The changing face of written Internet content

Written Internet content has changed over the years, often at the sacrifice of quality and truth.

When I first started looking for freelance writing and editing work last October, I turned to oDesk.com, a site specializing in the online workplace. I still do most of my work through the site, but not without sifting through a depressing sea of online article writing jobs.

In what may come as a surprise to many people, there is a burgeoning market for cheaply written content for Web sites. One need only to look through the job listings in the “Writing & Translation” section of oDesk to discover this market’s pulse.

“I am looking for someone to write, spin, and submit 30 keyword loaded articles ranging 500 – 1000 words,” says the author of a job posting, who listed a budget of $5.00 U.S.

“I need 10 completely unique articles of 400 words each on the topic of allergy remedies,” another job poster states. The budget on that job is only marginally better at $20.00.

But fresh blog articles are not the only written Web content in demand. Many site owners look to reuse existing content in a practice called rewriting or “spinning.” Article spinning essentially involves taking previously written content (often copyrighted) and rewriting it so that it is optimized for search engines without being flagged as duplicate content.

“We will provide you with articles which need to be rewritten, so you will not be required to do any kind of research, just to rewrite the article,” states another job advertisement on oDesk. “You will be given a batch of 5 articles to rewrite so please quote for 5 articles not one. The rewritten articles must be 100% unique and must pass the Copyscape test.” By using Copyscape, Web publishers can help ensure that articles aren’t plagiarised, which would lead to red flags at search engines like Google.

But why is this sort of cheap, underwhelming content being created, often at Third World prices? What other changes are occurring with online written content? What does the changing media model mean for online news?

All of these questions are tied to a rapid shift in how the Internet is being used to transmit information and increase revenues. The shift is complex and difficult to define, but its indicators are everywhere in online written media. One only has to wade through the scores of blogs, journals, and news aggregators to see them.

The roots of the changes affecting online written content exist in the increasingly ubiquitous Internet and computer technology in use. It’s difficult to deny that as the number of Internet users worldwide continues to increase, access to online writing tools such as blogs and social networking sites also increases. However, while more people are suddenly able to share their thoughts and idea using the written word, it also means there’s an increased demand for online content. That’s where content providers, replete with visions of profit, come into the picture.

Enterprising Web gurus eventually figured out in the early twenty-first century that the combination of optimizing Web content to appear at the top of search results (called “search engine optimization” or SEO) and well-placed advertisements could yield significant revenue. Programs such as Google AdWords and Microsoft adCenter helped bolster the popularity of the scheme. By throwing in cheaply-written material, targeted based on changing user trends, Web content providers could potentially make significant money.

Our news and how we receive it has also changed. It’s no secret that journalism and the newspaper industry have seen a wide variety of problems. As more people seeking media content have moved to the digital realm, so have advertisers. Many newspapers have had to make massive cuts to stay afloat, including the consolidation or reduction of editing and fact checking. Sadly, such measures carry over to the digital realm.

“The tough economic times have resulted in the reduction of staff checkers, and those that are left are looking for new ways to justify their existence,” said Craig Silverman, who attended a major fact checking conference in Germany this past March.

Reductions to journalism budgets? Rewritten and plagiarised Web content? Stale news and commentary that is poorly written? Is this what the Internet has to offer us today? Are fact checking, solid editing, and well-written, informative content disappearing? Or are these aspects being drowned out by a sea of mediocrity?

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