Content mills are a contentious topic in discussions amongst freelance writers, because of their reputation of being the sweatshop of the freelance market.

What is a Content Mill?

Essentially, content mills, or content farms, produce copy for clients at a low rate, by paying even lower rates to writers. They aren’t clients that are cheap, they act as middlemen, or agencies, between clients and writers, paying pennies per word – and often only paying if work is used by the client. 
The problem with content mills is that the wage offered is impossible to make a living from, short of churning out articles all day every day. Yet their high visibility in search results means new writers find them, apply to them, then join them, and before they know it, they’re trapped in the content mill wheel. They need to keep writing a lot of articles to earn money, which means they don’t have the time or energy to find real clients elsewhere.
It’s easy to see why they have so many writers on their lists, though – they require no marketing, no client communication, no effort to draft adverts or attend networking events, instead you simply login to the website and take on the offered articles.
Many writers join under the impression of getting experience, developing a portfolio, finding actual clients, or just earning a little money on the side of their day job. They’re all understandable reasons, of course, unless we add a little context to it: would a trained chef join McDonald’s to flip burgers to get experience in order to work for Gordon Ramsey? No. To produce gourmet food, you must get experience producing gourmet food. Similarly, if your writing portfolio consists of content mill articles, it’s unlikely to impress the better paying clients.

How Cheap are Content Mills?

Very. While they pay pennies per word (if that), private clients valuing the work will pay anything up to £2 per word – so a 1,000 article will net £2,000, rather than a few pounds a mill would have paid. No matter how you look at it, even after taking into consideration the expense of advertising and sending query letters, a content mill writer has come out worse off than a writer producing content for private, well-paying clients.
And that’s really the crux of it: value of the content. The adage ‘you get what you pay for’ applies to writers as much as it applies to anything else, so a company genuinely interested in having the best content won’t expect to get it for £2, and will factor in a decent wage to their marketing budget. 

Cheap Content – Low Rankings

Arguably, content mills were somewhat worth it for certain projects in the past – if a company just wanted to get some keyword-rich content on multiple pages, going to a mill could have done the job. Things are different today, though, as Google has made various changes to its rankings algorithms. No longer do the robots search for the amount of times a keyword appears, but it checks how often it appears (too much will count as spam), where it appears, and, crucially, the overall quality of the writing. So, if a writer produced a crappy quality article that made no sense, but had a 3% keyword density of the client’s specified keyword, it will no longer improve the Google rankings. In fact, it could significantly harm them. In a swift move, Google immediately put cheap writers out of work (or at least, once the companies using them realise the change and its impact, they’re unlikely to keep using the writers of that caliber). 
Content mills may roll with the change and try to adapt accordingly, by trying to demand a certain level of quality in the writing, which may involve writers taking an initial test to join the company. On the other hand, few writers are likely to jump through hoops of a convoluted sign-up process to earn peanuts, and if the content isn’t helpful to the clients, they won’t be developing a portfolio.
Ultimately, then, now is a bad time for mills and a good time for writers who understand quality content and how to write it. Not only will writers with an understanding of SEO and an ability to write a focused article be a true asset to clients, they can charge accordingly.

Carol Tice’s website