Dear eHow: Please Go Away


Used to be, back in the good old days of the Internet, like five years ago, that you could do a search for, oh, I don't know,"transplanting roses" or "citrus leaf curl" or "compost pile" and come up with some reasonably good resources, mostly university extension websites, some gardening magazines, and the sites of actual experts who have devoted their lives to the curling leaves of citrus trees or the delicate work of transplanting roses or some such thing.  Martha Stewart's site would turn up in the first few pages of a search, offering detailed, accurate advice from an actual expert, and that was fine too.  You had the feeling that, even in the Wild West that is the internet, there were adults around — adults who knew things, and would tell them to you.

Now?  eHow.  And Suite 101, Ask, LoveToKNow, HowStuffWorks, InfoPlease, About, Examiner, GardenGuides, AllExperts, Mahalo, Answers, Life123, ezinearticles, essortment–it goes on and on.  Increasingly crowding out real, useful information written by people who actually know how to do something.  The developers–and the algorhythms–behind these sites are so good at making them climb to the top of search results that, for many topics, especially in a how-to, service-y area like gardening, they're practically all you get.

This fascinating article in Wired magazine explains just how a site like eHow works: a computer determines what search terms people are searching for, and how much advertisers will pay for particular keywords, and then it proposes a list of topics for which it needs articles written.  At the time of the Wired piece, the company had a list of 62,000 topics for which it would like articles or videos from its freelancers–"the online equivalent of day laborers waiting in front of Home Depot."  A writer would get paid about $15 per article, and $2.50 to copyedit a piece or $1 to fact-check it.

I'm not going to complain here about the poor pay or the weird business model or any of that. And I know people who have written for these sites or at least thought about it, and hey, everybody's got to make a living.  My concern is the way in which the accumulation of these sites has come to dominate Internet searches to the exclusion of the many real, useful, fact-filled sites that actual experts have worked so hard to put together.  The very promise of the Internet–that the world's leading clematis expert could share her carefully curated and time-tested advice and expertise with the world, and anyone could find it–is fading fast, when a company like Demand Media, which owns eHow, can pump out (at the time of the Wired article) 4000 new articles or vidoes every day.

What's the answer?  I like it that Wikipedia has taken a stand–it will not allow eHow articles to be cited as a reference source.  And I had high hopes when I read this article about a backlash against content mills that talked about a search engine called Duck Duck Go that blocked eHow–but sadly, it still lets several content mills (aka "Made for Adsense" sites) through. There is little hope that Google will take much of a stand, when the sites are delivering Google ads in such a profitable way.

I don't have any answers.  But the proliferation of these sites drives me mad. I wish I could say that the whole thing is on the verge of collapsing under its own weight–but that would be wishful thinking, wouldn't it?


  1. Amy, I’m with you. The sad part for the writers of these silly pieces is pays even less. I wrote for them for a year on promises that their pay scale would be better, and that they were looking for quality, not quantity. Alas, it became a gristmill of silliness, and overreaching requirements. I told them, “No thanks,” and quit. Still, my information is out there, and I hope it was good information. eHow drives me nuts, and I fear gardeners are being given bad, barely-scratch-the-surface information.~~Dee

  2. Totally agree! And here’s a related rant on the subject – the NY Times promotes these content mills! Check out their gardening resources, a permanent list, btw:
    It includes at least 2 mills, one of them a Demand Media product and the other is Love to Know. There’s also Gardening Links, which states right up front it hasn’t been updated in NINE YEARS.
    But is there anyone at the Times to contact about this, someone who gives a damn about gardening? Seems not.

  3. I am so glad you explained why this is happening. I thought it was just problem. I’d rephrase my question, I’d ignore eHow, etc., but I still couldn’t find the real people…with real answers to my plant questions.

  4. Amy, I totally agree and there are many people who link to these faux advice articles on Facebook, thinking that they are providing some type of service. Personally, I’d like to hear from actual gardeners rather than ill-informed “content providers.”

