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[Guide] Everything You Need to Know About Content Mills

Shaun Connell
January 27, 2023

Whether you're looking for a writer to produce content for your website or you're a writer looking for work, you've probably come across the phrase "content mill." What are content mills, and what should you know about them? Read on to find out more.

Two Definitions for Content Mill

First, let's dig into what, exactly, a content mill is. There are two schools of thought on this and two sites that illustrate it.

The first definition is this:

Solution A content mill is a website that serves as a marketplace where clients can post assignments for writers to write.

Typically, a content mill serves as a middleman. They provide several value additions to justify their position, such as:

  • Holding money in their own accounts, so writers are guaranteed to be paid for the work they submit and have accepted.
  • Applying a layer of editing to writing to make sure the content a client receives is at least of a certain minimum quality level.
  • Providing a centralized location where it's easy for clients to find writers and writers to find work without having to get into self-marketing, job listings, or independent relationships and contracts.
  • Providing integrated Copyscape reviews of the content to ensure it's free of plagiarism.

At the same time, content mills skim some money off the top. A site that pays writers 1.4 cents per word might charge clients 2.1 cents per word for that same project. The disparity in prices goes in small part to the editors but in large part to the platform itself.

Writing For a Content Mill

This is all the more generous definition of a content mill.

Solution The less generous definition is a "sweatshop for writers". Many people view content mills to be exploitative; indeed, while they provide a source of more-or-less guaranteed work for writers, they also inhibit potential growth.

They do this by:

  • Monitoring and limiting communication between writer and client; writers can't even see the real names of the clients, to avoid them reaching out outside of the platform and negotiating a better deal.
  • Keeping rates low, so writers don't make enough to have the luxury to look elsewhere for work. Most of their time has to be dedicated to producing the work they can access.
  • Ruthlessly culling underperforming writers with no notice or recourse, making it a very unstable source of income for many writers.

To illustrate the point, those rates (the 1.4 cents per word and 2.1 cents per word above) are real rates from Textbroker at their 4-star level. This is the "top tier" level of content that casual writers can reach. There's a better-paying 5-star level, but writers must pass a grueling set of tests to reach that level, and it's precarious enough that they can be demoted at any time.

Textbroker Website

Above, I mentioned that two sites illustrate this dichotomy. One is Textbroker, which is broadly considered to be the bottom of the barrel in terms of content mills that are even vaguely acceptable (anything worse than Textbroker is less of a mill and more of a scam.)

The second site is Writer Access. Writer Access operates in the same way as Textbroker, but with generally higher pay rates, more communication and fewer restrictions, and an altogether nicer atmosphere. It's still low for industry rates, but it's more acceptable and more balanced. Talented or prolific writers can make a good living through it, which would be virtually impossible on Textbroker.

These two are just examples of content mills; there are many more out there, some which have far fewer active writers and clients, and others that have various twists to the basic format. Writer's Domain, for example, is even more locked down. Writers have zero idea who pays for the content or where it's published, they just write brief SEO-focused blog posts that mostly end up on private blog networks, content never meant for the light of day. Pay rates are low, but so are the expectations of quality.

Regardless of which definition you use, content mills share some similarities.

  • They're 100% ghostwriting. Writers expect to write assignments and get paid, with little or no further relationship with their clients.
  • Consistency is variable. While you can pick a specific writer or develop a curated team on the site, the general way to get work is the open pool, which is like a feeding frenzy for writers. There are no restrictions besides star level on who can claim a piece of work in a pool, so clients have no control over who picks it up. As a consequence, voice, tone, language, style, and other quirks are highly inconsistent.

So, now that you know more or less what a content mill is, you have to decide: is it worth using one? Let's dig a bit deeper into that. Let's look at it from both sides of the coin.

The Pros and Cons of Content Mills for Writers

Writers are always in a tricky place online. There are tons of companies out there looking to hire writers, but there are virtually no standards. One company might have extremely different expectations from another. It's also extremely difficult and time consuming to try to find work, pitch yourself, write on spec, and hope you land enough paying work to survive another month. It's no wonder so many writers only do writing as a side gig, a few hours each week in between their day jobs.

