my program of choice for production work), I’m doing a minimum of three per hour.

So at the least, I’m making 30 dollars per hour, and at the most I’m making 45 per hour. I’m walking in like anyone else can, typing a keyphrase into Google, finding references, citing sources, and writing investigative pieces. Tack on 15 percent unemployment tax and you are looking at 26 to 38 dollars an hour.

26 dollars an hour @ 12 months a year = $50,000 a year. 38 dollars an hour @ 12 months a year = $73,000 a year.

What was the median wage for U.S. citizens again? That’s right…just over 36k a year in 2009.

Now here’s the thing: I don’t work purely for Demand Studios. I use them as filler work. And when I stick to my trade articles, I still put out 4 an hour. 60 an hour for filler work. Not bad. But lately I’ve been branching out, mostly to prove a point, but also to test myself to see how I would really fare if I were to walk into Demand Studios like any other writer out there and push myself beyond my niches and see if I could make a livable wage.

The short answer is yes: I could make between 50k and 73k a year working purely for Demand Studios.

The long answer is that I’m not everyone. Not everyone types as fast as I do, not everyone will read and research as fast as I do, and the vast majority of writers at Demand Studios are putting out 1-2 articles per hour, not 2-3. But the point is, it is possible. And even if someone were to only push out 1 article per hour at a place like Demand Studios, they are still making double the federal minimum wage.

Remember, folks. Don’t believe everything that you read, and until you can put your fingers on some hard facts and numbers it’s hard to see the real picture.

T.W. Anderson is the founder of Complete Writing Solutions, and is a freelance writer specializing in travel writing, website content, interior design and home improvement, green-related topics, as well as anything else potential clients need him to be.

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23 comments on “Another look at content mills
  1. Cindy says:

    You didn’t understand the Mahalo article quote properly. That is actually writing 25 articles each week PLUS the additional hours. Hope that clears up the numbers for you.

  2. Hi, Cindy.

    If you have insider information I’d love to see it. As I read the article it explicitly states that they build 25 pages worth of content, then spend 12 hours a week maintaining those pages and answering up to 10 questions per week. It does not say 25 pages weekly + 10 questions weekly + 12 hours weekly.

    The quote I pulled from the article only says that they build 25 pages worth of content, then spend 12 hours per week maintaining those 25 pages and answering up to 10 questions.

    Even *if* there is some initial work done to write the 25 pages of content, unless it encroaches upon 180 hours of work in a month it is still far more pay-per-hour than the minimum wage claim made by the author of that article.

    Furthermore, my math still stands…12 hours a week of work (which is all the quote says they must put in to maintain the pages and answer questions) at the quoted pay is 3 times the minimum wage according to the federal government.

    Again, if you have information other than what was produced in that article, I’m happy to retract my statements and take a second look at the math. Please forward any such information to my email and I’m happy to take a look. Cheers!

  3. Meghann says:

    T.W., thank you for this fair and balanced article. I’ve been working, writing for Demand Studios. I’m also a community moderator and spend part of every week going through the forums, answering questions.
    I’ve been pushing, increasing my daily output and I’m starting to average out between $150-$200 written per day; this doesn’t mean my articles are edited in the same day. That depends on the CE queue — how high it is and how quickly articles are being edited. For instance, today, I had nearly $140 in articles reviewed and approved.

    I write for DS along with a few other content sites; I also have 3 blogs I’m maintaining.

    Along with this, I am working on getting my name out there, so I can land some private clients.

  4. Sometimes I’ve had articles go through in like 15 minutes, and other times 4-5 days. It depends on the CE queue for sure.

    And you are welcome. If you actually take the time to check out the content writing experiment (it’s linked in that post on the DS forums) you will see some more horn-tooting about DS. But the thing is…yeah, I have a beef with some of the editorial stuff, because it can be a bit sketchy at times, but I’ve also made a lot of filler cash through DS, and I think it gets way too much of a bad wrap by people who just don’t care to really look at the math.

    150-200 day is a good place to shoot for…pretty much my own goals on a daily basis. I’m happy with anything over 150 a day. Anything beyond that is gravy. But I also have an extremely low cost of living, and I’m debt free, which is a situation many people are not in.

  5. Cindy: straight from the horse’s mouth

    Specifically, section 4. “All Guides will be responsible for 25 new pages, 12 hours of updating (i.e. on the GoTeam), and 10 questions or answers weekly. You will be able to do this work whenever you like so you can easily schedule it around your other writing obligations!”