  5. It is true — the internet is a wild and woolly place. But there are paid professionals, like the old time sheriffs, who work hard to keep law and order where they can.

    Say hello to the last thin line between civilization and complete anarchy: Librarians.

    My husband and two of my dear friends happen to be librarians and so I’m a little overly passionate about the issue, but Librarians get masters degrees in how to navigate through and around the pile and pile of freelance-generated sludge out there.

    If you want to find a reputable source to answer your question, call or email your librarian, or go to the local library website where they almost certainly have an email or chat option, and ask your question. You could also go in person. The librarians will help. If your local library has been victim of budget cuts (because, say, no one ever goes there or wants to pay taxes to support it because they think the internet can replace paid expertise in finding reputable sources) then you need to go to the IPL, Internet Public Library (

    It’s a free site manned by volunteers (mostly Masters candidates who are “volunteering” for class credit) who will answer any questions with links to reputable sources online.

    This public service rant is now ended. Sorry to get all soapboxy!

  6. I laughed when I saw this post, because I made a similar comment on Twitter regarding About and got my butt handed to me. Apparently there are some real garden folks writing for About, and they’re VERY active on Twitter. Boy did I poke a bear. Just giving you fair warning.

    But I totally agree with what you’re saying, and it’s the point I was after with my ill-received Tweet: there are a lot of sites out there getting content from whomever solely for SEO purposes, and it’s a problem. I do a lot of hardscape design, and because I’ve been in the industry for a decade plus, I also consult with companies new to the hardscaping game. I’ve come across articles on eHow and About that purport to tell you how to build a deck, or a patio, or a retaining wall, and… oh Lord. At best, someone will create a mess that they’ll have to pay a pro to fix. At worst, you’re going to kill someone.

    What makes me angrier is when you do a search on the author who advocates building a deck out of 2x4s, and that’s the only home improvement article he’s written – but there are loads of articles like “7 ways to fit all your crap in your SUV” and “10 ways to recycle your gift wrap.” It’s disgusting, it’s dangerous, and I’ll bet you a dozen Krispy Kremes and a bucket of coffee that the company has used lawyers to ensure that the author bears 100% of the liability for the crap he’s writing.

  7. More of the same for horticulture. Why would the internet be better?

    If you have a skin lesion you don’t go to a dentist; choose the right expert.

    Mr. Testosterone-On-Wheels-Mow-Blow-Go is continually asked landscape design questions.

    Big lawn, 20′ evergreen holly at a 3′ window, seasonal annuals & etc. All things touched for PAY. Why accept this as landscape design?

    Mr. Mow-Blow-Go has no vested interest in: groundcovers, flowering shrubs, promoting the right plant in the right spot.

    Perhaps there is no lawn to mow, seasonal annuals to plant or shrubs to prune.

    Mr. Mow-Blow-Go would be out of a job.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  8. When I quit my job and had lots of pent up everything in my head, I wrote articles for Helium as a place to go. That was 3 years ago. It was good practice. And provided me with online samples of my own writing. But, I cringe when I look back at some of that stuff!

    Doug Green has mentioned many times that he feels the future of making money on the internet lies in curating content. He makes money by providing professional information for a reasonable price to subscribers who want correct, factual information-not marketing fluff.

    I do think that the pendulum will swing back toward more paid, subscription-based content, as people end up with poor results from some of the free content.

    Some of the people who write for sites like About are really good at what they do. The problem is that many people who write for some of these sites aren’t good at what they do.

  9. I wrote for ehow while I was unemployeed. I didn’t use my real name. No way is that stuff coming back to haunt me. The way they pay encourages quantity nt quality. I made on average less than $4 an article. I tried it, it wasn’t worth it.

    When I search I skip over anything written for big content mills. I’m looking for universities or professional sites.

  10. I find About to be the least malignant and most thorough of all the listed sites, but their ads are obnoxious.

    EHow is genuinely, laughably useless.

    I also noticed Wikipedia is being shunted aside by google in certain searches; not necessarily garden related. When I check with Bing or Yahoo search, that’s not the case.

