Helium was the first “pay by the page click” website that I contributed to. I probably made my first post there in 2005. To the best if my knowledge, it was one of the very first “pay by the page click” websites.
Later, after a series of unfortunate changes, Helium ended up closing (on December 14, 2014). I wrote this piece on December 12, 2014, a few days before Helium shut down.
I read “Why Helium Failed” on episode 33 of my Words of Jen podcast.
How could a writing website that seemed so promising end up failing? I’ve had plenty of time to think about that. In short, Helium failed because it didn’t successfully adapt as things changed. Writers moved to more lucrative sources of payment, especially after Google made it harder for content farms to come up in its searches.
Helium.com was the very first writing website that I contributed to. I’m certain I was writing for Helium in 2006, but it may actually have been 2005. The main reason why I wanted to write for Helium was because it paid its writers. That seemed like it had more possibilities than LiveJournal (which I was, at the time, using to post my book reviews).
When I started writing for Helium, I was working in “retail hell” and dreaming of someday finding a way to not have to live that life anymore. Back then, I was working full time in a bookstore. It was a much more physical job than one might think. Books are heavy, and there was always more reasons to move piles of books from wherever they were at to someplace else in the store.
This was where I was at when I started writing for Helium. It seemed like a dream. The website made it clear that it paid writers for the content that they produced. This was unheard of back then. I decided to give it a try and hoped that maybe it would bring in a few more dollars a month. Writing, at the time, was something I did for fun. I honestly did not believe I would ever be able to make a living doing it.
Helium paid writers “by the page click”. Eventually, the writing you posted on Helium would accrue enough for you to earn $25.00. Only after you hit that minimum would you be able to request a payment. It seemed possible. It didn’t take long for me to learn that it was quite difficult to get enough page clicks to hit the minimum.
Originally, my hope was to get $25.00 out of Helium every month. That didn’t turn out to be the reality. I kept writing there anyway. Looking back, I’m not sure why I was so motivated to do so.
Writers at Helium were somewhat limited in what they were allowed to write about. Helium would create several titles (in a wide variety of subjects). Writers could pick any of those pre-made titles and write something that they felt matched the title they selected. They could not, however, create their own titles. As a result, a particular title would end up with dozens of pieces of writing connected to it – all by different authors. I think this was Helium’s first big mistake.
There was another problem that arose from having multiple writers produce articles with the exact same title. How would they know which one to feature? Part of the way Helium answered that question was to crowdsource it through the people who wrote for Helium.
Writers were expected to spend time reading, and ranking, other writer’s articles. There was a time when you could not receive any payment until after you put in a certain amount of effort ranking other writer’s work. In short, writers were doing the work of an editor for free in the hopes that this would unlock their ability to once again get paid by the page click.
It worked like this: a writer would be presented with two articles that were from the same title. The names of the the writers of those two pieces were removed, presumably to avoid having people just pick the one that their friend wrote. You were supposed to pick the one that you felt was the best. If I remember correctly, we weren’t supposed to worry about things like typos, grammar issues, or other things that, in my opinion, helped to improve a piece of writing.
Helium was a writing website – but it allowed absolutely anyone to join in and start writing. It did attract some talented writers. It also attracted a bunch of people who could barely write a complete sentence. This became quite clear when I started reading, and ranking, other writer’s work.
There were times when one of the two articles I had been asked to compare turned out to be spam. It happened more than a couple of times. I remember being really disappointed by this.
Usually, the spam article looked like a real one at first glance. Reading it over revealed it had absolutely nothing to do with the title. Instead, it was basically a poorly written ad for some nefarious company that thought posting spam on Helium would somehow attract a bunch of people to its website. It was clear that the higher-ups at Helium weren’t bothering to check things over before they were posted live on the website. This was my first clue that things were going badly at Helium.
Another rather obvious problem comes from having people who have no background or experience in editing decide which of two articles (with the same title) is more valuable. They did not understand that if the title you are writing for was “The best fish for a 10 gallon aquarium” that you are expected to write about the fish that you think would do well in an aquarium of that size. It meant that you understood that talking about politics, your religious beliefs, or why a cat makes a much better pet than fish do, had no place in the title you chose to write about.
It quickly became clear that there were a lot of people on Helium that felt that the best article was always the one that matched their own, personal, views. This is what happens when you fail to vet writers before letting them join a writing website. It is what happens when a writing website decides that it doesn’t actually need to hire (and pay) editors.
Why did this matter? The answer to that question goes back to how the writer’s were paid. You needed to accrue enough page clicks to get to $25.00. Each page click was worth a fraction of a penny. At the time, Helium had a snazzy website that had sections on the front page for each main category of articles. The writers whose work was posted on the front page of the website got more page clicks than the writers whose work was buried because the crowd gave it a low rank.
In other words, the featured articles were often ones that matched a particular viewpoint, and that were not necessarily the best Helium had to offer. Later on, Helium put people in charge of certain sections and gave them the ability to choose which articles to feature. But, by then, it was almost too late to make any difference.
Helium had a rather unique thing going on when it first started. It would post “debate” titles. These titles were in the form of a question that could be answered with either a yes or a no. Writers could choose to write for the side they agreed with. Their choice influenced which side’s articles they were presented when they went to read and rank other writer’s work.
If you wrote an article for the “yes” side – you would see other “yes” articles. Pick “no” and you only would see the articles written for the “no” side. I suspect that Helium finally realized that, if presented with articles from both sides, people were simply going to pick the one that matched their personal view.
Somewhere around 2009 or 2010 Helium started trying new things. They tried putting together a section of “How To” guides. If I remember correctly, only some writers were selected to write them (myself included). We were told that the “How To” guides could be very lucrative and that we were to put our best effort into them. I think we were supposed to go back and update them if anything changed after they had been written. Helium was trying to compete with newer websites that were composed entirely of DIY or “How To” guides.
