“The funny thing about all these frothy millions and billions piling up? Most of the value was created by people working free.”

-David Carr, writing about HuffPo, Twitter, and Facebook


I have been meaning to address this issue for some time; It started with Seeking Alpha, then moved to RGE and Business Insider, before ending with my rejections to offers from Huffington Post and The Daily Beast. All are firms whose business model is to sell advertising on farmed content acquired for free (or nearly free). Carr’s article this morning — At Media Companies, a Nation of Serfs — finally forced me to publish my thoughts.

Over the past few years, numerous content sites have requested permission to rerun my original work. I have experimented with Seeking Alpha, Business Insider and RGE. In my experience (which could differ from yours) the benefits were de minimus.

Based on those experiences, I have said “Thanks, but no thanks” to requests from the Daily Beast and Huffington Post; I recently stopped publishing at Business Insider. And my experiences with Seeking Alpha were less than stellar, I stopped republishing content there several years ago.

Why? Because these are for-profit businesses, and as such, they seek to make a return on investment. They have convinced numerous professional Venture Capitalists to give them substantial piles of cash, with the promise they will seek an exit strategy — buyout or public offering — to generate a return for their equity investors and themselves — but not for their outside contributors.

You would not volunteer to work for free as a greeter at Wal-Mart, a barista at Starbucks or a fry cook at McDonalds — so why should you work for free at these content sites?

The short answer is The Dangle: A promise of rewards in the future for work performed now.

Ahhh, the dangle. In my career on Wall Street, I have discovered the dangle to be an effective way to get something for nothing from some sucker. It is a way for someone with the appearance of power and money to obtain goods and services for free, for a mere promise of future benefits. Early in my career, I fell for the dangle. No more.

In the present discussion, consider these various dangles made by content factories to me over the years:

1) You will get traffic back from the content site;
2) You’re building an audience;
3) You are enhancing your own personal brand;
4) You will raise your Google Page Rank
5) You are developing a reputation

In my experience, all of these are untrue.

Note that most of these promises are rather difficult to measure (except traffic) and all of these are even more difficult to attribute back to the content aggregator. In reality, these promise are illusory, the benefits IMHO never accrue to the blogger.

Do the math: I used to contribute to TheStreet.com (on a paid basis, they are NOT a content farm). But as that site got more popular, my columns got lost in a sea of words. Being part of a community was lost as TSCM scaled; I found a more immediate and useful community around the Big Picture.  What is worse, the various aggregator sites have become so busy that to be seen or heard, one must scream — outrageous claims and ridiculous headlines — not outstanding content — are what garner page views there. No thanks.

About now, someone is typing an email saying “Hey Ritholtz, you have other people’s content in the Think Tank — aren’t you being a hypocrite?

Actually, no. The Think Tank contributors are market professionals. They are friends and colleagues who already have a brand and reputation. And, these folks are financially independent. For the most part, they publish to Wall Street, not the public, and the Think Tank was originally conceived as a way to inject their ideas into the broader public debate. More importantly, the Think Tank is curated, meaning two or three pieces get published most days; not untold 100s.

If you currently “donate” your content to an aggregator, I suggest you should ask yourself the following questions:

1) Am I giving away content to a firm that received VC funding? What is their potential upside? What is mine?

2) Has the Dangle been met? Have the promises of benefits made to me occurred? Am I seeing substantial Traffic increase?

3) When I search for my own content on Google, is my site ranked below my own content republished by aggregators?

4) Is any enhancement to my brand or professional reputation coming from the aggregator’s site?

5) What benefits, if any, are accruing from republished content?

As I said, I did the math, and you should as well.

Don’t be a Serf.


At Media Companies, a Nation of Serfs
NYT February 13, 2011

Category: Financial Press, Venture Capital, Web/Tech, Weblogs

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

47 Responses to “The Dangle: Illusory Promises of Content Farms”

  1. constantnormal says:

    … but really, isn’t the entirety of capitalism built atop such a pyramid? Isn’t that why the people at the bottom are (almost) always abused and taken advantage of by those on the top?

