I graduated from college looking to get into journalism. Bold choice, I know. I’d worked for my student paper for three years and had a great portfolio, and I had attended conferences and workshops hosted by high-profile industry professionals. But so had thousands of other graduates.
I knew this was going to be hard — there were no delusions there. I knew that my entryway into the industry would probably involve an unpaid internship, which meant I should try to find something paid on the side, even if it were modest. Unfortunately, that was how I wound up working for a click farm.
If you don’t know what a click farm is, read on — because it wasn’t just a degrading and low-paying job. It took so much of my time that I ended up making around just $2.50 per hour.
Here’s how I got the click-farm job:
Between applying for legitimate (and not-so-legitimate) internships, I was combing Craigslist and Kijiji for extra writing jobs. These ran the gamut from people looking for essay edits and proposal writing to people who wanted their novels (of questionable quality) edited. I took those jobs, too, but when I saw a job post that signalled a continuous flow of assignments, I had to apply. The post itself was a bit unclear; it just mentioned needing freelancers to write “articles” covering “a variety of subjects.” They wanted good researchers, people who were fast and could follow instructions. It at least seemed like it would be intellectually stimulating, so I put together some clippings and applied.
The owner called within a few days. He was so enthusiastic that his explanation of his business was a bit broken up — he’d keep pausing to compliment my writing or tell little anecdotes. But what I gathered was this: he ran a series of websites that needed content in order for his sites to track better in Google searches. He wanted to “provide resources” for people, and possibly even write e-books in the future, which I could also contribute to. I knew it wasn’t journalism, but it was… something.
Red flag #1: This guy couldn’t provide a basic summary of what I was actually working for and how he made money.
The pay was $10 per 600-word article, which was under two cents per word. (For context, I have worked for companies that pay freelance reporters 50 cents per word.) I knew it was low, but it also required no interviews and basic Google research. If I could write one of these articles in an hour, that was close to minimum wage, right? I was hired on for three to five articles per week, which would give me enough money to not descend into total panic.
But what exactly is a click farm?
Click farms are websites with only one purpose: to be clicked on. The owners are the farmers, and the websites are the land. My boss owned at least half a dozen sites spanning several commonly Googled topics — Canadian universities, housing and rental information, online gaming and all sorts of random subjects. The crops — the things that generated the revenue — were the ads. In most cases, click farms will have a ton of ads, even if it looks terrible. What did the sites I wrote for look like? Good question: I never knew their URLs.
Red flag #2: I never actually saw my finished products.
The articles and their writers are the tools, the fertilizer, the pesticides, the farmhands, everything that is actually helping these crops get big and strong and bring in money. Because, you see, these farmers aren’t growing nice, organic, nutritious crops that you find at a farmer’s market. They’re growing flimsy, weird-looking tomatoes that you buy because they’re cheap and you’re in a hurry.
Say you Googled a community college because you want to know if it has on-campus housing. A high-ranking result pops up that looks like it has the answer. But when you click, it seems a bit rambling, the sentences seem awkward (because the writer had to make sure they got specific keywords in), and it quickly becomes clear that the person writing this article doesn’t actually know the answer. You close the tab, but now that you’ve just spent 60 seconds on that website, you’re recorded as an ad impression.
Ironically, I now report on media buying, and specialize in digital. In recent years I’ve learned just how big a role click farms play in what’s known as ad fraud.
When brands buy digital ads, they usually buy one of two ways: directly (they or their agency will say, for example, “I want to buy ads on Washington Post and Forbes”) or programmatically. Programmatic advertising is an automated system that targets and charges based on key factors like what demo you want to reach (say, women 18 to 34) and what your budget is. Ads are placed in real time across ad networks. That’s why you’ll see the same ads following you around, or why your view of a website might not look like someone else’s view of the same site (note: buying ads this way is also why sometimes brands’ ads will end up on controversial sites and they don’t know how they got there — which isn’t necessarily fraudulent, but goes to show what happens when brands don’t actually know where they’re buying ads).
Within programmatic lies a lot of potential for ad fraud. Sometimes there’s domain spoofing — an ad network will say it has access to a high-end site with a big, valuable audience, but that won’t be true. Other times, the ads are ending up on extremely low-quality sites and click farms.
They usually end on the click farms because the websites are constructed with very strong search engine optimization (SEO) in mind. Basically, the sites are tailored to have the highest Google ranking possible when you’re searching for something. (For what it’s worth, SEO is a completely valid practice, and many people make a living doing it.) The ads get purchased, the searchers click, and impressions become inflated as a result.
What did I do, and what did my typical “workday” look like?
Shortly after I got the job with the click farm, I also got an internship with an online magazine. It was more focused on writing than assisting or shadowing others (read: it was also a scam), but I was working remotely, which I saw as a balance: I could write stuff for my internship I could put in a portfolio, but make a bit of money writing one article per day.
