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?