Irresponsible eHow Post Rewarded With Enviable Google Ranking

A few days ago, I was searching Google on the query ‘Second Story Deck’. I wrote two articles on deck building recently, and wanted to see the rankings. Lo and behold, guess what shows up on page 1 of the search results? Yep, an eHow post.

(For the few of you not familiar with eHow, it is a delivery vehicle for advertising. Its content tends to carry more noise than signal, and the site is not beneath trickery. For example, the article referenced below has Google advertising styled to match the font and color of the main topic. This confuses visitors who then inadvertently click on ads, putting money in eHow’s pocket.)

In less than 400 words, a fellow who likely never built a deck in this life, much less a second story one, describes how to do it. According to his byline, Nathaniel Miller has a Master of Science degree from Ohio University, and his day job is as a technical writer for an environmental lab. If you are new to construction, his explanations will make you scratch your head; as a builder or engineer, they will make you cringe and then cry. The article is inaccurate, incomplete, and downright irresponsible, as it puts human lives at risk.

Inaccurate: “…drill 4 foot deep holes in which to slip the bottom of the 6 inch by 6 inch posts.” The size of posts and the depth of holes depend on numerous factors. For example, building that deck near a beach is likely to require far deeper holes than a location in the proximity of bedrock. And sinking posts into the ground risks premature decay. Has the author ever heard of concrete piers?

Incomplete: Making changes to the exterior of your home often requires review by your town/city/county government. Most certainly you will need a building permit, and quite likely you will need to submit engineering details.

Irresponsible: Building a deck according to the one-size-fits-all-approach written by Miller is a recipe for disaster, simply because every  home and location are different, and have specific issues that need to be attended to. Should a deck like this collapse, will Mr Miller and eHow be on hand to take responsibility?

Why did the discovery of the post hit a nerve? Three reasons:

  1. This eHow article more or less sums up everything that’s wrong with the internet: people posing as experts and writing about things they know nothing about. This may seem an innocent issue when someone writes about ‘How To Open Your Eyes’; after all, a few missing details are not likely to cause disastrous results. When it comes to building second story decks, however, mistakes and omissions can cause substantial property damage, serious injury, or even death. Do eHow and its contributor just not care about the consequences of their publications? Where do they draw the line? Also, eHow does not provide an easy way to comment on its content.
  2. Another problem is why this post appears on the first page of the search results. I recently learned of changes to Google’s algorithm and the stated intent to punish content scrapers and reward high quality sites. However, more than a few sites with excellent content and apparently exemplary behavior saw a sharp drop in the number of visitors, while some bottom feeders rose to the very top. As a relative newcomer to the blogging world who aims to publish good quality content, eHow’s ranking is confusing and disheartening. eHow claims to have 2 million articles. Imagine that, all laden with advertising. This must add up to a lot of potential revenue for both eHow and Google.
  3. Lastly, I have spent most of my life in the building trades and am passionate about my work. Unfortunately, there are many unscrupulous operators who have given the industry a bad name. Through my blog, I aim to raise awareness and eventually the quality of the industry’s image. eHow’s potentially dangerous instructions combined with Google’s questionable ranking mechanism fuels the already dim view the public has of contractors.

Now What?

I challenge eHow to take a hard look at the topics it covers, and to invite true specialists to write about their fields. eHow also should hire qualified experts to thoroughly review content prior to publication, especially in cases where safety is of paramount concern.

As to Nathaniel Miller, the post’s author, I was going to suggest he stick to his day job at the lab, and leave it at that. Until I saw his blog and resume. Apparently he has churned out a whopping 3,200 web-based articles between 2008 and present. According to my sloppy math, that means he has written two articles a day, every day, including weekends and holidays. How much time was left for research and the rest of his life? Given his master’s degree and extensive writing experience, I hold him to a higher standard than, say, a retiree wanting to make an extra buck by writing a post here and there. Mr. Miller must be capable of critical thinking and aware that construction of a second story deck requires more know-how than he is able to provide. What prompted him to proceed anyway?

And Google? While the dominant player in internet marketing with little meaningful competition, to me it is no longer the Holy Grail. I will continue to monitor rankings of my posts, and take advantage of Adsense, Adwords, and Analytics. At the same time, I am exploring other ways of promoting my businesses on the web.

It seems common knowledge that everything on the web has to be taken with a grain of salt. Yet, sites like eHow collect tons of clicks and must be profiting handsomely, or the owners would pull the plug. Does the answer lie in a non-profit rating system that is not related to search engines? Clearly, just because Mr. Miller’s writing ends up in a top slot at Big G doesn’t mean the content deserves high ratings.

Your thoughts?

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