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Watch Out for This Income-Killing Online Writing Scam

Carol Tice

Businessman taking the baitIt’s an exciting time, when you finally start to get some traction as a freelance writer.

You land a client or two, and start writing. Maybe you score a gig with a popular blog, or you’re writing for a big website.

Having highly visible bylines often leads to emails from prospective clients. They’re impressed by who you’re writing for, and they’d like to hire you.

Unfortunately, what they’d like to hire you to write is not always legit.

I’ve gotten shady requests many times because of the visibility of my Forbes blog, and I know I’m far from alone.

For instance, here’s a discussion thread we recently had in Freelance Writers Den:


The shady request

One member got this prospect nibble:

A marketing consultant contacted me, who represents a client looking to build relationships with writers who regularly contribute to blogs and online publications in their field. I’m sort of confused about what I’m being asked to do. Here’s some of our interaction:

I asked: “You’re looking for writers to publish articles on third party blogs and online publications that mention your client’s products? We’d brainstorm an article idea, I’d write it and then pitch it to appropriate sites for publishing? How does the pay work? Do I only get paid if it gets published?”

They answered: “Yes, that’s essentially the gist. This seems to work well with writers that contribute regularly to specific publications, because they’re able to use relationships that are already established instead of pitching new blogs. So for example, if you came up with an article that fit any of the pubs you currently write for and [the topic] supported a relevant client mention, then you wouldn’t have to worry about pitching new sites.”

Does this sound ethical? Is it okay to get paid by a publication and also by a corporation that was mentioned in the piece?

Is she just asking for me to use her client as a source, when appropriate? And is it wrong to accept pay for that? This whole thing sounds a little weird to me.–Tamara

Ignoring the rules

Not every business owner knows the rules of journalism: that the reporter needs to be impartial in what they write, and can’t ever profit from what they are saying is ‘news’ or a good resource in a story.

Still other businesses *do* know the rules. But they prefer not to play by them.

What this client is asking is flat-out unethical, if you haven’t guessed.

They’re asking to brazenly use you, and your existing client relationships, to market their business, on the sly. That it puts your reputation in danger? Well, clearly they don’t care.

If you’re a paid writer for a blog or website, links you include should only be useful resources you decided, independently, are valuable and relevant to the story. Getting paid to pop in links to companies that want visibility on one of your client’s sites…that’s a Bozo no-no.

The perils of double dipping

When you’re being paid both by your client, and by the sources you include in your posts or articles, it’s known in journalism circles as double-dipping. You can’t get paid on both ends.

Basically, these sleazy companies are both cheap and lazy. Instead of hiring a PR firm and pitching their company as a source to reporters and hoping they will take an interest — which is what they’re supposed to do — they’d like to cut to the chase and simply buy your interest.

The problem has become so widespread online that many big outlets are making writers sign a contract attesting that they are not including paid links. At Forbes, they make us re-sign a pledge not to do it every single quarter.

Let me quote from the policy update I just got from them:

Link Schemes

When you link somewhere for perceived search or monetary benefits rather than usefulness or credit, then you are participating in a link scheme. Link schemes are against Forbes and Google guidelines. They are very simple for Google to detect, and they will adversely affect your website as well as forbes.com’s ranking in Google. Examples include:

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
  • Article marketing or guest posting containing links with optimized anchor text in articles – anchor text example: “There are many wedding rings on the market.”
  • Advertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that include links that pass PageRank
  • More info at: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/66356

Forbes has zero tolerance for link schemes. Should we or Google discover you are engaging in this practice, your publishing rights on forbes.com will immediately be terminated.”

If your client discovers you’re double dipping, you’re likely going to be done writing for them. I know Forbes has let writers go over this, and I’m sure they’re not the only site on active patrol against paid-for mentions and links, either.

Why are big websites on the warpath about this? Because if it became known that their useful posts were in fact full of paid links, their reputation as a news source would be ruined, too.

It’ll be hard to get editors interested in your query letter if word is on the street that you’re for sale to the highest bidder, as far as the content of your posts.

Compromise on the cheap

When the writer above asked for more details on how much pay this prospect was willing to put up to get their link slipped into posts on big sites, this was the response:

“My client is looking for editorial placements in articles that willingly came from the authors of those articles. While we are willing to pay for the collaborative time and effort, we’re not looking for sponsored content, advertorials, or paid disclosures.

My client is looking to team up with trusted authors to make them aware of some great free resources they offer and see if those resources might be a good fit for any upcoming content the author plans to write. These articles/posts would not be promotional in nature or only focused on the client. We’re just looking for a link in the form of a helpful reference within the article.”

And there you have it. They don’t want to pay for a sponsored post or article — which might run them $500-$1,200, and would make clear they bought the mention.

No, they’re looking to ruin your career and get you fired on the cheap. They’d like to slip you $50 or $100 for a link and call it good. (I’ve gotten similar offers to accept paid posts on this blog from link-seekers, at similar rates. No, thanks.)

You’ve got to love the way this prospect spun what they’re doing, too. Especially how they make clear that if you were to disclose that they paid you for the link — which is what you should ethically do — then they’re not interested.

If you’re desperate for money, look at taking a part-time job while you build up your finances.

No matter how tempting it might seem to take that extra cash for slipping in a link, say no. If you’re thinking your client need never know…trust me, they will find out.

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