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February 26, 1996


New Sweatshop Jobs: Reviewing Web Sites

VENTURE capitalists these days are bragging about all the new jobs and wealth they're creating with the success of Internet-based companies like Netscape Communications and Cybercash.

But one suspects that the moneymeisters aren't including in their head count all the laborers in a new cottage industry that has sprung up in response to the astronomical number of new sites on the Internet's World Wide Web.

With well over 100,000 sites on the Web, and hundreds more being added every week, finding a way to list and review them is creating a new kind of editorial product -- Web site reviews -- that publishers hope will draw advertisers and viewers to their on-line and print publications. And much of the work is being done by independent writers working out of their homes, steadily meeting quotas for remarkably low wages.

Minda Sandler, editor of a San Francisco-based magazine called The Net, says that Web sites have become such a popular feature of the magazine that fully one-third of its editorial pages are now devoted to Web reviews. Half a dozen freelance writers each meet a quota of 30 reviews a week, she said. Each review is about 100 words long, and the writers are paid $600 to $750 for the lot -- 20 cents to 25 cents a word. And this is pretty good pay, compared with the going rate elsewhere.

The editor of another, yet-to-be announced Web directory service said that on the day his company's service is introduced later this year, it will list some 75,000 of what he called "human-generated reviews." Each 150-word blurb is written by one of a stable of 40 to 50 writers -- a combination of outside contractors and in-house staff members who are "mostly fresh out of school, so I'll let you figure out what that means, pay-wise," said the editor, who agreed to talk only if neither he nor his service was identified.

His outside reviewers get paid $750 every two weeks for reviewing 50 Web sites, which comes out to about 10 cents a word. "We encourage our reviewers not to think about the per-word rate," the editor said, and focus instead on the fact that it only takes about half an hour to write a review. That works out to about $30 an hour, assuming the reviewer doesn't stop to think.

"There's a tendency that all these things we're talking about will become editorial sweatshops," he acknowledged. "We're looking to eventually create a system that's humane and supportive. But the reality is that cranking out large numbers of reviews with large numbers of words on a tight budget turns out to be something like piecework in a garment factory. We'll be moving over time toward bringing a group of outside reviewers as employees, but we aren't there yet."

Other publishers have been known to offer writers as little as $1 for a brief Web listing or review. And while one editor contends the work has its own creative rewards -- "we aren't making socks here" -- it does seem that piecework and quotas have quickly become the Web-review norm. And that rightfully raises the question of how much thought and expertise is going into most of these reviews.

Karen Wickre, co-author of the book, "Atlas to the World Wide Web" (1995, Ziff-Davis Press), one of the Web's earliest print directories, finds the trend toward comparative ratings and the proliferation of "Best of the Web" awards to be a bit loopy.

Though Ms. Wickre, a veteran editor and writer in the computer trade press, approached the Web reviews in her book as a generalist, many print or on-line directories that evaluate sites claim to have "subject specialists" reviewing sites based on their areas of expertise.

One editor, who insisted on not being identified, said that when her company started doing reviews, she and her staff members first looked for people with eclectic writing backgrounds so they could cover a wide range of subjects with some authority. But as the number of Web sites exploded, she said, the only way to keep up was to assign each writer only one or two categories to follow.

Though careful to avoid using the term "expert," she said it became clear her company needed people who had written something -- anything -- remotely having to do with the subject at hand. "So then we could say, 'So-and-so has a background in political writing,'" she said.

So much for topic specialists.

And if these are the people writing the reviews, one must also question the latest plague being visited upon Web sites: "Best of the Web" awards, presented by various organizations whose intentions in presenting such awards are not always clear.

These awards, which appear like digital blue ribbons pinned onto a Web site's home page, can pull in both readers and potential advertisers. But they are often bestowed by marketing companies or those in the business of designing Web sites -- not exactly what you'd call objective sources.

Thus it may not pay to give much heed to many of today's arbiters of Web-worthiness.

"It reminds me of the Russians -- you always see them wearing a chest full of medals, but what do they mean?" Ms. Wickre said. "What you've got is the great unwashed out there rating sites, and not according to any apparent logic. So you can see a site festooned with three or four of these things, and I guess that's supposed to be a good thing.

But I honestly don't know what makes it better."

DIGITAL COMMERCE is published weekly, on Mondays. Click here for links to other columns in this series.

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