Pay Per Click Freelance Writing for the Web. Is it Good or is it Bad?

Here’s a snapshot and analysis of the mediascape as it pertains to pay per click (or revenue share) writing and self-publishing. The focus is on how much effort and income can be expected when participating in this sub-genre. The discussion is situated within the wider genre of freelance writing with statistics and academic insights. While it does make comparisons with other forms of writing , the main analysis is limited to the pay-per-click style of writing. I’ll explain the terminology and the platforms commonly involved with this form of freelance writing. Research and analysis of digital media platforms alongside analysis of results from the authors viewership and financial performance will allow informed decision making by anyone interested in freelance pay per click writing.

This form of writing experienced a heyday in the early 2000s but appears to have subsided in popularity. The changing nature of the mediascape as technology, access and regulation becomes a focus for both users, advertisers, platforms and government has seen massive changes to the income earning potential of pay per click freelance writing.

The average and actual income of a writer in the field and the competitive, commercial and regulatory factors influencing the sub-genre are discussed. The article concludes that regulatory changes, changes in technology and the precarity of work in the field means that writers considering writing for pay per click sites, or monetising their self-publishing need to consider the sheer amount of writing needed to earn an acceptable income. It is recommended that writers manage their expectations of income potential, stay up to date with trends affecting the trade, and consider other forms of income generation.

Freelance Writing on the Web

In terms of how payment is arranged, there are many options available. These include:

Gig WritingPlatforms like Upwork or Fiverr.
ContractProvide writing services for an agreed fee in an agreed timeframe.
Flat rateWriting for clients at a flat rate. For example, $50 an article.
Pay per wordFrom 2c to 80c per word.
Ad hocAccepting or pitching work and negotiating the rate.
BloggingSelf-publishing –  making money from ad impressions and clicks.
Pay-per-click/revenue sharingSubmitting work to sites that publish and distribute the work for a share of the ad revenue.

1.4 million Australians had an involvement in visual art activities in 2007, representing an increase of 79% from 2004 when there were 789,900 persons reporting an involvement in visual art activities, of these, 606,500 were involved in writing. The proportion of people being paid for their involvement has decreased from 35% in 2004 to 30% in 2007 (ABS 2007).

Freelance Writer Salaries 2021. Source: Expert Editor 2021

Many of these roles are not permanent. ‘Stringing’ (a term for freelance copywriting for media outlets) ‘once seen as a foot in the door, has become a decidedly transitory arrangement’ (Polumbaum 2009). These opportunities used to be seen as a path to full-time employment but contemporary work arrangements are less conventional and there are more writers competing for work.

The new digital economy means that anyone with a computer can publish their work but, ‘the less appealing side of this amateurism is the cut-price labor economy it has established as the default mentality’ (Ross 2007, p. 137). As we will see later with the effect more traffic and exposure has on digital article earnings, this opening up of the job market has put downward pressure on remuneration in all areas of writing. Table 2 below provides insight into freelance writing rates in Australia.

OutletPay
The Saturday Age80c per word
Leader Community Newspapers$220 – $250 per day
Buzzfeed$250 – $1000
Broadsheet$50 per article
Crikey!$150-200
Artshub$200
Table 2 – Source: Artshub – What freelance writers get paid (2016)

All industry participants have had to change their way of thinking and embrace a more entrepreneurial model, ‘journalism schools, journalists, and scholars have advocated entrepreneurialism as an acceptable and vital means for survival in a digital age’ (Salamon 2020, p. 106). This entrepreneurial spirit is why writers might like to embrace the contemporary form of pay-per-click writing, self-publishing, and using ad networks to earn income.

What is pay-per-click writing?

