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Is the Use of Volunteers on Writing Sites a Good Business Practice?

Informational websites sometimes referred to as content sites or, derogatorily, content farms, contract with freelance writers to provide short articles on a wide variety of topics for display on the website.                                                                                                        
The annual median income for contributors to these sites is difficult to gauge, as this profession includes hobbyists, part-timers, and full-timers, some of whom may also generate income through private clients or print media.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates professional freelance writers and book authors earn between $28,070 and $105,710 annually. If you narrow the parameters to online content providers only, the median figure is likely less than $28,070.

Online writers depend on the mass production of content to generate income. An online portfolio may include hundreds if not thousands of articles, many producing no more than a few pennies a day, a revenue stream referred to as passive income. Writers hope the pennies add up to dollars and produce reportable income.

Why, if the pay is so low, do some writers will give their time for free to the administrators/owners of the websites that dole out such meager earnings? The volunteers act as editors, forum monitors, and guides for newcomers. They monitor existing content for quality, fact-check articles and work with paid staff to improve the overall rankings of the site in search engines.

Every minute these volunteers spend aiding the site to achieve success is another minute they are not producing content. Since it’s a requirement of the job to consistently add new content to the online portfolio, these volunteers may actually be losing money while simultaneously increasing income for the site’s administrators/owners.

The theory is these sites operate on little money, and without volunteers, the content and forums have little if any oversight. The site may then be identified as a content farm, which means lower rankings. This results in lower-income because the site cannot attract better-paying advertisers. If the site has high-quality content -thanks to free editorial services- the site has a higher ranking in search engines. Higher ranking sites attract higher-paying advertisers.

Higher advertising fees mean more income for the site. The upshot of the theory is that if the volunteers make the site a better place, then the income earned on their articles goes up as well. Their volunteerism actually results in higher passive income.

One set of problems with this business practice arises from administrators depending on writers who may or may not possess the appropriate skills, particularly content management or editorial experience. They are depending on contributors who may not have ‘people skills’ to deal with oversensitive writers or with forum fights.

They may not have the business acumen to recognize potential problems with certain types of content, both in articles and in forums, including slander, plagiarism, and harmful information.

Volunteers may feel free to pressure contributors to promote certain agendas or link to their own articles. They may use their positions to eliminate the competition or retaliate against writers with whom they have had public disagreements.

Even without these issues, the ratio of volunteers to writers is disproportionate for monitoring submissions. Poor content is posted long before a volunteer sees it when the business model allows contributors to post without any form of pre-publication review.

Furthermore, this type of editorial oversight fails to attract high-quality writers. Entire sites are penalized in search engine rankings if they contain even relatively small portions of poorly written content. Writers who produce quality content may feel the lack of professional editorial oversight is costing them money, and so cease to contribute.

The product of informational websites, or writing sites, is content, the articles that search engines list in response to queries. Content is the only product such websites have to offer.

Leaving the all-important task of quality control to volunteers is likely to prove problematic in the long term for administrators.

Investing in an editorial staff may be expensive for start-ups and struggling sites, but as search engines continue to de-rank writing sites, and good writers continue to abandon sites with poor content management, such sites start losing money.

The volunteers that once were such savings are now a liability. And if they fail to see a monetary return on their existing works and no return for their time, they are likely to cease contributing, both articles and their time, as well.

The site, then, is left with poor content, cheap advertising and no pennies left to share.