Everybody's a Critic

About.com Gets it Half-Right

Now for the other half of the picture.  For their Landscaping articles About.com has chosen David Beaulieu, who has credentials as a business writer (Wall Street Journal)
and web developer, but no visible expertise in landscaping.  Now I’m no
stickler for degrees – hell, I’ll listen to experienced gardeners any
day, or "Master Gardeners" like myself with just 50 hours of classroom
time and completion of a take-home test.  In the absence of
credentials, I’m happy to judge writers by what they write.

But there’s the rub.  Recently an Internet search directed me to
About’s Landscaping articles and this review of a book by "America’s
Master Gardener [Trademarked]" Jerry Baker:

"Jerry Baker does it again!
"Pros:

  • Handy lists abound.
  • Information for saving money by using household items/recycling.
  • Sample problems/solutions make you feel like you’re talking with Jerry Baker.

"Cons:

  • No photos.
  • He’s a total quack."

Okay, I made
up that last bullet point – because it’s true and everyone in the world
who knows anything about gardening knows it! (Readers unfamiliar with
Jerry can go here and here
for an overview.)  Yet a search for old Jerry on the About Landscaping
home page yields 180 hits!  And by this time you’re not surprised to
learn that all the book reviews are favorable.  Are all those sponsored
links the problem here, biasing what might otherwise be objective
reporting of information?  Or is About.com’s landscaping writer just
clueless and gullible?  Bottom line, anyone who recommends Jerry Baker
as an authority covers himself in suspicion and deserves not a second
look.

Does this matter?  The About site gets 29 MILLION hits a month, so
yes.  The information about the site on its home page doesn’t say a
word about its writers being qualified in their subject matter,
however.  That’s a problem.  So, readers, how can we get through to the
good folks at About or their parent, the New York Times

Posted by on January 4, 2007 at 1:43 pm, in the category Everybody's a Critic.
Comments are off for this post

8 Responses to “About.com Gets it Half-Right”

  1. angela says:

    E-mailing this post to Mr. Beaulieu seems like a great start.

    I’m with you on the J.B. quack factor, Susan.

  2. Carol says:

    Don’t send the post to Mr. Beaulieu, send it to his boss!

  3. susan har says:

    Oh dear – I just found this on About.com’s Ethics Policy page:
    “We’ll provide you with accurate, engaging content. Like a friendly neighbor, we’ll give you frank advice that you can trust.” Then there’s some promises about their objectivity never being compromised by finances. And naturally there’s no way to contact them indicated on the site.

  4. Kim says:

    I have to resist the urge to literally quack when I see Baker’s books on the shelves at my local bookstore. And it irritates me when I see them featured with the cover out–I usually take the liberty of replacing it with something from Rodale or “The Truth About Garden Remedies” by Jeff Gillman. (I like the irony of using the latter book as a blocker!)

  5. Richard Boyd says:

    About.com sucks! It’s thinly disguised NYT low level adbait.

    5 Years ago it was a potential Wikipedia – but it missed the boat. Hopefully the search engines will penalise about.com’s status, the shares plummet yet further and about.com disappears.

  6. pmo3ws says:

    Hi all! I like about.com. I have read it for years. Like Jerry Baker too. When I was little, my mom and I would watch Jerry’s show and our local news also included a segment with him giving advice. That was a least 40 yrs. ago.

  7. firefly says:

    Jerry Baker is surely a fraud, but the lack of outrage about him may mean that people know it. Healthcare site Webmasters have been worried for years about quality of information and how to get people to evaluate it, but some research (especially in the Journal of Medicine on the Internet) has shown that people triangulate sources, which tends to mitigate quackery.

    Personally, I avoid About.com like the plague because their basic medium is overburdened — their layout is too busy with ads, content is link-heavy, takes forever to load, and the banner that follows you to outlinks is really irritating.

    All those flashy bells and whistles call the reliability of the information they serve up into question, for me.

  8. Gloria says:

    Evil is like a shadow – it has no real substance of its own, it is simply a
    lack of light. You cannot cause a shadow to disappear by trying to fight
    it, stamp on it, by railing against it, or any other form of emotional or
    physical resistance. In order to cause a shadow to disappear, you must
    shine light on it. -Shakti Gawain, teacher and author (1948- )

    Keep adding wattage,fame casts a long shadow…

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