About.com Pushes To Reinvent As A Vertical Publisher

NeilVogelAbout.com grew up during the big portal-publisher era that included Yahoo, MSN and AOL.

Similar to those other Web 1.0 properties, About.com, too, was acquired – for nearly $300 million in 2012 by IAC – and forced to reinvent in the platform age of Facebook.

After a complete site redesign two years ago, About.com is transitioning away from being all things to all people. In April it launched its first vertical, the health-focused site Verywell. And on Tuesday, About.com rolled out its second, personal finance vertical The Balance.

“We realized that just doing an About.com Health and Money, and giving them a similar look, would be confusing to people,” said Neil Vogel, CEO of The About.com Group. “We came to the harsh conclusion that About.com was the biggest brand on the internet that didn’t mean anything to anybody.”

Thus, About.com plans to distinguish each of its vertical publishers with unique branding and dedicated teams. A technology site will be next.

Although all of About.com’s vertical sites will share a common CMS and data framework, 40 people are focused on health and 25 are assigned to The Balance.

Vogel spoke with AdExchanger about About.com’s vertical strategy and how platform distribution is impacting the publisher’s approach.

AdExchanger: What was advertisers’ perception of your redesign? Did it ignite the investment you thought it would?

NEIL VOGEL: When we created a new version of About.com, we learned relatively quickly the limitations of About.com. We’ve always had strong content written by subject level experts. Doctors write our health content. Chefs write our food content Because of that, we’ve always done well on search and had a lot of traffic. We came of age during an age when all that mattered was scale. 

But since then, everything’s really changed and all the publishers that are succeeding on the internet are all vertical, premium publishers, and I think we learned that we were not that. In health, it’s WebMD and Everyday Health. In food, it’s HGTV and Tasty. In money, it’s WSJ and Motley Fool.

What did you discover?

Users would get to our site and didn’t know what to make of us. It’s hard to get a fried chicken recipe from the same people who have “how to treat colitis” content, no matter how good the content is. And advertisers loved our scale, reach and data, but if it was between us and Everyday Health, it wasn’t a fair fight. It’s important to say we’re not just about repackaging About.com in new skin.

Each of these things is custom built. Since we launched our health site in April, our traffic is up about 25% from where we started. We’re now taking a look at our finance content and asking where we fit into the universe with The Balance. We’re not using the language of Barron’s to talk to people. We’re like financial information for the 99% of people in the world who don’t have a $10 million account at Goldman Sachs. It’s money hacks, “how do I pay down my mortgage?”

How is About.com’s strategy different than some of the portals you competed with early on for ad revenue?

The first choice we made when we relaunched About.com and moved into verticals was to be a content company. We’re not a technology company. We were going to invest our resources not in buying apps and technology and ad tech, but really focus on being a publisher.

The second thing is the brand question. I think once we had About.com in a good state, we took a very hard look at that brand and what it meant. I think we concluded, rightly or wrongly, that our future was not in being a general brand.

How is your investment paying off with advertisers?

We built something where if you look at our pages, the only thing you see is articles and ads. There’s not a lot of trash. Our ads are crazy viewable. Everything is above 70% viewability because of how we set up our pages.

So while we have standard units, [pursuing verticals] has allowed us to look at a lot more custom content. Context wins. If you’re selling charcoal and you sell ads on Facebook, you have to guess if people like to barbeque. If you’re buying with us, we put it on content that’s about barbequing and find it performs well.

balanceAs content becomes more platform-distributed, how is that impacting About.com?

Every publisher now has algorithm dependence. More than half of our traffic now is from search, and the remainder of it is from Facebook, Pinterest, other social sources [and email/URL referrals]. I like our spot.

If you had to pick an algorithm to depend on, I would pick Google because with search, the objective is very clear. Somebody enters a query into a box and they want to get back the clearest answer possible. They’ve been relatively clear about what you need to be included on that answer – you have to be a credible domain, your answer has to be updated and correct, they have to trust you.

That changes all the time, but it’s a well-established algorithm and you know how to deal with that when you’re a site like us. I have no idea what Facebook wants in its newsfeed. And neither do they. One day they love click-baity stuff, one day they want more of your pictures, the next day they want less of your pictures.

So how do you distribute to Facebook?

On Facebook, we compete on a part of it that’s a little more predictable. We’re not trying to boost a viral hit and get 47 million views of our “Eight Ways You Know You Grew Up in Philadelphia.” We did a cat yoga video in health and that got like 20 million views, so that was good, but by and large, we’re in Facebook groups and someone shares an article in a group because it’s really good. We do really well on Pinterest because it’s evergreen content and visual search. We do well on platforms like Flipboard.

We think we have slightly more stability than other publishers, though if Google catches a cold we can get very sick, and if Google has a half decent day, we can have a great day. There’s a tremendous amount of risk for publishers. Google and Facebook are your frenemies. And like all organizations, they’re going to do what’s in their best interest 100% of the time. To the extent you do what they like, you’re in good shape.

Interview condensed and edited for clarity.

 

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