    I also suspect this is part of why Yahoo answers has increased slightly in popularity. People are tired of running into junk marketing sites when using search engines.

  11. With the internet, everyone can be an expert (or convince themselves that they are)… always amazes me how many people really believe that if they read it on-line, it must be true. Years of honor and integrity in journalism have led to people assuming that those same standards apply to whatever they read on-line, and those standards have eroded in some journalistic spheres in recent years, apparently.

    When the people in our county voted to shut our libraries last year, it was amazing to me how many “anti-library” folks used the argument that the internet could replace it, especially for school students doing research for their papers…frightening!

  12. With google, you can use boolean search operators to exclude a specific term. So if you want to exclude all results from How Stuff Works, just type in your query followed by NOT howstuffworks or use the minus symbol -howstuffworks. You could create a keyboard macro that includes all the annoying sites and append it on to all your queries with just a couple of keystrokes.

  13. All of these computer tricks to exclude the less useful information sites are meaningless; the very people who don’t have a problem accepting everything they read on-line are the least likely to understand how to use them or go to that trouble. If we were all highly computer-literate, this problem would not be a problem; the trouble is, we’re not, and accessibility to the internet has a low threshold. You don’t have to be a computer whiz to use a computer these days.

  14. Years ago, when business people were just waking up to the money that could be made by having massive amounts of content online, I got paid quite well to write gardening articles. It came to about a dollar a word. Topics were assigned, you had to provide your own photos and you had to write tiny bits of supplemental info that ties your story to other topics (these are used as buttons on other stories to link readers to your story). After a few years they cut it down to 50 cents a word and placed more restrictions on what they would buy. Now they are still up and running but no longer seek material – though they still list me as one of their “experts”. It was a great part time gig for me and I’m not really a writer (I mostly illustrate horticulture books or nature fieldguides).

    I tried to get my writing friends to sign up and make some extra money but they all thought it was a scam.

  15. I always start with a Google Advanced Search and have commonly used sites in the domain box. [Hint put the domains you want at top by inserting a space in from of the domain name.] so my search for ‘compost pile’ pulls up ~ “compost pile” ~ and the first few hundred ghits are mostly universities and the like.

  16. I read a post from some media guru the other day that said “20% of your success depends on your ability to produce quality, 80% depends on your ability to market”. No wonder we get so much crap; that formula should be reversed. And every time I wind up at some SEO-infused article that reads like it was written by a robot, I cringe. This approach is killing good writing and making it impossible to find reliable information.

  17. Thanks for this post! It explains what was going on when a “How to of the Day” on the Google home page had this article a couple days ago:

    How to Sleep Comfortably on a Cold Night

    If your home is cold during the night and you find your sleep disrupted by being cold, it’s possible that your room is too cold.

    I thought it was a joke. I’m thinking the writer must have too if he/she wrote the ridiculous helpful piece for 15 bucks or less.


  18. Following up on jane’s_kid post on using the Advanced Search function in Google. Try limiting your search to .edu or .gov sites. You’ll miss the martha stewart type sites, but you’ll get information that is reliable. Example, in the Google Box:

    “transplanting roses” site:*.edu


    “amsonia hubrichtii” site:*.gov

  19. I’ve had an inner grouse about this for years. I must say a shout-out hurrah for librarians, they have been a Godsend in many situations where I needed guidance to wade through confusing avenues of information.

    The internet seems to require a mix of entertainment and information not unlike television. I guess we get to choose how much we will support PBS-like sites, instead of MTV.

  20. There are thousands of writers for, and gardenguides just like there are thousands of gardening videos on youtube. So yes, you must find the pearls.

    I am thankful that I did 1800 videos for that have given me all the views (nearly two million) and got paid pretty well because we did many one to three minute videos in a day. How to plant a tulip, how to select tulip bulbs, how to divide tulips, how to propagate tulips, how to grow tulips…The public comes up with the search subjects on Google..This is the future, time to accept technology!

