Amy's "Dear eHow: Please Go Away" last week got a bit of attention, including comments from some writers for About.com. They took exception to it being lumped in with eHow and the other "content mills" and claimed that About.com's writers "are carefully vetted and truly domain experts." And this reasonable suggestion was offered: "I'd encourage you to take a look at the content of an About.com page before you summarily dismiss us. We do have much to offer."
So okay, let's do just that – by examining the content of their articles and leaving aside the particulars of anyone's resume. From what I can tell, the criticisms of About.com's gardening advice center on the writing of their "Landscaping Guide," David Beaulieu, whose advice I ranted about back in 2007. My complaint then was that he frequently recommends the writing of "America's Master Gardener" Jerry Baker, known for his folk remedies that have been rebunked by all known science. (I also mentioned then that his posted credentials referred only to business writing and work as a web developer, with no visible expertise in landscaping. In the intervening years he seems to have gained some landscaping experience, as reflected by his current online resume.)
But please note that the name of my 2007 post was "About.com gets it Half Right" because I had (and have) high praise for their "Gardening Guide", Marie Iannotti. And I later praised About.com for hiring Colleen Vanderlinden as their "Organic Gardening Guide."
But back to last week, when Amy's post was noticed and much discussed by a Facebook group of garden center folks. One of them – Don Shor, owner of the Redwood Barn Nursery in California – wrote, "Here's an example of my problem with sites like About.com, whose authors staunchly defended the professionalism of that site," referring to the comments here. He then posted a link to About's Tips for Fertilizing Lawns, so let's check it out.
One early quote is: "You'll find such products at local home improvement stores, such as Lowe's and Home Depot."
IT'S PRO-SCOTTS, NOT SO MUCH PRO-ENVIRONMENT
The core of the article begins thusly: "Scotts suggests a four-part schedule for fertilizing lawns" then proceeds to include all of Scotts' directives for lawn fertilization, probably verbatim from the Scotts marketing materials. But he doesn't stop with just feeding. "Fertilizing lawns goes hand in hand with weed control," and "The herbicide component fights everything from ground ivy to purslane to white clover." There's that famous demonization of clover that Scotts has been so successful at for the last half-century or so, the one that the Lawn Reform types are trying to combat with accurate information about the benefits of clover in lawns.
And one weird thing about the article is that it starts off by promoting slow-release fertilizers (before recommending all those steps), yet plugs products that aren't. I'm referring to Scotts Turf Builder with Halts Crabgrass Preventer, which we have to presume is synthetic or presumably their website would have said so, right? Actually the Scotts website doesn't tell us what's IN the stuff at all, although the product's bag boasts that it "Feeds and greens for fast green-up after winter." Fast, not slow.
Notice it's also by David Beaulieu. Probably not a coincidence.
IN THEIR DEFENSE
Despite these flaws in their landscaping advice, About.com is definitely a cut above the typical content mill, an example of which was offered by another garden center owner who circulated the link to a truly garbage content-mill article, "Green Yard Care Tips". The very first sentence really galled the garden center owner who cited it:
One responsibility of being a homeowner is keeping a clean, well-manicured yard.
The author of that little diddy tells us this about herself in her "by-line", which in its entirety says:
So yeah, much of the advice on About.com is far better than that, but there's lots on the subject of gardening to find fault with. Still. From a website owned by the New York Times, is it too much to expect advice that's environmentally responsible?