    NO CEO could sit atop the mountains of profits that they so self-righteously soak up in the form of outlandish salaries and ridiculous bonuses (most of which come from riding the business cycle, and have nothing whatsoever to do with their efforts or skills), without an army of serfs who support them.

    It’s really only a matter of degree between paying nothing and paying a comparative pittance.

  2. CHB says:

    Among the really bad side effect of these competitive noise machines like Seeking Alpha are:

    1). That writers tend to get all get on the same side of the same ‘hot’ issues at the same time. Content by Google Trends;

    2). They turn search engines into spamdexing promoters as the same lot, saying the same thing, take over the first results pages.

    These operations destroy the utility of the internet as anything but a source of hot gossip.

  3. constantnormal:

    In capitalism, you are exchanging your labor for wages.

    In a healthy economy, if you offer valuable services you should end up getting fair value for those services.

    The issue you raise have two components that skew this dynamic

    1) This recovery is not a partuclarly healthy one;
    2) The skillset of many of the unemployed and low wage workers is outmoded or commoditized.

    Now, stir in a dollop of crony capitalism, poor corporate governance, no oversight by institutional owners.

    Hence, the increasing wealth disparity in the US

  4. [...] Barry: Just Say No to Content Farms.  (TBP) [...]

  5. mhdoc says:

    ” What is worse, the various aggregator sites have become so busy that to be seen or heard, one must scream — outrageous claims and ridiculous headlines — not outstanding content — are what garner page views there.”

    It is especially entertaining when both sides of some non-event are screaming at you from the same page.

  6. InvestmentAnalysis says:

    “Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data, ability to repeat discredited memes, and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Also, be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor even implied. Any irrelevancies you can mention will also be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.”

    >>> I LITERALLY cried laughing reading the above. Hilariously perfect. Thumbs up.

    As for the post, completely agreed.

  7. Well said. I’d separate this into two categories. First is the true ‘pay to play’ scams like vanity publishing houses; see also the widely advertised music ‘promotion’ site called truecore (in which you pay them $10 per song for them to ‘promote’ it on-line).

    Pre-Internet, you have the radio model for getting your music played. You send them a copy and hope it gets played. W/the demise or radio and deejays however this kind of dinosauric. See also payola in terms of how that system was gamed. Remember also, that w/music if you’re licensed to ASCAP or BMI there is at least a theoretical chance of getting paid if your stuff is played.

    In the end, what you charge for your stuff is taken by the customer has an inherent judge of its quality. If you put out a sign in your yard saying “free vegetables” people are going to assume there’s something wrong with them.

    Like Barry said, it’s good to be at least a bit skeptical of the value you receive if somebody else wants to use your content as part of their monetized business plan but not offer you a slice of the pie. If their gambit is that it will ‘increase your visibility’ thereby possibly increasing the chance you will “somehow” get a return “somewhere down the line” you might want to think twice. Also, in general, a monetized model based on content providers willing to contribute their work gratis tends to guarantee that the provided content won’t be of very good quality.

  8. Also, since I’m old school (dead tree newspaper), even at the smallest papers I’ve edited or been a part of, we felt an ethical responsibility to pay for contributed editorial content. It might have only been a pittance ($10) but it’s better than nothing and it least gives you (the editor) the right to send a promising piece back for improvement, which is hard to do if you’re not giving the writer any money. In the ‘old’ newspaper model, the idea is to develop relationships with those writers who have potential, and hopefully with some coaching, help them become better, thereby improving their contributions and giving you a return on your initial investment in them.

  9. Julia Chestnut says:

    I get paid to write. Pretty much all of my adult life, I have been paid to write in one capacity or another. It’s not a glamorous job, but I worry a great deal about the new (well, even worse) trend of not paying the writer.