  6. Page1News says:

    Most articles about Demand Media solely focus on the writing aspect of the content farm. From a copy editing standpoint, there is no money to be had. And Demand Media holds a lot more control over its copy editors than its writers. Copy editors have mandated weekly quotas, and, until recently, were required to request sick days and vacation days.

    Demand Media pays copy editors $3.50 per article. Demand Media expects its copy editors to thoroughly line edit, content edit and fact check each article within 10 minutes or less. For seasoned print copy editors who are used to editing copy from trained writers, this might be possible. But Demand Media content largely comprises articles from writers who never have professionally written anything, let alone is familiar with AP style.

    It is impossible for a Demand Media copy editor to do a professional job in 10 minutes or less. In fact, Demand Media copy editors often defect to the writing side in order to triple their income. The end result of this structure is widespread poorly edited, inaccurate and unverified information disseminated to the masses.

    More power to the Demand Media 24/7 hard-working farmers who strike oil with their articles. But the farm content is useless drivel used for ad clicks to line Richard Rosenblatt’s pockets.

    For “content creators” to make real money, they must use specific software that creates 30 to 50 unique articles from one writer-created article. It’s called content spinning. That one writer-created article is then sent out in bulk to hundreds of content farms. Just ONE $15 Demand Media article can generate $200 to $400 a week using this spinning method. Do the math: 10 $15 Demand Media articles could result in $4,000 a week. Of course, this is an income-based business model and, in no way, resembles a professional writer’s skills. It all depends on the motive: Making a ton of money or having a legitimate writing career.

    Just some food for thought for those who write/edit for content farms.

  7. Lindsay says:

    I love your take on DS. I experience running my own content writing company and finally decided to slow down to just my own individual writing without hiring other writers. DS makes it easy to sit and work at 1am when I can’t sleep. Or crank out some articles on a random day I have nothing else to do. I don’t have to talk to the clients, I don’t have to worry about my pay and I don’t have to write when I don’t feel like it.

    I write about 10 articles per day. Workout 2 hours, spend 2 hours at the pool with my kids, sit down for family dinners every night and get all necessary housework done. I probably only spend about 5 hours working on articles and make $150 each day…. that’s pretty damn good.

    Thanks for your article!

  8. Going to snip one little segment from your rant :)

    “It all depends on the motive: Making a ton of money or having a legitimate writing career.”

    Who determines what is legitimate?

    It is ironic to me how many people claim to be the saviors of the writing industry, when in reality they are nothing more than upset with the direction the industry is going. Me…I like making money. I like living the lifestyle I live, and I do whatever it takes to get to that point. I’m a mercenary. I also happen to put words to paper (and internet page), and regardless of whether the “word police” like it or not, I’m cutting a paycheck.

    Your argument reminds me of the story of the threshing machine. The farmers start to use technology, and the laborers — who for years were the only way the farmers could get the wheat threshed — were upset, because this new, cheap, faster and — to them — lower quality of wheat threshing was stealing their job. Naturally they were upset, of course. They rose up, rioted, burned farms and machines and barns, but in the end technology moved on without them and we have the threshing machines of today.

    Now, I’m not denying that Demand Studios is McWriting. I’ve said it more than once. But it’s the evolution of content. And you can either be the laborer standing in the field with the torch, or you can be the farmer who is moving on, utilizing technology and adapting to the times.

  9. Spot on, Lindsay.

    And that’s the thing. Yes, I can make significantly more with my traditional clients, and so can many other writers, but your “more pay per article” is directly reflected in the fact that you spent more TIME to make that article happen. Time = money. You queried, you negotiated, you signed terms, you researched, you refined, you fine-toothed-combed it and made it exactly what the client needed.

    There is a MAJOR difference in writing a journalistic piece for the New York Times and the general How-To McArticle for Demand Studios. And, if you will note, the Studios have articles these days that range up to 30 dollars per. As I recall there was talk of special 60 dollar per article work as well, for qualified authors with the right kind of experience. For a general How To article that requires little/no research and no time invested other than to pull the article from the queue…I’m not going to complain about 15 dollars per. That’s a great wage (IMO) to have someone else do all the legwork and simply hand me the work on a silver platter to do in my spare time.

    Yes…I’m just a little fly in the big scheme of things, and yes, that 15 dollar article is probably generating them several hundred dollars…but that’s ok by me. They put the time in to build their empire, they get to reap the rewards. I’m happy being the subcontractor in certain cases because it takes a lot of the TIME out of my equation for days when I’m sitting around between clients or when I just want to pop on and make a quick extra 50 bucks or so.

