Why Brands Really Lose When They Underpay Writers

Years before he could have imagined its impact, Bill Gates coined the phrase “content is king.” Since then, content has slowly become less king and more court jester — writers are slogging along to create digital content for the likes of a few dollars an hour. For many, it’s a full-time job. And this isn’t good for anyone — even the “publishers” that think they’re getting a great deal.

Most content writers have done their time at the lowest of the low when it comes to “content mills” — sites that aim to produce as much written content as possible in the name of ranking high in search engine results. If you’re a writer or have been one in the past five years, it’s likely that you know the type: You spend maybe an hour scanning, rewording, and putting together an article about the benefits of building a deck for your beach house — a topic you’re now an unwilling expert in — for a whopping $8/hour. You rinse and repeat a dozen times, feeling less and less excited about the written word with each article on accounting, real estate, and plumbing. You’re wondering why you’re accepting these kinds of jobs and — more importantly — why anyone would be willing to pay such a low wage for such an important piece of marketing material. But you’re desperate to keep the electricity on. And you have to move on to the next story.

On the other hand, if you’re a writer, chances are that you have dabbled in the other end of the spectrum, where a well-researched and impassioned 750-word article will land your PayPal account $150 or more. You spend a few hours researching and writing about a topic that you didn’t think you’d  love but that you’ve realized is actually pretty fascinating. You know the client cares about quality content and is willing to pay for it, too.

Inexpensive content is cheap content. So why are writers willing to work for it, and why are companies willing to pay for it? Do writers care more about the content when they’re being paid a fair price, or is it the article topic that matters most?

Imagine that a brick-and-mortar business is hiring workers to represent its brand and sell its products to customers, their friends, and families. That business will want to hire someone who is going to speak clearly, know the brand, show up to work in clean clothes, and offer a quality sales pitch, so the business ideally offers employees a wage and hours that is going to get that goodness out of them. Chances are they wouldn’t hire someone who bumbles, slurs, and shows up in filthy clothes just because they’re willing to take a huge pay cut. What many brands don’t recognize is that being a writer is a customer-facing business just as working behind the counter of a store is. It’s visible when they’re exhausted, overworked, and underpaid.

Cheap content produced at bottom-of-the barrel costs means that Google, too, isn’t going to hop on a website’s bandwagon when it comes to search results. Businesses that request gobs of content at breakneck speed with only a slight variation in subject matter simply don’t provide enough diversification for Google’s attempts at keeping us honest. Content mills are burning more than just writers when they pay only a few bucks for dozens of keyword-laced articles.

And therein lies the secret that it often takes a writer’s eye (or a search engine) to notice: A writer working at a low wage, who’s under pressure to produce more content as quickly as possible, starts to get repetitive. Adjectives begin to repeat. Then, so do themes and sentence structure. Sometimes they don’t even mean to do this; they’re just forced to due to pressure. It’s funny — you’d think that the ability to detect and single out creativity is a uniquely human skill, but as it turns out, algorithms can do it pretty well too. Content mills complain when a slight alteration to Google’s algorithm seems to “punish” them. But what the algorithm’s sensing is the high degree of repetitiveness. It’s like they’re picking up on an unconscious bit of a Morse code S.O.S. from writers who are being rushed, underpaid, and have had to throw creativity out the window.

And then? The site’s ranking tanks.

The truth is, when writers make just over minimum wage to research and write an article that serves as online marketing for a business that hopes to make a profit through that content, nobody wins. The writer won’t get into the content, the content will fail to jazz Google’s web crawlers, the site’s readers will cease to be readers as they see through the facade of the content churn, and the site will ultimately disappear from search results.

Content, Gates said, is where the money will be made, and he couldn’t have been more accurate. It’s about time writers started speaking up more about this and pointing out that cheap content doesn’t really benefit anyone in the long term. It’s also time for content mills to acknowledge their shame and, ideally, shutter their virtual doors — or at the very least, stop talking about themselves as though they’re the future of the publishing industry or some kind of savior for writers. Most importantly, however, it’s time for businesses to open their coffers and acknowledge the importance of high-quality content and the writers that are willing and able to produce it.

I’ve been on both sides. And I can tell you which side lets me write a whole lot better.

Image by Everett Collection
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