Hitting Pay Dirt on Content Farms Is All About the Traffic

Top Reporter on Examiner, Formerly Homeless, Earns Close to $100,000 a Year Blogging on Bieber

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When Jodi Jill was laid off from her position as an assistant at a car dealership two years ago, she took a number of odd jobs to pay the bills, from hawking oranges off the Venice exit on the 405 freeway in Southern California to fixing sequins onto costume dresses. She also wrote the occasional article for Examiner, the crowdsourced content play backed by billionaire investor Philip Anschutz.

Fast forward two years and Ms. Jill, who was briefly homeless after being laid off, says she's made just under $100,000 in the past year by writing exclusively for Examiner.

Examiner writer Jodi Jill went from fixing dresses to covering the red carpet -- and earning just under $100,000 for her work.
Examiner writer Jodi Jill went from fixing dresses to covering the red carpet -- and earning just under $100,000 for her work.
The Examiner and its better-known competition, Demand Media and Associated Content, are often lumped into a sector called "content farms," which enlist freelancers to write search-friendly content, and pay them either very low rates or fees based on traffic. So what does it take to make $100,000 a year writing for a content farm?

Denver-based Examiner pays its writers anywhere from $1 to $7.50 for every thousand page views their posts generate, based on a black-box formula. The company has a roster of more than 60,000 contributors producing more than 3,000 articles a day.

In the case of Ms. Jill, she posts anywhere form 100 to 130 articles in a week, and though Examiner will not disclose Ms. Jill's traffic or her rates, a bit of back-of-the-envelope calculation shows it's entirely feasible. Assuming she brings in around $95,000 a year and that her base rate is in the midrange of around $3.50 for every thousand impressions, given that her beat -- entertainment -- is a semivaluable category, she's booking close to $1,800 for every 120 articles, or about $15 per article, which is a handsome though not unheard of rate in the blogging world. At $15 an article and an assumed CPM of $3.50, each post generates around 4,300 impressions, or over 500,000 page views a week -- all from a single contributor.

"That's one of the reasons why there is a disparity in earnings," CEO Rick Blair said. "Many writers cover some of the more obscure topics, like if you're in Tulsa and you're the Yoga Examiner," he said, using Examiner's term for its writers. "But if you're in New York or Los Angeles covering celebrities, there's going to be a big difference in the amount of people viewing you."

The Examiner confirmed Ms. Jill's claim but cautioned that her situation is not typical of its contributors, most of whom write as a hobby and make no more than a few hundred dollars a year.

"I'd see people like Miley Cyrus just being herself" in the local coffee shop, Ms. Jill said. "And you start to learn these interesting little facts that aren't covered in the media -- not exploitation -- but things that other folks would be interested in. So I wrote about that. And it turned into something."

Among her subjects: Justin Bieber, "Dancing With the Stars," Taylor Swift and Disney Land. She posts as many as 30 articles in a single day, and sometimes as few as three, though she said she doesn't spend more than seven hours a day writing, five days a week.

That resolve around writing for a loyal readership has attracted advertisers in general, though not specifically. As an example of how marketers view content from Examiner, HGTV recently bought into a content campaign by asking Examiner writers to post something about its show "Property Virgins," a reality program about first-time home buyers. "We wanted to talk to the influencers, people who are actively engaged in real estate," said Jonah Spegman, head of digital media and marketing at HGTV. The writers also had leeway to write negatively about the show, but it was a risk that didn't deter Mr. Spegman from buying into Examiner. "We were more concerned about it coming off as pushy marketing," he said. The ad program didn't yield any visibly disapproving posts from the writers.

Such campaigns are not commonplace on Examiner. The company largely sells banner ads in-house and runs a portion of its inventory through ad networks. Sabah Karimi, a contributor to Demand and Associated, said she posts from 20 to 30 articles a week, netting in the low- to mid-five figures in a given year. But Ms. Karimi, 28, primarily works as a freelance writer, providing copy for companies' websites, and she sees these outlets only as a way to supplement her income.

She prefers writing for Associated as opposed to Demand because, like Examiner, Associated gives her the freedom to post on any topic she chooses. (Demand creates assignments that writers can pick up.) Still, she remains practical, focusing on so-called evergreen topics like travel, beauty and fitness. "I shifted to those areas because they are the best performing," she said.

Above all, Ms. Jill said she has to write what she loves, a lesson she learned after meeting Stan Lee at ComiCon. "I say to him, 'How do you pull all this stuff out, all this stuff you write?' He says to me, 'You write what you love, and there will always be an audience.'"

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