by Emma Murphy, Master Gardener
Gardening resources on the internet are plentiful but can quickly become overwhelming for both novice and experienced gardeners. Over the past year I have noticed certain websites that continually show up at the top of my search results; these sites are “gardening content farms”, a term I learned from fellow Master Gardener Cathy Kavassalis (@CathyKavassalis). A content farm (or content mill) is a website that provides limited pay to large numbers of writers to generate a wide range of (user-generated) content which is often specifically designed to maximize page views in order to generate advertising revenue.
Examples include gardeningknowhow.com, gardendesign.com, thespruce.com, theflowerexpert.com. Many have names that entice you into their site (like a fly to a spider’s web). The websites may contain lots of information about gardening, but it appears to be mostly collected from other sites or produced by writers with minimal gardening knowledge. As Cathy puts it “The quality is variable but the sites are created to ensure they show up early in Internet searches to generate ad revenue.”
For a while I actually didn’t notice the content farm sites because I have an adblocker program (so I didn’t get the ads). Once Cathy mentioned the sites in response to a question on our Master Gardeners of Ontario Facebook site, I consciously looked and was shocked by the number of ads that had been blocked when I clicked on the links – 6, 9, even 15 or more.
So I purposefully put “types of peonies” in the subject line in a Google search, keeping the topic very general. First link up is from gardendesign.com. Some good information there, but 8 ads blocked. And of course first of all I get a pop-up wanting me to sign up for their newsletter (to sell me more stuff).This is where you have to be an engaged researcher. Often the author may own a business (for example, one that sells expensive peonies); this doesn’t mean the information isn’t good, but their primary motivation in writing the article is to drive you to their website, or for you to share their article with others to increase their profile. Other sites engage writing generalists to search the internet for information on a topic and repost it on the site, which could mislead you into thinking they wrote the article (usually there is an attribution to the source at the bottom of the page in small lettering).
The content provided on these sites are not a bad place to begin your searches, but the quality varies significantly, as these are not generally writers with gardening knowledge. Also if they are reworking other (maybe erroneous) information, they are simply continuing to spread misinformation.
I offer three suggestions to help you find gardening information on the web:
If you are doing a Google search focus your search with as many key terms as you can so you get what you need, often bypassing the gardening content farms. For example, typing in “ontario gladiolus bulbs overwintering” brings up good local answers from sites such as TorontoGardens (with Helen and Sara Battersby), Landscape Ontario, an Agriculture Canada publication on gladiolus, and Toronto Master Gardeners. Then the aggregate (garden farm) sites follow, as they have more general information.
Rather than Googling for information, use some of the great resources available on Facebook and Twitter. Master Gardeners of Ontario, Ontario Horticultural Association (OHA) (through GardenOntario), and many regional Master Gardener and OHA groups are on Facebook and Twitter – it really is a terrific way to learn (and make new gardening friends). Also there are many good gardening websites to be found (really another entire post) – look for information with that provided by a government agency (e.g. OMAFRA, USDA, etc.), respected horticulturalists, a botanic garden and/or arboretum, a university, a Cooperative Extension services associated with a university (USA), or a wildflower or native gardening society.
Subscribe (or follow) excellent gardening blogs – find those that match your interests and where the writers are passionate gardeners who want to share their knowledge. You are on one now so sign up to get notifications of new posts (every week). Other blogs I like are The Impatient Gardener, Savvy Gardening, and Three Dogs in a Garden. Ask friends for recommendations. You can also reach out to me on Twitter.
Filtering through all the information is challenging, but hopefully this blog gives you some tools to separate the wheat from the chaff. Happy Gardening!