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Is People Per Hour any use?

During last autumn’s climate of fear about a collapse in the publishing industry, I registered with People Per Hour – a freelance marketplace that allows you to bid on projects posted by a whole range of potential clients. I was curious to see how it worked, and also thought I might even get some paying work out of it. 

The verdict? After receiving dozens of job notifications and bidding on several of them – no, it doesn’t really work.

At least, it didn’t work for me. I guess it works for the clients, as there seem to be plenty of bids on most projects. And I guess it worked for whoever put in those winning bids. So what went wrong?

In some ways, People Per Hour is a bit like eBay – you can build up feedback, or recommendations, from other clients on work you’ve done, so that you have a visible track record of competence. It’s what I do in the real world, with recommendations from people I know and have worked for. 

But unlike eBay it’s a bit difficult to get started if no one will employ you and, therefore, no one will recommend you. A bit Catch-22. 

You can also put samples of your work online and fill in lots of detail in the CV/resumé section – so maybe that’s where I’m going wrong. I haven’t really spent enough time on my online profile to attract clients. 

But there are other problems with the site. The main one is the inability of clients to put together a meaningful brief. You’ll often get a brief that asks for “30 blog posts”, or “eight articles”, without specifying how many words they want. And as freelance writers tend to work on a word rate, that is fairly useless. 

Or take this one for Web research & Content editing.

I am putting together a web-project that requires information-gathering about how to do business around the world. I need an educated writer who will research, gather information and compile 900-1200 word articles on how to do business in each country.

Er – how many countries exactly? Doesn’t say. I mean, there are nearly 200.

Another issue is the vagueness of the fees on offer. This project, for “Article writing”, is typical. 

We require 5 quality, keyword targeted articles of approximately 400 – 500 words on a variety of topics relating to tyres / minibuses / general driving. Each article should be original, engaging and informative with accurate spelling and punctuation. Clarification will be given to the successful bidder to confirm article ideas / titles. The articles are required immediately. Longer term we will require 1 or 2 articles a week.

And the fee? “Less than £250”, it says. But £250 for what? The initial five articles? Or for an ongoing commitment to supply them indefinitely? Probably the former – but it’s all a bit vague.

If you want clarification you can post questions to the site, the way you can on eBay, but clients don’t seem to respond to them very often.

And, while one of the bids I saw accepted for a job I punted for was below above mine [sorry, proofreading slip],  a lot of the writing work also seems to require an awful lot of words for very little money.

A mental health website asking for three blog posts a week, at 350-400 words each, accepted a bid of £220 for the first 30 posts. That’s about £18 per thousand words, or ten times less than I would think of an acceptable, if pretty low, rate. Yes – there’s probably minimal research involved, but still. £220 is about a day and a half’s pay – which isn’t very long to write 12,000 words. 

Which means, of course, that the quality of the work will be a bit slipshod. I was amused at a comment made by one company offering a Large Scale Copy Writing Project that: 

“My previous Copy Writer completed around 200 articles per 10 days – his speed was adequate, however his quality was not.”

Well, given that he’s asking for 20 articles of 300-350 words each per day, I’m not really surprised. 

Lessons learned about online markets. They:

  • Open up the industry – This one allows me far greater access to potential clients than I could ever have achieved rootling around myself on Google. And clients wanting editorial services have access to a vastly increased pool of labour.
  • Drive down costs – with 100 bids on that blogging project I mentioned above, you’re bound to get one that’s in your price range. Problem for the writer is, it also cuts your earnings down to the bone. 
  • Drive down quality – Well, that’s kind of a given. If you have to write 1,000 words an hour to get a half decent rate, then you’ll tend to produce hack work. 
  • Democratise writing – Anyone can bid on these jobs, so you don’t need a journalism degree, or NCTJ qualifications, or have worked in the publishing industry. If you can write at all, and want to pitch in, you can. Yes, this means quality can be an issue, but then I’ve met a lot of so-called “professional journalists” who can’t write to save their lives. 
  • Undermines the growing university stranglehold on journalism – as you may know, I’m not a big fan of the journalism BA. Markets like this at least level the playing field for writers who don’t want to spend £20,000 getting a degree in a subject that should be taught vocationally. 