The process involved in writing the “How To” guides was tedious. The interface was different than the one we used to write articles and I had some trouble trying to get things to fit into the right place. Unlike the rest of Helium’s articles, these guides were closely monitored. Editors had to approve of everything before the “How To” guide went live.
To me, it felt like a whole lot of extra work. I gave it my best shot and wrote two or three guides. The money didn’t come. I saw no change in the amount of page clicks I was accruing. Eventually, I just abandoned the guides I wrote.
In 2010, I got what turned out to be my first piece of freelance writing work. I found an ad on Craigslist from a company that wanted to hire a writer to write a few articles on a specific topic. They were paying a flat rate by the article. This, of course, was much better than getting paid by the page click. The effort I put into the writing would, without a doubt, result in payment. The flat rate articles became my priority.
In 2010, on a whim, I went back and read some of the oldest pieces of writing I had done for Helium. They were absolutely terrible! All of them could use some editing, tightening, and improving.
Helium wouldn’t let me do that, though. They had this convoluted system in which you had to “earn” the ability to edit old work. It had something to do with the amount of stars you earned from rating other writer’s work, and the amount of stars you earned based upon how other writer’s rated your work. I had stopped reading and ranking at Helium because I knew that my efforts were much better spent writing for the gigs that paid a flat rate. The result was that I had lost stars. It took quite a bit of effort, done without pay, to get back to point where I was allowed to edit one article.
What happened next was really disappointing. I put in the time and effort to be able to edit one of my articles. That newly revised version would get kicked into the read and rank system, with one difference. Instead of asking the other writers to compare my newly edited article to somebody else’s article under that same title – my edited article got compared to the original version. I should have guessed that this would happen since I had been asked to compare an original article to the edited version before. It came down to this: if the “crowd” liked the original version better – all the effort you put into editing was for nothing!
What about deleting old work? That wasn’t allowed. The result was that Helium ended up with a bunch of articles that seemed ok when I wrote them but that looked terrible after I had improved as a writer. I gave up on trying to edit old work on Helium.
Not allowing writers to delete old work resulted in Helium having a lot of articles that had become irrelevant. Titles like “The Best Electronics of 2010” are great when they are first written. They might even attract “page clicks”. But, they lose all value by 2011. Sure, Helium did have some “evergreen content” – the stuff that stays relevant forever. It might have done better if it weeded out the “junk” titles as time went on.
Maybe the outdated articles, and poor writing quality, wasn’t such a big deal back in 2006. It became a big problem after Google changed its algorithm to Panda (in February of 2011). Google was seeing a bunch of identical titles, by different authors, on the same website.
This pretty much fits the definition of content farm, and Google didn’t feel that content farms were the sort of things that should appear at the top of searches. Many Helium writers noticed a drop in their page clicks. They weren’t making as much money as they had before.
The internet had changed. Writers could find gigs that were more lucrative, and more stable, than what Helium could offer. The days of paying writers by the page click were numbered. Once in a while, Helium would send me an email notifying me that they deleted an article I wrote for a particular title or that they removed an entire title and all the articles in it. I honestly didn’t care.
Eventually, and I’m not sure of exactly when, Helium changed its format. This was done in an attempt to resolve the Panda problem. They started by doing a contest of sorts in which they encouraged writers to go back into their old articles and edit them into something better. There were prizes involved. I signed up to do the contest, but didn’t end up putting in any effort.
I never gave the contest another thought until one day I got a large envelope from Helium. It was a Helium mousepad. It seemed strange to me that Helium spent money on these mousepads, and the cost of mailing them, when they could have been finding better ways to pay their writers.
Later, Helium changed their entire website. It went offline for a while so the changes could be made. What happens when a site that pays writers by the “page click” goes offline for more than a few hours? Writers are unable to get any “page clicks” – which means writers can’t earn any money.
In the meantime, Helium switched from being one website to several “360” websites. Previously, if you found a writer whose work you liked, you could click over and read more of his or her work. Or, you could start by reading an article in one topic and then switch over to a completely different topic that you saw on the front page. Not anymore!
The “360” sites were independent from each other. Let’s say you found the Helium article I wrote about “The best fish for a 10 gallon aquarium”. You could, of course, click over to the “360” site it was located at and read it. There was no obvious way for you to find the other articles that were written for that same title. There wasn’t any way to find more articles by a particular writer because his or her work got spread out over a bunch of unconnected websites.
Writers noticed that they were getting even less page clicks than before the change from Helium to 360. People complained in the forums. Some were already discussing other websites to jump to that also payed by the “page click”. Things weren’t looking good.
There were now a couple of editors who were in charge of reviewing the edits that writer’s made of their own work. The editor would get the final say on things. It took a very long time to go through the entire process from requesting permission to edit something to having it approved by an editor and posted to Helium.
The debate articles did not fair well at the 360 sites. They were designed for a format that was no longer in use. It made sense, on the old Helium, because you would see the title/debate question, could easily see which articles were “yes” and which were “no”, and select what to read. The 360 websites separated everything out. There were now articles that had titles like “Can Charter Schools Be Religious? – Yes”. The wording was awkward and there was no easy way to find the “no” articles for that title.
I was not at all surprised when I was informed that Helium.com was going to close, forever. The ship had been sinking for a long, long, time. I doubt anyone, other than the people who once wrote for it, will notice its absence.
If I knew in 2005 what I know today, I would have never started writing for Helium. It turned out to be little more than a waste of time. My hope of earning $25.00 a month from Helium never happened. The only interesting thing about my experience there was that I had an insider’s view of what happens when a content farm dies.