    What makes it especially insidious is that the ability to write – a good, sound knowledge of grammar, literary traditions, syntax, a little wit, completion, attention to detail – is an increasingly rare commodity. More and more kids are ripping their content for papers they are supposed to write from the web, fewer and fewer are learning the craft. Before we even talk about content – because really, everyone assumes that they have brilliant content to contribute – how many people do you know who accomplish the mechanics of writing well (or even competently) these days?

    Because written communication is still important, at the moment, in doses over 140 characters, a functioning market would suggest that people who can write would be getting more for their work. But instead the publishing world has collapsed, and no one is sure what business model is going to fill the void any more. And people who can consistently turn out 250-1500 words of good material twice daily, with all the punctuation in the right places? Working for free.

    Bad bad and worse. I’m feeling like an endangered species. Of course, considering that I spent a stint writing technical manuals and institutional reports (which is kind of the writing equivalent of being able to bat well – there is always a place for you on the team), I can potentially keep body and soul together.

    But seriously. It sucks. And it is one reason I hate Huffpo and refuse to give them clicks.

  10. sorry,

    for above Post, @09:11, better link http://search.yippy.com/search?input-form=clusty-simple&v%3Asources=webplus&v%3Aproject=clusty&query=Search+Data+Analytics+Taxonomies+Clouds

    the link, from above, was for the “visualization” ‘Cloud’, from left-hand margin..

  11. ronin says:

    Actually, Business Insider has got it right: Post a bunch of pictures with few captions and then let the commenters have fun writing for free! Actually, the commenters on BI are the funniest on the Net because BI still let’s people post without signing up which, IMHO, makes for some great stuff!

  12. anony says:

    In a sense, when you self-checkout at Walmart, you are working-for-free there. When you self-serve your own drinks at the Golden Arches, you are working-for-free there.


    BR: True, but you make the decision to self checkout to save time. If the lines are the same at Home Depot or Lowes, I let the cashiers do it. And the self serve tradeoff for beverges is unlimited refills.

  13. mhdoc says:

    @Julia Chestnut

    It has never been easier or cheaper to write and sell your own material. Your work can be available on Amazon via their CreateSpace division at no cost to you until something sells. It costs almost nothing to promote your writings on your own website where you can also build a following. From where I sit it looks like a golden age for writers.

  14. DeDude says:

    There are also models where the blogger gets a piece of the advertising revenue depending on their traffic. Those are probably a lot more fair and sensible to use for someone who is trying to get a little back for their efforts. Is that how WordPress works?

  15. beaufou says:

    I agree 100%, I get “offers” in my line of work.
    Donating time and product for exposure and potential returns.
    Well, the returns were always ephemeral or non-existent…so screw it.
    Man works, man gets paid, end of story.

  16. DeDude says:


    I understand the concerns of professional journalist and writers about the current changes. My hope is that we eventually will get to the point where web-newspapers would become individualized such that each person automatically is presented with their own personalized newspaper based on settings of “favorite authors” and “subjects” plus maybe a list “hot articles”. In that model content providers could be paid per hit and good writers would eventually more money because they would develop a base of readers. I hope there are efforts amongst journalists themselves to develop such a site as a non-profit organization facilitating high quality information.

  17. Wuwei says:

    “But seriously. It sucks.”

    Julia Chestnut nails it. I, too write for a living, such as it is, and we are a dieing breed. Many of the dead tree publications have disappeared and most of the rest are on life support. Now they are all struggling to make it online, but the advertisers aren’t paying for online and therefore they aren’t paying the contributors. Few writers have figured out how to make this online stuff work. I think it will require a different model entirely, which most of us haven’t yet figured out.

  18. davebr says:

    It’s even stranger when you see a community being sold and thanked on video – here’s Chad & Steve from youtube


  19. [...] The Dangle: Illusory Promises of Content Farms (The Big Picture) [...]

  20. Dan Duncan says:

    An excellent post.

