Neil Vogel, like most people, never really thought about About.com.
"Why would I?" he remembers asking. "Nobody does. I search for something and About.com shows up sometimes."
Now, in 2013, he was considering taking a job as its CEO. The year before, Barry Diller's company, IAC, had acquired the 18-year-old information site from the New York Times Company for $300 million (a $110 discount from what the Times paid for About.com in 2005), and it wanted someone who could make its purchase feel like new again.
About.com had not updated its design since 2007. It had no product team, no photo editor, and—despite almost three-fourths of the country having discovered social networks—no social sharing buttons on its articles. The site had so little personality of any kind, in fact, that in a survey distributed through About.com, only about half of respondents said they remembered having ever used About.com, despite having been on the site just moments before. This was a profoundly unsexy product.
Vogel was a serial entrepreneur who had helped start marketing companies like Alloy Media + Marketing and Recognition Media, the company that produces Internet award show The Webbys. Taking a job at a giant conglomerate like IAC, even without the pain of leading such low-rent brand, was not his normal style.
But there were redeeming qualities behind About.com’s unsexy interior. Since 1996, the company had produced 3.5 million pieces of content about 1,000 topics, and it ranks as number 15 on Comscore’s list of 50 most trafficked websites online. Though revenues were declining at the time IAC acquired About.com, the company had made $10.2 million operating profit its most recent quarter on $25.4 million in revenue.
"It totally works except it doesn’t," Vogel reasoned, "And if a business doesn’t work but still has 100 million users a month and does nearly 100 million in annual revenue, you can do something with that." (Comscore puts About.com’s monthly unique desktop users in the U.S. at about 48 million for July. Vogel is referring to a monthly average of both mobile and desktop unique users.)
So Vogel took over in April 2013. Since then, he has hired 100 new people, built new content, product, and data teams, and gotten to work on a massive redesign of About.com that will finish rolling out this month. Considering where About.com started, it can only make the site better.
As a colleague told Vogel when he was contemplating taking the job, "You can’t fall off the floor."
"There is something that is very 1995 about this," says Tricia Han. She’s showing me the About.com website she inherited when Vogel hired her in September to lead the product team. "All the fonts have a strong relationship to the '70s."
With often-misplaced tile photos, awkward navigation, and ads that interrupt text, the site looks like something you might make in an intro to HTML course. "This was a site that had not focused on the end user in many, many, many years," Han says. "They had focused on Google."
The problem with focusing on Google, however, is that Google is fickle. It can change what determines the results it serves at any moment. "If you try to build for what Google is thinking right now, by the time you get there, Google has moved on," says Sameet Sinha, an analyst with B.Riley & Co. who follows Internet advertising and content businesses. "What you should aim for is what is good for everybody. Keep articles that are relevant and will benefit the reader. I think that is something that Google cannot move away from."
About.com learned this lesson, along with hundreds of other sites, when Google changed its algorithms in 2011 to surface higher quality content. Janet Robinson, then The New York Times Company's CEO, said at the time that About.com "experienced a moderately negative impact on page views" as a result. This was a big deal. Content companies make money because they buy content at a fixed cost (say paying a writer $15) and then collect money from advertisers every time a new person shows up to that page. No new people, no new money.
Instead of relying only on search engines to deliver people to its pages, About.com also wants to create a place that people might stick around once they have landed on it from search—some place they might even navigate to, intentionally, because they like being there.
Han inherited a website, though, that was downright hostile not only to its users but also its writers. Its CMS had code in it from the '90s, required writers to use HTML, and offered experts more than 89 different formats for their articles, resulting in an inconsistent and disorienting user experience. Links had a tendency to direct users in circles. Pages functioned more like independent search results to specific queries rather than pieces of cohesive topic sites. "Our biggest challenge when we got here was really methodically figuring out how to attack a problem where you want to change everything," Vogel says. "We focused on a lot of really small wins, just to get people used to being rewarded for doing new things."
For Han, a small win meant revamping the homepage.
Previously, an employee had simply populated the slideshow-like homepage with whatever stories he or she found interesting. Han’s team gave each topic channel dedicated space and modernized the site, adding About.com’s first social sharing buttons in the process. According to About.com's internal data, people who visited the homepage after the change on average stayed on About.com for 24% more time and viewed on average 18% more pages during that time. Of course, almost nobody who uses About.com visits the homepage, but that wasn’t really the point. "We didn’t think of this as the end solution, but as sort of a stepping stone," Han says.
Beginning in July, About.com began to roll out redesigned Home, Food, Money, Technology, and Travel channels. The company says the time its visitors spend on the site has since increased by 12% and pageviews have increased by 10%.
