Note: I have not mentioned and have edited out any mentions of the names, companies, and websites this article refers to in a negative tone. At this point, the purpose of this article is to shine a light on the content farm crisis itself and spread awareness of the situation.
Not to start a witch hunt.
This is a story about how I came to Pakistan to visit family, stumbled upon the content farm crisis, and decided to do something about it.
Table of Contents
How My Journey Began
For the past two years, I’ve been focused on establishing the first and only content marketing agency in Pakistan.
The city that I chose, Karachi, is a hub for content farms and content mills.
How do I know?
Ah, well, I was there. I’m guilty.
Four years ago, I knew nothing about content. I found myself in an interview with the CEO of one of these firms, and it went something like this:
CEO: Do you know what product descriptions are?
CEO: Oh, so you know, like products on Amazon….yeah. Do you know what search engine optimization is?
CEO: Then, why are you here? (lol)
Me: Well, I don’t know what this stuff is now. But you give me about four months, and I’ll be the best damn sales agent you have in that room.
CEO: Okay, when can you start?
Within three months, I was making up to $40k per month in inbound sales – selling content services, such as articles, blog posts, newsletters – you name it. They had the PPC engine going with chats and phone calls coming in by the dozens on the daily, and I got it done.
How? I was the first sales agent they ever had that gave a crap about what the people on the other end of the phone (or chat) were trying to do with their business. My approach wasn’t to just make a sale using the same exact script for every single phone call, as if we were talking to hundreds of clones of one person with the same set of goals.
I actually worked out solid plans with them.
I spent hours listening, learning, explaining, and planning – for every client (as it should be).
But 9 times out of 10, my projects would get canceled and refunded. I’d either have to hear from my disappointed/angry/sad client how I let them down, or convince them to give me another chance.
Because the quality was low. Always low.
Then I’d get upset and go on a rant while my manager and other sales agents listened. And they’d simply have to put up with it because I did well. And I’d have to put up with them because I saw what we could be if every sales agent cared. Or better yet, if content managers actually helped their writers become brilliant content creators.
This was the cycle.
Well, screw that cycle.
Lol – Not So Fast, Pal
I left after two and a half years of trying to ignite change, preaching better methodologies, training every sales agent to revolve their strategy around giving a crap. But I fell short time and time again.
By that time, I was making up to $350k in inbound sales every six months and finally figured “why the hell am I doing this for them?”
I left and established Pantheon – Digital Marketing Agency (later re-branded to Planet Content, when I found our actual purpose – but that’s a different story). It was going to be the exact same business model, but with two main differences:
- I was going to truly care about my clients. My vision was to come up with brilliant ideas that actually pushed their businesses forward, and use all my skills, abilities, and experience to execute them flawlessly. To build great relationships with awesome people, and not see them as “clients.”
- I was going to truly care about my employees. My goal was to train the ever-living crap out of every ambitious, honest, and intelligent content writer that would hear me out. To provide them with endless resources that would help them master their craft. To provide constructive and consistent feedback, lead them to the top of our industry, and not see them as “employees.”
It didn’t work at all – for two reasons.
Number one, it wasn’t long before I realized that all those times I asked questions about SEO or content and got vague answers in return was for a reason.
I was working ten or so hours a day, and because I felt like I was doing alright at my job, I thought I had it all figured out.
A Long Road
Unfortunately, I didn’t explore my industry on my own. I made the mistake of depending on my managers to learn everything about it. I asked them questions and believed their answers.
It wasn’t until I was sitting there, “CEO” of my own “digital marketing agency,” when I took a simple content marketing course from HubSpot.
That’s when I found out I had no idea what the hell content marketing even was. I only knew what content writing was.
Infuriated that I had let myself be held back for two and a half years, misguided, manipulated into learning incorrect information, taught the bare minimum of what I needed to know, and ultimately, deliberately restricted to a specific skill level, I was lost.
I spent the next 5 months reading hundreds of blog posts, watching hundreds of videos, and devouring information on everything – copywriting, PPC, SEO, content marketing, landing page optimization, CRO, graphic design, video marketing, social media marketing, inbound marketing, 2D animation – anything related to digital marketing.
I went on a journey to understand it all at the highest-level and make up for the two years a content farm took from me.
And the other reason it didn’t work out?
Well, it turns out people don’t like being told they don’t know what they’re doing.
I mean, who would’ve thought?
I understand that this is a sensitive subject, and I try my best to put it all as “non-offensively” as I can, but from there, it’s not up to me. You either say “you know what? I honestly don’t know all this stuff, but I can damn sure figure it out,” or you say “screw this guy, who does he think he is?”
What Is A Content Farm?
A content farm is a content writing service that hires large numbers of content writers or freelancers. It turns them into 5000-words-per-day robots that churn out low-quality content. They are interested in inexpensive bulk projects – often with rates as low as $10 per 1000 words.