    Of course, much of this analysis could be directed towards your regular commenters who regularly provide quality insights (for free) as well. A few of your regular commenters, like Mark Hoffer and Patrick Neid, really do enhance this blog. They are also providing content…and it really enhances the underlying posts.

    [BTW: Whatever happened to people who used to post here like Steve Barry, Leftback and CNBC Sucks? Did they go off and blog on their own? Those guys were also smart and entertaining as well. They brought a lot of value to this blog.]

  21. mhdoc says:

    Over in the “Internet Marketing” swamp the “Gurus” are busy showing people how to make money having articles written in the third world for 2 cents a word, or how to rip articles from article sites and then “spin” them into hundreds of variants with software. Add a keyword targeted domain name, a WordPress install with a few automation plugins and there you are.

    That’s why you are seeing articles about Google’s search results being so useless.

    Surely any good writer could build some well written, informative, sites which is what searchers and advertisers are looking for.

  22. MrRespectable says:

    I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.

  23. JMelville says:

    Our local paper just “parntnered” with the local sports radio station, which has a top rating in the market. I guess the paper got tired of the hosts reading the content on the air and blabbering about it all day. Now it gets a plug on the air and the paper has to have it talented sports writers call in and offer analysis between boob jokes. What a partnership.

  24. theorajones says:

    A good argument. Except…you go on TV, I assume, for free.

    I think the key difference here is that TV is a proven medium for enhancing one’s stature, selling books, etc., and it’s pretty well known what the return is for appearing on various shows. While with the internet, we’re still not sure what the return will be for these totally new media ventures.

    I think that initially it made sense to jump into these internet things because the “dangle” was real. There was an opportunity to be an early adopter and if it were successful, get the massive returns that come with that in exchange for just a little sweat equity. If you managed to get 100,000 twitter followers in the early days, you’re a big winner today because you’ve been able to leverage them to millions and get stuff as a result. And odds are your success isn’t replicable today because the competition is just too stiff–and some early adopter took the niche you’d exploit.

    But once they get going, the dangle isn’t true anymore. By now, it’s really hard to break into twitter or these other platforms, and being yet another poster on HuffPo doesn’t add anything. The people who are dangling opportunities to you are lying, the same way that someone who told you that you could sell a million romance novels by appearing on ESPN’s sports center would be a liar.

    But in the beginning, the dangle is true. Because nobody really does know what’s going to work. But by the time they’re being valued in the billions, like any other business you should know what you get out of this and it should be worth MORE than you put into it.

  25. AndrewShaw says:

    This has a resemblance to the “Groupon Dangle” too. More leeches on small biz, just what they don’t need.

  26. TheUnrepentantGunner says:

    oops my comment never went through correctly. anyway, that article i think is a pretty intelligent counter point.

    one thing it sort of misses, is that with the increased ease in publishing in all forms, there is more content than ever. surely while content as a whole is worth more than it used to be (both in dollar terms and in value to society), the actual value per word has unmistakably dropped.

    if i want information on a meaningful issue and know how to look, i could get plenty of intelligent viewpoints from people in the industry. Even relatively niche areas have at least a few people, sometimes of opposing viewpoints.

    The reader has very tough task, and one that develops over time, namely filtering the garbage from the legitimate, and even while acknowledging that shills can occasionally produce meaningful content as well, or great writers sometimes just have mental holes.

    to do this without letting too much of your own existing bias in is mentally taxing.

    so with that, there is so much content, most of it free, why should the thousands of writers for huffington post be paid? If they started their own enterprise what would separate them from the thousands of other commentators, or make them better than DailyKos or the national review or the atlantic or whatnot?

    Lastly, Nassim Taleb loved to talk of extremistan. 100 years ago there were no multi millionare entertainers, but lots of decently paid ones, because there were no cd’s or records to speak of, but lots of mostly talented but maybe not brilliant folk singers or opera stars or theatre actors or whatnot.