    We need to work together and share information. It is not us and them it is we…The only way to get information out is to go on to sites like these.
    Saying all one million articles on ehow aren’t good is like walking in a bookstore and saying all books are no good.

    BTW Most people blog for free and get very few views….better to be paid a bit and be seen by millions. Now I am working on my own videos for many of the reasons you discussed..Wish me luck competing against myself!

  21. I understand your frustration but please be careful about who you lump into this category. These sites vary in quality.

    I write for and I can say with absolute certainty that each of’s Guides (i.e. people who write on a specific topic) are carefully vetted and truly domain experts. It’s not like AllExperts or Examiner — they don’t ‘look’ for their writers on craigslist. You have to be a seasoned journalist with years of expertise in the field you cover, and less than 6% of all applicants to end up as Guides.

    Before, I worked as a radio and TV broadcast journalist and won national awards for women’s issues programming.

    Many of my colleagues worked in the magazine and newspaper industry. Others are business owners and entrepreneurs who know their topics inside and out.

    Some sites may seem more basic than others. We approach our respective topics on a variety of levels and keep in mind that a fair number of readers may be looking for straightforward information on a subject they know little about.

    I’d encourage you to take a look at the content of an page before you summarily dismiss us. We do have much to offer.

  22. While I agree with the general argument you make, I take exception to your inclusion of as a “content mill.” I will be upfront and tell you that I am the Guide to Insects for Each Guide who writes for has expertise in their topic. We are real people with a passion for our subject matter, and with meaningful, practical experience with our topic. We are in complete control of our own content. We decide what to write, and how to construct our articles, based on what we know people in our field would want to learn. We’re not given any auto-generated list of assignments based on search terms. In addition to writing articles, we answer emails and moderate a user forum to make sure our readers get the information they need. My readers can also reach me via Twitter and Facebook. I take pride in what I write, and do a great deal of research to make sure my articles are factually correct and current.

  23. I’ll agree that many of these content mill sites pay for and get crappy content. But is it fair to say that the writers are necessarily uninformed, or even less informed than many of the gardening “experts” writing books and articles and being quoted in supposedly good sites?

    One of my pet peeves is people who have never gardened except for in their own home gardens, making themselves out to be experts on how to garden. Just because something works well on one site, to one person’s standards, isn’t reason enough to confidently announce oneself as an expert. Sometimes it works, but often the advice these people give is impractical at best.

    (I’ll draw a distinction for people who write ABOUT gardening, and not how-to. I do not think those fine people need field experience to be able to do a good job.)

    Anyway, I’ve read some excellent articles on these sites, and written some helpful ones, too. I’ve also written some that could have been a heck of a lot better if I’d had more than a half hour to write them in. But the information was still good.

    I will say, though, that I enjoy the new google feature of showing search results from your “social circle”. Unfortunately, my social circle writes less about how to diagnose a pest issue and more about design, which is fun to read but rarely what I am searching for when I have a problem.

  24. Many of us write because we want to make our gardens and the world a better place with fewer chemicals. That is why new technology can help so much. We are “appalled by chemical warfare in the garden.” So we need to stand united and not let the means of information trafficking get in the way.
    My Garden Naturally Group on Facebook has nearly five thousand members and many are involved in videos, writing, blogging, and are authors. We work together….So please post links to your information because we are in it together to win it!
    So yes, the information sweat shop that Demand has created sucks and the fact search words are what it is about and not the information is reality. No reason to put targets on anyone…
    Thanks for all you do authors, writers, video producers, bloggers to make the world a better place. Garden on naturally in love and harmony! Yolanda
    BTW Genevieve, we post lots of bug links like this one yesterday about IPM Integrated Pest Management Integrated Pest Management (IPM) advice from Dave…and you can ask questions for members to answer~

  25. Yolanda, good point that we need to stick together and help each other through linking to content that we trust from our social media pages and our own sites.
    I’m guessing Google is, as we speak, coming up with new ways of rewarding the most helpful content and not showing us results that are unhelpful.
    I just don’t necessarily think that just because a site is built to make money on google ads, it is necessarily worse in some way than sites built by other people. I guess that’s what I am inarticulately trying to say (been a long day, I am sure I’m rambling).
    Some articles on these sites are good. Some articles on individual blogs, or Martha Stewart, or UC Extension offices, are good. And some from all of those places suck and contain inaccurate and poorly-written information.
    We’re in a new age of information and tech. It probably will take a while before the algorithms catch up to what we as humans actually find helpful.