In another corner of the office, meanwhile, About.com’s new director of data science, Jonathan Roberts, was building the company’s first data team. Roberts, who previously developed a new model of cosmic ray transport in the solar system, had impressed Vogel during the interview process by explaining string theory over three bottles of wine ("I was like, oh, we understand the theory of relativity, and we still like him," Vogel remembers). His first small win was to parse through 18 years of About.com’s data. Then the team built a natural language processing system to understand what each article on About.com was about, even if it wasn’t tagged, and how the 3 million articles on the site are related to each other. This will eventually create a tool that allows About.com’s sales team to find advertisers all of the articles that relate to a particular topic on the site ("dogs") without accidentally posting their ads on a page that seems relevant but isn’t ("hot dogs").
It also helps About.com recommend relevant (rather than circular) links for its readers (say, "how to make a pie crust" after reading an article about baking an apple pie).
With these changes, About.com now looks more like a magazine’s website than Craigslist, and that’s what Vogel wants. "Who we compete with in food is not the Internet; we compete with Epicurious," he says. "We need to have a food vertical that feels like a food vertical."
Like many entrepreneurs, Vogel is a natural optimist. No matter what he’s talking about—whether it’s a bout of food poisoning or being peed on by his newborn son—he sounds excited about it, and About.com’s future is not an exception. "The two outcomes at this point are does it work, or does it really work," he explains. "Does it work, and we make a nice website that people are happy with, sponsors are happy with, because we’re a clean, well-lit place? Or does it really work, and do we redefine what it can mean over the coming months and years, do we redefine what evergreen content can mean?"
But there are, those less inclined toward optimism might point out, other options. About.com is now prettier, its experts are highlighted prominently, and its navigation scheme makes more sense. Some doubt that’s enough.
"If [About.com] is going to improve the technology, that’s necessary but not sufficient," says Saul Hansell, who was the program director for AOL’s platform for freelancers, Seed.com, and covered About.com as a reporter at the New York Times (he has since founded a television news startup). "What they need is people saying, ‘Oh my god, I’ve been trying to figure out where to go on vacation, and you wouldn’t believe how easy it was to figure out the best stuff to do on the About.com Greek Islands site. And it makes TripAdvisor look like a disaster. Or, ‘figuring out what cellphone to buy or how to use my phone was better than Engadget.'"
Hansell points out that the redesigned pages still include ads in the article text, which makes the articles difficult to read. "Much of their content is structured—lists of items or steps in a process—making those wrap around so many ads significantly reduces the usability and the clarity of those lists," he says.
Vogel says one of his goals for the redesign is to reduce dependence on this type of cost-per-click ad, which accounted for 57% of About.com’s revenue in the first half of 2012 (the last time the NYT company broke out that data). He cites campaigns with Volkswagen, who sponsored the entire redesigned home section, and Merrell, which sponsors all of About.com’s camping and hiking related content, as examples of new types of advertising deals About.com can accommodate with its updated site. Before the redesign, in the first quarter of 2014, About.com says that 4% of the display ads the company sold directly (as opposed to cost-per-click ads sold through Google) were from packages with a native-advertising or content-marketing integration. So far this quarter, that percentage has been about 57% (some of this increase can also be attributed to the sales team, 12 of 18 members of which are new since Vogel's arrival).
That may someday allow About.com to fix its ad-in-text problem."The question we are trying to answer is what is the impact these or any other ads have on reader behavior or enjoyment of our new site," Vogel says. "Once we understand the data behind that, we will better know the best way to present a page and what ad types and units work best for reader and marketers."
About.com is also slightly altering its content philosophy. Previously a team of about 10 people handled every piece of content, regardless of what it was about. Now each vertical has been assigned its own team, so there is a general manager for the food channel who used to work at Epicurious, there’s a general manager for the home channel who used to work at Elle Décor, and so on. About 50 people now manage three million pieces of content, which are still written and published by expert contributors assigned to particular topics (as opposed to freelancers, which is how some other information sites create content). Endgadget—which covers one topic, technology, rather than 1,000—also has about that many people on its masthead.
Of course, editorial oversight isn’t the only way to make content more useful. TripAdvisor and Quora have built reliable resources on community contributions. A site that Demand Media just acquired, Society6, uses ecommerce as content, as do fashion apps like Polyvore and Spring. Yahoo! Finance is one of Yahoo’s most successful properties not because its creators can write a great narrative, but because it puts simple information into an immediately accessible, easy-to-use format. About.com could press further into any of these areas.
Vogel is careful to position About.com’s redesign as another stepping stone—the first visible step in the product’s path to revival. "I don’t know what we’re going to be in two years or three years," he says. "I don’t know what form it’s going to take, I don’t know what platform it’s going to be on."
But if nothing else, he hopes, the next time you land on About.com, you’ll notice.
[Stills: courtesy of About.com]