The first type of pay per click writing involves submitting content to a publisher of a content aggregation or newsletter-based website. This content generates income for the publisher from ad impressions and clicks. ‘Pay-per-click sites typically pay contributors (writers) a percentage of the advertising revenue, or a flat fee, for every unique visitor that clicks through to the contributor’s article online’ (Hoy 2003). Weekend Notes is currently the only pay per click website operating notionally in Australia. Founded in London in 2007, it is based on a massive email newsletter subscriber list and a hardcore of writers from cities across the UK, Australia and the US. HubPages is a similar site based in the USA, is a similar site and call themselves a ‘revenue sharing site’ (HubPages 2021)

Another way to earn pay per click income is by publishing successful content on one’s own website then apply to become part of Google’s Adsense monetisation program and have ads placed on it. There are other ad networks available but none have the market power of Adsense.

Terminology used to describe methods of measurement:

RPM – Revenue per mille (thousand impressions)Estimates how much a page view is worth in order to attract bids inside ad servers and networks. This is the figure publishers focus on.
CPM – Cost per milleHow much advertisers will pay for their ad to receive 1000 impressions (views). This is the figure advertisers focus on.
CPM – Cents per milleWeekend Notes calculates this as a payment rate to witers per 1000 views.
CPC – Cost per clickAdvertisers are moving away from a CPM environment and focusing on the action taken by the viewer.
CTR – Click through ratioAn important factor in how the ad network algorithm rates a page’s CPM and RPM.
Table 3 – Web advertising terminology

How Adsense and publishers like Weekend Notes and HubPages calculate these factors is largely secret. The best way for writers to gain a greater understanding is through trial and error.

How do you earn money from pay-per-click writing?

Blogging/self-publishing

Writers who are prepared to become publishers can take control of all the behind the scenes work of maintaining a website and signing up with ad networks to monetise their traffic or earn income by promoting third party products (affiliates) and hosting sponsored content. The amount of income will vary widely, according to location, niche, search engine optimisation skills and quality of the content.

Adsense

‘AdSense is Google’s method of linking third-party advertisements to relevant third-party content, such as blogs or news sites, and displaying advertisements alongside selected content’ (Graham 2017, p. 2). Adsense can be considered a ‘default’ choice, but its algorithms and processes are always changing. ‘Adsense pays publishers 68% of the revenue Google earns from clicks on ads’ (Google 2021). The authors average CPC is 47 cents, but earnings are interdependent with how many times an advert is clicked (CTR).

Other ad networks

These ad networks operate on a similar payment and placement model as Adsense as described above with a few differences:

  • Media.net – Ads are pulled from Yahoo/Bing network
  • Ezoic – manages ad placement for a website from across all major ad networks

Other ad networks tend to be smaller and more niche targeted. Some estimates suggest Google’s market share of ad exchange services in Australia is 55.15%, with the next largest competitor having just a 14.33% share (ACCC 2021).

Affiliate programs

Arrangements can be made by the website publisher (or writer) for advertisers to pay them directly for clicks on ads placed on their pages. Some examples are Amazon, Wix.com, Weebly, Semrush and others.

Content writing and revenue sharing

Submitting articles to Weekend Notes and HubPages is a less conventional content writer role. Weekend Notes is geared toward event, reviews and things to do articles, while HubPages content ranges widely. Content writers for revenue sharing and pay-per-click sites can expect that it will take some time (often years) to build a portfolio of content that may lead to more highly paid work.

RPM figures fluctuate based on publisher niche, content, demographics, traffic quality, geo-location and seasonality (Morrisroe 2021), ‘The cost per thousand (CPM), which is the rate for 1000 impressions, is about $6.40 for Australian advertisers compared to a global average of $1.80’ (Adnews 2018).

Figure 2 below is a snapshot of global and Australian rates per page view compared to the authors results over four years.

Figure 2 – CPM and RPM comparison

While nearly $20 RPM per article (Fig. 2) seems high, it is calculated across 350 articles. Some articles earn around a dollar while others earn up to $55. The average income from a Weekend Notes article is $4.66, which is closer to the Australian average.

What is involved in being a successful pay-per-click freelance writer?

As publishers and media outlets have learned to embrace user-generated content, it is important to understand where and how content can fit into this new paradigm and accept precarity.  Being an independent worker ‘involves a detailed understanding of the digital platform, its functions, and its affordances’ (Sutherland, Mohammed-Hossein, Dunn & Nelson 2020, p. 459) .