  26. Please do not lump in with other entities on the internet. I am the Busy Cooks Guide for As to my qualifications: I have a degree in Food Science and Nutrition. I have written 25 cookbooks and am writing my 26th, 27th, and 28th even as I post here. I worked for the Pillsbury Company as a Home Economist and I have decades of writing experience.

    The Guides are definitely “real, useful information written by people who actually know how to do something.” Each Guide is an expert in his or her field and each is carefully vetted before lets them write. Very, very few people who apply are hired. The Guides who write about medical information have their articles vetted by M.D.s before they are posted. Please do your research before you make unjustifiable accusations.

  27. BTW Genevieve, I found a great article on about that has links to all of the best extension services and websites concerning insects…
    The future is interactive and most will catch on whether they want to or not! There is a lot of junk and advertisements so the post has some very valid points…I don’t think they intended to offend…Twenty years ago I went to the Mail Order Gardening Convention and everyone was complaining about the on-line sites taking away from their mail order sales..I explained to them they could add internet sales and still have a catalog but eventually catalogs will be obsolete…They didn’t believe me and it has happened. Very few companies put out catalogs compared to twenty years ago.
    We are at the next level with Kindle and iPhone/iPad aps..but instead of books and DVDs, people will pay to download so there is still money to be made… We have to start swimming or sink….

  28. In defense of All Experts I have written and asked the “expert” questions and received an answer within 2 days. Now I am not going to sit here and say that the person who takes the time to answer the questions is a real expert but it is nice to get a second opinion to a plant problem from another person and there replies are always friendly and polite.

  29. Let’s do a little actual research into what we’re talking about here. Ehow, Suite, LTN writers are barely vetted. Having worked for all three companies, I can attest to that. They have people writing gardening content who have (in some cases) never picked up a trowel in their life. requires not only an in-depth application, but also tangible proof that you know what you’re doing — as a few of my About colleagues mentioned above, less than 6% of people who apply actually get hired. Compare that with eHow, who hires just about everyone who applies. Huge difference right there.

    Then, let’s look at the people actually doing the writing, shall we?

    Marie Iannotti – Guide to Gardening: Former nursery owner, master gardener, horticulture educator, nationally-published freelance garden writer.

    Amy Jeanroy, Guide to Herb Gardens: Author of (soon to be) two books, Farms on 60 acres, sells herbal soaps/tinctures/etc. at farmer’s markets, has been studying herbalism for over 20 years.

    Kerry Michaels, Guide to Container Gardening: Has been designing and gardening in containers for over nine years. Experienced television writer/producer on a variety of topics.

    Nessa Richins. Guide to Trees and Shrubs: B.S. in Horticultural Science, master gardener, contributor to the book “I Garden, Urban Style.” (How many of you have a hort degree, again?)

    Me, Guide to Organic Gardening: Over 15 years gardening experience. Co-author of the book “Edible Gardening for the Midwest,” frequent contributor to Mother Earth News, gardening writer for many Discovery Communications sites, including Planet Green, Treehugger, and (soon) TLC.

    We have plenty of experience, and we work hard to provide useful information to our readers, most of whom are new gardeners. Please get your facts straight before you lump us in with people who have never gardened before.

  30. While I don’t hesitate to agree with you in regard to some of the sites you’ve mentioned, I do take issue with lumping About into the mix. And, yes, as a point of disclosure, I do work for About, not as a gardening writer, but as an education expert, writing about educational issues.