So, some good, some bad. People Per Hour also reveals some other very interesting things about freelance writing. 

Most obviously, that a lot of journalism/writing is not about the writing. Instead, many of these projects are for the web, and they tend to make a priority of search engine optimisation (SEO), web development and link-building (ie getting other sites to link to the one you’re writing). 

What this means for freelancers is that being able to generate beautiful copy is just not that important anymore – at least for an awful lot of projects. The skills you actually need are more in the realm of web analytics, SEO, scanability, building links. Though, interestingly, a lot of the project listings do stress the need for correct spelling and grammar. Graduates take note.

So – online freelance marketplaces. Is it worth trying to get work through them?

I think yes, if you’re:

  • A journalism student trying to get some experience
  • Working in an English-literate low-wage economy wanting access to the western publishing industry
  • Someone with no qualifications or experience wanting to break into writing

But if you’re already a jobbing freelance writer, not so much.

Will this change in time? I bet it will. I suspect that online marketplaces will steadily drive down the money publishers are prepared to pay for average copy. Though it may not affect the money they’ll pay for really good writing so much, as that may still be at a premium. 

Do I think this is a disaster? Not really. I’ve never been a fan of restricted entry into a profession (or trade, really, when it comes to journalism) as a way of propping up wages. 

Too many journalists get away with writing sloppy copy and earn money for it. If you’re good enough to make a living at something, the secret to success is to develop more skills and, basically, be better at writing. Much better.

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The public sector doesn’t understand the web

Amusingly, thanks to Paul Bradshaw, I’ve just found out that my links to the Daily Mail in a couple of posts were against the paper’s terms and conditions. 

Apparently the papers have realised just how stupid (and unenforceable) that was and have recanted

Well done (though will it save them? Maybe not).

But apparently many government departments still insist that bloggers et al ask for editorial permission to link to their content. And this while take-up of government e-services is still apparently abysmal. 

The twisted irony of all of this is that Google – the primary route by which citizens access public sector websites – considers an inbound link a ‘vote’ for the site when it comes to assessing its importance and thus its place in search results. So by actively discouraging inbound links, these websites are doing one of the worst things possible to knock down their search engine ranking and web traffic.

Clearly the public sector – as well as many newspapers – just don’t understand how the web works. Your tax dollars (pounds, euros) at work…

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Journalism.co.uk listing

On the day that Freelance Unbound is included on the Journalism.co.uk blogroll for the first time (and in the top slot no less! Though only as it’s the most recent) I checked out the WordPress web statistics to find – today’s was the lowest traffic since the start of March. Hmm. 

Well, I sort of expected a mini spike in traffic, once I realised it had been included, but it seems not. Interesting how that goes – maybe Journalism.co.uk users don’t spend much time on the blog roll, preferring the news and job pages. (Or maybe something will happen this evening.) 

Either way, it’s interesting. As it happens, I’m particularly interested in the ways in which people find their way around the internet and the blogosphere. Are blogs read mainly by bloggers? (Which would mean the WordPress site itself was more important for building an audience). Or do people find odd relevant posts via a Google search and then maybe stay on board if they find the rest of the content compelling?

I wonder how much crossover there is between those who enjoy what the media has always done – news, features, analysis – and those who enjoy the partisan and largely non-professional cloud of comment and interaction in blogs. Maybe not so much.

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Seven steps to switch from print to web journalism

A challenge from Twitter

Just up on the online journalism Twitter feed from Kari Rippetoe

What advice would you give a print journalism vet to transition into web content editing? Pls twt your advice & feel free to blog about it.

It’s an interesting question, and one I’m pretty much in the middle of, so OK Kari – I will. 

