The strange world of “content marketing”

In my work as a freelance blogger I try to put worthwhile content into every piece I write. At least some of the readers should come away from it understanding something better than they did before. It may contain promotional material, if that’s what the customer asks for, but it has a solid core of useful information. That’s my understanding of “content.”

In the marketing world, though, it means something else entirely. The biggest market for freelance writers on the Web is “SEO writing.” That means writing whose main purpose is to provide “content” that search engines will rank high. The expertise for this isn’t knowledge about the subject matter but expertise in planting the right keywords and otherwise constructing the article to match Google’s current idea of what a relevant article is. It’s clickbait, only more sophisticated.
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Websites to sell your writing

The Internet features a lot of websites where writers can connect with customers. None of them pay as well as finding your own clients, but some do offer decent pay and deal fairly. Others have serious problems of various kinds. Here are some notes from my experience:
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Writing for pay and for free

On my way to becoming a successful pro writer — not a glamorous writer of best-sellers, but one who makes a living working with words — I’m discovering a few things that are worth sharing. One is that it’s important to be clear on when you’re writing for pay and when you’re not. All of us write for free a lot of the time; no one’s paying me to write this post. We write for free to express our thoughts, to communicate with friends and businesses, to publicize ourselves, and to help people out. But we have to know which situation we’re in; the middle ground of vague promises offers only frustration.
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Writing for money

Lately, as some of you know, writing has been my main source of income. I’ve had some single-article sales, including a number to the Foundation for Economic Education and one to LWN.net. In between, I’ve been writing for a number of content sites. They don’t pay as well, but they always have work to offer, so I can keep busy while looking for the better-paying gigs.

BlogMutt is the most enjoyable one to write for, though not the best paying. Clients post topics they want articles written on, and I pick from those topics. The acceptance rate is well over 80%, and there’s a lively and friendly forum for writers. I’ve sold well over a hundred articles there.

Constant Content operates on a different model. While there are some calls for material, the usual mode is that writers create articles and put a price on them, and editors review them before they become public. So far I’ve sold one article that way. Articles go through an editorial process that takes a long time, so not much of my material has become available yet. Per their rules, I use a rather transparent pseudonym.

I get the impression it’s not well run. Three of my articles are visible and one has made a sale, but five others have been in the queue since last week. This morning I got a message that one of them was deleted, with the message, “Please paste the entire article in the content editing box. Only your first paragraph is showing up.” The whole thing is gone, so I have no way of figuring out what went wrong, and I’m instructed not to resubmit it. I posted to their forum, which I registered for a couple of weeks ago, asking about this situation in a comment to a post on a similar situation. It was put on moderation. I haven’t seen any new posts to the forum in a while, so it’s probably broken. Right now I’m waiting to see what happens to my other submissions before I send any more.

WriterAccess takes yet another approach. There are calls for articles, and people submit proposals. One proposal of mine has been accepted so far, and I’ll be working on it today. I found the form for responding to the request confusing, but the help desk gave me a very prompt and useful explanation. Hopefully this will work out well.

I wrote a couple of articles for one blog on vague promises of payment out of ad revenue. It never materialized, and the person running it berated me for not publicizing the blog enough. Needless to say, I’m not writing for them any more. Being an unpaid writer happens occasionally, but being an unpaid writer and publicist is out of bounds.

The work suits me well, since I love writing, doing research, and disseminating accurate and useful information. I’m still learning the business and working on my technique. There are a number of writers, especially in the filk community, who have helped me by setting an example and offering advice to writers. If I’m going to name just one, it’s Debbie Ohi.

If you’ve got leads for me, I’ll be grateful. Take a look at garymcgath.com for details on what I do.

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Support woes at HE.net

Update:HE.net support tells me they’ve fixed the SSL certificate issue described below. I haven’t tested it, since I have something that works and don’t want to risk breaking it again.

You’d think that an Internet service provider would be able to deal with common issues like getting an email connection on an Android phone. This turned out to be beyond the ability of HE.net’s support staff, though.

This morning I tried to set up email on my new Moto phone with Android 4.4.4, using the standard email application. After entering the POP3 server information I got this error message: "Can't safely connect to server. (java.security.cert.CertPathValidatorException: Trust anchor for certification path not found.)"
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Sneaky gas pricing from Shell

Sneaky pricing at a Shell station in Nashua, NH

A Shell station near Exit 4 in Nashua, NH. Largest price displayed is $2.45.9, but that’s the “price with wash.” The actual price for regular is $2.75.9.

Several Shell stations in New Hampshire and Massachusetts have adopted a sneaky way of displaying their prices. The largest displayed price looks amazingly low, but a closer look shows that that’s the price with a car wash, and that the actual price of regular gas bought by itself is considerably higher.

Shell stations in California have been caught doing the same stunt.

As long as they’re playing this “Shell game,” I’m avoiding all Shell stations.

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Consumer alert: North American Power

In today’s mail was a “First Notice” from “North American Power,” addressed to a person I’ve never heard of. (I’ve lived here for over ten years, so if it’s a past resident, their records are really old.) A “first notice” from a company I’ve never done business with is ample reason for suspicion, and some quick research turns up more grounds. An article dated just a few days ago, from a Rhode Island author, says that the outfit is offering a “teaser” rate without making it clear that it will go up soon and that it’s been the object of hundreds of BBB complaints. It provides a link to a report that the Maryland Public Service Commission fined North American Power $100,000 for deceptive practices, including impersonating a PSC representative.