Weekend Notes is a newsletter-based service. It is only by reading the newsletters and articles by other authors as well as noting the characteristics of one’s own successful articles that one can develop a picture of what kind of article is likely to attract a large audience.

Interpersonal skills, personal qualities and networking are still important. Arjan van den Born and Arjen van Witteloostuijn looked at the desirable qualities of what were known as ‘portfolio workers’ and are now known as freelancers and contractors. They found that ‘human capital, social capital, personal capital’ (having the skills, knowing who and knowing why) are the most important personal qualities in measuring the potential success of a freelance writer. The other important factor was ‘the external environment in which an individual freelancer operates’ (van den Born & van Witteloostuijn 2013, pp. 24-29).

What are the potential problems with pay per click/self-publishing?

‘There are other companies that provide advertising for third parties, Google AdSense is by far the largest’ (Graham 2017, p. 2). This has led to less variety of income streams for pay per click publishers and therefore writers. The 2021 inquiry into the ad tech industry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission found that ‘more than 90 per cent of ad impressions traded via the ad tech supply chain passed through at least one Google service in 2020’ (ACCC 2021).

Programmatic ads are served automatically by an ad network. The writer and publisher do not always know what kind of ads are being displayed on their site. Using Adsense as an example, ad serving is targeted to your content and your audience using contextual targeting, placement targeting, run of network targeting and most importantly, personalised targeting (Google 2021). There is a constant interplay between ad targeting, CPM and RPM that the writer and publisher are not in control of.

30% of Australians use adblocking software (Statista 2018). This obviously curtails the income earning potential of digital advertising. However, this number is expected to decline as awareness grows of in-browser ad blocking software, ‘over time, Chrome may actually lead to more Google-friendly (and user-friendly) ads landing in front of users than if the third-party market was left unchecked’ (Jackson 2021).

Writers are now competing with their audience. The multi-directional nature of communication and ubiquitous availability of digital tools means that anyone can create content, indeed ‘content is routinely produced free of charge by the audiences that also consume it (Hamilton 2011, p. 89).

The planned phase out of third-party cookies by 2022 from the Google Chrome browser threatens to upend what had become a mainstay for digital advertising; that is, the ability for advertisers to track users across the web. This is why you would see the same ad across different sites across time. This is going to have huge effects on the advertising revenue that pay-per-click and revenue sharing sites are able to earn, unless they (and self-publishers) begin exploring other ways of placing advertisements on their pages.

Conclusion

Is freelance pay-per-click writing worth it? It takes a lot of viewers to make a decent income, most writers consider this kind of writing as a portfolio building exercise or as a side hustle. All other types of writing offer freelance writers’ higher pay rates.

The regulation stemming from the ACCC Ad-tech  industry report will change the industry, ‘Describing Google as an advertising company, while appreciating the historically situated nature of this form of advertising, rearticulates the motives behind Alphabet’s other projects and underlines how that company is shaping much more than search engine results’ (Graham 2017).

There is also a shift away from monetising impressions to a focus on paying for clicks, this means that users will have to click on an ad and writers will not be paid for users simply viewing an ad within their content.

Adblocking techniques are changing and while their use is declining, privacy concerns have already led to  the regulatory oversight described above.

Whether pay-per-click writing is ideal and can earn an acceptable income ultimately depends on personal circumstances and goals. It also depends on the constantly shifting technical, commercial and regulatory environment.

Recommendations

  • Managing expectations is critical. This form of writing is almost never a sole source of income; however, it can be an important part of a writing portfolio. ‘Historically, writing work has always involved a double economy: remuneration and reputation. Writers learn to value the attention of their peers and their public as much as a pay cheque’ (Hamilton 2011, p. 90). This attention could lead to higher paying, even more permanent in-house roles.
  • Stay up to date with trends. Staying up to date with where the revenue is coming from, as a contributor and self-publisher is going to be key. Any of the platforms can change at any time and the pay per click or self-publishing model makes writers’ reliant on platforms and third parties.
  • Consider a subscription model for content. As the digital advertising industry is set for regulatory upheaval, taking control of income sources will be critical.