    That’s the other great thing about DS, is they pay quickly. Many traditional clients make you wait anywhere from a month to 6 months before your check is cut. With DS you write, you get paid, you move on.

  10. Robin Elizabeth Margolis says:

    Dear TW: Thank you for the informative article. I also enjoyed reading the comments.

    Robin Elizabeth Margolis

  11. Thanks for quoting my article, but you obviously know NOTHING AT ALL about the requirements for writing at Mahalo. Ask anyone who works there (I have, so I know) and you will see that the truth is:

    #1 – 25 articles a week takes at least 15-20 hours, since how-to’s have to be a minimum of 800 words in length, have some pretty complex formatting, and must have a video and two references. A simple page must be 300 words, have a video, two references and a few complicated formatted sections added. Mahalo had a “Go Team” of writers that had a problem writing these pages from scratch in under an hour apiece.

    #2 – On TOP of those articles, they have to spend 12 hours in the Go Team room, “updating” pages. This could involve being given a page that has 6 sentences on it and having to write it from scratch.

    Let’s say you spent 20 hours doing your 25 articles (which is a good estimate, actually. Most people would spend more). Add the 12 hours and you now have 32 hours a week.

    #3 – 10 questions and answers does NOT just involve writing the questions and answers, but reading and replying to comments. I did this too. It’s time consuming, so let’s add another 10 hours to that, and you now have 42 hours a week.

    THEN there are the rewrites of the articles after they are edited, so let’s add another 3 hours a week for those, and you now have 45 hours a week.

    I don’t know who at Mahalo put you up to calling my reporting “shoddy”, but that’s bullshit, and they know it. I am still in touch with many people at Mahalo, and believe me, they are being treated like crap and many of the original guides and senior guides have now left or been pushed out. Jason Calacanis never had any intention of paying people decently to write for him.

    I wonder if you will even let this comment stand, but just in case you don’t, I’m copying it and posting it elsewhere with a link back to your post.

    Talk about shoddy reporting, you are writing on a subject you have no firsthand knowledge of, and criticizing someone who does. How much did Jason pay you to write this slanderous crap?

  12. Page1News says:

    T.W.: I think you misread what I wrote. Spinning content goes far and beyond what Demand Media writers do. Using better technology, I can do 90 percent less work and make a huge ROI. I write one article to make $400/week. A Demand Media writer has to churn out nearly 27 $15-articles to make the same amount of money. I’m not trying to burn down their farm. I’ve simply moved on to better technology that has left the farmers scrambling in the mud. I, essentially, used their own technology, improved upon it and then used it against them, and that makes the farmers very angry and makes them want to hold on to their comfort zone. The more farmers stay entrenched in their outdated ways, the more money I make.

    As the saying goes, “Greed is good!”

  13. First of all, Deb, I’d never even heard of Mahalo until I read that article.

    Secondly, I am in no way, shape or form affiliated with them.

    Thirdly, no one put me up to anything. I came across your article, read it, disagreed with your math.

    Assuming for a moment that your entire list is true (and I have no way of knowing because I don’t know you from Adam, plus I’m still basing my math off of the requirements list on the Mahalo site)…I can write a 1,000 word How To article in 15 to 20 minutes, using Dragon Naturally Speaking. 25 of those would take me about 8 hours of work. So 8-10 hours of work up front, then 12 hours a week updating those pages and answering questions. Nowhere does it say on their requirements list that you are required to do anywhere near the amount of work you claim is required. But hey, not everyone’s job postings are accurate, so let’s give you the benefit of the doubt.

    So, 8 hours a week of pages, plus 12 hours a week of being in the work room, plus a couple of hours of answering questions/comments. I’m still not seeing more than 20-25 hours a week based upon what you say is required. For the sake of argument, assuming 25 hours a week of work @ 11 dollars an hour (13 dollars an hour minus 15% self-employment tax), I’m still seeing a double-than-minimum-wage payment per month. (that’s based upon the 1300 a month figure quoted in the article). Which is still far more than “below minimum wage” as reported.

    I’m more than happy to take a look at your numbers if you would be kind enough to email me some actual spreadsheets to show me your tracked time. Physical proof can go a long way towards refuting bogus numbers. And if you can prove to me that the numbers are actually below minimum wage I’m more than happy to retract and amend my blog post (not an article; it’s a blog post lol) regarding your numbers.

    Hope to hear from you soon!

