Thursday, February 5, 2009

Guest Blog: Writer Beware's Cautions about Content Sites

Writer Beware's Cautions about Content Sites
By Victoria Strauss

First, a definition (since I don't think that “content site” is a term of general use). A content site is a website where individuals can publish content—often just writing, but sometimes also photographs, artwork, animation, film, etc.—for the public to view. Many content sites present themselves as a promotional opportunity for creators, claiming that publishing to the site can provide valuable Internet exposure. Many also allow the creator to earn money—for instance, through ad revenue-sharing with the website owners, direct payment, or sale of the work to third parties.

A few examples of writing content sites (there are many others): Triond, Helium, LifeTips, Associated Content, Buzzle, GoArticles, Article Axis, Schvoong, and iSnare.

Are such sites a worthwhile place to publish your writing—f or exposure, for money, or just for fun? Maybe, depending on what you want to get out of it. Whatever your reasons for using a content site, though, there are some important reasons why you shouldn't use one.

Don't do it for the money. No matter how attractive the site's payment package sounds, the odds are that you will earn very little. Some sites share Adsense revenue, with Google ads matched to your writing. Google ads earn pennies per click, most of which is kept by Google; the remainder is split between you and the content site. Unless you have tens of thousands of visitors (unlikely: see below), this will not add up to much. (Search on Helium + earnings to see all the people who earn pennies per week from their articles there.) Other sites pay a very small flat fee—often in exchange for major concessions from you, such as handing over copyright. Still others reserve the right not to pay at all, under circumstances that aren't adequately defined; and many have a minimum payment threshold before they'll issue a check or credit your Paypal account. It can take a while for those pennies to add up to $25.

I'm sure there are exceptions; there always are. For most writers, however, content sites will probably generate the equivalent of pocket money—if that.

Don't do it for exposure. Many content sites tout themselves as research resources or communities of experts, where people can go to get solid information and/or advice. Contributing to the site, they claim, can establish you as an expert in your field, or help promote your work. But like vanity publishers, content sites market themselves to potential contributors, not to the general public. (Triond and Helium, for instance, are soliciting members in writers' forums and on message boards.) People doing online research are not very likely to seek out a content site—not just because most people don't know they exist, but because the content is unreliable (see below). However large or small your audience turns out to be, a significant part of it will probably not be Internet surfers drawn to your wisdom, but other site members checking out the competition.

And if you're thinking that your articles will show up in Google searches, think again. Many of the sites bury their articles so deeply that search engines don't find them, or else give them a low relevancy ranking, so that the typical Internet searcher, who abandons a search after only a few pages, will be unlikely to see them.

Again, I'm sure there are exceptions. Most writers, however, shouldn't count on content site articles as a self-promotion method—or at best, should use this as an adjunct strategy.

Don't do it to build your writing resume. Some sites claim at least some level of editorial gatekeeping—screening submissions and rejecting those that don't meet their criteria, or employing some sort of peer review system supposedly designed to drive better articles to the top. However, any selectivity is trumped by the sites' mission, which is to aggregate content. The result is extremely variable quality—which is a gentle way of saying that large numbers of the articles on content sites suck. In approaching established newspapers, journals, or other publications, don't assume you can use articles published on content sites as clips. Even if the articles are excellent, the general unreliability of the sites makes them unusable as professional writing credits.

And one final caution, perhaps the most important of all:

Read the fine print. Don't assume that uploading your writing to a content site is similar to posting to a message board or on a blog. All content sites have (often very complicated) Terms of Service or Users' Agreements, which lay out the conditions under which you can utilize them. Read these carefully, no matter how boring they are, and make sure you understand them. There can be user-unfriendly clauses—for instance, some content sites take copyright to your work, or claim an overly broad license. Be certain you know what, if anything, you will be giving up by publishing to the site.

Victoria Strauss is the author of seven fantasy novels, including The Burning Land and The Awakened City, has published articles in such magazines as Writer’s Digest, and is the webmistress of the Writer Beware site:
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Criss said...

I got sucked into posting a few articles on Helium, and I really wish there were a way for me to take my stories back. Not really because I'd like to send them elsewhere, but because, after reading some of the other junk that's posted on there, I'm embarrassed to have my stuff on the same site as that.

A friend referred me to Associated Content, which seemed to have higher-quality writers, and at least they paid $5-10 upfront (I'm still waiting for my Helium fractions of pennies to amount to SOMETHING), but after 2-3 articles it just seemed... meh. I haven't logged on in ages.

Stiennon said...

There is a much more nefarious side to these so called content sites. I call them "article sites". The articles are made available for fake bloggers who want to drive search engine traffic to their site where they sell term life insurance, or cialis, or just other google ads. Google demands fresh content so the SEO manipulators grab it from these content sites.

Now I even see human generated content being replaced by what I dub SEO Zombies. Computer algorithms that make content that looks real to Google but is gibberish. One example I found:
It’s not that Microsoft (MSFT) will stop accouterment aegis products. But starting next year, the software behemothic affairs to stop affairs its OneCare aegis program,

See what I mean?