I’d start my day with a click-farm article, because my boss ended up having a lot of feedback I’d have to address at the end of the day. The other writers and I would choose from a variety of topics on a Google doc. They were usually very closely related, some barely seeming different from one another, like “Food options at [community college]” versus “What’s the dining like at [community college]?” When we picked a topic, we were then given more specifics, like what keywords to work in.
The 600-word articles took surprisingly long to write because that’s a pretty high word count to fill out about a very limited subject. I had to comb the web for any info I could find because my boss would not tolerate being under on the word count. Having to work in specific keywords as much as possible without making Google suspicious was also super restrictive, so it required a lot of creativity. In the end, the initial write took 90 minutes, and edits usually gave me another 30 to 60 minutes of work. He did pay me on time and was full of compliments, but his instructions also bordered on contradictory, and I began to feel like my time could be better spent working in fast food or retail.
Red flag #3: My boss was often vague and very sudden with his decision-making. For example, after I’d submit my third article for a week, within seconds he’d respond by telling me not to submit any more until the next week, with no explanation.
This was the biggest, and final, click farm red flag.
One day, my boss requested a Skype meeting. I figured there was something wrong with my writing, but instead he was full of praise. In fact, he wanted to give me a raise to $13 per article. There was a catch, though: I had to breach a new subject.
He had just started up an online database for tips, cheats and information on Facebook games, which were big at the time. I’d never really been into social or mobile gaming, especially games like Yu-Gi-Oh and Fruit Ninja Frenzy, and I’d certainly never known how to “cheat” at these games. These were usually the kind of things I’d Google, not come up with myself. When I told him that, he assured me that he didn’t expect “cheats” so much as “helpful hints and strategies.”
There was also a new format. Rather than a free-written Google Doc, I had to submit my pieces through a Google Form, which divided it up into three sections: game description (250 words), how to win (250 words) and the strategies/hints section (250 words). So, my word count was now slightly higher as well, meaning I was only making under two cents per word. Plus, I was immediately confused: I couldn’t figure out how “how to win” was different from “strategies/hints,” and 250 words to describe something as simple as Fruit Ninja Frenzy was almost unattainable. The feedback became even more demanding and contradictory. At one point, he scolded me for not including what I actually thought of the game, even though that wasn’t what he asked for anywhere in the form.
The gaming assignments took much longer, because they required me to actually get through multiple levels of the games to get the information needed. A lot of levels were only unlocked either with money or extra time (usually a few hours), so I’d have to start the day by playing the game for half an hour or so, then switch to internship writing, then more playing, then more writing, etc. In the end, they took four to five hours to research and write, giving me $3.25 per hour (at best).
It was even cutting into my time to apply to other jobs. As interviews and other freelance gigs picked up, my boss became frustrated with my dwindling availability and performance (even though he still wasn’t letting me write five pieces per week). Finally, after a review on a game called Panda Jam, he sent a rambling email with detailed feedback such as “I’m just not ‘feeling it’ and I can’t explain why.” He also said he thought the minimum length was too short, and upped one of the sections to 375 to 500 words. He then casually mentioned that he was bringing on another writer for the games project, since I seemed to be struggling. He told me to reply directly to the email to get another assignment.
I never replied.
Some reflecting on my click farm “career”:
I knew from my first day on the “job” that it was pure bull. I knew that it was exploitative. But I was also working an unpaid internship that benefitted from my free labor, and I’d spent half my life working in fast food and service environments where I’d been grotesquely underpaid. I also knew that the assignment was bizarre. When my student journalism friends would get together and talk about their internships for the big dailies or the freelance piece they’d just finished for a magazine, I’d just smile and say, “I’m doing some copywriting right now.” I was embarrassed, but that felt pretty normal.
But only now, immersed in the digital media industry, do I have the knowledge to call my job a full-blown scam. I recently looked up my old boss and saw that he is still running numerous websites, including the gaming one, meaning who knows how many writers are pumping it with content for pennies on the dollar?
We’ve all been desperate for money. All I wanted was enough to keep myself alive. But with all click-farms do to disrupt the digital ad industry, I also see the effect they have on legitimate media — by artificially inflating impressions, these are among the many factors that drive advertisers away from premium online publishers and toward cheaper ad networks, meaning it hurts sites that could potentially employ you someday.
No matter what you think of your experience and skills, trust me: you can do better.
Bree Rody-Mantha is a full-time business journalist and part-time dance teacher based in Toronto. She covered Toronto City Hall during the Rob Ford era before transitioning to business journalism. Her areas of specialty include the influencer market, advertising, media buying, and technology. Follow her on Twitter.
Image via Unsplash