  14. Greed is definitely good.

    Not everyone has mastered the art of residual income yet, but kudos to you for doing so well. In the meantime, considering the median wage for the U.S. citizen was 18 USD an hour in 2009, being able to pop in and make 30-45 an hour with Demand Studios without needing to do anything other than plug in some text into a box…I’d say that’s pretty far from “oudated”.

    But hey, everyone is entitled to their opinion. Best of luck out there…I know I’m having plenty :)

  15. Ken Crawford says:

    First, nice blog. Clean and professional, very nice.

    But, although it is theoretically possible to make 73K a year, it not necessary feasible especially when you must take into consideration the many variables. Don’t get me wrong , DS is a GREAT place to write and earn a decent income. It is possible to work it full-time, however again you must consider the variable and the burn-out factor which I am beginning to see more and more on the boards.

    2 articles an hour, 8 hours a day is just not realistic long term. There are exceptions, One of the DS writers is a prime example. This man HAS done it. Not an experiment, not a short time deal. He DID it full-time. However, most people are not going to be able to write 16 articles a day 5 days a week for more than 8 weeks at a stretch. It’s not that they are lazy or uncapable of doing it, its just because after research, writing an article, uploading pics, submitting AND THEN getting back the rewites, the quality suffers and the state of mind suffers in the process.

    While it is certainly POSSIBLE to do what you put out there, it is necessary to point out the reasons why it is not done on a more regular basis. This is the type of information that although well intended, destroys the hopes and aspirations of many people. Yes it is possible, but a person should also know that they are not a failure or they are not good enough should they not be able to attain such a lofty goal.

    DS is a fantastic starting point for freelancing and it certainly is a great place to write for when you need to pay bills, make rent and earn an income. However it is also more advantageous to go after private clients and other business ventures while writing for DS so that you can build long term financial security without HAVING to write 16 articles a day 5 days a week year in and year out.

  16. All good points, and ones that I made sure to cover back when I actually did the experiment. I spent a lot of time making sure to let people know that my results are far from conclusive, and that not everyone is cut out to do that kind of writing.

    Also responded to you at the DS forums with a more lengthy reply, before I saw this comment needed to be uploaded :) Cheers

  17. Barry says:

    I never go on the DS forums cuz I think they suck. However, I’d like to say that I make about $6k every month with DS.

    People waaaay over think it. Just sit your ass down and write. 16 articles a day = $240 a day X 5 days = $1200 a week plus revshare = $6k a month.

    $6k a month – $2k living expenses = lots ‘o play monies.

  18. Yep, I think it’s fairly easy if you know what you are doing, have a few niches, and treat it like a full-time job.

  19. I definitely agree with your points on “content mills,” and while some are ridiculously low paying, I make $23-30 an hour at DS, and I have to deal with carpal tunnel. A few hours when I’m flying, I still make $45, and I live in Iowa where cost of living is ridiculously low if you know what you’re doing. I’m a huge fan of Demand Studios, and for everyone bashing it, the thing I’m always curious about is: what are your realistic alternatives? There are only so many private clients who pay top notch – and many are like mine, who choose one and only one freelance writer, meaning no one else is getting work from my clients. Considering DS is there any time of day or night, and $400 in a day is very doable (not a fun day by any stretch, but if you work morning to night it can be done), that’s rent for one day’s worth of work. I’ve done several reviews of Demand Studios, and for part-timers, beginners, or even as side income, it’s a good deal when used right. That really is all there is to it, in my opinion.

  20. Spot on, Dayton :)

    Your post is exactly the point I drive at. It’s a great gig for a lot of people.

    One of the reasons I like it is because I don’t have to waste my time querying and filtering through the various job forums looking for additional clients, or bid against writers from India or the Philippines who are willing to do the same job I do for pennies. The way I work these days is I spend about 1 hour a day trolling the job boards looking for the jobs that really catch my eye, and the rest of the time I spend doing content mill work. I get a couple of private clients here and there, make my monthly quota in terms of income working 4 hours a day, and go from there.

    Great comment :)

  21. Thanks. Even if I was super slow at $15 an hour, it still beats a lot of what’s available around here right now. Side note – sorry if you covered this in an earlier blog post, but when I look up information on Dragon Naturally Speaking Software I see a version 9, 10, and 11 as well as four different products (like home, premium, professional) – I was wondering if you have any recommendation or if you mind sharing which one you prefer to use. Carpal tunnel’s acting up again, and would love to give my hands a little bit of a rest.

    @T.W. Anderson

  22. Off the top of my head I’m using version 10.

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