Most of the iconic names from the history of the early web, sites like Geocities and Pets.com, have long since ceased to exist. But About.com, one of the earliest digital “content farms,” has remained largely unchanged despite the turmoil all around it.
All of that is coming to an end, however. In a recent interview with Fortune, About.com CEO Neil Vogel described how the site is reinventing itself for the current media age, and also unveiled a new name. About.com will now be known as DotDash, and its strategy is to be a kind of digital-first Conde Nast, running a series of content verticals.
The company has spent the last six months launching several new sites, including VeryWell—which focuses on health—and Balance, which specializes in articles about personal finance.
Vogel says he became the CEO of About after it was acquired in 2012 by Barry Diller’s IAC (which owns a host of sites like Match.com and Ask.com), and it was immediately apparent that the previous owner—the New York Times, which bought it in 2005—had not really invested in the site.
“When IAC bought it, it was still getting about 100 million users a month, and it had a bunch of revenue, but it was about half the size it was at its peak,” Vogel said. “It had not been invested in by the Times at all — no one had touched the content or the technology since like 2006.”
The site was so ugly and poorly designed, Vogel says, that “I couldn’t figure out why it was still in business when IAC approached me and asked me to fix it.”
The more he dug into the business of the site, however, the more Vogel says he realized that the “evergreen” type of content that About specialized in—articles about how to fix your broken toilet, or how to identify chicken pox, etc.—continued to draw a lot search traffic from Google.
“The content was still incredibly good, because a lot of it was written by experts,” he says. “We had 60 MDs that wrote for us, we had travel stuff that was written by people who lived in these places, dozens of personal finance experts. I figured if we could fix the tech and the look, we might get something advertisers might want to advertise on.”
Over the next year, the company totally rewrote the code that powered the site, did a top-to-bottom redesign of the front end, and launched a new version. “That more or less stopped the decline,” says Vogel. “All of a sudden people weren’t embarrassed to say they worked here.”
While traffic and revenue stopped falling, however, they didn’t start growing. “It turned out we were just doing the wrong thing better,” he says. “We were the same as Yahoo or MSN: A big portal with lots of general-interest content. But there’s no place for a site like that in 2016.”
Advertisers also saw About.com as a damaged brand, in part because it hadn’t changed for years. “We kept losing out on these deals because advertisers just couldn’t bring themselves to put their brands next to ours,” Vogel says. “At one point, we had one of the biggest companies in the world tell us never to call them again.”
The conclusion he came to was that if the site wanted to do anything other than tread water, it would need to be reinvented. “It was profitable, but it was going sideways,” he says. “We told IAC that we could keep it going and it would be fine, or we could really try to blow it up.”
IAC gave the order to blow it up, so Vogel and his team went through all of the content on the site and found that the most successful pages fell into five general categories: Health, technology, personal finance, lifestyle and travel.
“So we figured we could take those five areas and build brands around them, and turn that into something worthwhile, and the rest of the content we would just throw in the garbage,” Vogel says.
The transformation began at the beginning of 2016, and the first brand, VeryWell, was launched in April. Content was updated to make it current, and the idea was to be “a kinder, gentler version of WebMD,” the About.com CEO says. The site got 12 million unique visitors a month when it launched, and it is now at around 17 million visitors.
The second vertical, a personal-finance site called Balance, launched with 6.5 million unique visitors in August and last month it had more than twice as many, said Vogel.
Lifewire, the personal-technology site, launched in November and has gone from about 3.5 million unique visitors a month to more than 7 million. A home and food site called The Spruce is up about 40% since launch, and the next on the list is a vertical oriented around travel called TripSavvy, which is launching later this month.
As for the new name, Vogel said the word Dot in DotDash came from the fact that About.com’s logo had a red dot for the period, and the company wanted to maintain some connection to that. The word Dash seemed symbolic of “something coming next,” he says. And he also liked the fact that “dot dash” in Morse code refers to the letter A.
The response from advertisers seems to show the new approach is working, says Vogel. “We’ve been talking to people who have not talked to us since I’ve been here, which is four years,” he said. “Advertisers want data, which we’ve always had, but now we have brands that advertisers can trust.”
Embargo May 2 — Been here four years, IAC bought About from the Times, was still 100M users a month, bunch of revenue, good news lot of scale but bad news half the size at its peak — not been invested in by the Times at all, in 2013 no one had touched the content or the tech since like 2006 — create evergreen content, get SEO from Google and monetize through AdSense… so ugly and such a mess, IAC approached me and asked me to fix it, couldn’t figure out why it was still in business; but if you dug into it, the content was still incredibly good, written by experts, 60 MDs that wrote for us, went through each of our verticals, travel stuff written by people who lived in these places… dozens of finance experts; figured if we could fix the tech and the look, might get something advertisers might want to advertise on — rewrote the code, rebuilt the front end, launched a new version, that more or less stopped the decline — first year were still going down fairly rapidly, traffic and revenue… all of sudden people weren’t embarrassed to say they worked here; spent a year, just could not get it to grow no matter what we did — turned out we were just doing the wrong thing better, same as Yahoo or MSN, big portal with lots of content; there’s no place for a general-interest website in 2016 that is going to appeal to either users or algorithms that send traffic… if you have a clogged toilet, are you going to trust About.com or HGTV? Didn’t have any trust in our brand — some advertisers liked us, but kept losing these deals with The Verge and Engadget because they just couldn’t bring themselves to put their brand next to ours; one of the biggest co’s in the world told us never to call them again… About pre-dates Google, the deal back then was people would come see you directly; we became dependent on Google, but as it became more sophisticated it became more discriminating — same with Facebook; did pretty well with Pinterest because it’s very visual but… conclusion we came to was this thing is fine, it’s profitable, but it’s going sideways; we told IAC that we could keep it going and it would be fine, or we can really try to blow it up — figured out most of our content was focused on health, tech, personal finance and lifestyle; we thought if we took those five areas and built brands around them, we could turn that into something worthwhile, and then throw the rest of the content into the garbage… we don’t have magazine content to preserve, we don’t have existing businesses, so we can change quickly if we need to; middle of 2015 had the idea, started in beginning of 2016, broke it up, drop them into new domains… real branded, premium publisher; launched first brand in end of April last year, VeryWell; repurposing of all health content, brand new domain, average age of content four years, we updated all of it; kinder, gentler version of WebMD; 30-45 days later, traffic down 45-50% — figured that would happen because had to retrain Google, Facebook, etc.; 12M at launch, now 17M… Balance, personal finance; 6.5M in August, last month 13.5M, more than doubled; launched Lifewire tech site (how to fix my router) in November, gone from less than 3.5M to 7M — then home and food site The Spruce, up 30-40% — TripSavvy launching in three weeks… other big news is we’re going to change the name of About.com, no longer a general-interest UGC site; new name DotDash — always been a red dot in the name of About, so kept that, the dash is symbolic of something coming next; dot-dash is the letter A in Morse Code, which we thought was kind of fun… trade brand, not consumer brand, more like CondeNast or Hearst, so when we sell across brands; we’ve been talking to people who have not talked to us since I’ve been here, which is four years… advertisers want data, which we’ve always had, but now we have brands that advertisers can trust;