    Now for a variety fo technological and social reasons, there are a few really rich people (think Jay-Z), and lots of people that are more or less starving.

    Similarly with books, there’s the lady who wrote Harry Potter, and lots of starving authors. (i havent read harry potter but I’ve had at least one fifty-something drop a reference to him that he had to explain to me on a work call of all places, and then follow it up with a recommendation that i should really read it).

    You can either find a niche (for me ritholtz and fivethirtyeight are MUST-READS because so much of it is data driven, and even if I disagree with Barry I have to read the article because there’s a non-zero chance I hadn’t seen the data presented that way), or just be really good at what you do (paul kedrosky?).

    And with that, i think the next big bubble is sports radio guys and journalists. The fungibility of these guys is high, higher than the fools running newspapers and TV stations realize.

  27. With respect Barry, it’s easy for a one-man content farm to denounce content farms, especially when you’ve used those farms (at least in some small way) to build your ability to stand on your own. Still, as a blogger just starting year 2, your advice here inspires me to resist donating content. Just don’t want to be naive and think my voice/brand can rise up on its own…

  28. J. Wenger says:

    Great commentary BR! “The Dangle” definitely has a strong pull…what could be easier than writing a few articles and slapping some Google ads on them. *Poof* – instant financial freedom. Squidoo takes it one step further and gives you templates (lenses) to help you monetize.

    But that said, trying to establish a reader base is difficult. With the blackbox nature of Google Search rankings, it seems that the rules of the game are constantly being tweaked just enough so that no one REALLY knows what works and what doesn’t. If you’re just starting out, this makes it easy for content farms to say:

    1) You will get traffic back from the content site;
    2) You’re building an audience;
    3) You are enhancing your own personal brand;
    4) You will raise your Google Page Rank
    5) You are developing a reputation

    without having to measure success or deal with repercussions. I mean, how ELSE are YOU going to play the game; you’ve got no presence without us. And we just quietly “accept” it as the norm.

    Rather than getting paid to write great content with a laser-like focus, we’re given some buckshot and sent to a sniper competition.

  29. Julia Chestnut says:

    mhdoc, what you are talking about really is writing fiction. If you write poetry – yeah: vanity, either chapbook or online, is where it’s at. You will notice that you are still not getting paid, you are just paying less for the pleasure of sharing what you wrote.

    But I would still argue that it is far from a “golden age,” just that the model has radically changed and is still in flux. Where publishing houses used to have a slush pile and a group of dedicated editors/readers who worked through it looking for gems, now there is a torrent of crap (and the occasional gem) that you can weed through for YOURSELF on the web, and the publishers will take the results of that work you did for them for free in picking out the gems and maybe publish what floats to the top of that sewer. They fired the editors. So as a reader, you will now wind up with what the most people clicked on for published work. I don’t know about you – but I consider that a disaster. Worse, they accept work only represented by agents for the most part now. No more slush pile. Again, it is a fundamental change in how work is vetted and chosen and it implies some good things and some bad. I don’t disagree with breaking the strangle hold of the houses, I just disagree with that meaning that the creator of the work should get paid even less. Remember, literary magazines and other outlets used to pay by the word/page when you got published. In other words, you can publish online for free now – but it used to be that when you wrote something good, you got paid and built a kind of portfolio that you could take with you up the line.

    In depth regulatory analysis? Translation of the parts and assembly schematic for a German-manufactured agricultural grade pump? Monographs on aquaculture? I have done all of those things in my writing life. Seriously, I’m not turning out chic lit here. At the moment I’m called an “editor,” but I turn out news stories on demand sometimes even now. Suffice it to say that my kind are buying the cheap beer these days and are feeling kind of worried.

  30. mhdoc says:

    Julia, Have you actually looked at CreateSpace.com? There are no agents, vetting etc. You are free to promote your work however you like.

