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Writing to Pay the Bills - An Update

by Audrey Faye Henderson

In August 2011, I wrote a feature for Writing-World.com entitled "Writing to Pay the Bills" (http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/SEO.shtml) that described how to utilize content providers to supplement your writing income. I did not imagine that just a few short months later; the bottom would fall out of the content provider market - at least for writers.

What happened? A Google algorithm adjustment called "Panda" (http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/03/the-panda-that-hates-farms/2/) that was implemented in phases throughout 2011. During the latter half of the year, the full effects of Panda shook up the entire content provider sector, and left many writers who had (almost certainly unwisely) depended on content providers to provide all or the bulk of their income to deal with the fallout.

The Panda Effect

Panda was designed to "punish" websites deemed by Google to feature low-quality content by pushing them down in keyword search results. As a result, many websites found their traffic numbers sharply reduced, which had a knock-on effect of drastically cutting the click-through ad revenues that comprise the lifeblood of much of online content. Content providers adjusted to being downgraded in Google searches with a variety of strategies designed to improve their stature but that produced mixed results at best. In many cases, contract writers represented the collateral damage.

Content providers across the board have clamped down on available work while increasing demands on longtime contractors and new writers alike. In many cases, the result has been what contractors call "title droughts" -- days, weeks or even months of little or no available work. Stricter requirements for accepted work forced writers to spend much more time and effort for each article than was previously required -- often with little or no corresponding increase in pay per finished article. Many contractors who had previously garnered four and even five figures each month through writing for content providers found that their earnings after Panda were slashed to a fraction of their previous levels.

Writing for Content Providers Post Panda

In my original feature, I advised writers to contract with several different contract providers and to limit the overall time spent writing for any one of them. At that time, it was still possible to pick up several hundred dollars or more relatively quickly to cover an unexpected expense or to bridge the gaps between higher-paying work assignments. After Panda, for a sizeable number of writers who contract with content providers, this is no longer the case. Although content providers have not become extinct, it is much more difficult to earn anything approaching a consistent income by writing for content providers than it was less than a year ago. Some examples:

  1. Demand Media Studios has forced many of its writers, including writers who have been under contract for years, to reapply for recently re-organized segments if they want to continue writing for those verticals.

  2. Bright Hub has ceased providing assignments for all but a select group of writers contracted on what it calls an "ad hoc" basis.

  3. The Writers Network and WiseGEEK have imposed freezes on applications from new writers until further notice.

Given the present environment, I can no longer recommend mass content providers as potential writing outlets for professional freelancers. Especially given the low pay scale and ongoing "title droughts," any benefits (read: earnings) that you may gain from writing for a content provider will almost certainly fail to compensate for the effort necessary to obtain and execute your assigned work. However, if you choose to remain as a writer for content providers where you're presently under contract, or if you decide to attempt to sign on with one or more content providers as a new contractor, the following guidelines may minimize your stress levels.

  1. Follow the application instructions precisely. Even with the low pay they offer, content providers that are still signing new writers are being inundated with applicants, which means they can afford to pick and choose. If you fail to comply with the required procedures, you may be immediately eliminated from consideration -- and many content providers do not allow writers who have been previously turned down to reapply.

  2. Tailor your application materials to applicable specialty fields. For instance, if you're applying to write for a fashion-oriented content provider, emphasize your major in Fine Arts and provide samples from your makeup blog. For a content provider that targets the tech sector, promote your computer savvy and provide samples from your weekly gadget column for the local newspaper.

  3. Be especially wary of providing original writing samples. Unscrupulous operators have always targeted gullible or desperate applicants to provide unpaid work under the guise of testing. In the post Panda world, you must be even more vigilant against scams. If you'll be paid for your work once you're under contract, be sure to get it in writing, preferably as part of the contractor's agreement. If you won't be paid for your work, steer clear of that particular content provider.

  4. If you choose to submit an original sample, it must be original. Do not attempt to submit previously published work. In nearly all instances, the content provider will scan your work through a plagiarism filter, and if you "fail" the screening, you will be immediately eliminated from consideration.

  5. Once you're under contract, document your work meticulously. This is essential if you are paid by the hour or must account for the time you devote to completing each assigned article. Your efficiency or your ability to account for your time may determine whether you are retained by the content provider.

  6. Periodically re-evaluate your experience with the content provider. If you find that you're spending more time seeking available work than actually writing, you're wasting time that could be more productively spent seeking better-paying clients. Likewise, if you must rewrite every article, or experience high rejection rates, that particular content provider may be a poor fit for you.

"On Spec" Content Providers

One possible exception to the grim post Panda scenario may be Constant Content and similar content providers that allow you to submit your work "on spec" for inclusion in a catalogue of work available for potential buyers. Clients may also list prospective assignments, but within fixed price ranges. Writers are not expected to "bid" on the prices clients pay. Of course, you are not guaranteed to receive a quick payout (or any payout at all) with such a provider model. However, because you set your own prices for the bulk of your work, your potential pay per piece is significantly higher than for conventional content providers.

I have sold several pieces through this type of content provider and have never received less than $50 for each one, and usually much more than that, even after the content provider took its cut as commission. Content providers that operate by the "on spec" submission model have also experienced an onslaught of new submissions post Panda. Unless you are a known quantity, expect lengthy waits to have your submitted work evaluated by the editors.

The Hard Truth

Before Panda, conventional content providers compensated for their low pay with rapid turnarounds, predictable, reliable up-front payouts -- and plenty of readily available work. No prospecting for clients, no writing on spec, no chasing down payments. Many writers came to view their assignments as "jobs," content to rely on income from one or more content providers to maintain their homes and provide for their families. As the content provider well ran dry, these writers often found themselves with few or no alternative sources of revenue -- with disastrous consequences. The fallout from Panda for content providers reinforced the hard truth that no professional freelancer should rely too heavily on a single client, or even on a single type of client, for the bulk of his or her income.

Related Articles:

Writing to Pay the Bills, by Audrey Henderson
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/SEO.shtml

Content Writing (survey), by Dawn Copeman
http://www.writing-world.com/dawn/SEO.shtml

Grasping at Pennies (editorial), by Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/coffee/coffee31

Copyright © 2012 Audrey Faye Henderson
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Audrey Faye Henderson is a writer, researcher, data analyst and policy analyst based in the Chicago area. Her company, Knowledge Empowerment/, specializes in social policy analysis concerning fair housing, affordable housing, higher education for nontraditional students, community development with an asset based approach and sustainable development in the built environment.

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