Site has changed from a general interest portal to a series of vertical brands.
Most of the iconic names from the early web like Geocities and Pets.com have long since ceased to exist. But About.com, one of the earliest would-be online information portals, remained largely unchanged despite the rise of new players like Facebook and Twitter.
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, and also unveiled a new name that goes live on Tuesday.
About.com will now be known as Dotdash—with a logo that consists of a large red dot, followed by the word Dash—and its strategy is to be a collection of verticals with targeted content rather than a one-size-fits-all portal.
The company has spent the last year launching several new sites, including VeryWell—which focuses on personal health topics—and Balance, which specializes in articles about personal finance.
Dotdash is still at the mercy of search-engine and social referral traffic from Google and Facebook, and its articles aren’t likely to win any Pulitzer Prizes. But Vogel says he believes the new strategy makes the company a lot more appealing to advertisers than it has been in years.
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 its previous identity. 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.
Vogel says he became the CEO of About after it was acquired for $300 million in 2012 by Barry Diller’s IAC (which owns a stable of sites like Match.com and Ask.com). It was immediately apparent that the previous owner—the New York Times, which bought it in 2005 for $410 million—had not really invested much 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 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—continued to draw a lot search traffic from Google.
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“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, 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.” Hence, the targeted content strategy.
Advertisers also saw About.com as a damaged brand, because it was so behind the times. “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,” Vogel says. “We told IAC that we could keep it going and it would be fine, or we could really try to blow it up.”
Vogel and his team examined the site and found that the most successful pages fell into five general categories: Health, technology, personal finance, lifestyle, and travel. “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.”
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, he said.
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, premiered 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 its debut, and the next on the list is a vertical oriented around travel called TripSavvy, which will be introduced later this month.
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.”