    “it used to be that when you wrote something good, you got paid and built a kind of portfolio that you could take with you up the line” Now you can write and publish whatever you think is good. If readers agree you get paid. Your list of previous customers and visitors to your website is your portfolio.

    I have webpages I first put online in 1998 that still generate income every month.

  31. J. Wenger says:

    Here’s a recent example of Google’s attempt to weed out content farms:


    And some more editorial from the owner of SiteSell for those who are interested:


    Ken calls these articles “pap”. Just goes to show you that writing great content is the only way to go…even if it is the slow way. But then again, so is brand building!

  32. [...] a well-known financial writer who runs a site called The Big Picture, says in a recent post that he has given up these kinds of arrangements with sites such as Seeking Alpha, TheStreet.com and Business Insider. The alleged benefits that [...]

  33. Frwip says:

    Haven’t looked at the comments so forgive me if the point has already been made.

    I think Barry points to the one model where content farming is actually useful, with the Think Tank. There are a lot of really good, insightful contributors out there who do not have an output large enough to justify a blog/site as a “destination”. But, as Barry says, it has to be actively curated, essentially as a magazine.

    Group blogs out there kinda strive to do that, but it’s mostly miss rather than hit. Contributors tend to use them as dumping ground, without coherence or quality control.

  34. [...] Barry on content farms and how little they offer to the [...]

  35. [...] a well-known financial writer who runs a site called The Big Picture, says in a recent post that he has given up these kinds of arrangements with sites such as Seeking Alpha, TheStreet.com and Business Insider. The alleged benefits that [...]

  36. [...] The Dangle: Illusory Promises of Content Farms. Why content farms and aggregators like The Huffington Post are a no go, says Barry Ritholtz, a Wall Street commentator. [...]

  37. covel says:

    My blog drives far fewer eyeballs than Barry here, but my niche has worked well for 10+ years across books and online. Barry’s words above? Spot on. If you want to create with words, audio or video online (or offline) — heed his wisdom or pay later. There will be far more value later on if you prove yourself as a unique niche versus seeing your content lost on some farm.

  38. scm0330 says:

    When I go to McDonalds, I ask for a water cup. And then, at the self-serve station, I fill it with soda. The pimply-faced kid who took my order hasn’t a clue. That’ll teach them.

  39. Barry writes:

    “Being part of a community was lost as TSCM scaled.”

    I think this is a very important observation – the content farms need scale to generate a return, and it is that scale which turns a small world network into a brand, changing forever the community.

  40. Jojo says:

    You would not volunteer to work for free as a greeter at Wal-Mart, a Barista at Starbucks or a fry cook at McDonalds — so why should you do so for free at these content sites?

    The short answer is The Dangle: A promise of rewards in the future for work performed now.
    The Dangle – I like it!

    In the sales world, the dangle is another word for a straight commission job, used by underfunded or cheap, predatory companies everywhere. You do work for us. Maybe you will be good/lucky enough to close some business. If not, no skin off our backs. We will then take the pipeline and all the contact info you have created for us as we bid you adieu and fare-thee-well and you will get nothing to show for your months of free work…

  41. BR as BD: “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothin’ to lose.”

    Oh yeah.

    Bloggeriffic !!!

  42. The other question, which Barry doesn’t touch on, is whether a writer wants actual readers or just fungible money. Let’s say you could game the system and get paid $1K a month in ‘eyeballs’ even if nobody actually reads your stuff but some ‘tracking service’ says somebody read it. Would that be satisfying? Would it make you feel good at the end of a day of writing? How would the check feel then?

  43. [...] The Dangle: Illusory Promises of Content Farms (The Big Picture) [...]

  44. [...] of Nielsen Norman Group laments the anti-consumer approach of service providers.The Dangle: Illusory Promises of Content Farms. Why content farms and aggregators like the [...]

  45. [...] One of the best articles for bloggers, that I’ve read in a long time.  Bloggers – Don’t give away your content!.  If you do – you’ve been Dangled. [...]