On Bagel Thursdays, Dotdash convenes its weekly growth meeting in a conference room overlooking Times Square. At 9 o’clock on a bright September morning, a dozen or so editors, an analytics guru, and the company’s top two operating executives discuss plans to enhance Dotdash’s vast content archive of more than 250,000 “super articles,” company parlance for stories that synthesize prose, videos, images, and illustrations about a panoply of American obsessions, including investment strategy, home decorating, personal finance, and medical information. The meeting is a brisk rundown of challenges and milestones.
Maybe you’ve never even heard of Dotdash, but its service content reaches about 90 million Americans a month.
At a time when digital media companies are faltering, Dotdash is growing: in audience, head count, and revenue. The company oversees a collection of nearly a dozen lifestyle-focused websites that cover such evergreen topics as tech (Lifewire), health (Verywell), travel (TripSavvy), and personal finance and investing (The Balance, Investopedia). Collectively, Dotdash’s sites have increased traffic by 44% year over year in Q3 2019. Driven by advertising and e-commerce, the company’s annual revenue grew by 44% in 2018 and 34% as reported in Q3 2019 earnings. While other media companies are shuttering sites and titles, Dotdash has been expanding, scooping up Byrdie (beauty) and MyDomaine (home) from Clique Media in January before taking the legendary Brides brand off Condé Nast’s hands in May and buying the cocktail-focused Liquor.com in October from founder Kit Codik.
This is a surprising shopping spree—given that Dotdash only exists because four years ago its owners decided to pull the plug on its once-popular precursor.
That site was About.com, founded (originally as the Mining Company) in 1996 by digital media pioneer Scott Kurnit, whose big bet—that search engines would propel distribution—proved prescient with the arrival of Google a couple of years later. Kurnit hired a team of editors and built a network of contributors to craft articles on a wide range of popular topics, tailoring content long before the phrase “search engine optimization” even existed.
The site thrived through two sales—to Primedia in 2000 and to the New York Times Company in 2005—until the Great Recession, changes in Google’s algorithms, and the rise of Facebook wreaked havoc on digital media. Focused on saving its core business, the Times sold About.com to Barry Diller’s digital media conglomerate, IAC, in 2012.
Joey Levin was the IAC executive who greenlit the acquisition. He knew the perfect candidate to revitalize About.com – Neil Vogel. A native Philadelphian and Wharton alum, Vogel began his career as an investment banker before joining the first wave of Internet entrepreneurs. He had early success in both e-commerce and media and later founded Recognition Media, which develops and produces awards shows, including The Webby awards.
Optimizing About.com’s deep archive of carefully crafted articles on a wide range of subjects intrigued Vogel because it ran counter to the trends of the social- and video-besotted digital media industry.”
Vogel’s team rebuilt the technology, redesigned content, hired, fired, and launched countless experiments to stanch About.com’s declining audience. Yet traffic continued to plummet and revenue tanked. The company missed its forecasts for nine straight quarters.
“About was no longer of service to Internet users,” Ellerson concluded.
In the fall of 2015, the Dotdash leadership sat across from Levin, who by then had ascended to the role of CEO at IAC, and pitched their new plan: sunset the About.com portal, redesign more than one million articles that would be redirected into vertically focused brands. Vogel wanted Dotdash to reemerge as a modern Condé Nast.
Levin was skeptical. “I told them the URL [about.com] was the best asset we owned,” he recalled. “But I had hired Neil in part for his passion. Plus, what did we have to lose? The content had value and, as a company, we don’t like to give up.” Vogel asked for $35 million and six months to radically relaunch as Dotdash.
This transformation led to something extraordinary in digital media—a turnaround. While other independent media companies were engineering their coverage around social media, video, and trending topics, Dotdash doubled down on text-based articles about enduring topics and avoided cluttering them with ads—a strategy that Daniel Kurnos, an analyst at the investment bank Benchmark, credits with boosting Dotdash content in search results. (He calls IAC an “algorithmically elite” company for its deep understanding of how to infiltrate search engines.)
“People call us a tech company, but the reality is we are a publisher,” says Vogel. Dotdash developed a formula that Vogel has turned into a corporate mantra: the freshest content on the fastest sites with the fewest ads.
By focusing on text rather than 24/7 social responsiveness or expensive video production, the company keeps its costs down. More than 1,000 remote, part-time contributors across the brands use tools built by Ellerson’s team to help identify story ideas that resonate with audiences. Traffic to the sites has increased from 45 million visitors per month in 2016 to more than 90 million in August of last year, according to Vogel. Dotdash sites run fewer ads, with no pop-ups or takeovers, and because the ads are relevant to each article, they perform better. At a time when digital ad rates have continued to crater for most online publishers, Vogel says the company’s ad rates have increased nearly 20 percent each year since 2016, and 25 percent of 2019 revenue came from affiliate marketing fees (bonuses paid to the publisher after Dotdash visitors made purchases via ads on the sites.)
