A few weeks ago, Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan wrote a fascinating post about how a shady marketer had offered him cash on the side in exchange for simply including a single link “in context” in an article. As Nolan explained it, the broker contracts with companies like Motorola and Dell to pay writers to insert links (like that) into their content, without sharing the pesky details with their editors. The companies expand their web presence, the writers get some pocket money in exchange ($175 per post in Nolan’s case!), and no one’s the wiser because the links are included “in context” — subtly, in the middle of otherwise untainted content. “We generally meet with resistance when dealing with editors,” the broker wrote to Nolan, “but bloggers aren’t paid as well and most are willing to make some extra money.” The reason he “meets with resistance” from editors is because his business totally undercuts the fundamental principles of journalism, no big whoop. Needless to say, if Nolan had gone ahead with this it should have gotten him fired.
ANYWAY. So that was interesting to me at the time.
This morning I got an email with the subject line “Free copywriting offer for Public Road.” The email was from a self-described freelance writer asking me if I ever use other people’s content on my blog, and offering her own work. She attached some clips and said if I liked what I saw, she could write something for me — for free!
Sounds like a pretty good deal for a harried blogger. Which I’m not, or at least not on Public Road, where I A) only publish my own stuff B) for fun C) whenever I damn well please and not more often than that.
“There is absolutely no charge for this and no strings attached,” she wrote. Wow! Oh, well, except there is this one TINY string. Really more of a thread, or perhaps a wisp. I barely even noticed that attached string, it’s barely worth mentioning, but fine, as long as you bring it up:
“The only thing I would ask in return is that I’m able to include a link to a site of my choosing within the article – nothing shady or unethical, just one of the professional businesses I freelance for.”
Oh, well as long as it’s nothing shady, and the businesses are professional!
So I clicked on the links she had sent me to her own work, and then did some more googling. (I’m declining to name her here; she’s obviously not the only one doing this and I’m not interested in ruining her career by having this site pop up when someone googles her.) Here are the websites that — consciously or not — seem to be accepting free content in exchange for letting freelancers insert links from third-party advertisers into their content.:
Website: Obscure Sound.
Content: Review of Mink Freud album.
Hilariously shady sentence: “It’s one of those albums that will make you want to lie back on a recliner sectional, put your feet up, and escape into a completely alien world of soundscapes and ambiance.”
“In context” link to: Sofasandsectionals.com
Website: US Daily Review
Content: Comparison of Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison.
Hilariously shady sentence: “In the final analysis most of the people that worked with them wanted to; most wanted to stay for life and wouldn’t consider moving company.”
“In context” link to: Upack.com
Website: Organic Health Advisor
Content: Article on “superfoods.”
Hilariously shady sentence: “It might come as a surprise that some alcohol is beneficial – but before men around the world jump up from their respective sofas, this is referring to small quantities of wine rather than 24-packs of Bud Light.
“In context” link to: Our old friends at Sofasandsectionals.com
Then things got weird: I found an article by this writer that I had written about on another website. She had written a pretty good piece for a website I (previously?) admired! It had a shady link in it that I didn’t even notice at the time! I’m so tempted to name names here! But I won’t!
I have so many questions, but the big one is how much she’s getting paid for this. Her articles are not works of genius, but heck, neither are mine, and they still take some time and research to put together. If she’s offering her work for free to a podunk blog like mine, she must be getting some pretty decent cash from sofasandsectionals.com to make it worth her while.
And so ends the grimy circle of, as she put it in her email to me, “mutual back-scratching.” I sent her a medium-polite email declining her offer. And I just realized I mentioned sofasandsectionals.com four — now five — times within this post. I hope she’s getting paid for this.