They rose to glory through old, low-tier sites like ezinearticles.com, elance.com, and more.
And here, in this city, 99% of content companies do this, and they truly have no idea what content marketing is.
So much so, that the job titles “content marketer” or “content strategist” didn’t even exist in Karachi two years ago.
The first appearance of these two job titles in the market/workforce was through job openings for my agency.
And now, even though these designations get thrown around left and right – the writers at these farms still have no idea what it actually means to be a content marketer or strategist.
Yet, content-related companies have been around for almost two decades, while hundreds of professionals believe the roles of a content marketer, content strategist, and content writer are one and the same.
Content marketing, and the world of creativity it encompasses, is limited to the simple act of writing content.
How does that even happen?
Let’s break it down.
The Content Side of Things at a Content Farm
These mills create dozens of low-quality sites (with names like 123writer, expertarticlewriters, etc.), hide behind fake identities, and claim to be located where they aren’t (Delaware and NY are the preferred locations for some reason).
For example, try finding the LinkedIn profile of anyone else who runs a content writing or content marketing agency located in this city, or any social profiles (at all) of the sales & support agents (account managers) found on their websites.
They aren’t agencies founded by marketers but companies founded by businessmen. As a result, their goal is to maximize profit as much as they can. Which is all good, but they go about it in all the wrong ways.
The writers are at these farms are not:
- Given company-maintained access to industry tools such as Ahrefs, SEMRush, BuzzSumo, Moz Pro, or SparkToro.
- Provided access to premium courses such as Siege Learn or CXL. Hell, they’re not even encouraged to complete free courses like those from HubSpot, Google, Drift, or SEMRush Academy.
- Told to follow industry leaders such as Rand Fishkin, Cyrus Shepard, Ross Hudgens, Lily Ray, and AJ Kohn.
- Requested to familiarize themselves with awesome agencies like KlientBoost, Siege Media, Single Grain, Column Five, or Content Harmony.
- Asked to do the one thing any content marketer should do: follow other, expert content marketers, like Ann Handley, Robert Rose, Brian Dean, Andy Crestodina, Jay Acunzo, and Vincent Nero for constant insights, trends & techniques, or inspiration.
- Told to keep up with publications such as SEJ, Search Engine Roundtable, Marketing Land, or Search Engine Land.
To be fair though, the writers don’t get all the blame.
So, Whose Fault Is It?
There are hundreds upon hundreds of writers who can’t tell you about:
- Proper keyword research, user and search intent, or long-form content.
- How search engines work, buyer personas, or organic link building.
- How to create a content strategy, identify popular search terms, organic distribution, or content analysis.
- More than 5 or 6 different content formats.
- Marketing frameworks, user experience, or on-page SEO.
- How to perform content audits, or more than two realms (SMM & Paid Ads) of digital marketing, in general.
- Writing high-quality content that ranks in search engine results and drives traffic.
But it’s the managers, VPs, and CEOs that should be held responsible.
It’s these folks who are responsible for training and nurturing. However, they don’t provide their writers with any kind of help.
The writers aren’t given resources that help them further their knowledge of copywriting, landing page optimization, and web design, given access to experiment with or understand essentials such as Google Analytics, Search & Admin Console, or Tag Manager, or given constructive and consistent feedback that actually results in gradual and significant bumps in the quality of their work.
These writers aren’t taught how to take a client’s marketing objectives or business goals and create unique strategies or valuable content assets that help accomplish those objectives or goals.
They aren’t taught, that, if you had to sum up the creation of content to one purpose – it would be creating something that makes you stand out by providing actionable value. Increased awareness, conversions, traffic, and all that good stuff are simply results of effectively and consistently fulfilling that one purpose.
They are taught how to write an article according to a client’s brief, use sites like Wikipedia to conduct research, and cover the keywords provided.
But they aren’t taught content marketing.
Side note: If they can do any of the things mentioned above, it’s because they explored and learned it themselves. But they will never get the chance to permanently utilize it due to being restricted to simply producing articles and blog posts.
The relative few who saw passed it all and left these farms behind are killing it as freelance writers or consultants, have moved beyond what should’ve been content marketing altogether and into other areas of digital marketing at other companies, or are with me.
The Sales Side of Things at a Content Farm
On the other side of the void, the “sales” departments at these content farms are essentially call centers – but for content. They aren’t taught proper inbound marketing methodologies, how to do proper follow-ups or conduct calls, and the worst of all, prioritize actually helping the person on the other end of the phone (or chat) over making a sale.
These sales agents taught to see these people as people, but as potential sales.
They are encouraged to go for the kill, give discounts until the lead is convinced or they’ve hit the bare minimum they can accept for an order, steal one another’s sales and leads, and taught how to receive infinite last chances to avoid refunds, which, ironically, is how a majority of their projects end.
