Demand Media’s content assembly line
Today, I am trading in my assignment editor for an algorithm: I am becoming a Demand Media writer.
The company, founded in 2006, uses primarily freelance labor to stock its network of content sites, which include ehow.com and livestrong.com. In just a few years, the company has become the largest uploader of video content to YouTube, ranks in the top 50 of ComScore’s rankings and had estimated revenues of $200 million in 2009.
"We took the art of traditional media and married it with all the science technology affords," says Jeremy Reed, vice president of Demand’s editorial operations.
Demand Media claims its contributors produce between 4,000 and 6,000 articles every day. My goal for today is more modest: to get enough done to make my hourly rate respectable. But with an average per-article payment of $15, I’ll have to hustle.
Its low freelance pay rate is one of the main reasons Demand Media has received criticism from several media watchers, who accuse the company (and others like it) of creating a “content farm” where bland content is produced wholesale, quality be damned.
Demand’s defenders insist that the company represents a new model for online media, offering steady and reliable work to the thousands of underemployed writers in the world.
The one thing that everybody can agree on is that Demand’s method of creating content is unique. To get an insider’s view of the process, I signed up to be a contributor. Here’s how it works:
As a new Demand Studios writer, after I enter in my personal information, I am able to scroll through prospective stories I can “claim.” Most of the assignments are for how to articles to appear on ehow.com, while others contain puzzling titles that seem as if my dictionary threw up on my screen (i.e. “How to Make a Domain Controller a Global Catalog” or “How to Make the Line Heights Smaller on the Bottom of a Profile”).
That’s all thanks to the algorithm that helps capital “D” Demand keep up with lowercase “d” demand.
Most of Demand Media’s editorial process is fairly traditional: editors edit, writers write and advertising pays the bills. However, it is not a wise editor or an intrepid reporter who generates the company’s article ideas. Instead, Demand relies on a proprietary algorithm to help editors best determine what subjects their writers should tackle.
"It's the world's largest pitch meeting, except you know that there are no bad ideas," says Reed.
The algorithm propels the editorial train by spitting out keywords that are then assembled into grammatically correct titles by a “title editor”.
But the keywords aren’t generated at random. They are weighed against several factors to help assure there is a market for the content and that it lands on the first page of Google’s search results. According to Reed, the keywords are primarily chosen based on three criteria:
Competition. Demand tries to avoid competitive keywords to help maximize the revenue from each article. For example, there are thousands of people fighting over “New York City lawyer” but not “skylight tile roof.” After all, search engine users rarely click past the first page of search results.
Revenue. The company only goes after keywords that will bring adequate advertising revenue in cost per click campaigns. For example, “Brittney Spears” does not garner high amounts of Google Adsense revenue, but keywords related to health do – those are the types of keywords that Demand routinely targets.
- Traffic on existing content. The more articles Demand produces, the larger the algorithm’s data set becomes. The company claims 90 million monthly unique visitors across all of its sites, and each visitor is a “vote” that a particular keyword or article style is working.
Despite the editors, some titles can seem nonsensical and obscure. However, that’s exactly the point.
"We are creating content with editorial rigor in place where it doesn't exist," says Reed.
For example, no one you know is likely searching the Web for the aluminum unit on a 1974 Chrysler Outboard. But somebody out there is, and that someone is likely the target customer for someone’s CPC campaign.
The algorithm is just the beginning, setting off an assembly line of editors and copy editors to help turn an entire article around in a little over a week.
First, Demand Media’s proprietary algorithm selects keywords and phrases that are likely to be popular (see above).
Then, a “Title Editor” arranges the keywords to form coherent titles. So “AC” “voltage” and “light bulb” become “Can you run an AC voltage light bulb on DC voltage?” There are hundreds of title editors that are paid per title.
Another group of editors prioritizes the titles, giving the good ones a green light and sending the duds back to the title editors.
The approved titles appear in the writer’s dashboard. The payout for a story depends largely on the destination site and the length of the story, but most stories pay $15. Some stories pay using a split of advertising revenues.
After a writer “claims” a story, he or she has seven days to complete it. The writer must provide references and supporting documentation, have three subheds and write a short intro. A form of text boxes and a detailed Demand style guide help the writer conform to the standard of the site they are writing for.
- After the writer submits the article, it is automatically checked for plagiarism using a third party plagiarism checker, then routed to one of Demand’s 500-600 copy editors. The copy editor can either send it back to the writer or approve it for publication. Each site has its own guidelines, bit the writers are instructed to follow AP style except when SEO research shows otherwise (i.e. “Web site” is AP style, most people type “website” when searching).
- Once the story is approved, both the copy editor and the writer get paid. Payments are issued twice a week through PayPal.
Demand’s rate of content production has many calling the company a “content farm”: a site more concerned about output than quality. The company has been widely panned around the net for gaming Google for the sake of pageviews.
TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington:
“Hiring a bunch of people who couldn’t keep their old media jobs and don’t have the stomach to go out on their own and then slapping little or no editorial oversight onto these masses of sub-par journalists leads to an inevitable conclusion – cheap, crappy content.” (source)
Arrington isn’t alone. A Wired feature that explored the inner workings of the company had many commenters questioning the ethics of it all.
“Terrific article,” wrote one, “It made me want to hurl.”
To help fight such negative perceptions, the company has announced plans to form an editorial Board of Advisors of respected media types that the company says will provide “guidance in all matters related to the ways the company’s content is created.”
Executives also defend the setup for Demand’s freelancers. “What's more like a sweatshop: someone's living room working their own hours or a typical newsroom?” said founder and CEO Richard Rosenblatt in an interview with ReadWriteWeb.
Rosenblatt’s words echoed in my mind as I completed my first assignment for Demand: an ehow.com story titled “How to design a Web site for free.” From research to writing, the 380-word story took me 40 minutes. After submitting my copy to an editor, I can track its progress through Demand’s system as if it were a UPS package.
Right now, my story has been firmly planted in the “Under copy editor review” section where it can sit for up to seven days. I’m hopeful I’ll get it approved this week.
I can’t wait for the payments to start rolling in.
Update: I heard back from my editor.