The sites load very quickly, and the company’s proprietary content management system is designed for efficiency: Designers and editors can choose from fast-loading templates that include images, video, and interactive applications. And there’s an emphasis on creating the kinds of detailed, informative articles that turn up in search results. At Verywell, for example, each article is updated at least once every nine months and reviewed by medical professionals.
Dotdash’s emphasis on human-created content makes it almost the anti-Google. Everything is designed to empower the content creators. “The work we do at Dotdash is highly specialized, requiring a subjective understanding of quality and substantial subject matter expertise,” Ellerson says. This emphasis on quality editorial, Dotdash executives say, has powered the turnaround.
The company will not disclose what it pays writers although it does not pay by the word as is traditional for publishing. Advertisements on Jobvite, Media Bistro and Facebook quote rates for writers “that generally meet or exceed 10 cents per word,” and hourly rates in the $15-$25 range for editors. Hardly Conde Nast-level compensation (during print’s heyday, magazine writers frequently commanded fees in excess of a dollar per word), but on par with typical current rates for digital editorial talent. Most of its contributors are not journalists but rather professionals or subject matter experts moonlighting as content creators and promoting the work they do for Dotdash to burnish their reputations. The sites all share design, technology and sales resources. Dotdash claims to have spent $100mm on content since the turnaround began, including $35 million in 2019.
Neil Vogel, CEO, Dotdash
We are taking a Netflix approach to content creation. We are spending more money on service-based articles than any other media company.”
Vogel has returned to his roots as a dealmaker and the media industry has plenty of distressed assets. Last May, Dotdash bought CondeNast’s Brides magazine, shuttered the print version, absorbed the separate editorial team, imported the articles into their content management system, and relaunched on the Dotdash platform.
“Dotdash is the only growing, profitable, digital publisher I can think of,” says Levin. IAC says DotDash would nearly double revenue ($170 million) and EBITDA ($40 million) in 2019.
Media companies beholden to Facebook and Google for distribution remain vulnerable because one algorithmic twitch can destroy your traffic. What if Google started showing large snippets of its content inside the search results and this triggered a decline in traffic? Vogel hears this criticism multiple times a week, but he thinks digital executives should focus on good content and traffic will follow.
“Our job is to make great content that loads quickly with relevant non-intrusive advertising,” he insists. “If we execute, the search results will be fine.” His critics call this naive, but Vogel is trying to build a billion-dollar publishing business, not a search colossus. He’s betting that Google will drive traffic to the best content.
The 20th-century magazine houses built iconic brands – Time, Vogue, Cosmopolitan – that monetized through their shaping of the cultural zeitgeist. Rachel Berman, the vice president and general manager of Dotdash’s most successful vertical, the health-focused Verywell, regularly attends dinner parties where the guests are impressed if not stunned that her site reaches 10 percent of Americans and they’ve never heard of it. But they know WebMD.
For Vogel, this is the next frontier for growth. “Today our traffic substantially outpaces our brand awareness,” he admits. “We have nearly 100 million in our audience, and it’s doubled in the past three years, and people still don’t know our brands. We have so much room to grow.”
On the media
The seeds for Dotdash’s success were sown 20 years ago.
1994: Yahoo launches
1996: The Mining Company is founded.
1996: Slate is founded.
1998: Google debuts.
1999: The Mining Company rebrands as About.com.
2000: About.com is acquired by Primedia for $690 million in stock.
2000: The dotcom bubble bursts.
2002: Gawker is founded.
2004: TheFacebook launches.
2005: The New York Times Company purchases About.com from Primedia for $410 million.
2006: Twitter goes live; BuzzFeed launches.
2008: The Great Recession begins.
2010: Instagram debuts.
2011: Snapchat launches.
2012: IAC acquires About.com for $300 million.
2013: Neil Vogel becomes CEO of About.com.
2014: Vox News and Gimlet Media are founded.
2016: Verizon acquires Yahoo; Gawker folds.
2017: About.com is rebranded Dotdash, launching five different verticals.
2018: IAC folds Investopedia under Dotdash, laying off a third of Investopedia’s staff.
2018: Meredith Corp. buys Time Inc.
2019: Dotdash acquires Brides from Condé Nast, shuttering the print title.
A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2019/2020 issue of Fast Company magazine.