The content department and sales department are in a way, rivals, and not teammates. They function as separate entities, rather than ones that co-exist. Sales gets whatever they can get their hands on, dump it onto Content, who then have to sort it out – regardless of whether or not they have the required expertise to successfully complete the project, are given a proper deadline, or even have the resources available to attempt it properly.
All that matters is that Sales somehow closes the deal and Content somehow makes it work.
And, remember, this isn’t one company. It’s dozens. From small to medium to large scales. Some mills with up to 80-100 writers. I know of at least one company that has 130.
Needless to say, you let this BS spew about for 15+ years and you bet your bottom dollar the entire industry will more than feel it.
The SEO Side of Things at A Content Farm
Here’s where they get really bold. Buckle up.
A few of these content farms double down as SEO farms, as well. They often break their sales departments into two teams – one for content and one for SEO.
The sales team for content is taught what they need to know to sell their content services. They’ll tell you Google recommends X blog posts per month at X amount of words.
The sales team for SEO, on the other hand, is taught quite a bit about SEO, but only to be able to convince prospects that they are actual professionals when questions come pouring in.
When speaking to them, it sounds like they might be experts. But they won’t be the ones doing the work. All the work will be done by the same writers from earlier, just with “SEO” in their job title.
What makes me think they aren’t real experts?
Let’s play a game: How many things are wrong with this picture?
At a glance, you should see 5 red flags:
- No actual SEO agency will guarantee results, that, too, within 30 days.
- Pre-existing SEO packages aren’t a thing.
- You can’t just create those 6 forms of content and call it SEO.
- How do you guarantee a client will be 100% satisfied?
Now, hold on tight for this one.
And here’s all of us right now:
Imagine being “Panda Proof,” lol.
A so-called group of SEO professionals and not ONE of them said: “Yeah, um, DON’T make that claim, bruh.”
And that ‘Read More’ button doesn’t work.
Imagine being an SEO agency and not understanding search algorithms work.
By the way, this isn’t some small-time firm either – they make well over $650k per month (I would know, my sales training is the reason why).
Identifying the Root Cause
Now, you may be thinking, “holy crap, he’s throwing them under the bus!”
And admittedly, I do feel bad. So much so that this article is over two months old, and I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not I should publish it.
But then I ask myself, “what feels worse? Me potentially facing a backlash for shining a light on all of this stuff, or letting them continue screw over countless good brands, businesses, and people – day in and day out?”
Now, just to be clear, there is talent in those farms. There are creative minds bursting with raw potential.
But they are misguided. Snatched up by these farms and turned into 5000-words-per-day robots that, well, you know.
They aren’t the problem.
The problem is that none of these content ‘agencies’ are truly nurturing that talent, guiding them through a genuinely sustainable career path, allowing them to completely explore the skills they must master in order to succeed, providing full access and information to the field and industry they’re involved in, encouraging them to consistently further their knowledge on content marketing & providing all the means to do so, allowing them to experiment or make mistakes, or hell, even sharing the names of the clients they’re writing for.
They are simply assigned projects and given awful deadlines, then held responsible if something goes wrong, in an environment where the person next to you finding success is a threat to your existence. If they end up leaving, they are oftentimes branded as traitors.
How A Content Farm (Tries To) Cover Its Steps
“But these websites rank at number one on top review sites and have lots of social proof backing their claims.”
Yeah, definitely, like this video testimonial:
But, then again…
Why would an agency need to pay a professional actor for a positive review?
Because the real and genuine ones look like this:
And they aren’t hard to find.
Effects on the Local Digital Landscape
Just imagine: Hundreds and hundreds of people employed as content writers, dozens of people running content agencies, for over 15 years, yet, traditional marketing is still the norm.
You’re telling me that, in a metropolitan city with a population of over 14 million people, and dozens of so-called content agencies, there isn’t a single entity dedicated to educating businesses and consumers on the digital landscape of today?
Wait till someone like Brian Dean or Neil Patel hears about this super untapped market.
No, really, though.
Did you know that almost every single business’ digital presence here usually goes as far as a single social media account? That, too, Facebook.
Zero shits are given about building a user-oriented and conversion-focused website, no care for SEO, PPC, proper SMM, email marketing – inbound marketing is unheard of. They don’t have a proper sales funnel and very rarely do you come across well-written or optimized web pages. They have zero interests in educating their consumers or their targeted audiences about digital marketing, and to be blunt, utilizing the tools and trends of today’s world – all because there is no one dedicated to consistently educating them.
But, hey, at least we’re finally catching up to the e-commerce boom.
How A Content Farm Can Affect the Industry As A Whole
For this section, I’d like to share how a few industry experts feel about the type of content developed at content farms.