    It’s amusing that one commenter points to the NY Times article about content mills to support her point, simply because is a NY Times property. As such, the writers who work for About are well-respected professionals with experience in the fields about which they write. We undergo background checks. We do not write to keywords algorithms like eHow does, we write based on what readers want to know because they tell us.

    I’d hope people are discerning enough to differentiate between SEO babble and real,useful information. In part isn’t that their responsibility as readers? It’s no different than picking up two books at the library and knowing which is poorly researched and which is highly informative.

  31. Thanks for those tips above. Just after reading this post, I was looking up something and the first few pages – not just entries – were this type of trash. I did check the “eHow” as I’d never looked at one, and it had minimum of facts but the majority was a poorly disguised push for one business. Searches have seemed to give poorer results as of late, so that information above is greatly appreciated.

  32. I didn’t even realize this was a problem because when I need help with how to do something garden related I ask a friend or look it up in one of my reference books. I guess I am old-fashioned and I have a lot of connections because I’m in the nursery business. I do use the internet to look up plants (after checking the MBG Kemper Center Plant Finder site first), and I almost always find good information on the first page of hits. I guess these information mills haven’t gotten to plants yet.

  33. hear hear! oh how i would love a search engine that would filter out all of the horrifying “answer” sites, or all of the horrible discussion forums… sigh.

  34. Thank You Awaysbecooking!
    I’m a librarian in a small town. Librarian’s index, or is one of the best internet reference sources going. However, for some information, books can never be replaced. Please keep (polite) pressure on your local librarian to keep ordering the best of new and old horticultural and gardening books. Books won’t die if YOU demand them.

  35. I just found this:

    “How to Kill Crabgrass in St. Augustine Grass
    By Giselle Mazur, eHow Contributor
    Crabgrass is not actually a grass at all but is an invasive weed that can overpower your lawn…”

    Of course, crabgrasses (Digitaria spp) are true grasses belonging to the grass family, Poaceae. Just a specific example of how no peer review works.

  36. there is a ton of info out there, whether it’s about flowers or compost or global warming. as a journalist long before i started blabbing on blogs, i believe we as readers need to take responsibility for our info: first, to exercise our own independent thinking and ask hard questions; second, i believe we all need to check our sources. when it comes to the blogosphere, i think it’s wise to make sure people’s posts are well-documented (who do they credit?) and check out the credibility of their sources(eg, who likes them?). also, get a sense of what drives them–a true passion for their subject or bucks on cheesy ads. what’s cool is the whole internet has this organic energy that responds to us! so if we don’t like what’s out there, it’s our own fault!

  37. When I took the Master Gardener classes, we had a lesson on what to look for when searching for information on the internet. Perhaps that’s something the Garden Professors could address.

    I agree that isn’t bad, but it’s hard to wade through all the advertising to find the actual article.

  38. I think curated content is the way we’re headed too. Or, i hope it is. There’s a new search engine in beta right now that I find interesring,, that is trying to weed out the crap. Here’s a Wired article about it:
    Excerpt explaining Blekko: “And Blekko does work, thanks to a little thing called slash tags.

    Basically slash tags tell Blekko to limit your search to a human-curated category of websites — a custom search. So say you want to find good resources for learning about arrays in PHP? Type “arrays /php.” Need a good pumpkin pie recipe. Yup, you guessed it — append the /recipes slash tag.

    What happens is that an editor or set of editors decide what sites return good results in that particular category, and Blekko only searches those sites when you include a slashtag in your query.

    Why is such a thing necessary?

    Well, according to CEO and co-founder Rick Skrenta, it’s because the web is filling up with spam and low-rent webpages from content farms like Demand Media, saying the web now has 100 billion urls, most created by bots.”
    Hope Blekko does well.

  39. On Freelance sites, you see ads for writers who will take an article and rewrite it so that it can run through some filter to make sure it won’t be recognized as the original article.

    I see these writer sites in my stats all the time and I wonder how many of my articles are being rewritten for the mills.

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