I know I won’t ever deal with this company. What you do is up to you.

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Minuteman Health’s online terms

Recently I signed up with Minuteman Health, and I began the registration process so I could automate my payments. When I came to the terms of service, I read them more carefully than usual, since they could affect my insurance agreement. That was a good thing, since I came upon this:

V. The User shall: … 4. Keep confidential all information that he or she obtains from the Site, including, but not limited to, information about Minuteman Health’s business practices, providers, or rates of payment to providers.

That means I wouldn’t be allowed to talk about how well I’m covered, what doctors are in their network, or how what sort of service the company provides online. I immediately backed out and wrote a check. Using Minuteman’s online services under those terms is simply unacceptable, and it doesn’t give me a good feeling about the company.

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Online banking security

Banks still don’t get security for their online sites. A long time ago, I signed up for online banking with BANK_X (I’m not giving out any information that would help phishers here) and noticed some worrisome signs, including a sudden increase in directed phishing spam, so I cancelled the service. About a decade later I figured they might have improved things, so I tried again. It’s a little better, but there’s still at least one significant problem.

After getting my account initially working, I had to activate the bill payment feature separately. This involved a delay, and I got an email from “Bill Pay” this morning saying it had been activated. It’s a lucky thing the email from Mr. Pay didn’t get marked as spam.

I logged into my account in the usual way, from the bank’s website (never blindly click on email links!) and found that the page didn’t look the same as usual. Only my checking account was showing; and then I noticed I was in a different domain from the one that normally services my online banking. I was logged out in the middle of navigating it, and I went back to the BANK_X site and logged in again. This time things looked normal. This had me worried, so I sent an in-site message stating my concern. The response said that I should be seeing the image I had selected when setting up the account on each page, and if I wasn’t seeing it, there might be a security problem.

I discovered that by clicking on the bill payment tab I got taken to the same odd-looking page on a different domain as before, and confirmed my recollection that I wasn’t seeing the image in question. This was sounding seriously worrisome, so I called the bank. The person I talked with told me that behavior sounded wrong and asked me to try again from another computer. I booted up my laptop, found the same behavior there, and called back. The person who answered this time got the information from the one I’d talked to at first, and this time I was talking with someone who understood the system better. She said that bill payment is in fact handled by a different service, and that I won’t see the selected image there. I pointed out that this was contrary to to the instructions on the BANK_X website; she agreed with me and suggested I send in feedback, which I’ll be doing shortly.

Most customers are oblivious to all suspicious behavior on a bank’s website and will just forge blindly ahead, which is why phishers are able to scam people so easily.

I have serious doubts about using this bill payment service, even after my most pressing fears were assuaged.

Update: A representative of BANK_X replied to my feedback and said that once you’ve logged in and see the security image once, nothing can possibly go wrong, so you don’t need to see the security image again and you shouldn’t worry if you find yourself on a different domain. Idiots.

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Mozilla’s political intolerance

Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich has been pressured into stepping down. His offense: a political contribution which he made years before he took that post. Mozilla’s Executive Chairwoman has announced this in terms which are either vicious mockery or plain gibbering, I can’t decide which.

Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.

Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness. We welcome contributions from everyone regardless of age, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, language, race, sexual orientation, geographical location and religious views. Mozilla supports equality for all.

We have employees with a wide diversity of views. Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public. This is meant to distinguish Mozilla from most organizations and hold us to a higher standard. But this time we failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community.

While painful, the events of the last week show exactly why we need the web. So all of us can engage freely in the tough conversations we need to make the world better.

If Mozilla values freedom of speech and contributions from everyone are welcome, that should be an argument for not sacking someone whose views are different. At Mozilla, though, these terms apparently have the opposite meaning from their actual one. “Diversity of views” means that if your views are different, you’ll be tossed out the door. A “culture of openness” means that you had better conform. “We need the web” so your boss can find out what you think and send you packing if it’s disapproved.

Progressivism has grown steadily more intolerant in the past decade or two. The abandonment of the word “liberal” is fitting. For years now it’s been common to hear blanket denunciations of anyone who registers or votes Republican. I’ve been writing here about the recent appearance of speech codes in science fiction convention policies, and their growth out of speech codes at educational institutions. Recently there was a case of outright political violence at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and I was able to find only one article critical of it that didn’t come from a libertarian or conservative viewpoint.

If businesses with a left-leaning culture start imposing political standards, the right is entirely able to do the same. A couple of years ago there was a vicious campaign in Cranston, Rhode Island, against a high school student who brought a lawsuit against a religious display in a public high school Florists were afraid to deliver flowers to her. An article on Slate calls for an all-out witch hunt against thousands of people who have made Proposition 8 donations, and the author says they shouldn’t have jobs at all.

It’s still mostly true that employers don’t care what your political views are, at least as long as you don’t take them to work. This may be changing, and it would be to everyone’s detriment. In a job market like that, I don’t know who’d hire me, since my views are far outside the standard left-right spectrum. A lot of creative people hold unusual views which others might find offensive. I think Richard Stallman’s politics are crazy, but that doesn’t stop me from recognizing the work he’s done. If people had to hide their political views to get jobs, this would be a sadder, even more easily manipulated country.

This post composed with iCab. I can’t easily give up Firefox, but I can at least avoid it for the present.

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