A Content Marketer’s Perspective
“I think the biggest thing from my end that we’ve seen is how easily and in how many ways poorly written content can hurt your site. You not only run the risk of posts not being optimized for SEO (or over-optimized), but if they overlap with other pages, it can hurt those rankings too, which most of the time defeats the whole purpose.
That’s not taking into account the obvious things like how it can affect brand voice and writing for the user but let’s be realistic, most companies using content farms are trying to just make a quick buck and probably don’t care about things like brand voice. Those are the types of sites that write for Google, not the user.
These tactics might work for a short period of time, but you are building a house of cards. Those are the types of sites that get hit the hardest when Google rolls out new algorithm changes.”
An Inbound Marketer’s Perspective
“The ability to create content that is actually valuable to your audience starts by caring about your audience.
You need to care about their needs and problems.
You need to understand them and uncover insights and information that has the power to help them achieve what they’re setting out to accomplish or do what they want to do.”
A Client’s Perspective
“In an age where uninteresting and spammy content fills digital wastelands, it becomes even more important to create something of value, something that gives back to the online community rather than encumbering it.
Your content is a direct reflection of your brand, any imperfections perceived therein demonstrates to your followers that you don’t care about your organization’s image.
Ask yourself then, ‘why should my followers trust me with their hard-earned money‘?
It really is a no-brainer, the rewards for writing great, insightful, compelling content are bountiful. And on the other end, spamming the web is a surefire way to go out of business….fast!”
- Ata Khan – Managing Partner – Xoobo
A Message to Local Content Writers
Look, I know this is awkward – but hear me out.
You’ll notice two things:
- Their salaries are a butt load higher than the average salary for the same position in our local market.
- 95% of content folks in our city can’t do 50% of the things listed under those job responsibilities.
From here, it’s up to you. Be honest with yourself. Can you do all that at the very highest level? If you can, awesome, I hope you’re getting paid over Rs. 400,000/month for it – because you’ve seen those salaries, and regardless of the agency you’re employed to here, they earn their revenue in USD.
If you can’t do those things – that’s really no problem at all. There are a TON of FREE resources where you can learn everything you need to know within weeks.
I’ve even put together a quick doc here compiling it a lot of it into one place. Free courses you can take, awesome blog posts you can read, amazing marketers and agencies to follow – it has it all.
Devote the next three to five weeks to skyrocketing your career, implement amazing changes to your employer’s or clients’ content strategy, produce drastically better results, and ask for your salary to be bumped up significantly.
I’m Not (Completely) Hating
First, start with going through a blog post and asking yourself if you can even write such a blog post without any help, or without an editor.
After interviewing 60 writers, employing over 15, and training dozens over the course of the past two years, I only have 3 content marketers on my team. However, those 3 content marketers were confidently able to say “na, I can’t do this,” devoted themselves to figuring it out, and now, they are absolutely brilliant.
Additionally, we were able to write hundreds of high-level articles that rank on the first page for competitive keywords, and drive hundreds of thousands of page views for our clients.
Just last week, I was informed by one of my clients that we doubled their traffic this month (March 2020) to over 800,000 monthly visitors off of just 7 posts we wrote.
And that’s because we don’t just do random searches on Google or Yahoo and create a combination of the first four or five results. Instead, we actually master the subject matter, use numerous tools, and a deep understanding of our client’s goals and their target audience to write such content.
So, What Is A Content Farm?
I guess what the point of everything is, is that content farming is real and still a problem today. Probably more so than ever before.
They aren’t writing services where you can get affordable content. They are companies that pay horrible wages to writers they purposely hold back, while earning a killing off their efforts and leaving a trail of pissed off clients in their wake.
And as content marketers, it’s pretty much up to us to do something about it.
I’d like for us to first acknowledge this crisis and take actual steps to ignite change.
I’d like for those with voices that matter in the industry to start addressing the problem.
Maybe we can hold a conference here with a few industry leaders to educate any individual interested in content or digital marketing, or businesses looking to adopt a more modern and digital approach to their marketing efforts.
As long as we remain quiet and let these practices continue – nothing will change.
If a content farm wants to change its practices and adopt a better approach – I’m all for it.
That’s what this is about at the end of the day.
However, we shouldn’t allow these agencies to pollute our industry with their practices, ruin the professional progress of countless clients, create a false representation of what we do, diminish the real value we have to offer, and take advantage of writers who look to them for guidance.
Frankly – we should care.
It’s time to eradicate content mills and content farms and teach any individual interested in content what it truly means to fulfill the roll of a genuine content marketer.
At the same time, it’s time to help local businesses understand the digital landscape of today and encourage them to adopt a more people-centric approach to their marketing strategies.
While we’re at it, we can also educate clients on the importance of paying for value, rather than attempting to get things done for cheap and falling short – one of the major factors that fuel content farms.
I invite you all with me on this journey of overcoming the Content Farm Crisis.