Content mills offer a few benefits here:

  • The first is guaranteed pay rates. When you sign up for a content mill, you know what the rates will be at your star level or tier. You can predict extremely accurately how much money you can make for the work you put in because it's a fixed rate. There are also ways to try to improve this over time, like joining teams or offering a higher personal rate for interested clients to work with you "directly" (through the platform, of course.)
  • The second is guaranteed work. This depends on the content mill and the whims of the market, but on most content mills, when you log in, there will be work available. It might not be good work or even anything you're at all interested in, but if you just need some money and you don't care what you write, you can write it and get paid right away.
  • A third benefit is a guaranteed contract behind it all. There are protections for writers built into the platform (because if there weren't, writers wouldn't sign up). For example, on Textbroker, if a client doesn't respond within 72 hours, a post is auto-accepted and auto-paid for. There's no risk of a client posting an assignment, accepting a submission, and never paying for it because they put money into their accounts up front.

All of this sounds great! It also makes content mills a good place for many writers to get their feet wet and decide if they want to pursue content writing as a career.

A Content Mill Writer

There are, of course, some downsides to content mills for writers.

  • First and foremost, the pay rates are almost universally garbage. Platforms like Upwork and Constant Content have suggested rates that place entry-level content at something like $25 for a 500-word blog post. On a site like Textbroker, even at the higher star levels, a 500-word blog post is getting you less than $10. At lower levels, it's significantly lower than even a tipped minimum wage and is generally not even worth doing. And that's the low end of private client work! Professional writers can charge $1 per word or more, but anything over 5 cents per word is a pipe dream on a content mill.
  • The availability of work is also very sporadic. There might always be assignments available, but they can be wildly different in terms of requirements. In my personal experience, on Textbroker, you would often see assignments with a 200-word limit but a 5-word keyword phrase that needed to be used 10 times in the post; something that is nearly impossible to do in a way that reads naturally and gets past the editors. You might also see a 500-word post with 2,000 words of requirements + a 10-page Google Doc of brand requirements to parse to write it, which is very much not worth the time.
  • That's if you're not in the middle of the few dry spells that happen during slumps each year. Sometimes, you might go days, weeks, or even a month with little or nothing available.
  • Perhaps the worst, though, is the complete lack of upward mobility. There's basically a hard cap on the pay rates and growth opportunities you can get on a content mill, and any further growth as a writer or for your income requires you to look elsewhere.

Content mills can be acceptable as an introductory way to get writing experience down and a way to make some beer money, but they aren't viable for a primary income.

The Pros and Cons of Content Mills for Clients

Let's flip the coin. You're a business owner, and you need content. Should you go to a content mill?

On the one hand, you can post an assignment and be virtually guaranteed that it will be written. You'll get something back. It will adhere to most or all of your requirements, particularly if you use systems to guarantee keywords. You can usually pay more for better content or pay for a managed team to give you additional oversight, though that's usually limited to the big spenders.

The content will also be pretty cheap. 1,000 words at the basic 4-star level on Textbroker costs you $21 flat.

That's more or less where the positives end.

Client Using a Content Mill

The quality of the content you get will vary a ton. Unless you find one good writer and hire them directly, you will probably be getting different writers every time. Your style and tone will vary from post to post, and you may need to do some work to polish them up to be suitable for publication.

You also don't have the opportunity to expand beyond the platform. Again, content mills have a strong interest in preventing clients from poaching writers and vice versa, and some of them are litigious about it.

It's not uncommon to have to try several times for a given assignment to get something usable, as well.

On top of all of this, more and more writers are turning to tools to help them write faster because the pay rates are so low it's not viable for them to work otherwise. That means there's a non-zero chance that you'll be getting content written by an AI these days. You can do that yourself!

Are content mills worth using? Maybe, and only if you're using the higher-quality content mills and the mid-to-high-tier writers on those mills. Five-star writers on Textbroker aren't terrible, and five-star writers on Writer Access can be pretty good, even subject matter experts themselves.

On the other hand, you're giving a lot of money to a platform on an ongoing basis to avoid some work you would only have to do once; namely, searching out a talented writer and hiring them properly. Instead of that, why not just browse my guides or post a job and let talented writers come to you?

Freelance Writing Jobs Job Board

Yes, there are fewer protections here, and you have to put more work in up-front. Creating a job listing, finding and vetting writers, giving writers a test, evaluating their content, checking it for plagiarism, and negotiating a contract is a lot of effort, and if a relationship falls through, you have to do it all again.

On the other hand, finding a good writer and treating them right can be an exceptional way to have a loyal and effective writer for years to come. They can grow and change with you, something you can't get from a content mill.

Mills can work if all you need is filler or placeholder content or content that isn't meant to see the light of day under your brand. Anything that undergoes more scrutiny than that, though, is best found elsewhere.

Written By:
Shaun Connell
Shaun Connell has spent his entire career either working as a freelance writer or hiring freelance writers for his many successful publications. Shaun has learned the exact tricks of the trade to hire the perfect writer for almost any niche.

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