If you listen to Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income Podcast, in Episode #15 you’ll hear his advice on how to get started in online business. Surprisingly, what he recommends that you try first is not to start a blog or a podcast, but to start writing articles for a content site. So I did exactly that, to see what it’s all about. In the end, I didn’t make a bunch of money, but it’s been a great learning tool, and I’m glad I gave it a try.
How it Works
InfoBarrel (and other sites like HubPages) publish articles on a variety of topics that are submitted by regular people (typically not professional writers). The site makes its money by displaying ads on the pages (on your articles), and they split the ad money with the authors. In the case of InfoBarrel, they keep 25% of the article’s ad revenue, and the author gets 75%. There are several advantages to writing for them over starting your own blog. One, it is easy and free to get started as a writer. You don’t have to go buy a domain and pay for hosting. You don’t have to maintain your site, or deal with advertisers; they do all that for you. And second, your articles will get broader exposure on their site than they would on a new and unknown blog. As of this writing, my most popular InfoBarrel article (on How to Wall Mount a Flatscreen TV) has 203 views; quite a bit more than my (new and unknown) blog currently gets.
First, you sign up for a free account, and then you can start submitting articles. The site has an online writing/editing tool (similar to WordPress). You can write directly in this tool, or write offline in a word processor, and later just paste into their editor, which is what I prefer. The editor has a spelling checker and a fairly aggressive grammar checker that will redline passive voice, and even big words that it deems too complicated. They have several criteria you must meet (minimum length, maximum number of links), and then actual human editors must read and approve your article before it goes live on the site. After you have published enough articles, you can become pre-approved, but with only 11 articles, I haven’t gotten that yet.
Once your articles are published, you can track how often they are viewed and read, and how much you are earning.
What I Learned
Like a lot of marketing (and life in general) it’s a number game. Pat Flynn started this when he was newly unemployed and wrote 150 articles in one month. The people that report making substantial regular money off the site have hundreds of articles published. I had nowhere near that amount of commitment or free time, I just wanted to dip my toes in and see what it’s all about. I’ve written a very modest 11 articles in the last 10 months, and even that small number is enough to learn a lot.
1. SEO: Write What People Want to Read
You can write on just about any topic you want, but that doesn’t mean anyone will read it. A lot of experienced article writers do serious SEO (search engine optimization) and keyword research using paid tools, and choose article subjects based on that. Since I’m more or less doing this for fun, I write articles on things that interest me, or projects I’m doing around the house. But it’s still worth learning a little about keyword research and SEO. I go to SEMrush, and type in the subject that I plan to write about. Using the results from this, I get an idea how to title my article, and what keywords and tags I need to be sure to include.
2. Write in a Way That is Easy to Read
Online articles don’t lend themselves to long paragraphs of unbroken text. If you want people to read all the way through your article, it helps to break it up into very short passages, with easily scanned section headings. Obviously, this writing style carries over to blog writing.
3. Use Pictures
Pictures draw the reader in and make the article more interesting look at. I write a lot of how-to project articles, and use pictures I take myself. But for articles where I don’t have my own pictures, I needed to learn the correct way to add pictures. If you just copy a photo from another page or from google search results, you are most likely stealing someone’s picture. That’s bad, and can get you in trouble. Alternatively, you can pay for stock images. For an article that might earn me a dollar or two, I certainly wasn’t going to pay for a photo. The right way to do it is find pictures that allow free use. There are several sites that allow you to download stock photos. My favorite free way is to do an advanced search in flickr, and specify that I only want results that are Creative Commons-licensed, and that can be used commercially. These photographs are free to use, as long as you credit the source, as I’ve done with the barrel picture I used here.
4. Get Featured
Once you publish an article, you want people to see it. You can cross your fingers and hope people find it, or you can submit to be featured on the front page of the InfoBarrel site. They publish an editorial calendar every month of the types of articles they want to feature each day of the upcoming month. If yours is chosen, it will stay on the front page for a week. Once I learned to do this, my views and earnings picked up dramatically. Of my 11 articles, 6 have been featured on the front page.
5. Affiliate Links and Amazon accounts
The InfoBarrel generated ads are not the only way to make money on articles. You can also get affiliate revenue from Amazon or other sites. InfoBarrel is pretty picky about this, to keep the site from filling up with spammy ‘articles’ that are really just affiliate ads. You can have 2 external links, and they need to make sense in the article. For instance, if you write a how-to article, you can link to the tools or products that you used. If someone follows the link and buys the product, you can earn a small commission.
6. Backlinks and Sharing
This is an area I did not do much with, although I read a good bit about it. Lots of people advocate promoting your articles on Twitter and Facebook and even on sites that you pay to generate backlinks to your article. This seemed spammy to me. Most of the friends I have on social media are my friends in real life. If they tried to get me to click on a bunch of articles that they likely had little interest in, I’d eventually unfriend them. The few dollars I might make spamming everyone I know was not worth it to me.
In the end, the more I learned about ‘tricks’ to get more views, the less I liked it. It opened my eyes to why a LOT of what is published on the web is written the way it is. I began to realize that much of what is published, even on what I view as legitimate news sites, is written to get clicks and not really to share useful information. It sounds naive of me when I write that, and obvious, but this certainly drove the point home. I decided that I didn’t want to publish schlock to make a few dollars. I’d much rather write things that I enjoy and am proud of, and make less money. And hopefully make the web a better place.
What I Earned
Well, let’s start off with a big asterisk here. I haven’t technically earned anything, because InfoBarrel doesn’t make a payment until your account reaches at least $50. Right now my account is at about $31 and (very slowly) climbing. This is the total from writing 11 articles over 10 months. This averages to $2.73 per article written, or alternatively, $3 per month. But averages can be pretty misleading with a small sample size. In reality, my more popular articles have earned $5-7, and some have earned $0. You won’t buy a lot of champagne and caviar on $3 a month. On the other hand, there was no cost to me to publish them, and I only spent a couple of lunch hours each month writing them.
I may continue to write a few more articles when I have a topic that is better suited to InfoBarrel than to my blog, but for the most part I consider this experiment done. I learned a bunch of skills that help me in everything I do online, so I don’t regret it for a second. But as a generator of passive income, I think (hope) that my limited time is better spent on other stuff.