  1. Start a blog. Do it regularly (ie every day if you can). This is the hardest thing, as it’s like keeping a diary. But if you manage it, it’s fantastic discipline. 
    Don’t fall into the trap of writing long op-ed think pieces. Post quickly and succinctly, with lots of links to other things.
    Add pictures and video. Respond to other bloggers and the news. Remember it’s a conversation, at least in theory. 
  2. Understand web stats – web analytics are crucial now, for journos as well. Your blog is helpful for this. Join Technorati and BlogCatalog. Marvel at how far you are down the rankings. Work to boost your profile.
  3. Chunk it. Break down your writing into brief chunks. Short sentences. Little paragraphs. I’d be doing this more here, but I’m trying to figure out how to make the list work with line breaks. Gah.
  4. Did I mention links? Link out and try to get people to link in. Always think about adding value for readers and reaching out to other web content producers. It’s probably the single biggest difference between print and online. 
  5. Learn about SEO. Search engine optimisation is the bees knees when it comes to web content, so learn it.
    Having a blog will be helpful, as you can play around with keywords and see how your traffic fluctuates.
    SEO is simple in concept (just Google it), the trick is in execution. But if you can blather about it convincingly, you’ll sound more like an online journalist. [UPDATE: don’t make this mistake though. Make sure your SEO is actually relevant to your intended audience].
  6. Host your blog yourself. It might be worth buying hosting space (about £50 a year) and uploading the WordPress software instead of using the free service at WordPress.com. That way you’ll learn something of the back-end of web management. “But I’m a journalist, not a web developer!” you cry. Yes – but increasingly you will have to sort out this stuff yourself, especially if you are freelance. 
  7. Learn about web audio and video. Make videos and upload them to the web using a host such as Youtube or Vimeo.
    Learn to edit video – FinalCut is great if you can get it, but something simple such as iMovie or Movie Maker is fine for the principles.
    Create podcasts using simple software such as Audacity. Then figure out how to post them on your blog.
    It doesn’t matter what about – your hobbies or interests are fine. But experience in both the creative and technical side of web audio and video is very valuable, and quite rare for now (as I found out when I was asked to teach it at Solent University). 

When you’ve done all this, you can confidently go to a job interview and say “web journalism? Yes – I do that already.”

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Unmitigated blogging tags

It’s all-too easy to take this blogging nonsense too seriously – you know: try to burnish each post so that it flies off the Google listing straight into readers’ browsers and pushes you to the pinnacle of the Technorati rankings.

Which is why I always smile when I visit my pal Peter Ashley’s Unmitigated England blog [which I am happily going to pimp here].

He writes poetically and idiosyncratically about an England we half recognise – a mixture of the nostalgic and the fantastic, that may possibly have existed once in someone’s drowsy, mid-afternoon reverie. Perhaps in the 1930s.

He also never uses the same tag twice – preferring to treat web metrics with the contempt they often deserve. Visit Unexpected Alphabets No 8, for example, and you’ll see it tagged . And there’s not an example of any of these anywhere in the post. Meanwhile, the Old Gits post is labelled:  . Whatever they are.

Also, I notice from the blog, it was Len Deighton’s 80th birthday this week. Though he’s best known for his Harry Palmer novels, my favourite is the alternative history SS-GB. Many happy returns to him…

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Build a better profile online

Just discovered this post about how a journalist reworked her Google ranking to make her online presence better reflect her work.

Very interesting. The blogger – Susan Mernit – has done a good job filling her post with useful links and actually giving a clearer precis of what the journalist – Julia Angwin – actually did.

I see my first error has been not to call this blog ‘Simon Clarke Unbound’, as having your own name as top billing is crucial to me-me-me SEO. But then people might have got the wrong idea about the content and I wouldn’t be able to access it in the office.

I plan to give this a go, and see if it makes a difference to my [strangely negligible] web presence. Part of my problem is that a lot of my written content has been published by Haymarket’s trade titles and actually not been uploaded to its web sites. Or uploaded and then lost – hat tip HR Magazine.

Also, I love the web. I arrived at this post via a blog about surviving redundancy from AOL, that was linked to by a post in the Whatever. Just how does anyone get any work done these days?

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