We’ve all seen them, and many of us have even clicked and read them – those weblinks, frequently accompanied by a photo of an attractive person, that offer you invaluable information on topics such as “The 10 Most Embarrassing Celebrity Moments” or “What your pet knows that you don’t”. Not only do these pages offer very little in terms of truth and originality, they’re most often money-making schemes in which content is secondary to financial concerns.
Content mills are companies that can provide articles of any length and on virtually any topic, in forms that can be easily cut, pasted and combined to create a new article for SEO purposes. Such companies usually employ a large number of freelance copywriters.
For example, there’s MyAMS, run by London Brokers – an online publishing company – that claims to offer “thousands of articles every month on all kind of topics”. Here’s how one former writer described their process:
Much of the content produced by MyAMS goes to Unique Article Wizard (UAW), a backlink-building service used by online marketers. UAW then pushes out the articles to 20,000 or more websites online, some of which link back to customers who pay UAW to increase their search rankings.
My original assignments varied. One moment I could be tasked with 300-word short outbursts on inane topics (the first one I wrote was on “handi lift,” a wheelchair elevator for home use), the next moment I had to tackle 1,000-word yarns on video poker or some other topic. The most complicated assignments were 300-, 400-, or 500-word stories on a topic that would require two other rewrites for a total workload of up to 1,500 words. Some of the most entertaining articles were the self-referential ones: stories with topics as vague as “submit artilcles” [sic] and as damning as “Why some believe that Search Engine Optimization is a scam.”
Many of these articles are re-written with subtle differences to avoid search engines detecting plagiarised content while many of the multi-copy articles that the above author refers to (the “rewrites”) are required to have almost the same number of words in each paragraph. This allows paragraphs to be easily interchanged to produce a bundle of other articles, all on the same subject and all of the same length.
But what’s even more alarming is the sheer number of articles containing, as the authors will readily admit, nonsense. All designed simply to keep website content churning over.
The Darker Side
While content mills may be regarded as the bumf of the web, there is something potentially more damaging that’s reportedly taking place in Russia.
The New York Times recently published an article called The Agency. This report describes a Russian organisation that employs people around the clock to produce deliberately misleading articles and comments with a political bias. So far so normal, you might think. But these articles are all produced under elaborately nurtured fake personas, possibly with governmental backing. Indeed, sometimes the personas are intentionally crafted to disagree with each other, with the obvious denouement being that one side emerges to be lacking in crucial details. Or an education. Here’s one excerpt from the article:
One account was called “I Am Ass.” Ass had a Twitter account, an Instagram account, multiple Facebook accounts and his own website. In his avatars, Ass was depicted as a pair of cartoon buttocks with an ugly, smirking face. He filled his social-media presences with links to news articles, along with his own commentary. Ass had a puerile sense of humor and only a rudimentary grasp of the English language. He also really hated Barack Obama. Ass denounced Obama in posts strewn with all-caps rants and scatological puns. One characteristic post linked to a news article about an ISIS massacre in Iraq, which Ass shared on Facebook with the comment: “I’m scared and farting! ISIS is a monster awakened by Obama when he unleashed this disastrous Iraq war!”
Despite his unpleasant disposition, Ass had a half-dozen or so fans who regularly liked and commented on his posts. These fans shared some unusual characteristics. Their Facebook accounts had all been created in the summer of 2014. They all appeared to be well-dressed young men and women who lived in large American cities, yet they seemed to have no real-life friends. Instead, they spent their free time leaving anti-Obama comments on the Facebook posts of American media outlets like CNN, Politico and Fox News. Their main Facebook interactions, especially those of the women, appeared to be with strangers who commented on their physical appearance. The women were all very attractive — so attractive, indeed, that a search revealed that some of their profile photos had been stolen from models and actors. It became clear that the vast majority of Ass’s fans were not real people. They were also trolls.
Again, that New York Times article makes for compelling reading.
This might be the stuff of conspiracy theorists, but it certainly makes you think about what you’re reading and where it came from.
The Pointless Side: Gawker Media
If you’ve ever read a variety of popular sites, such as Gizmodo, Lifehacker, Jalopnik or Jezebel, then you’ve already stumbled across the sprawling, democratic journalism of Gawker Media.
Gawker started out by contracting a couple of freelance bloggers at $12 per article. As the initial site grew, more freelance copywriters were required to handle an ever-increasing churn of articles. Gawker then started paying bonuses to its writers based on ‘click-through’ rate, and even exhibited these ‘click-through’ numbers with each article.
Not satisfied with the content churn rate of his copywriters, owner Nick Denton spent several years and an estimated $10–20 million building Kinja, a content management system which encourages readers to contribute to articles. In a blog post, Gawker’s former Editorial Director, Joel Johnson, suggests that Kinja was an attempt to “democratize journalism” and “was mostly a bulwark against needing to pay writers to create content”.
As Denton told the New York Times, “a lot of our traffic last year came from stories that we weren’t ultimately proud of”. Clearly Gawker doesn’t put as high a value on background research as it does volume readership.
Why do we bother?
Website articles produced by content mills, the Russians (allegedly), and Gawker Media (and its readers) account for millions of words of fresh content on well-read, popular, established websites every day. And they only survive because we continue to read them.
So why do we read these articles? Why aren’t people more actively filtering them out? My guess is that if it looks as if someone has been paid to write an article – i.e. if we assume that the writer is a professional journalist writing for a professional-looking website – then we automatically assign a degree of credibility to it, which may often be unwarranted.
And if this is true, then the internet is not the pioneering democratic force we were once promised, but rather just another organ of capitalists and propagandists.
Now who sounds like a conspiracy theorist?
The Good Side: the Purpose of the Internet
There is an overwhelming amount of great writing on the web, whether it’s a comment after a news article, a friend’s Facebook post or just an armchair journalist’s personal thoughts. Yes, paid-for content can be full of nonsense, propaganda or downright hatred, but most people who tap on a keyboard and produce copy do it for the right reasons. There are even people who are gifted enough to do this and produce outstanding content, which is why we employ them.
Supertext differs from a content mill because the result is bespoke – you can even pick from a pool of different copywriters. We produce the very best content as requested by our customers, whether it’s about a wheelchair lift or video poker – and if the customer isn’t happy, we work with our experienced, talented copywriters and translators until they are.
In short, we at Supertext produce wheat, not chaff, and we believe that people can tell the difference.
Image obtained here.