References

van den Born, A & van Witteloostuijn, A 2013, ‘Drivers of Freelance Career Success’, Journal of Organizational Behaviour, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 24–46.

Polumbaum, J 2009, Freelance Writers and Stringers, Encyclopedia of Journalism, vol. 2, pp. 644–648.

Graham R, 2017, ‘Google and advertising: digital capitalism in the context of Post-Fordism, the reification of language, and the rise of fake news’,  Palgrave Communications, vol. 3, Article number: 45

Google 2021, AdSense revenue share, Google Adsense Help, viewed 2 November 2021, https://support.google.com/adsense/answer/180195?hl=en

Hoy A, 2003, How to Be a Starving Writer: Write for Pay-Per-Click Sites, Writers Weekly, viewed 21 October 2021, https://writersweekly.com/this-weeks-article/how-to-be-a-starving-writer-write-for-pay-per-click-sites-by-angela-hoy-writersweekly-com

Ross, A 2009, ‘The Political Economy of Amateurism’, Television & New Media, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 136–137.

Hamilton, C 2011, ‘The exposure economy: [Freelance writers face hurdles in being paid for their work.]’, Overland, vol. 202, no. 202, pp. 88–94.

Work in Selected Culture and Leisure Activities 2007, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Government, Canberra, viewed 2 November 2021, https://www.ausstats.abs.gov.au/ausstats/subscriber.nsf/0/A83F5A97A030078ECA2573B5000A7604/$File/62810_apr%202007.pdf

Boland, B 2016, What Freelance Writers Get Paid, Artshub, viewed 30 October 2021, https://www.artshub.com.au/news/news/what-freelance-writers-get-paid-252538-2354259/

Bennett, L 2018, Adnews 2018, Australia has the Most Expensive Facebook Ads in the World, Adnews, viewed 3 November 2021, https://www.adnews.com.au/news/australia-has-the-most-expensive-facebook-ads-in-the-world-study-finds

Brown, B 2021, Expert Editor, How to Make Money As a Writer in 2021 (Infographic), Expert Editor, viewed 29 October 2021, https://experteditor.com.au/blog/how-to-make-money-as-a-writer-in-2021/

Statista 2018, Adblocking Penetration Rate in Selected Countries Worldwide as of February 2018, viewed 2 November 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/351862/adblocking-usage/

Salamon, E 2020, ‘Digitizing Freelance Media Labor: A Class of Workers Negotiates Entrepreneurialism and Activism’, New Media & Society, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 105–122.

Google 2021, How Ads Are Targeted to Your Site, Google Adsense Help, viewed 1 November 2021, https://support.google.com/adsense/answer/9713

Morrisroe, B 2021, 11 Strategies to increase page RPM, viewed 2 November 2021,  https://www.publift.com/blog/how-can-you-increase-your-page-rpm

Jackson, B 2021, Ad Blockers – Are They Affecting Your Income? (What to Do), Kinsta, viewed 1 November 2021, https://kinsta.com/blog/ad-blockers/

Digital Advertising Services Inquiry 2021, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, viewed 2 November 2021, https://www.accc.gov.au/focus-areas/inquiries-ongoing/digital-advertising-services-inquiry/final-report

Sutherland, W, Jarrahi, MH, Dunn, M & Nelson, SB 2020, ‘Work Precarity and Gig Literacies in Online Freelancing’, Work, Employment and Society, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 457–475.

HubPages 2021, An Overview of Making Money on HubPages, HubPages, viewed 29 October 2021 ,https://HubPageshelp.com/money/Learning-Center-making-money-HubPages

Media.net 2021, viewed 4 November 2021, https://www.media.net/

Ezoic 2021, viewed 4 November 2021, https://www.ezoic.com/

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